Encouraging News for Women Entering Academia in the Biomedical Sciences

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

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.

Ming Lei to Direct Research Capacity Building Division

I’m pleased to announce that Ming Lei will join NIGMS later this month as the new director of our Division for Research Capacity Building. Ming is a molecular geneticist with extensive experience overseeing fellowship, career development, and training and education grant programs.Ming is currently deputy director of the Center for Cancer Training and chief of the Cancer Training Branch at the National Cancer Institute, which he joined in 2008 as a program director. His experience before that includes leading the Genes and Genome Cluster in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences at the National Science Foundation, serving as an associate professor of microbiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and working as a research scientist in the Division of Biotechnology at the Monsanto Corporation in St. Louis, Missouri.

Ming’s expertise in managing far-reaching and complex programs, and his ability to effectively engage with scientists and other stakeholders, make him an ideal choice for this key position and a valuable addition to our senior leadership team.

Please join me in welcoming him to NIGMS.

For more about Ming, see our news announcement.

Proposed Reorganization of NIGMS Scientific Divisions

UPDATE: The NIGMS reorganization became official in January 2018. Please see our Overview for more information. 

I’d like to make you aware of a proposed reorganization of the Institute’s scientific divisions that we are considering.

Currently, NIGMS has four scientific divisions: Biomedical Technology, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology (BBCB); Cell Biology and Biophysics (CBB); Genetics and Developmental Biology (GDB); and Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry (PPBC). We would like to shift to a structure in which there are only three scientific divisions: Biophysics, Biomedical Technology, and Computational Biosciences (BBCB); Genetics and Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (GMCDB); and Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry.

In broad strokes, the current CBB cell biology branch and most of the grants it manages would move to the new Genetics and Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology division, and the CBB biophysics branch would move to the new Biophysics, Biomedical Technology, and Computational Biosciences division. A few grant portfolios from CBB would be transferred to the existing Division of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry.

This proposed reorganization does not reflect any change in scientific emphasis or interests by the Institute. Rather, it is an attempt to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our support for fundamental biomedical research, consistent with two goals outlined in our strategic plan [PDF, 702KB]: enhance the effectiveness of our support for fundamental biomedical research and improve the efficiency of our internal operations.

The proposed restructuring also includes establishing the Center for Research Capacity Building as a full division, consistent with its unique place in the Institute. In addition, based on a recommendation from the Steering Committee of the Office of Emergency Care Research (OECR), we plan to transfer the office to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Because of NINDS’ strong expertise in and support for clinical research related to emergency medicine, it is extremely well-suited to promoting the mission of OECR.

You might wonder what the proposed reorganization will mean for your current or future funding. Our commitment to funding fundamental biomedical research and research capacity building programs remains the same, so the amount of money allocated to these areas will not change as a result of the proposed reorganization. We also expect that most grantees will continue working with their current program directors and grants management specialists.

Soliciting input from the community is among the steps that need to occur before any changes can be implemented. We invite you to share your thoughts on these plans by commenting here or by email. Input will be received through December 4, 2017.

Four NIGMS Grantees Recognized With 2017 Nobel Prizes

I’m delighted to congratulate four members of the NIGMS community who became Nobel laureates this week. Early this morning, the Nobel Academy announced Joachim Frank, Ph.D., of Columbia University as one of today’s winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry for the development of cryo-electron microscopy, which simplifies and improves the imaging of biomolecules. On Monday, the Academy recognized current and former NIGMS grantees Jeffrey C. Hall, Ph.D., of the University of Maine; Michael Rosbash, Ph.D., of Brandeis University; and Michael W. Young, Ph.D., of Rockefeller University, with the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm.

Our Institute has a strong track record of funding scientists who receive Nobel Prizes. Since its creation in 1962, NIGMS has supported the work of 87 Nobel laureates—43 in physiology or medicine and 44 in chemistry. These investigators perform cutting-edge basic research in many different organisms and experimental systems that is the foundation for understanding normal life processes and disease.

