The Importance of Your Input

This is the 500th Feedback Loop post. We’ve made numerous changes since the blog launched in 2009, but one of the things that’s stayed the same is the importance of your input. Your responses to our posts have given us valuable information and insights on our policies and plans. They’ve also helped us identify topics that interest you or that we could clarify.

If there’s a topic you’d like us to write about—or if you have any other feedback for us—please leave your suggestions in the comment section below or email me.

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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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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Comment on Proposed Rules for Protection of Human Subjects

UPDATE: The proposed rulemaking comment period has been extended to January 6, 2016.

I would like to draw your attention to proposed revisions to the federal policy for the protection of human subjects exit icon, often referred to as the Common Rule. Even if you’re not currently involved in human subjects research activities, your research might be affected by the proposed changes.

The modifications are intended to enhance the ability of individuals to make informed decisions about participating in clinical research and also to modernize and streamline the regulatory approval process. One of the major reforms would expand the definition of human subjects research to include the secondary use of human biospecimens, regardless of identifiability. Some of the other proposed changes would affect the processes for obtaining informed consent and for determining the exemption status of human subjects research activities.

I encourage you to review the notice of proposed rulemaking and submit comments by the December 7, 2015, deadline. Please note that each proposed change described in the document includes specific questions for public comment.

Lasker Award Recognizes Sustained Effort to Understand DNA-Damage Response

We congratulate our long-time grantee Steve Elledge of Brigham and Women’s Hospital on being recognized with the 2015 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award exit icon for “discoveries concerning the DNA-damage response—a fundamental mechanism that protects the genomes of all living organisms.” He shares the honor with Evelyn M. Witkin of Rutgers University.

For a quarter century, we’ve funded Elledge’s investigations of the molecular underpinnings of this fundamental biological process. While working with the yeast model system in the 1990s, his group showed that the Rad53 kinase plays an important role in coordinating DNA repair with progression through the cell cycle.

More recently, Elledge and his team have identified over 1,000 candidate proteins that may participate in the mammalian DNA-damage response. They are now seeking to uncover the precise functions of these proteins.

The Lasker Award is a fitting occasion to reflect on how far we’ve come in this field and the exciting opportunities that lie ahead.

Pharmacogenomics Research Network Transition Update

As I wrote in a previous post on the Pharmacogenomics Research Network (PGRN), we have been transitioning our support of pharmacogenomics research from set-aside funding to regular competition with other scientific areas. This is part of the Institute’s efforts to bolster support for investigator-initiated research. We’ll now fund pharmacogenomics research primarily through regular research grant mechanisms, such as R01s or well-justified P01s.

To learn more about how pharmacogenomics-related applications fare in review, our Office of Program Planning, Analysis, and Evaluation conducted an analysis of NIH-wide pharmacogenomics-related applications assigned to Center for Scientific Review study sections. The analysis showed that these applications have comparable success in the review and award processes as applications in other scientific fields. Even so, I still recommend that applicants include a cover letter describing the kinds of expertise they believe are needed for an appropriate review. This can be particularly beneficial for a multidisciplinary research area like pharmacogenomics.

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Alison Gammie to Lead Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity Division

Alison Gammie, Ph.D.I’m very pleased to announce that Alison Gammie will be joining us in the late summer as the new director of our Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity (TWD). She’s currently a senior lecturer in molecular biology at Princeton as well as an innovator and leader in teaching, mentoring, diversity-building and recruitment programs there. Through collaborations and other approaches, she has also contributed in many ways to improving undergraduate STEM training on a national level.

Alison has a strong record of recognizing needs, identifying gaps and developing successful strategies to address and overcome these challenges.

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