Wanted: Genetics and Developmental Biology Division Director

Search Committee Members:

William Gelbart, Harvard University

Susan Gregurick, National Institute of General Medical Sciences, Chair

Carole Heilman, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Pamela Oliver, Office of the Director, NIH

Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado, Stowers Institute for Medical Research

Jeffery Schloss, National Human Genome Research Institute

Belinda Seto, National Eye Institute

Dinah Singer, National Cancer Institute

Laura Stanek, Office of Human Resources, NIH

With the selection of Genetics and Developmental Biology (GDB) division director Judith Greenberg as NIGMS deputy director, the search is now open for an outstanding individual to serve as the GDB director.

GDB has supported many of the exciting fundamental discoveries that have led to deeper knowledge of how cells and organisms function as well as to new technologies and approaches. The division is organized into two branches, one focused on genetic mechanisms and one on developmental and cellular processes, and has 11 scientific staff members who serve as program officers.

While concentrating on general principles of genetics, gene expression and developmental biology, often using model organisms, research supported by GDB underpins studies on human health and disease. This position offers important opportunities to set scientific priorities, lead change and improve the research enterprise.

The division director reports to the NIGMS director and is a member of the NIGMS senior leadership team, which helps set policies and priorities for the Institute. There are also opportunities to participate in and advise on NIH-wide activities and collaborations with other federal agencies.

Candidates must have an M.D., Ph.D. or equivalent degree in a field relevant to the position. The ideal candidate will have considerable research experience demonstrating a strong understanding of genetics, gene expression, and/or developmental biology. In addition, candidates should possess recognized research management and leadership abilities. Broad knowledge of the fundamental mechanisms of inheritance, development and cell function is desired.

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Funding Opportunities for Predoctoral Training

You may be interested in these recent funding opportunity announcements:

Jointly Sponsored Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Institutional Predoctoral Training Program in the Neurosciences (T32)
(PAR-15-178)

Purpose: Prepare predoctoral students for independent research careers in the neurosciences
Letter of intent due dates: 30 days prior to the application due date
Application due dates: June 10, 2015; May 25, 2016; May 25, 2017
NIGMS contact: Stephen Korn, 301-496-4188

Availability of Administrative Supplements to NIGMS Predoctoral Training Grants (Admin Supp)
(PA-15-136)

Purpose: Request supplemental funds to existing predoctoral training grants to develop and implement curricular activities to enhance rigor and reproducibility in research and broaden training activities to better prepare students for a variety of scientific career paths
Application due date: April 30, 2015
NIGMS contact: Shiva Singh, 301-594-3900

Comment on Potential New Resources for Protein Expression

We support a variety of resources for biomedical research, and we’re considering a new addition: one or more facilities for protein expression. These resources would offer protein expression expertise and high-throughput expression capability for the benefit of the entire research community.

We just issued a request for information (RFI) seeking input on the needs within the biomedical research community for such resources and the types of protein expression services that would be most beneficial. Examples might include the expression of proteins from a large number of sequences, orthologs and homologs; prokaryotic and eukaryotic protein expression; and expression for special needs, such as for large numbers of mutants, proteins requiring anaerobic expression, and the incorporation of nonproteogenic amino acids like seleno-methionine.

We’re also interested in your ideas and comments on:

  • Novel collaborative approaches.
  • Types of expression issues that are hard for a single laboratory to tackle.
  • The scope of potential protein expression research methods.
  • Strategies to use these resources to accelerate progress toward findings that will have a scientific and public health impact.
  • Further suggestions you might have related to this topic.

To respond to the RFI, send an e-mail to NIGMSexpressionRFI@mail.nih.gov by May 15, 2015.

If you have any specific questions about the RFI, please let me know.

