Reflecting on Our Golden Anniversary

NIGMS 50th Anniversary BannerLast October, I told you that NIGMS would be commemorating its 50th anniversary in 2012.  We hope you will help us mark this milestone by participating in our upcoming anniversary events, which include sessions at scientific meetings and a special symposium on the NIH campus that will feature talks by three outstanding NIGMS-funded investigators as well as poster presentations by NIGMS-supported undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral scientists.

Another way to get involved is to provide a personal reflection about NIGMS. I want to thank those who have already sent theirs and encourage everyone to take a few minutes to read them. I hope they will inspire you to send in one of your own. We welcome individual or group contributions of any length and in any format (text, audio or video).

NIGMS 50th Anniversary Sessions at Scientific Society Meetings

NIGMS 50th Anniversary Logo

As we told you in an earlier post, NIGMS turns 50 this year. One of the ways we’re marking this milestone is by sponsoring speakers or symposia at a number of scientific society meetings.

We’ve already been to the Society for Glycobiology and the American Society for Cell Biology meetings, and in the coming months, we’re headed to these additional venues:

  • Biophysical Society
  • United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation
  • Genetics Society of America
  • International Society for Computational Biology
  • American Chemical Society
  • Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science
  • Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students

If you’ll be at one of these meetings, please come to our sponsored session to hear from our grantees and meet some of our staff. Also, please acknowledge NIGMS funding support during your meeting talks and poster presentations, and feel free to use one of our 50th anniversary logos for this purpose.

To highlight our commitment to training, we’re also sponsoring student or postdoctoral fellow poster awards at a number of these events. We’ll invite poster award winners to present their work at the NIGMS 50th anniversary symposium at NIH on October 17. Stay tuned for details about that event in a future post.

Stem Cell Workshop Covered Field’s Progress, Challenges and Opportunities

In the decade since NIGMS began supporting human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research, the field has made substantial strides, including the development of methods to generate induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC). As part of our ongoing commitment to basic research into the fundamental properties of pluripotent cells, we recently hosted our fourth biennial workshop for NIGMS grantees working in this research area. The 63 participants presented their latest research findings, exchanged ideas and discussed possibilities for collaboration.

The talks and posters focused on state-of-the-art hESC and iPSC research in four broad areas: pluripotency and self-renewal, technological approaches, differentiation mechanisms, and epigenetics and reprogramming. Several presentations highlighted significant advances in our understanding of the molecular complexes and signaling networks that control pluripotency and the transition to the differentiated state. As in previous workshops, it was exciting to see all the progress that has been made in the past two years.

The final session was on future directions and challenges. It included a discussion of the current state of the field and raised the important question of the nature, extent and significance of differences between hESC and iPSC. Jamie Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison reminded everyone that these two types of pluripotent cells are remarkably similar and that differences may reflect genetic differences in the original cells and/or differences arising during growth in tissue culture.

The meeting concluded with a lively discussion that highlighted the participants’ opinions on the technical challenges, resource needs and key biological questions that will drive the field in the coming years. For more on this, read the workshop summary.

Back by Popular Demand: Workshop for Transitioning Postdocs

We’re holding our second two-day workshop for postdoctoral fellows who soon will transition to their first independent positions. It will take place on the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD, March 12-13, 2012. All eligible postdocs may apply, but we especially encourage applications from members of groups that are underrepresented in the biomedical or behavioral sciences.

The workshop, organized with the assistance of FASEB, covers a broad range of topics to help postdocs navigate the transition process, including applying for a position, negotiating an offer, establishing a lab, finding mentors and collaborators, getting a grant and balancing research with other commitments. NIH Director Francis Collins will deliver the keynote address.

We received a lot of positive feedback on our 2010 workshop. Just last week, I met an attendee who told me that she had recently moved into her first independent position and that attending the workshop had helped her get the job.

If you know of postdocs who would benefit from our career development event, please encourage them to visit the registration page for details about eligibility, travel reimbursement and application materials, which are due by November 30. Note that participants must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

Webinar on Transformative Research Awards, Managing Science in Fiscally Challenging Times

Extramural NexusI want to highlight two items from the monthly digest of postings from NIH’s Office of Extramural Research.

On November 8 from 1:00 to 2:45 p.m. Eastern time, NIH will host a webinar on a new high-risk, high-reward program, the NIH Director’s Transformative Research Awards. It’ll provide an overview of the program and details about the application process. You can access the webinar at Submit questions in advance or during the program by e-mailing or by calling 1-800-593-9895, passcode 10699.

