Inspiring the Next Generation of Chemists: Snapshots from the Meeting of Nobel Laureates

John Schwab here, reporting from the 59th Meeting of Nobel Laureates on the Island of Lindau on Bodensee, near the point where Germany, Switzerland and Austria meet. Since 1951, the annual Lindau meetings have sought to educate, inspire and connect generations of scientists. There are 583 young scientists here from around the world, including about 70 graduate students from the United States. NIGMS is sponsoring the participation of 16 of these students, and this is the first year that NIH has joined DOE, NSF and others in supporting graduate students to attend.

Live Stream of the 59th Meeting of Nobel Laureates.  Watch the opening ceremony, lectures and the panel discussion live. Starting on Sunday, June 28th.This year’s meeting is dedicated to chemistry. As you know, NIGMS supports lots of basic science, which includes different “flavors” of chemistry. Many chemistry Nobel laureates are, or have been, NIGMS grantees. Several of them—such as Robert Grubbs, Richard Schrock and Roger Tsien —are among the 23 laureates attending the Lindau meeting.

During the week-long symposium, our students are networking with their international colleagues, being exposed to the entire spectrum of chemistry laureates and participating in discussions about science and society. The students are generally in their second or third year (some are in their fourth). They’re a very bright and motivated group. They’re experienced enough to understand much of the science, and they’re really excited to be here.

The talks so far have covered quite a range. Here are a few highlights:

  • Gerhard Ertl spoke about surface science and showed time-resolved images of individual atoms moving around and self-organizing on a surface. Amazing!
  • Sherwood Rowland and Paul Crutzen spoke about atmospheric chemistry, greenhouse gases and global warming. This was the science behind the project for which Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize. Very exciting yet sobering.
  • Ryoji Noyori gave a pure science talk about asymmetric catalysis.
  • Hartmut Michel spoke about the structure and function of cytochrome C oxidase, a membrane protein.

One of the most interesting and unconventional talks was given by NMR spectroscopist Richard Ernst and titled “Passions and Activities Beyond Science.” He talked about the inspiration and pleasure he has gotten from his study of Buddhism and Tibetan art. His interest ranges from history to culture to fine art to the science of restoration of ancient artwork. His message was an important one for the students: that science need not be the only passion of a productive and creative scientist—that being a scientist doesn’t have to mean being narrowly focused!

I’ve been enjoying “spreading the word” about what NIGMS is all about, and I’m looking forward to yet more stimulating science and fun interactions with a group of bright, creative students.

Interested in Research Training Fellowships?

NIH has just reissued program announcements for Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) individual fellowships at the predoctoral (F31), postdoctoral (F32) and senior (F33) levels.

Scientist in her labIf you plan to apply, be sure to read the recent NIH Guide notice applying to NRSAs. Effective with the August 8, 2009, submission date, NIH will only accept electronic applications for F-series programs. There are other changes, too, including how letters of reference are submitted, how many amended applications you may submit (only one), and how review is structured (there are now five review criteria). In addition, reviewers will use the new scoring system for individual fellowships starting with applications reviewed at the summer 2009 study section meetings.

I am happy to answer your questions about the F32s and F33s, and Adolphus Toliver can answer questions about the diversity-oriented F31s.

As some of you may know, I recently became the acting research training director at NIGMS after John Norvell retired this past March. For more than 20 years, John provided outstanding leadership for training at NIGMS and across NIH, and he brought about many significant improvements.

I welcome your input on training matters and look forward to working with you in my new role.

Getting More Women into Science

Recently, John Whitmarsh, one of my colleagues at NIGMS, pointed out a short article called “The Glass Ceiling’s Math Problem” Exit icon from the May 31 edition of the Washington Post. It highlighted a study Exit icon by researchers associated with the National Bureau of Economic Research that focused on 9,500 U.S. Air Force Academy students from 2000-2008. The findings showed that female students (but not male students) performed better and were more likely to go on in science when they were taught by female faculty members.

I wondered why the population from the Air Force Academy was chosen for this study. I learned that Air Force Academy students are assigned to faculty randomly, and they all must take math and science courses. These characteristics minimized factors of self-selection bias due to students choosing particular faculty, which would confound similar analyses at many other institutions. I encourage you to read the study and welcome any comments you may have.

Women in Biomedical Careers Web Site BannerThis recent work aligns with an ongoing effort at NIH to encourage the advancement of women in research careers. As part of this effort, NIGMS has led an initiative to identify and support research related to understanding the factors and interventions that encourage and support the careers of women in biomedical and behavioral science and engineering. I’m pleased to say that there was a strong response to the request for applications and that we expect to make awards soon.