Give Input on Strategies for Optimizing the Impact and Sustainability of Biomedical Research

An important, recurring discussion topic on our blogs is ways to maximize the impact and sustainability of NIH-funded biomedical research. In 2011, a Rock Talk post on managing NIH’s budget in fiscally challenging times solicited many comments and led, in part, to an NIH-wide policy on special council review for applications from PIs who have more than $1 million in NIH funding. We have also implemented new programs that provide more stable support for investigators over longer time periods. A more recent example of the “maximizing impact and sustainability” theme is an NIGMS Feedback Loop post that discussed ideas for how to optimize the biomedical research ecosystem.

We’re each leading an NIH-wide working group focused on topics key to this important theme. One group (chaired by Sally) is exploring ways to decrease the time it takes investigators to reach research independence, and the other (chaired by Jon) is looking to develop more efficient and sustainable funding policies and other strategies.

Recently, NIH solicited your comments on an “emeritus award” concept as part of activities of the group chaired by Sally. The group is now in the midst of analyzing all of the comments it received to see what the next steps will be in regard to this type of award.

To inform the efforts of Jon’s group, NIH has just issued a new request for information (RFI) seeking your:

  • Input on key issues that currently limit the impact of NIH’s funding for biomedical research and challenge the sustainability of the scientific enterprise.
  • Ideas about adjusting current funding policies to ensure both continued impact and sustainability of the NIH research enterprise. 
  • Ideas for new policies, strategies and other approaches that would increase the impact and sustainability of NIH-funded biomedical research.
  • Comments on any other issues that you feel are relevant.

While we read and consider comments responding to our blog posts, in order to make your input part of our formal analysis of RFI responses, it needs to be submitted via the RFI by May 17.

Clearinghouse for Training Modules to Enhance Data Reproducibility

NIH and NIH-funded Training Modules to Enhance Data ReproducibilityAs part of a series of NIH-wide initiatives to enhance rigor and reproducibility in research, we recently launched a Web page that will serve as a clearinghouse for NIH and NIH-funded training modules to enhance data reproducibility. Among other things, the site will house the products of grants we’ll be making over the next few months for training module development, piloting and dissemination.

Currently, the page hosts a series of four training modules developed by the NIH Office of the Director. These modules, which are being incorporated into NIH intramural program training activities, cover some of the important factors that contribute to rigor and reproducibility in the research endeavor, including blinding, selection of exclusion criteria and awareness of bias. The videos and accompanying discussion materials are not meant to provide specific instructions on how to conduct reproducible research, but rather to stimulate conversations among trainees as well as between trainees and their mentors. Graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and early stage investigators are the primary audiences for the training modules.

Also included on the page are links to previously recorded reproducibility workshops held here at NIH that detail the potentials and pitfalls of cutting-edge technologies in cell and structural biology.

Training is an important element of the NIGMS mission and a major focus of NIH’s overall efforts to enhance data reproducibility. In addition to the training modules we’ll be funding, we recently announced the availability of administrative supplements to our T32 training grants to support the development and implementation of curricular activities in this arena.

I hope you find the resources on this site useful, both now and as we add more in the future.

New Funding Opportunity: Advancing Mechanistic Probiotic/Prebiotic and Human Microbiome Research

While it is well recognized that an individual’s microbiome has a substantial influence on health, fundamental knowledge gaps remain regarding host-microbial interactions, especially those involving the effects of probiotic and prebiotic products. To stimulate research in this area, NIGMS is participating with a number of other NIH institutes and centers in a new funding opportunity announcement (FOA), Advancing Mechanistic Probiotic/Prebiotic and Human Microbiome Research (R01).

We are looking for biochemists, chemists, bioengineers, systems biologists and others to define biochemical pathways, small molecules and biologics in host-microbial interactions. We are particularly interested in applications from interdisciplinary teams that propose to provide a functional and mechanistic picture of host-microbial ecosystems. This includes an understanding of host-probiotic-microbial interactions and the effect of exogenous molecules such as prebiotics on these interactions. We also encourage the development of computational models, tools and technologies that enable the prediction, identification, quantification and characterization of host-microbial dynamics as well as the development of tractable host-microbial systems.