You may have already read the post from OER Director Sally Rockey on managing science in fiscally challenging times or tried out NIH’s interactive data graphs. The post has generated more than 175 comments, including this one from our former director Jeremy Berg that discusses NIGMS’ approach:

I think it is a very good idea to make these data and the interactive slides available to the scientific community. However, some key points deserve clarification. On slide 2, it is stated that the current way of managing is to “bottom out success rates (doing nothing but letting the system correct itself)”. I do not think that this correctly represents the situation. As Director of NIGMS for 7 1/2 years, we used a number of the degrees of freedom shown in the slides to manage success rates. For example, awards sizes were often reduced below the requested amount to increase the number of new and competing awards that could be made. We realized that these reductions had implications for the funded investigators, but in periods of constrained appropriations, these were deemed to be less problematic than further decreases in the number of awards that could be made. In addition, NIGMS has had a long-standing policy of scrutinizing potential awards to well-funded laboratories, defined as laboratories hav[ing] annual direct costs from all sources of over $750,000. Note that this is not a cap, but rather a process involving program staff and the advisory council to ensure that such potential awards are carefully considered with respect to alternative awards to less well-funded laboratories. Thus, some of the approaches described have already been utilized. Furthermore, we have attempted to analyze scientific output in the context of these policies. Some trends are indicated but there are, of course, many challenges to measuring scientific output in a meaningful way. Furthermore, as one might anticipate, there are large variations at any given level of support. NIH and the scientific community need to work together to use the available data to develop policies that can best sustain the biomedical research enterprise in the long run.

For additional details, see the NIGMS funding policies page.

NIH Director’s Award Programs Keep ‘Pioneering’ and ‘Innovating’

NIH Director’s Pioneer AwardNIH recently conducted an evaluation of the short-term outcome of the NIH Director Pioneer’s Award program, which started in 2004 and is managed by NIGMS. The report was positive and confirmed that the research supported by the program truly has been pioneering, not only in pursuing highly creative and often unconventional approaches but also in leading to additional “high-risk, high-reward” programs at NIH and other funding agencies.

We hope to see many more highly innovative ideas submitted for the next Pioneer Award application cycle that is now under way. Applications are due October 7, 2011.

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award

The NIH Director’s New Innovator Award program, also managed by NIGMS, is accepting applications until October 14, 2011. This program is designed for early stage investigators at U.S. institutions who have not yet obtained an NIH R01 or similar grant.

For more information and links to the requests for applications, see the Pioneer Award Web site and the New Innovator Award Web site.

As I’ve written before, one of my favorite elements of these programs is the annual symposium, scheduled this year for September 20-21 at the Doubletree Bethesda Hotel near the NIH campus. The meeting is free and doesn’t require registration, so if you’re in the area, I encourage you to join us for talks and poster sessions by Pioneer and New Innovator awardees. If you can’t make it in person, you can view the platform presentations after the meeting on the NIH Videocast site.

Register Now for the Protein Data Bank’s 40th Anniversary Symposium

A special symposium marking the 40th anniversary of the Protein Data Bank (PDB) Exit icon will be held this year at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, October 28-30.

It’s quite fitting that the meeting is being held here. It was a 1971 symposium at the laboratory titled “The Structure and Function of Proteins at the Three-Dimensional Level” that led to the establishment of the PDB as a freely accessible portal for the experimentally determined structures of biological macromolecules. Since then, the PDB has grown into an international resource for structural biology, today containing nearly 75,000 structures of proteins, nucleic acids and complex assemblies.

Because it is such a vital resource for researchers, NIGMS and other parts of NIH, along with the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy, have helped fund the PDB’s operation for many years. NIGMS is also a sponsor of the symposium.

The October event, which is open to all, will include presentations by many prominent scientists who have been instrumental in the development of the PDB and the field of structural biology. Among the confirmed speakers are Michael Rossmann of Purdue University, an early advocate of the PDB; Wayne Hendrickson of Columbia University, a leader in solving the structures of membrane proteins; and Kurt Wüthrich of the Scripps Research Institute and the ETH Zürich, a pioneer in NMR structure determination techniques.

A limited number of travel awards to attend the symposium are available for students and early career scientists; applications are due by
August 1

More information about the program, registration and travel is on the meeting Web site.

Meetings Help Develop a Diverse Scientific Workforce

SACNAS National ConferenceAs part of our commitment to developing a diverse scientific workforce, we sponsor the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) national conference Exit icon and the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) Exit icon.


These conferences represent two of the largest gatherings of science and math undergraduate students from groups that are underrepresented in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. They are terrific opportunities for you to meet and recruit outstanding students. You also can volunteer to mentor students or judge their posters.

This year, SACNAS will meet in San Jose, CA, October 27-30, and ABRCMS in St. Louis, MO, November 9-12. For more information or to register, visit the meeting Web sites.

Connecting at Lindau

Greetings from Lindau, Germany, where I and my NIH colleagues, Irene Eckstrand and Katrin Eichelberg, are attending the 61st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting Exit icon. This year’s meeting, focused on physiology and medicine, has brought together 23 Nobel laureates and 566 outstanding pre- and postdoctoral students, including 80 from the United States, to share their passion for science and their commitment to finding solutions to the world’s biggest problems.

