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.
Helen Sunshine, who led the NIGMS Office of Scientific Review (OSR) for the last 27 years, retired in April. Throughout her career, she worked tirelessly to uphold the highest standards of peer review.
Helen earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at Columbia University and joined the NIH intramural program in 1976, working first as a postdoctoral fellow and then as a senior research scientist in the Laboratory of Chemical Physics, headed by William Eaton.
In 1981, Helen became a scientific review officer (SRO) in OSR and was appointed by then-NIGMS Director Ruth L. Kirschstein to be its chief in 1989. During her career in OSR, she oversaw the review of many hundreds of applications each year representing every scientific area within the NIGMS mission.
Ever since the NIGMS Feedback Loop launched in 2005, we’ve sent periodic digests of its content to our grantees, applicants and others. To help our readers receive time-sensitive information sooner, we’re now offering a way to get individual posts as they’re published on the blog.
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NIGMS is actively involved in efforts to catalyze the modernization of graduate education. As part of our work on this issue, we will host a symposium at NIH on Monday, April 11, where we will convene stakeholders from the biomedical graduate education community to continue the momentum for positive change and showcase innovative approaches in Ph.D. training. You can register to attend in person or watch the meeting live or later.
The agenda for the morning session includes an overview of the current landscape from the perspective of various stakeholders (students, institutions and employers) followed by a discussion on implementing change and assessing the effectiveness of educational innovations. The afternoon session will highlight experiments in various areas of graduate education such as curriculum redesign, quantitative skills enhancement, rigor and reproducibility, diversity and inclusion, and career and professional development. We will hear about why and how these experiments were implemented, their outcomes to date and aspects that could be exported to other institutions.
We hope you can join us for what promises to be a broad and stimulating discussion.
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.
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 .