Each year, NIH nominates outstanding young scientists for the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government to scientists beginning their independent research careers. The scientists are selected for their innovative research record, potential to continue on this productive route and community service activities. Among this year’s PECASE recipients (nominated in 2014) are two NIGMS grantees, Tufts University’s Aimee Shen (who started her career at the University of Vermont) and Montana State University’s Blake Wiedenheft (who was the inaugural NIGMS Director’s Early Career Investigator Lecturer). Both scientists launched their labs with support from our Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program, which fosters health-related research and enhances the competitiveness of investigators at institutions in states with historically low levels of NIH funding.
Below, they answer questions about their research and community service efforts, offer advice to other early career scientists, and share their experiences with the IDeA program.
What is the focus of your research?
Blake Wiedenheft: Viruses that infect bacteria (i.e., bacteriophages) are the most abundant biological entities on earth. The selective pressures imposed by these pervasive predators have a profound impact on the composition and the behavior of microbial communities in every ecological setting. In my lab, we rely on a combination of techniques from bioinformatics, genetics, biochemistry and structural biology to understand the mechanisms that bacteria use to defend themselves from viral infection.
Aimee Shen: My lab studies Clostridium difficile, the leading cause of healthcare-associated infection in the United States. C. difficile forms metabolically dormant cells known as spores that allow the microbe to survive exit from the gastrointestinal tract of a mammalian host. My research is directed at understanding how C. difficile spores form in order to transmit infection and how they germinate and transform into disease-causing cells to initiate infection.
What community service efforts do you engage in?
Wiedenheft: One of the main outreach activities of my lab is the annual Montana Wild Virus Hunt. The aim of this project is to engage high school students and their instructors in a three-day basic virology workshop at Montana State University. Like me, many of these students come from rural parts of the state, and for some this is their first opportunity to visit a college campus. We first tour the local wastewater treatment facility with expert speakers. We then collect wastewater samples, bring them to the lab and perform plaque assays, isolate viral clones, purify bacteriophages and visualize the bacteriophages using transmission electron microscopy. It’s too early to know how much of a lasting impact this experience leaves on the students, but the impact these students have on me is all that I need to keep teaching the Montana Wild Virus Hunt.
Shen: At the University of Vermont (where I started my career), I developed an “Off-the-Academic-Track” seminar series for graduate students and postdocs to meet scientists in non-academic careers. At Tufts University, I will be directing the Pathway to Ph.D. program, which aims to increase diversity in the biomedical sciences by providing a mentored research experience for University of Massachusetts Boston students interested in scientific careers. I am committed to promoting diversity in the biomedical sciences, since we need to provide better and more equal opportunities for individuals to enter STEM careers and since many studies have shown that diversity strengthens all institutions.
What advice do you have for young investigators?
Wiedenheft: Above everything, I recommend finding a topic that captivates your curiosity. Then, incorporate ideas and techniques from other disciplines, identify and communicate with scientists that you respect (i.e., mentors), striking a productive balance between healthy skepticism and blind optimism (i.e., know when to walk away), pursue your research with vigor, and never stop asking questions.
Shen: First off, study something you are passionate about. You want a topic that motivates you to go into lab everyday even when things are not working. Related to this, have faith in yourself. We all go through scientific valleys and peaks, but one of the distinguishing features of successful scientists is how they navigate through those tough valleys. The key is to have faith that if you keep working at a problem, i.e., if you keep thinking, reading, discussing with others, and iterating, you’ll eventually overcome the barrier. In the end, try to learn from all your experiences, whether they are failures or successes. These experiences will collectively make you a better scientist.
How has the IDeA program impacted your career?
Wiedenheft: The IDeA program helps me engage with the rural, minority and medically underserved communities in this state. Many of the students I’ve supported with help from the IDeA program have performed research, authored papers and won national awards, including Goldwater and Rhodes scholarships. The IDeA program has made a lasting impact on these students and has benefited my research program.
Shen: I was hired by the University of Vermont as an assistant professor through an IDeA Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) grant. This grant was instrumental to my success because it gave key funding for next-generation sequencing and bioinformatics services, which allowed us to conduct an RNA-Seq study that has served as the foundation for most of my lab’s research. This funding also allowed my lab to perform transmission electron microscopy analyses that have been essential to our work. The grant also created a supportive infrastructure for junior investigators (including faculty mentors who helped me with grant writing and lab management) and a collaborative environment for developing my research program.
Wiedenheft’s work for which he was nominated for the PECASE was funded in part by NIH under grant R01GM108888. His IDeA funding came from grant P20GM103500. You can read more about his research on the CRISPR-mediated immune systems of bacteria on NIGMS’ Biomedical Beat blog.