Video remarks from NIH Director Francis Collins at the Lindau meeting.

Video remarks from NIH Director Francis Collins at the Lindau meeting.

This is the third year that NIGMS has participated in the Lindau program, and the first year in which participation was NIH-wide.

Each morning, six Nobel laureates have given short lectures about the history of their science, their successes and failures, and their visions of the future. Among the NIGMS-funded laureates giving these talks are Elizabeth Blackburn, Oliver Smithies, Thomas Steitz, Roger Tsien and Ada Yonath. The afternoons are reserved for free-ranging discussions among the laureates and young researchers. It has been a delight to watch the two groups get to know each other and discuss important scientific problems of global interest and importance.

On the opening day, Countess Bettina Bernadotte, whose family has sponsored the meeting since its beginning, welcomed the assembly. Her enthusiasm for science and her commitment to the meetings was apparent in her introduction of the Lindau mission – “Educate. Inspire. Connect” – and her advice that we “never cease to be curious.” Expanding on this, Annette Schavan, the German Federal Minister of Education and Research, stressed that connections among the generations, such as those made at this meeting, are crucial to scientific progress.

The American delegation, which was sponsored by NIH, the Department of Energy, Oak Ridge Associated Universities and Mars Incorporated, organized a U.S.-themed International Day on Monday, June 27. This series of events truly jumpstarted the week.

As part of International Day, NIH-supported Nobel laureate Peter Agre explained his view of the scientist-citizen who uses his or her knowledge and talents to make the world a better place. The discoverer of aquaporins, Agre talked about applying his research to fighting malaria in Zambia. NIGMS’ Irene Eckstrand then spoke about using the power of computing to inform policies for the control and eradication of infectious diseases. An energetic discussion ensued between the highly engaged students and speakers, focusing on efforts to understand the epidemiology of malaria, approaches to reducing the number of deaths from the disease and the importance of collaborative research between developed and developing nations.

The International Day evening program included a very well-received video address from NIH Director Francis Collins on the strength of American medical science. His message about NIH’s commitment to global health aligned perfectly with the focus of earlier talks, including a presentation by Bill Gates, who was inducted into the Honorary Senate of the Lindau Foundation.

Irene, Katrin and I are all quite proud to have been a part of this effort and look forward to sharing more about our experiences here.

Post written by Donna Krasnewich, Irene Eckstrand and Katrin Eichelberg (NIAID)

At the Interface of Evolution and Medicine

At last week’s Evolution and Medicine Symposium (link no longer available) at the Evolution 2011 meeting in Norman, Oklahoma, experts from around the country came together to discuss how evolutionary biology is influencing our understanding of human health and disease.

At the meeting, I talked about NIGMS’s commitment to funding research on the principles and dynamics of evolution and highlighted the importance of studying biological systems, such as infectious diseases and physiology, in their evolutionary context.

In preparing my remarks, I realized that the work of clinicians and evolutionary biologists could be highly synergistic. M.D.s know a great deal about individual variation and clinical presentation, while evolutionary biologists have a good grasp of variation at the population level. Both of these perspectives are very valuable to the field of personalized medicine, for example. The question now is: How do we create an opportunity for these two groups to work with each other?

The meeting featured many interesting talks, including:

  • Dyann Wirth of the Harvard School of Public Health explained that in the very near future we will have enough sequence data from Plasmodium, mosquitoes and humans to understand regional variation as well as co-evolution of the malaria pathogen and its hosts. We should be able to use this information to build computational models and evaluate intervention, eradication and elimination strategies. Wirth said these capabilities stem from advances in DNA sequencing technologies that are having a revolutionary effect on evolution research, including evolution and medicine.
  • Carl Bergstrom of the University of Washington spoke on the integration of mathematical modeling and evolution. He gave a real example of how to use antiviral drugs most effectively in an influenza outbreak. The question was how to deploy antivirals to reduce the likelihood of resistance and minimize illness and death. Bergstrom said that the answer is non-obvious unless you understand how phylogenies work and know a little bit of math.
  • Angela Hancock of the University of Chicago talked about recent data showing that human genetic variation that’s adaptive in one context will not be so in other contexts. Studying 61 populations from different parts of the world, she identified signals of selection in a variety of genes related to UV radiation, infection and immunity, and cancer.

This symposium came at the perfect time to describe two new NIGMS-related efforts. We previewed an NIH high school curriculum supplement on evolution and medicine that will be released this fall. Also, in conjunction with the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we will be announcing later this summer a call for applications to study dynamic biological systems in their ecological and evolutionary contexts. I’ll share more details about these efforts in the near future.