Stetten Lecturer Illustrates Payoffs of Curiosity-Driven Research


Bonnie BasslerThe DeWitt Stetten, Jr., Lecture is an annual October event that gives us the opportunity to showcase outstanding scientists and their cutting-edge research to the NIH community.

This year’s speaker, Bonnie Bassler, gave an exceptional talk on quorum sensing in bacteria, and I highly encourage you to watch the videocast. Bonnie’s work is yet another illustration of how curiosity-driven research–in this case, into why bioluminescent bacteria only glow at high cell densities–can reveal fundamental biological processes that would have been very difficult to foresee with more directed research approaches. The potential applications of Bonnie’s discoveries include the prevention of dangerous biofilms and the development of new antibiotics and rational probiotics.

Adding to this year’s Stetten Lecture excitement were the Nobel Prizes to past speakers (Elizabeth Blackburn in 1990 and Ada Yonath and Venki Ramakrishnan (along with Peter Moore) in 2000). We’ve previously featured several Nobel laureates as lecturers after they won the prize, but this is the first time the lecture preceded the prizes. We’ll see if the trend continues!

Job Opportunity in Social and Behavioral Modeling


We’re looking for a program officer (or “health scientist administrator”) to oversee grants and other activities related to social and behavior modeling—a research area that complements NIGMS-supported efforts to understand complex systems, including disease spread among human populations and dynamics in model organism communities.

The job is within the NIGMS Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology. The center supports research and training programs that address the computational needs of today’s biomedical research, serving critical roles across NIGMS as well as NIH.

Please see the job announcement for more details and forward this information to anyone who might be interested in this position. Individual inquiries can be sent to me.

The listing closes November 13, 2009.

Conference Marks Hispanic Heritage Month

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SACNAS LogoThe annual Hispanic Heritage Month recognizes the contributions of Hispanic Americans to the United States and celebrates Hispanic heritage and culture. The end of this year’s observation coincided with the opening ceremony of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) National Conference, which is supported by NIGMS.

The SACNAS conference highlights the scientific contributions of Hispanics and Native Americans and fosters the development of new scientists. This year’s more than 2,500 attendees, including more than 1,000 undergraduate students, made it the largest SACNAS conference to date. The impressive talents and skills of the “budding” scientists were evident not only in their poster and oral presentations, but also in their conversations with established researchers, educators and mentors.

During the conference, SACNAS honored the significant roles of three NIGMS grantees by giving them its highest awards. Jorge Gardea-Torresdey Link to external web site received the 2009 Distinguished Scientist Award, Frank T. Bayliss Link to external web site received the 2009 Distinguished Undergraduate Institution Mentor Award and Maria Fatima Lima received the 2009 Distinguished Professional Mentor Award.

Hispanics are the largest and fastest-growing minority in the United States, and they are contributing to all aspects of the fabric and economy of this country. Although there are a number of very prominent Hispanic scientists, there is still a dearth of Hispanics pursuing Ph.D. degrees and research careers. Through its conference and other activities, SACNAS is contributing to NIGMS efforts to encourage and support students who are interested in science, including those from underrepresented groups.

Deadline Approaching for Postdoc Workshop


Last month, Jeremy Berg announced that NIGMS is holding a two-day workshop for postdoctoral fellows who will soon transition to their first independent positions. The event will take place on the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD, March 11-12, 2010, and the deadline for applications is just a few weeks away (November 2). While we received a strong response, we still have some space available.

As chair of the NIGMS committee organizing this special workshop, I want to emphasize what a great opportunity it will be for transitioning postdocs, especially ones from groups underrepresented in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. Since NIGMS has a strong interest in encouraging a diverse scientific workforce, we are excited to host a workshop that will help a wide range of transitioning postdocs.

The workshop will provide practical advice about applying and interviewing for jobs, negotiating start-up packages, finding a mentor, establishing a lab, forming collaborations, getting tenure, balancing research with other commitments and much more. The agenda features a fabulous lineup of speakers, including many well-established academic scientists, who will share their experiences and offer tips.

Please consider applying or forwarding this information to eligible postdocs in your lab.

Recovery Act Summary for Fiscal Year 2009 and Plans for Fiscal Year 2010


Fiscal Year 2009 is now complete. In addition to distributing the funds associated with the NIGMS regular appropriation of nearly $2 billion, we were able to commit $463 million in Recovery Act funds (out of the $505 million allocated to NIGMS and approximately $21 million more provided to us by the NIH Office of the Director). We estimate that we have $63 million more to spend in Fiscal Year 2010. See the end of this post for more on our plans.