Now Showing: Budget Testimony

As part of the budget development process, I submit testimony each year to the House and Senate appropriations committees. My most recent statement is now online, as are previous ones.

This year, we decided to try something different and also offer a video version of the testimony. We deliberately kept it simple and want to know what you think of it.

Download free QuickTime Player Exit icon to view the following video.

Dr. Jeremy Berg's Appropriations Subcommittee Statement on the Fiscal Year 2010 Budget - May 21, 2009

Do you like having the option of watching a video in addition to reading the text? Should we keep doing this? Do you have suggestions for other approaches we should consider?

Changes to Peer Review—the Reviewer’s Perspective

NIH has posted a video on the Enhancing Peer Review Web site that details recent changes to the peer review system from the reviewer’s perspective. Running about 13 minutes, “What Reviewers Need to Know Now”, (Transcript [PDF, 79KB]) offers valuable information for current and prospective peer reviewers. You’ll find other resources in the PowerPoint presentation and related links that accompany the video.

Dr. Alan Willard discusses What Reviewers Need to Know Now - March 19, 2009

Many aspects of the new peer review system are already being used in study section meetings. If you have participated in any of these meetings, I am very interested in your comments and reactions.

I’d also like to mention that NIH’s Center for Scientific Review, NIGMS and other institutes and centers have a critical need right now for reviewers to help evaluate the tremendous number of applications submitted in response to Recovery Act funding opportunities. If a Scientific Review Officer asks you to participate on a review panel, I hope that you’ll agree to serve if at all possible.

Businesses Can Apply for New Technology-Oriented Recovery Act Grants

Recovery Act Logo - Recovery.govNIH has announced two new, technology-oriented Recovery Act funding opportunities targeted to businesses:

  • The Small Business Catalyst Awards for Accelerating Innovative Research (R43) will speed innovation by supporting early-stage ideas with commercial potential that promise to greatly advance a technological area within the NIH mission—not merely lead to incremental improvements of existing technologies. NIH plans to award 20 to 25 one-year grants, each up to $200,000 in total costs. Applications from small businesses with no prior NIH Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) or Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) support may receive funding priority.

If you’re interested in applying for either opportunity, send your letters of intent by August 3, 2009. Please feel free to contact me offline with specific questions.

Early Notice: New Microbial-Host Interactions Grants

Microorganisms are everywhere–in and on our body, and in our environment. We know that these microbial communities affect our health and the health of plants and animals that we depend on. Yet, we know very little about the physiology and ecology of these communities and their interactions with their hosts.

Today, the NIGMS Council approved a new grant program that will focus on studying the basic principles that govern microbial community structure and function within a host. Research under this program will advance our understanding of the basic biology of microbial communities. It also has the potential to provide clues for developing new strategies to promote human health and treat or prevent diseases.

Once the funding opportunity has been published in the NIH Guide in early August, we will post it on the Feedback Loop site. In the meantime, I encourage you to send me comments and start thinking about applying.

Comment Notification

We’ve been posting lots of comments and replies to Feedback Loop entries, particularly ones about Recovery Act funding opportunities. So that you can automatically receive alerts when comments have been added, we’ve set up a special “Comments” RSS feed. To sign up or learn more about it, go to https://loop.nigms.nih.gov/index.php/comments/
feed/
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Feedback Loop Blog Sidebar - Comments (RSS)

If you have questions about administrative supplement requests, be sure to skim the comments to “Tips for Requesting Recovery Act Administrative Supplements” and “Clearing Up Confusion about Supplement Length and Budget Limits” for information that may apply to you.

Explaining Recovery Act Faculty Recruitment

Recovery.gov - NIGMS InformationWe’ve received a lot of questions about the Recovery Act faculty recruitment funding announcement. In addition to posting the questions and answers in our Recovery Act FAQs, I thought I’d share them here on the Feedback Loop.

What is the intent?

The intent is to contribute to startup packages for junior faculty so that they have a good foundation for becoming independent, tenure-track faculty members who are competitive for NIH awards.

Why does this use the P30 mechanism?

For technical reasons, this funding opportunity uses a research core. Despite the use of this mechanism, NIGMS does not intend our awards to be anything like a conventional resource or service core.

How will applications be reviewed?

