Dorit Zuk to Direct Genetics and Developmental Biology Division

Dorit Zuk, Ph.D.I’m very pleased to announce that Dorit Zuk will be joining us in early 2016 as the new director of our Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology (GDB). Dorit is a molecular biologist whose research has focused on muscle development and RNA metabolism. She also has a strong background in science policy and communications.

Dorit is currently director of the Office of Policy, Communications and Strategic Alliances at NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. Previously, she was the science policy advisor to the NIH deputy director for extramural research. And prior to serving in these and other government positions, she worked in scientific publishing as the deputy editor of Cell and then the editor of Molecular Cell.

Her expertise in genetics, developmental biology and other scientific fields; knowledge of policy areas ranging from financial conflicts of interest to the future of the biomedical research workforce; and ability to engage effectively with scientists and other stakeholders make Dorit an ideal choice for this key position and a valuable addition to our senior leadership team.

Please join me in welcoming her to NIGMS.

For more about Dorit, see our news announcement.

Catalyzing the Modernization of Graduate Education

A major overhaul of how we educate graduate students in biomedical research is long overdue.

Science has changed dramatically over the past three decades. The amount of information available about biological systems has grown exponentially. New methods allow us to examine the inner workings of cells with unprecedented resolution and to generate expansive datasets describing the expression of every mRNA or metabolite in a system. Biomedical research is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary and collaborative, and the questions we seek to answer are more and more complex. Finally, as the scientific enterprise has expanded, Ph.D.s have pursued increasingly diverse careers in the research and development, education and related sectors.

Despite these major changes, we educate Ph.D. students in biomedical research in essentially the same way as we did 25 or more years ago. As Alan Leshner put it in a recent editorial Exit icon in Science magazine, “It is time for the scientific and education communities to take a more fundamental look at how graduate education in science is structured and consider, given the current environment, whether a major reconfiguration of the entire system is needed.”

Problems related to the reproducibility and rigor of scientific studies Exit icon are likely driven in part by the inadequacies of an outdated system for educating our trainees. When nearly any student can sequence hundreds of millions of bases of DNA in a few days, does it make sense that all of our students are not given a significant amount of training in quantitative and computational analyses? And as we delve into more complex biological systems, shouldn’t students be receiving in-depth training in rigorous experimental design and data interpretation before they embark on their thesis work?

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Talking to NIH Staff About Your Application and Grant: Who, What, When, Why and How

During the life of your application and grant, you’re likely to interact with a number of NIH staff members. Who’s the right person to contact—and when and for what? Here are some of the answers I shared during a presentation on communicating effectively with NIH at the American Crystallographic Association annual meeting. The audience was primarily grad students, postdocs and junior faculty interested in learning more about the NIH funding process.


The three main groups involved in the application and award processes—program officers (POs), scientific review officers (SROs) and grants management specialists (GMSs)—have largely non-overlapping responsibilities. POs advise investigators on applying for grants, help them understand their summary statements and provide guidance on managing their awards. They also play a leading role in making funding decisions. Once NIH’s Center for Scientific Review (CSR) assigns applications to the appropriate institute or center and study section, SROs identify, recruit and assign reviewers to applications; run study section meetings; and produce summary statements following the meetings. GMSs manage financial aspects of grant awards and ensure that administrative requirements are met before issuing a notice of award.

How do you identify the right institute or center, study section and program officer for a new application? Some of the more common ways include asking colleagues for advice and looking at the funding sources listed in the acknowledgements section of publications closely related to your project. NIH RePORTER is another good way to find the names of POs and study sections for funded applications. Finally, CSR has information on study sections, and individual institute and center websites, including ours, list contacts by research area. We list other types of contact information on our website, as well.

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Lab Size: Is Bigger Better?

In a new video on iBiology, NIGMS Director Jon Lorsch discusses the relationship of lab size and funding levels to productivity, diversity and scientific impact.

In a new video on iBiology, NIGMS Director Jon Lorsch discusses the relationship of lab size and funding levels to productivity, diversity and scientific impact.

The talk covers information detailed in previous Feedback Loop posts:

Read the Molecular Biology of the Cell paper mentioned at the end of the video for more discussion of lab size and other topics related to maximizing the return on taxpayers’ investments in fundamental biomedical research Exit icon.

Nobel Prize Brings More Attention to DNA Repair Research

We’re pleased that two long-time NIGMS grantees have been recognized with the 2015 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their studies of the repair processes that correct damage affecting base pairing or causing a distortion in the helical structure of DNA. This comes on the heels of the 2015 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, which was also given for discoveries concerning the DNA-damage response.

Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar, who will share the Nobel Prize with Tomas Lindahl, have received continuous support from us since 1975 and 1982, respectively. By asking questions about basic cellular processes, these scientists have provided a detailed understanding of some of the molecular repair mechanisms involved in health and disease.

Like any groundbreaking research, their studies have raised numerous other important questions. Some of these include: How do cells sense damaged DNA? How are the proteins that repair damaged regions cleared from the DNA after repairs are complete? How can we specifically undermine the DNA repair systems in cancerous cells so that those cells die?