This FOA is a program announcement with no set-aside funds. Standard R01 due dates apply, so the first receipt date is June 5. Although a letter of intent is not required, we recommend that you contact us (e-mail Barbara in the Division of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry or e-mail Darren in the Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology) to discuss your potential proposal and NIGMS-specific FOA guidelines.

Announcing Our New Strategic Plan

I am pleased to announce the availability of the new NIGMS strategic plan. This document outlines many of the priorities and activities that the Institute will pursue over the next 5 years. It’s designed as a framework to both codify and focus our efforts, while still allowing us the flexibility to pursue untapped opportunities in areas relevant to our mission.

The plan, which incorporates valuable input from the scientific community, highlights the goals and objectives listed below. It also contains specific implementation strategies for each objective.

  • Maximize investments in investigator-initiated biomedical research to drive fundamental scientific discoveries that advance understanding of human health and disease.
    • Invest in and sustain a broad and diverse portfolio of highly meritorious research.
    • Promote the ability of investigators to pursue new research directions, novel scientific insights and innovative ideas.
  • Support the development of a highly skilled, creative and diverse biomedical research workforce.
    • Assess Institute research training and education programs and policies to ensure that they achieve positive outcomes related to the NIGMS mission.
    • Promote the identification of best practices to continually improve the quality of research training activities.
  • Support the development of and access to essential research tools, resources and capabilities for biomedical research.

    • Support access to essential research resources and the development of new technologies that enable novel scientific advances.
    • Continue the development of institutional research capacities and communities.
  • Advance understanding of fundamental biomedical research and the NIGMS role in supporting it.

    • Use a broad range of approaches to inform the public about NIGMS goals, activities and results.
    • Continue to engage in an open dialogue with the scientific community and other stakeholders about NIGMS programs, processes and policies.

In addition, the plan includes a goal related to the optimization of Institute operations.

Finally, the plan reiterates our commitment to the stewardship of taxpayer funds and an atmosphere of open dialogue, collaboration and shared responsibility with the scientific community. In that spirit, we welcome suggestions to help us become as efficient and effective as possible in the pursuit of our mission.

Sustaining a Community Resource for Cell Lines and DNA Samples

Cryogenic tanks filled with liquid nitrogen and millions of vials of frozen cells. Credit: Coriell Institute for Medical Research.

Cryogenic tanks filled with liquid nitrogen and millions of vials of frozen cells. Credit: Coriell Institute for Medical Research.

We have just funded a new, 5-year award to continue operation of the NIGMS Human Genetic Cell Repository, an important resource for the scientific community since 1972. The repository contains more than 11,300 human cell lines and 5,700 DNA samples derived from them. These high-quality, well-characterized and rigorously maintained resources, which you can order for a nominal fee, include:

  • Specimens from individuals with inherited diseases, apparently healthy individuals and those of diverse geographic origins that are divided equally between those from males and those from females.
  • A group of 39 induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell lines that carry disease gene mutations or that are normal control iPS cell lines.
  • An inherited disease collection that represents almost 900 disorders.

Last year, 1,500 scientists received more than 5,000 cell lines and 40,000 DNA samples. I encourage you to peruse the catalog Exit icon and consider whether these specimens may be useful in your research program.

Improved Success Rate and Other Funding Trends in Fiscal Year 2014

The Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015 Exit icon, provides funding for the Federal Government through September 30. NIGMS has a Fiscal Year 2015 appropriation of $2.372 billion, which is $13 million, or 0.5%, higher than it was in Fiscal Year 2014.

As I explained in an earlier post, we made a number of adjustments to our portfolio and funding policies last fiscal year in order to bolster our support for investigator-initiated research. Partly because of these changes, the success rate for research project grants (RPGs)—which are primarily R01s—was 25 percent in Fiscal Year 2014. This is 5 percentage points higher than it was in Fiscal Year 2013. Had we not made the funding policy changes, we predicted that the success rate would have remained flat at 20 percent.