We made nearly 1,600 Recovery Act awards in Fiscal Year 2009, distributed as shown below:

Percentage by activity of total NIGMS Recovery Act funds

This plot shows the percentage by activity of total NIGMS Recovery Act funds (including the $505 million allocated to NIGMS and the approximately $21 million in additional funds that the NIH Office of the Director provided to support 17 Challenge grants and to co-fund the Grand Opportunity (GO) grants) (left) and the total amount awarded (including year 2 commitments, if any) (right). The number of awards in each activity is shown over each bar. The “Other” category includes a small number of awards in a range of activities, including supplements to K08, K99, R00, P01 and U01 mechanisms. More details about these awards can be found in NIH RePORTER.

Let me briefly describe the decision-making processes that led to this distribution. We set aside funds to support 15 Challenge grants (in addition to the Challenge grants assigned to NIGMS but supported by Recovery Act funds from the NIH Office of the Director), approximately 1 Grand Opportunity grant in each of the 10 NIGMS areas of interest and 20 Faculty start-up (P30) grants. Most of the remaining Recovery Act funds were allocated to the five NIGMS divisions and centers in proportion to their percentage of NIGMS funding.

For activities that had undergone recent peer review, such as Challenge (RC1) grant applications, R01 applications, AREA (R15) grant applications and competitive revisions, priority scores and—in many cases—the current availability of funds within investigators’ laboratories were major factors in determining funding priority.

For administrative supplements to grants that had been previously peer reviewed and funded, program directors took a number of factors into account, with the goal of attempting to maximize the potential impact of the portfolio of Recovery Act awards on the American scientific enterprise. First, the proposed research had to be within the scope of the original funded grant. Additional considerations included the potential impact of the proposed funding on the specific aims of the grant; NIGMS portfolio balance; whether investigators had received other Recovery Act support; the economic stimulus impact of the funding; and the distribution of funds across regions, states and institutions.

Overall, we were able to support approximately 40% of the administrative supplement requests that we received.

Approximately 10% of our Recovery Act funds remain to be invested in Fiscal Year 2010. We plan to use most of these funds to support—for up to one year—administrative supplements, competitive revisions and other applications that have already been submitted. This means that we are still considering funding a modest number of previously submitted administrative supplement requests and other awards with our limited remaining Recovery Act funds.

NIGMS Grantees Gather to Report on Stem Cell Research—Progress and Challenges


Image of poster for the 3rd NIGMS Workshop on Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Recent Progress and Future Directions of NIGMS GranteesHuman embryonic stem cell research is an area of special interest to NIGMS. It represents a unique opportunity to explore the most fundamental mechanisms of biology and development while providing a foundation for future clinical applications. NIGMS’s support of basic research in embryonic stem cell biology is actually greater than that of any other component of NIH.

As part of our continuing commitment to this research area, we hosted our third workshop that brought together 54 NIGMS grantees working on human embryonic stem cells. Each workshop helps them exchange ideas and pursue collaborations while informing us about their progress and challenges.

The research presented during the talks and poster session at this year’s meeting covered a broad array of topics, reflecting the most up-to-date (and unpublished) work from labs across the country. It was wonderful to see how much progress has been made since the previous workshop two years ago! Sessions focused specifically on advances that help us understand how cells self-renew, how and when differentiation occurs and what directs cell fates. Another session discussed technological developments, such as large-scale culture techniques and the application of cutting-edge approaches in proteomics, glycoproteomics and global mapping of chromosomal interactions. Grantees also shared their latest progress on induced pluripotent stem cells and genetic reprogramming.

After listening to the presentations, it became clear to me that one of the pivotal directions for future stem cell research is going to be epigenetics, especially as it relates to regulating pluripotency, directing cell fate and inducing genetic reprogramming. Several talks, for instance, showed how two different but genetically similar human embryonic stem cell lines give rise to distinct cell types under the same conditions, presumably due to pre-existing epigenetic marks.

Since the last meeting in 2007, we’ve seen the remarkable development of human induced pluripotent stem cells. But as Jamie Thomson suggested in the closing session, we won’t be able to decipher critical differences between these cells and human embryonic stem cells until we really understand the range of variability in both types of cells. Given the accelerating pace of progress, I expect that future research will generate many new insights and perhaps some surprises that we’ll hear about in the next two years.