For more details about the Nobel Prize-winning work, see our statement and links to additional material.

Support of Structural Biology and PSI Resources

The 15-year Protein Structure Initiative (PSI) ended on June 30, 2015. In preparation for the termination of the program, an external committee of structural biologists and biomedical researchers identified high-priority areas for NIGMS’ future support of structural biology and the preservation of certain PSI resources. Here are some of their key recommendations and what we’re planning to do in response.

Continue to support synchrotron beamlines for macromolecular crystallography.

Recognizing the importance of synchrotron beamlines in modern structural biology, we intend to continue to support these community resources. Part of this effort includes using a new funding approach to ensure that NIH-supported investigators have reliable access to mature synchrotron-based resources.

Maintain the technologies that make structural investigations possible at the most advanced level; meet the need for modern cryo-electron microscopy resources.

We’ll continue to use existing grant mechanisms to support structural biology research, including
X-ray crystallography, NMR, cryo-EM and integrative or hybrid methods. To facilitate the use of
cryo-EM for structure determination we have started a program to provide support for consortia of
cryo-EM labs to upgrade their facilities
. NIGMS is also developing plans for establishing regional
cryo-EM centers that could provide access to state-of-the-art cryo-EM resources for the broader structural biology community.

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Help Spread the Word About Cell Day

Cell Day 2015On November 5, we’ll host my favorite NIGMS science education event: Cell Day! As in previous years, we hope this free, interactive Web chat geared for middle and high school students will spark interest in cell biology, biochemistry and research careers. Please help us spread the word by letting people in your local schools and communities know about this special event and encouraging them to register. It runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. EST and is open to all.

As the moderator of these Cell Day chats, I’ve fielded a lot of great questions, including “Why are centrioles not found in plant cells?” and “If you cut a cell in half and then turn it upside down will the nucleus, ribosomes, and other parts of the cell fall out?” It’s always amazing to hear what science students are thinking or wondering about. I’m looking forward to seeing what fantastic questions we’ll get this year!

Early Notice: Mature Synchrotron-Based Resources Funding Opportunity Plan

At its September 2015 meeting, our Advisory Council endorsed a concept for funding existing NIGMS-supported synchrotron resources in which the technologies have become mature. This plan will align the funding mechanism used to support the beamlines with the goal of ensuring reliable access to these essential resources for structural biology.

In place of the variety of mechanisms we currently use, we intend to issue a funding opportunity announcement (FOA) called Mature Synchrotron Resources (P30) for 5-year, renewable grants in the range of $1-3 million per year in direct costs. The Institute intends to maintain overall support for mature beamline facilities at the same level it has in the past, but to replace the previous constellation of funding mechanisms with a single, more coherent one.

The focus of the FOA will be on user access, training and support in data collection, processing and analysis. Peer review will assess the resources primarily on their ability to meet the research needs of the user community and on the impact the resources have on their users’ scientific productivity. To ensure that the beamlines maintain their state-of-the-art operations, the FOA will also include support for a limited amount of technology development and implementation.

Since the goal of the effort is to improve the stability of current NIGMS-supported synchrotron structural biology resources for community use, the initial funding opportunity will be open only to synchrotron-based resources already supported by NIGMS.

We welcome your input and feedback on these plans. You can email your comments to me or post them here.

Charles Edmonds, Susan Gregurick, Ward Smith and Mary Ann Wu contributed to this blog post.

Request for Input on the Science Drivers Requiring Capable Exascale High-Performance Computing

UPDATE: The response deadline has been extended to November 13.

On July 29, 2015, the White House issued an Executive Order establishing the National Strategic Computing Initiative as a government-wide effort to create a coordinated, cohesive, multi-agency strategy to maximize the benefits of High Performance Computing (HPC) for the United States. In support of this initiative, the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health are seeking your input to identify scientific research that would benefit from a greatly enhanced new generation of HPC computing technologies and architectures. The request for information (RFI) asks for responses in scientific domains including the biomedical and physical sciences, mathematics, geosciences, energy sciences and engineering research.

We hope to hear from our research communities on topics that include:

    • Research challenges that would need the projected 100-fold increase in application performance.
    • Specific barriers in current HPC systems that limit scientific research.
    • Capabilities needed for the data-intensive sciences.
    • Additional barriers in such areas as training, workforce development or collaborative environments.

While this RFI invites comments on several specific topics, we would also welcome any comments that you feel are relevant to this initiative.

To respond to this RFI, send an email to by October 16.

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

NIH Workshop on Reproducibility in Cell Culture Studies

NIGMS is actively involved in NIH-wide efforts to enhance rigor and reproducibility in research. As part of our work on this issue, we will co-host a trans-NIH workshop on September 28-29, 2015, to examine current quality-control challenges in cell culture research and identify opportunities for expanding its capabilities and applications. The meeting will be videocast and archived on the NIH Videocasting site.

The workshop agenda includes panel discussions led by researchers from academia and industry on cell line identification, genetic and phenotypic characterization of cells, heterogeneity in populations of cells, reagents, and research and reporting standards. The meeting will also cover new approaches to understanding the characteristics and behaviors of cultured cells and technologies for enhancing their usefulness in research.