Figure 1 shows the number of RPG applications we received and funded, as well as the corresponding success rates, for Fiscal Years 2002-2014.

Figure 1. Number of competing RPG applications assigned to NIGMS (blue line with diamonds, left axis) and number funded (red line with squares, left axis) for Fiscal Years 2002-2014. The success rate (number of applications funded divided by the total number of applications) is shown in the green line with triangles, right axis. Data: Tony Moore.
Figure 1. Number of competing RPG applications assigned to NIGMS (blue line with diamonds, left axis) and number funded (red line with squares, left axis) for Fiscal Years 2002-2014. The success rate (number of applications funded divided by the total number of applications) is shown in the green line with triangles, right axis. Data: Tony Moore.

Moving forward, it will be important to employ strategies that will enable us to at least maintain this success rate. In keeping with this goal, we recently released a financial management plan that continues many of the funding policies we instituted last year. As funds from the retirement of the Protein Structure Initiative come back into the investigator-initiated RPG pool, we’ll be working to ensure that they support a sustained improvement in success rate rather than create a 1-year spike followed by a return to lower rates.

Figures 2 and 3 show data for funding versus the percentile scores of the R01 applications we received. People frequently ask me what NIGMS’ percentile cutoff or “payline” is, but it should be clear from these figures that we do not use a strict percentile score criterion for making funding decisions. Rather, we take a variety of factors into account in addition to the score, including the amount of other support already available to the researcher; the priority of the research area for the Institute’s mission; and the importance of maintaining a broad and diverse portfolio of research topics, approaches and investigators.

Figure 2. Percentage of competing R01 applications funded by NIGMS as a function of percentile scores for Fiscal Years 2010-2014. For Fiscal Year 2014, the success rate for R01 applications was 25.7 percent, and the midpoint of the funding curve was at approximately the 22nd percentile. Data: Jim Deatherage.
Figure 2. Percentage of competing R01 applications funded by NIGMS as a function of percentile scores for Fiscal Years 2010-2014. For Fiscal Year 2014, the success rate for R01 applications was 25.7 percent, and the midpoint of the funding curve was at approximately the 22nd percentile. See more details about the data analysis for Figure 2. Data: Jim Deatherage.
Figure 3. Number of competing R01 applications (solid black bars) assigned to NIGMS and number funded (striped red bars) in Fiscal Year 2014 as a function of percentile scores. Data: Jim Deatherage.
Figure 3. Number of competing R01 applications (solid black bars) assigned to NIGMS and number funded (striped red bars) in Fiscal Year 2014 as a function of percentile scores. See more details about the data analysis for Figure 3. Data: Jim Deatherage.

It’s too early to say what the success rate will be for Fiscal Year 2015 because it can be influenced by a number of factors, as I described last year. However, we’re hopeful that by continuing to adjust our priorities and policies to focus on supporting a broad and diverse portfolio of investigators, we can reverse the trend of falling success rates seen in recent years.

Give Input on NIGMS Undergraduate Student Development Programs to Enhance Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce

As part of our longstanding commitment to fostering a highly trained and diverse biomedical research workforce, we have launched a review process to ensure that our programs contribute most effectively to this goal. An important part of this effort is to seek your input.

To this end, we just issued a request for information for feedback and novel ideas that might bolster the effectiveness of our undergraduate student development programs. Some of the things we’re particularly interested in are:

  • The advantages (or disadvantages) of supporting a single program per institution that begins after matriculation and provides student development experiences through graduation.
  • Approaches to leveraging successful institutional models for preparing baccalaureates for subsequent Ph.D. completion.
  • Strategies to build institutional capabilities and effective institutional networks that promote undergraduate student training programs that lead to successful Ph.D. completion.
  • If applicable, your specific experiences with any of our student development programs and their outcomes in preparing participants for biomedical research careers.

More broadly, we welcome your suggestions regarding the most important issues we can address in this arena.

I encourage you to share your views on these and associated topics by the response deadline of April 15, 2015.