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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Stephanie Constant to Direct NIGMS Office of Scientific Review

Photo of Dr. Stephanie L. ConstantI’m pleased to announce that Stephanie Constant will be joining us in early 2017 as the new chief of our Office of Scientific Review.

Stephanie is currently a scientific review officer at NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, where her review portfolio is primarily focused on training and career development programs to promote diversity in the biomedical workforce. She also worked on detail in NIH’s Office of Extramural Research, where she contributed to developing and updating policy guidelines to enhance the NIH peer review process. Prior to joining NIH, she was a tenured associate professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Tropical Medicine at George Washington University. Her research included studies on the regulation of leukocyte migration in acute and chronic inflammation and on the mechanisms of immunomodulation by parasite products.

Stephanie’s deep knowledge of NIH review policies and practices and expertise in the review of training and diversity grant applications make her an ideal fit for this key position in our Institute. Please join me in welcoming her to NIGMS.

For more about Stephanie, see our news announcement.

Rochelle Long to Lead Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry Division

Dr. Rochelle LongI’m very pleased to announce the selection of Rochelle Long as director of our Division of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry (PPBC). Rochelle is a pharmacologist who has played leading roles in fostering research in pharmacogenomics through national and international collaborations.

She established and oversees the trans-NIH Pharmacogenomics Research Network and has catalyzed associated partnerships, such as the Global Alliance for Pharmacogenomics and the Clinical Pharmacogenetics Implementation Consortium.

Rochelle has worked in PPBC since 1990, starting as a program director and rising to become chief of its Pharmacological and Physiological Sciences Branch in 1998. She has served as acting division director since Mike Rogers’ retirement in May 2015.

Rochelle’s plans include building bridges across scientific disciplines, working to strengthen emerging fields and promoting cross-disciplinary research. These are goals across the Institute—they are reflected in our strategic plan—and they’re particularly relevant for a broad-ranging division like PPBC.

Since I’ve had the opportunity to interact with her for several years, I know how skilled Rochelle is at organizing, motivating and generating cohesion among groups of people. These qualities will serve her well as PPBC director and as a member of the NIGMS senior leadership team.

For more about Rochelle, see our news announcement.

Long-Time Scientific Review Chief Helen Sunshine Retires

Dr. Helen SunshineHelen 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.

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Get Posts When They’re Published

GD SignupEver 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.

If you’d like to receive new posts by email, go to our email updates page, enter your email address, click the Submit button and then check the box next to NIGMS Feedback Loop Blog on the Quick Subscribe page. Each time we add a post to the blog, you’ll get an email message with the first part of the post and a link to the full version. We average about 4 posts per month.

For the time being, we’ll continue emailing the digests of recent posts. If you subscribe to receive individual posts and no longer want to get the periodic digests, you can cancel your digest subscription. You can also follow the blog via its RSS feed.

NIGMS Symposium on Catalyzing the Modernization of Graduate Education

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.

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.