NIH Awards 14 Grants Examining Women’s Careers in Science


It has been very gratifying to see outstanding female scientists appropriately recognized in the Nobel Prize announcements this month. However, a variety of evidence reveals that, in many fields of science and engineering, women’s careers progress along different trajectories than do men’s careers. As I noted in a previous post, NIGMS has led an initiative to support social science research directed toward examining and developing a rigorous evidence base regarding the factors that influence women’s careers in the biomedical and behavioral sciences and engineering. This effort resulted in a new funding opportunity, and NIH announced last week that it had awarded 14 R01 grants.

In addition to studying causal factors, such as family, finances and culture, the new research projects will also look at the role of mentoring, environment, funding support and other interventions. To learn more about the projects, search NIH RePORTER by RFA-GM-09-012. With a total of $16.8 million in funding from 15 NIH institutes, centers and programmatic offices, these grants reflect NIH’s broad commitment to addressing these issues.

We look forward to following the results over the next four years. I expect that they will have broad implications with regard to programs that promote the advancement of women’s careers in science and engineering, especially at critical junctures.

Major Application Changes Come in January

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Two major recommendations of the NIH Enhancing Peer Review Initiative were to shorten grant applications and restructure their content. These changes will affect applications due on or after January 25, 2010.

Here’s a brief overview of the changes and their implementation. Be sure to follow the links for other details and important information.

New Application Structure and Length

These changes affect ALL applications (new, renewal, resubmission and revision). Exceptions will be considered only for AIDS applications from members of review committees. Specifics vary with the type of application (research, training, resource, etc.). For more, see:


  • When submitting an application due on or after January 25, you must download the new application forms. You may sign up to be notified when new application packages become available, which will be in December.
  • Applications submitted early must follow the instructions for the actual due date (e.g., applications submitted on January 24 for the February 5 R01 due date must use the new forms).
  • You can begin working on your applications now and paste the text into the appropriate form when it’s available.
  • NIH will not accept any applications using any part of the old forms, including biosketches.
  • All existing Funding Opportunity Announcements (both electronic and paper) will be revised to incorporate these changes and will be reissued by December 2009.
  • Parent announcements will be reissued and have new Funding Opportunity Announcement numbers.

If you have specific questions, please contact the NIH Grants Information Help Desk at

2009 Chemistry Nobel Prize Recognizes the Determination of the Ribosome’s Three-Dimensional Structure


We once again received wonderful Nobel news today. We were delighted to learn that three long-time NIGMS grantees–Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath–will share the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry Link to external web site for their “studies of the structure and function of the ribosome.”

Remarkably, at the same 1987 “Evolution of Catalytic Function” Cold Spring Harbor meeting where I first met Carol Greider, I heard Ada Yonath describe her initial attempts to crystallize and determine the structure of the ribosome. Tom Steitz also spoke about his exciting structure determination of DNA polymerase I, and Peter Moore talked about his work on the ribosome using specific deuterium labeling and neutron scattering methods developed in part with Venki Ramakrishnan. The meeting was filled with the promise that we would one day visualize and begin to understand this elaborate RNA-protein machine in atomic detail. More than a decade later, that promise was realized, as recognized by today’s announcement.

The Nobel committee has the daunting challenge of limiting itself to up to three laureates for each prize. Several other long-time NIGMS grantees who also contributed greatly to our understanding of the structure and function of the ribosome include Peter Moore, Harry Noller and Joachim Frank.

Remembering Ruth Kirschstein


Ruth Kirschstein, M.D.We were all very sad to learn of the death of Ruth Kirschstein, M.D., last evening. She will be deeply missed here at NIGMS, NIH, and beyond.

Dr. Kirschstein was an iconic figure at NIH and in the scientific community. She was the long-time director of NIGMS, serving from 1974 to 1993, and was the first female director of an NIH institute. She also served as acting director of NIH, deputy director of NIH, and in other key positions.

Dr. Kirschstein truly represented the best of NIH—public service, wisdom, and deep knowledge and analysis of important problems. She was so profoundly modest that Congress had to surprise her when they acknowledged her contributions and commitment to research training with the naming of the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards.

I am sure much more will be said and written about her in the future, and we will share this with you in the comments section. I encourage you to post your own thoughts about her as well.