Category: News

What Can We Do to Combat Anti-Black Racism in the Biomedical Research Enterprise?

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The recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, in addition to the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on African Americans, are wrenching reminders of the many harms that societal racism, inequality, and injustice inflict on the Black community. These injustices are rooted in centuries of oppression—including slavery and Jim Crow, redlining, school segregation, and mass incarceration—that continue to influence American life, including the biomedical research enterprise. Despite leading an NIH Institute whose mission includes building a diverse scientific workforce, at NIGMS we’ve struggled with what an adequate response to this moment would be, knowing that the systems that mediate the distinct and disparate burdens Black students, postdocs, and scientists face are complex and often aren’t easily moved with the urgency that they demand. With that in mind, below we share thoughts on what each of us who is in the majority or in a position of power can do to help break the cycles of racial disparities that are woven into the fabric of the biomedical research enterprise and that limit opportunities Link to external web site for Black scientists Link to external web site.

Institutional structures, policies, and cultures Link to external web site, including those in the biomedical research enterprise, all contribute to racial inequality and injustice. This fact was laid bare for us by the responses to the request for information (RFI) we issued in 2018 on strategies to enhance successful postdoctoral career transitions to promote faculty diversity. Respondents cited bias and discrimination—including racism—most frequently as a key barrier to postdoctoral researchers attaining independent faculty positions.

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Seeking Feedback on Our New Strategic Plan

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As I described in my last post, we recently released a progress and outcomes report [PDF] highlighting the work we’ve done to meet the goals and objectives of the NIGMS 2015-2020 strategic plan [PDF].

We’re now beginning development of a new strategic plan that will describe NIGMS’ overarching goals, strategic objectives, and implementation tactics in support of the Institute’s mission over the next 5 years.

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Reflecting on Our Strategic Priorities

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In my first post as NIGMS director in 2013, I discussed the need to develop a new strategic plan to guide our efforts and to ensure that we invest taxpayer money as efficiently and effectively as possible. Our current strategic plan emerged as a product of collaboration between all functional units of our Institute, with valuable input from external stakeholders, and it’s been used to guide management decisions at NIGMS for the last 5 years.

Since publication of this strategic plan in 2015, the Institute has undertaken programmatic and organizational changes to better achieve the goals set forth in the plan. I therefore wanted to reflect on these activities as we consider our priorities for the next 5 years.

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Erica Brown Named Associate Director for Extramural Activities

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Headshot of Dr. Erica Brown.

I’m pleased to announce that Erica Brown has been named NIGMS associate director for extramural activities and director of our Division of Extramural Activities (DEA). In this role, Erica oversees the receipt, referral, review, and fiscal management of the Institute’s grants. Additionally, she serves as executive secretary of our advisory council and advises senior staff on the planning, development, and administration of Institute grant activities.

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Susan Gregurick to Lead Data Science Activities at NIH

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Headshot of Susan Gregurick.

It’s with profoundly mixed emotions that I tell you that Susan Gregurick has been named the NIH associate director for data science and director of the Office of Data Science Strategy. This new position will allow her to play a key role in shaping data science activities across NIH.

Susan has provided extraordinary leadership to our Division of Biophysics, Biomedical Technology, and Computational Biosciences (BBCB) for the past 6 years and has been an essential member of the Institute’s senior staff. I’m confident that she’ll bring the same level of enthusiasm, professionalism, judgment, and keen intellect to her new office as she did here at NIGMS. The appointment becomes official on September 15, although Susan will remain here at NIGMS through the end of the month. Deputy Director Judith Greenberg will serve as acting director of BBCB while we search for a permanent replacement.

For more on this appointment, see the statement from NIH Director Francis Collins. Please join me in wishing Susan the best in the next phase of her career. NIGMS’ loss is certainly NIH’s gain!

NIGMS Grantees Receive Top U.S. Award in Science and Engineering

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I’m pleased to congratulate four members of the NIGMS community who are among the recipients of the 2019 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers Link to external web site. This award is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government to outstanding scientists and engineers who are beginning their independent research careers and who show exceptional promise for leadership in science and technology.

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Two NIGMS Grantees Among Winners of 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

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I’m very pleased to announce that two long-time NIGMS grantees are among today’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry Link to external web site. They include:

  • Frances H. Arnold, Ph.D., of the California Institute of Technology, “for the directed evolution of enzymes”
  • George P. Smith, Ph.D., of the University of Missouri, Columbia, who shares the prize with Sir Gregory P. Winter of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, U.K., “for the phage display of peptides and antibodies”

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Lasker Awards Honor Three NIGMS Grantees

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We are delighted that three long-time NIGMS grantees have been recognized by the 2018 Lasker Awards Link to external web site. The awards highlight fundamental biological discoveries to draw attention to the importance of public support of science.

  • Michael Grunstein of the University of California, Los Angeles, and C. David Allis of Rockefeller University, received the 2018 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for “discoveries elucidating how gene expression is influenced by chemical modifications of histones—the proteins that package DNA within chromosomes.” NIGMS funded Grunstein’s work on the establishment and spreading of silent chromatin from 1977 to 2012. His research led to the generation of the first histone mutations in yeast and the first demonstration that chemical modification of specific ends of histones could turn gene expression on or off. Allis identified and characterized enzymes that add, remove, and read histone modifications. His work led to the hypothesis of a histone code that, when mis-read, can lead to disease. NIGMS has funded Allis since 1988.
  • Joan Argetsinger Steitz of Yale University received the 2018 Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science for “four decades of leadership in biomedical science—exemplified by pioneering discoveries in RNA biology, generous mentorship of budding scientists, and vigorous and passionate support of women in science.” Steitz’s pioneering research helped reveal the function of small pieces of RNA that are not used for making proteins. These molecules, including small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs), help regulate gene activity. In doing so, they—like histone modifications—have a major impact on health and disease. NIGMS funded her research from 1975 to 2014. The Lasker-Koshland Award further recognizes Steitz’s long record of mentoring the next generation of scientific leaders and her effective and tireless work as an advocate for women in science.

We congratulate all of the recipients on these well-deserved honors.

Encouraging News for Women Entering Academia in the Biomedical Sciences

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A recent analysis by NIGMS staff has uncovered some promising results for women entering academic positions in the biomedical sciences. The study, which published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), found that once men and women receive their first major NIH grant, their funding longevity is similar. The data contradict the common assumption that, across all career stages, women are at a large disadvantage compared to men.

NIGMS Deputy Director Judith H. Greenberg on key findings in the paper.

The results of the analysis should be encouraging for women interested in becoming independent investigators, since the likelihood of sustaining NIH grant support may be better than commonly perceived. You can read the full study, “NIH Funding Longevity by Gender,” Link to external web site in the current edition of PNAS.

NIGMS Grantees Receive Top U.S. Mentoring Award

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I’m pleased to congratulate six members of the NIGMS community who are among the recipients of the 2018 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring Link to external web site. They include:

The award recognizes outstanding mentors whose efforts encourage the next generation of innovators and help to develop a science and engineering workforce that reflects the diverse talent of our nation, key goals of a number of programs here at NIGMS.

Awardees received a Presidential certificate and a $10,000 grant to continue their mentoring activities at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., last month. Please join me in congratulating all winners of this prestigious honor.