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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Sharing Our Passion for Science

NIGMS Director Dr. Jon R. Lorsch explains a protein letter computer activity to a young participant at the USA Science and Engineering FestivalA few weeks ago, 23 NIGMS volunteers and I spent an amazing day with thousands of highly engaged kids, their parents and other science enthusiasts of all ages at the Washington, DC, Convention Center. We were participating in the USA Science & Engineering Festival, the largest STEM event in the nation.

The NIGMS booth was a big hit! Our theme was Cell-e-bration of Science,
with activities that included spelling names with protein letters and a
“selfie station” with science-related props.Festival participants at the NIGMS selfie station holding science themed props in front of a colorful backdrop of a cell

Getting young people interested in science is essential to building a vibrant and innovative research enterprise. The Science & Engineering Festival, with more than 365,000 participants, gave us a chance to share our passion for science with thousands of young people. Hopefully, some of the kids we met are now thinking about careers as scientists.

NIGMS staff volunteer demonstrating how the protein letter computer activity worksI encourage you to share your own enthusiasm for science with young people whenever you have the opportunity. Whether you judge a science fair, speak at a career day or have students visit your lab, you put a human face on science and help students see it as an exciting, fulfilling and worthy career choice.