University of New Mexico

MCB welcomes Dr. Charles Cunningham, Program Director for the Cellular Dynamics and Function Cluster

What were you doing before you came to the NSF?

 I am an Associate Professor in the Biology Department of the University of New Mexico where I have been a faculty member since 2005. Before that I spent 20 years working at research institutes in South Carolina, Norway, and Scotland. 

What attracted you to work for NSF?

I always enjoyed doing panel work for MCB and IOS and thought the time well spent even if it was a little stressful. The diversity of science I will be exposed to and the daily interaction with knowledgeable and interesting colleagues were a big part of the pull. Friends who have been rotators also encouraged me to apply.

What was your first impression of NSF? Has this impression changed since you began serving as a rotator?

A well-oiled machine that worked hard for its community and so far nothing has happened in MCB to suggest otherwise.

What were the personal goals you most wanted to accomplish while at NSF?

Use some of the independent research and development (IRD) time to write three manuscripts and think about my next proposal. I also think I might have a book in me but then everyone does! I also need to shed a few pounds.

What surprised you most about working at NSF?

The size of the workforce. As a scientist who applies for a grant you only ever think about your program director but once you get here you realize that there are so many other program directors even within MCB and a whole pyramid of support staff. I was also surprised that NSF was so generous with IRD – that really helps with the transition.

What are some of the challenges of serving as a rotating program director?

The initial challenge is just to absorb the information overload of the first week. It can seem overwhelming. I am also just working out what my relationship will be with the folks in my lab back home. How often do we need to talk on the phone and when is it appropriate for them to call me? They are a good bunch so I am sure we will have things on an even keel soon. As the work moves forward I think it is going to be a challenge to keep all the plates spinning but help is plentiful and I am mindful I am not the first program director NSF has hired so it can be done.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about serving as a program director at NSF?

If you have the experience, it is the right time in your career, and if your partner/family is happy – go for it. I would also tell them about the hiring package and how that probably gives you a better home-work schedule than you currently have. DC is a pretty cool town, too.

When your friends/colleagues find out that you work at NSF, what do they say or ask?

Usually they are amazed that I appear to be ‘giving up research’ but when I explain that that is not the case they usually tell me what a great opportunity this is. A number of colleagues are interested in my experiences and want me to report back on the pros and cons as they consider whether to apply. They also like to throw in a comment about looking after their tax dollars.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?

I have been here over a month now and everyone has been super friendly – thanks. So far, ‘je ne regrette rien’. I am a big soccer fan (Liverpool), baseball fan (Yankees) and cricket fan (England) and, after 10 years, I am beginning to warm to (American) football and still looking for a team.