The importance of investigator-initiated basic biomedical research, the NIGMS bedrock, was summed up brilliantly during this morning’s Nobel Prize announcement Exit icon. In response to a reporter asking why most of this week’s Nobel laureates are from the United States, Professor Göran K. Hansson, Secretary General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, stated:

The United States has … allowed scientists to perform fundamental research to focus on important questions in science; not forcing them to immediate applications, not controlling them in a political way; and that freedom combined with very good resources have been very helpful to the United States.

Dr. Hansson noted that the United States is not alone in its philosophy, also recognizing the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, United Kingdom, and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, for providing resources for basic, foundational science “that have turned out to pay off in practical applications later on. …”

To learn more about NIGMS Nobel laureates, see our fact sheet; also see our resources on circadian rhythms and cryo-EM.

Once again, congratulations to Drs. Frank, Hall, Rosbash, and Young on their exceptional recognition. These are also great wins for basic, foundational biomedical research.

Avoiding Hype and Enhancing Awareness in Science Communication

When I joined NIGMS about four years ago, I was struck by the number of press releases from journals and grantee institutions that came across my desk each day. Many of them focused on a recently published paper and failed to explain how the work fit into the broader field. Others overstated the research results to make them sound more exciting and closer to clinical application.

I moderated one of the panel discussions.

Around the same time, science communicators started writing articles and conducting studies about the effects of hyped research findings (e.g., Schwartz et al., 2012; Yavchitz et al., 2012 Exit icon, Sumner et al., 2014 Exit icon; Vox, 2017 Exit icon). While these discussions focused on clinically oriented research, we at NIGMS began thinking deeply about how the issue relates to basic biomedical science. On the heels of our work with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) on enhancing rigor and reproducibility in biomedical research, we started talking to them about this topic as well. Two years later, we were pleased to host their Workshop on Responsible Communication of Basic Biomedical Research: Enhancing Awareness and Avoiding Hype Exit icon.

The June 22 meeting brought together a diverse group of science communicators Exit icon [PDF, 22KB] who included early and established investigators, researchers who study science communication, academic and corporate communication officers, policy advisors and journalists. Each panelist represented a stakeholder group with a role in what panelists later called the “hype cycle” and shared his or her perspectives on the problems of hype, the incentives that cause it and recommendations for avoiding it. The meeting focused on basic biomedical research, but the discussions were also relevant to other areas of science.

In her keynote address Exit icon, veteran science journalist Erika Check Hayden defined hype as “exaggerating the outcomes of research, for whatever motives people have, leading to potential negative effects due to inaccurate portrayal of research.” She credited this definition to Judith Greenberg, our deputy director.

The keynote address by Erika Check Hayden focused on new directions in science communication.

The subsequent discussions highlighted the shared responsibility among all the stakeholder groups for improving science communication and changing the incentives for it. Panelists acknowledged that scientists sometimes oversell the conclusions of studies hoping to get their work published in “better” journals or to improve their chances for obtaining funding; journals may decide on manuscripts to publish based on which ones they think will be cited the most or get press attention; communication officers and journalists are often judged by how many hits their stories get; and universities and research institutes may consider the fundraising potential of scientific news stories.

Here are some of the topics discussed during the workshop that really resonated with me. Continue reading

Remembering Longtime CBB Division Director Catherine Lewis

Dr. Catherine D. Lewis

It is with a heavy heart that I share with you the passing of Catherine D. Lewis, former director of the NIGMS Division of Cell Biology and Biophysics. As previously posted, Cathy retired in January after more than 30 years of service at NIH. Although already on the horizon, her plans for retirement were accelerated by a diagnosis of cancer and the need to focus her energies on trying to beat it. Unfortunately, she died just six months later, on July 12.

As noted already, Cathy made many contributions to the scientific community and over a lifetime made many friends. She regularly participated in meetings of the American Society for Cell Biology and the Biophysical Society, but also in more intimate gatherings of scientists such as FASEB and Gordon Research Conferences. She was always interested to hear about research advances and willing to provide guidance about NIH processes. She was equally comfortable engaging non-scientific audiences about the research supported by her division.