Applications will be reviewed by standard NIH review procedures, in this case a special emphasis panel. Reviewers will consider the institutional selection process and environment, including how candidates will be identified and selected, the departmental and institutional track record for attracting junior faculty and programs available for their professional development.

Please note that we do not intend to make awards based on area of science or specific faculty candidates (more on this later).

How do I format the application?

It is difficult to address application requirements using the standard format of Aims, Background, Preliminary Data and Design and Methods sections. My suggestion is to play it straight! For example, include the history of the search in the Background section and describe the recruitment process in the Design and Methods section. Using subheads also helps.

Should I include a description of the general resources for the whole department, or a general description of what the resources might be for a new faculty member?

My best advice is to frame it in terms of what would be relevant to the area of research–computational clusters, 2P microscopes, MALDI-TOF spectroscope, etc.  Departmental resources are undoubtedly sufficiently multi-purpose that you can make access to them a positive feature of your application.

Can we use the award to support more than one recruitment effort?

Yes, but bear in mind that our intent is to produce competitive startup packages in cases of demonstrable need.

Can we use the award to support collaborators and/or co-investigators?

No, funds should be for the support of the new faculty member.

Would a junior faculty recruit who has recently (within the last month) received and accepted an offer be eligible for funding under the P30 mechanism?

No, the funding opportunity announcement specifically precludes this.

Is it appropriate and/or expected to identify potential specific new faculty candidates by name and with a brief description of credentials?

Specific identities are not appropriate, but you should describe the characteristics of the desired applicant pool—high-impact publications, prestigious awards, etc.

The funding opportunity announcement states “describe plans for how their research ideas will be selected, developed and conducted as pilot research projects.” Does this mean we should include funds for supporting pilot research projects in the P30 application budget?

Pilot research projects per se should not be proposed.  Rather, you should discuss the general research context and how the interests of a candidate will align with and expand your strategic vision.  You should discuss drivers of your funding timeline—when you anticipate the recruit to start, anticipated salary, equipment needs, etc.

Scientific Workforce Development, Diversity and the Power of Basic Research

Strategic PlanAs part of our strategic plan, Investing in Discovery, we pledged to “expand and extend the NIGMS commitment to facilitating the development of a diverse and inclusive biomedical research workforce” and “adopt a comprehensive, systems-based approach to address future workforce development issues.” In keeping with these goals, we convened a workshop to examine the benefits and feasibility of developing computational models of the biomedical workforce that would aid in program development and evaluation. Based on the discussions, we issued a new request for applications last week to develop computational models of U.S. scientific workforce dynamics. I encourage individuals or groups who are interested in this challenging area to consider applying, and I and others at NIGMS are looking forward to interacting with these researchers once awards are made.

The scientific workforce was also a focus of last week’s address by President Obama to the National Academy of Sciences. He made many important points about the ways that science impacts society, as well. I have included several excerpts below.

The President spoke of the potential impact of basic research, the need to support it and its benefits, saying:

No one can predict what new applications will be born of basic research: new treatments in our hospitals, or new sources of efficient energy; new building materials; new kinds of crops more resistant to heat and to drought.

History also teaches us the greatest advances in medicine have come from scientific breakthroughs, whether the discovery of antibiotics, or improved public health practices, vaccines for smallpox and polio and many other infectious diseases, antiretroviral drugs that can return AIDS patients to productive lives, pills that can control certain types of blood cancers, so many others.

Because of recent progress — not just in biology, genetics and medicine, but also in physics, chemistry, computer science, and engineering — we have the potential to make enormous progress against diseases in the coming decades.

As you know, scientific discovery takes far more than the occasional flash of brilliance — as important as that can be. Usually, it takes time and hard work and patience; it takes training; it requires the support of a nation. But it holds a promise like no other area of human endeavor.

The President challenged scientists to “use your love and knowledge of science to spark the same sense of wonder and excitement in a new generation,” adding:

So I want to persuade you to spend time in the classroom, talking and showing young people what it is that your work can mean, and what it means to you. I want to encourage you to participate in programs to allow students to get a degree in science fields and a teaching certificate at the same time. I want us all to think about new and creative ways to engage young people in science and engineering, whether it’s science festivals, robotics competitions, fairs that encourage young people to create and build and invent — to be makers of things, not just consumers of things.

He also spoke of the need to “create research opportunities for undergraduates and educational opportunities for women and minorities who too often have been underrepresented in scientific and technological fields, but are no less capable of inventing the solutions that will help us grow our economy and save our planet.

I recommend taking the time to watch, listen to or read his entire presentation.