Cathy personally managed a robust grant portfolio of cutting-edge research in the fields of nanoscience and single molecule methods. Earlier in her NIGMS career, she managed grants in genetics and developmental biology, as well as grants in structural biology that led to the first crystal structures of the ribosome. She also helped oversee the Institute’s initiatives aimed at advancing structural genomics, improving methods for cellular imaging, creating a library of cell images and, most recently, supporting resources for cryo-EM and cryo-EM tomography.

Within NIH, Cathy was known for her work ethic and her ability to make people feel at ease. She managed a division responsible for more than 1,300 grants, and did so with grace, patience and a sunny smile.

Transfer of Science Education Partnership Awards to NIGMS

I’m pleased to announce that NIGMS is the new home for the Science Education Partnership Awards (SEPA). These awards, which were transferred from NIH’s Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives, support research and educational activities that complement other workforce diversity and training programs within NIH mission areas. The change will allow the SEPA program to be better integrated with other NIGMS capacity-building and research training programs and will increase opportunities for synergies between them.

The SEPA program promotes partnerships between biomedical and clinical researchers and pre-kindergarten to grade 12 teachers and schools, museums and science centers, and other educational organizations. In addition, the program provides students from underserved communities with opportunities to learn about research careers; supplies teachers with professional development in science content and teaching skills; and improves community health and science literacy through its science centers and museum exhibits.

SEPA will be housed in our Center for Research Capacity Building (CRCB), which supports research, research training, faculty development and research infrastructure improvements in states that historically have not received significant levels of research funding from NIH. It also supports faculty research development at institutions that have a historical mission focused on serving students from underrepresented groups.

We do not plan to alter the mission or goals of SEPA as a result of the transfer, and the program will continue to be administered by Tony Beck, who has served as its program director since 2001.

If you have any questions about the transfer, please contact Tony Beck or Fred Taylor, acting director of CRCB.

CBB Division Director Catherine Lewis Retires

Dr. Catherine D. Lewis

Catherine D. Lewis, director of the NIGMS Division of Cell Biology and Biophysics (CBB), retired in January after more than 30 years of service at the NIH. Throughout her career, Cathy was widely recognized for her scientific foresight and leadership, including the early recognition of important emerging research opportunities in molecular biology, biophysics and microscopy. Her tireless work behind the scenes ensured that these transformational new research approaches were seamlessly integrated into the NIH portfolio and able to grow rapidly.

Cathy earned an M.S. and Ph.D. in biochemistry from Princeton University and joined NIH in 1983 as a staff fellow at NIDDK in the lab of Gary Felsenfeld, where she studied chromatin structure and the regulation of beta-globin gene expression during development.

Her career at NIGMS started in 1989, when Cathy moved to the Institute as a program director in the Genetics Division—led at the time by Judith Greenberg. She managed grants on cell nuclear structure and function and was instrumental in the development of programs focused on epigenetic regulation. Eight years later, Cathy became CBB’s Biophysics Branch chief. In that role, she at one point managed nearly 400 grants, some of which led to breakthroughs such as the structure of the ribosome. She also initiated NIGMS programs focused on new single-molecule methods and nanotechnology. In 2006, Cathy took over as director of CBB. During this period, she oversaw changes in the direction of the NIGMS Protein Structure Initiative, promoted advances in high-resolution optical microscopy and cellular imaging, and led efforts to support atomic resolution cryo-electron microscopy, including a new Common Fund initiative.

During her tenure at NIH, Cathy received two NIH Director’s Awards, for her work on trans-NIH initiatives and her leadership on science education in elementary schools.

Cathy’s door was always open to all, and her advice was constantly sought by colleagues, not only in her own division, but widely across NIGMS and NIH.

Most importantly, Cathy maintained warm professional and personal relationships with those around her, while getting things done and influencing others. “Leading a division that worked well and where people respected each other and got along is something that I’m happy to have been involved in,” she says.

Working in the CBB division was fun, because she helped make it so. She will be missed.

Q&A with NIGMS-Funded PECASE Winners

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 Exit icon (who started her career at the University of Vermont) and Montana State University’s Blake Wiedenheft Exit icon (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.

Photo of Blake Wiedenheft (top) and Aimee Shen (bottom).

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.

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