NIH Statement: Changing the Culture of Science to End Sexual Harassment

Last week, NIH Director Francis S. Collins issued a statement about the pervasive problem of sexual harassment in science and reaffirmed NIH’s commitment to address it. He noted that NIH is working to bolster its policies and practices to foster a culture of respect wherever NIH research activities are conducted, and to ensure that sexual harassment is not tolerated or ignored.

NIH has launched a new website on anti-sexual harassment activities. I encourage you to explore the site and become familiar with NIH’s policies, practices, and initiatives.

Consistent with NIGMS’ strong commitment to research training, the Institute recently announced that applications for our predoctoral T32 training programs must include in their required institutional support letters information about the institution’s policies and procedures to prevent discriminatory harassment and respond appropriately to allegations or findings of discriminatory harassment. Moving forward, NIGMS will require this information in institutional support letters for applications for all of our training programs.

Lasker Awards Honor Three NIGMS Grantees

We are delighted that three long-time NIGMS grantees have been recognized by the 2018 Lasker Awards Link to external web site. The awards highlight fundamental biological discoveries to draw attention to the importance of public support of science.

  • Michael Grunstein of the University of California, Los Angeles, and C. David Allis of Rockefeller University, received the 2018 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for “discoveries elucidating how gene expression is influenced by chemical modifications of histones—the proteins that package DNA within chromosomes.” NIGMS funded Grunstein’s work on the establishment and spreading of silent chromatin from 1977 to 2012. His research led to the generation of the first histone mutations in yeast and the first demonstration that chemical modification of specific ends of histones could turn gene expression on or off. Allis identified and characterized enzymes that add, remove, and read histone modifications. His work led to the hypothesis of a histone code that, when mis-read, can lead to disease. NIGMS has funded Allis since 1988.
  • Joan Argetsinger Steitz of Yale University received the 2018 Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science for “four decades of leadership in biomedical science—exemplified by pioneering discoveries in RNA biology, generous mentorship of budding scientists, and vigorous and passionate support of women in science.” Steitz’s pioneering research helped reveal the function of small pieces of RNA that are not used for making proteins. These molecules, including small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs), help regulate gene activity. In doing so, they—like histone modifications—have a major impact on health and disease. NIGMS funded her research from 1975 to 2014. The Lasker-Koshland Award further recognizes Steitz’s long record of mentoring the next generation of scientific leaders and her effective and tireless work as an advocate for women in science.

We congratulate all of the recipients on these well-deserved honors.

NIGMS Grantees Receive Top U.S. Mentoring Award

I’m pleased to congratulate six members of the NIGMS community who are among the recipients of the 2018 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring Link to external web site. They include:

The award recognizes outstanding mentors whose efforts encourage the next generation of innovators and help to develop a science and engineering workforce that reflects the diverse talent of our nation, key goals of a number of programs here at NIGMS.

Awardees received a Presidential certificate and a $10,000 grant to continue their mentoring activities at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., last month. Please join me in congratulating all winners of this prestigious honor.

Early-Career Speaker Describes Genomic Antics of Ancient Vertebrate, Answers Questions from Undergrads

The videocast from our April 17 Early-Career Investigator Lecture with Jeramiah Smith is now available. Jeramiah, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky, gives a fascinating talk about his genomic research with sea lampreys. He then offers advice for students interested in biomedical research careers. I encourage you to take a look and share the video with students and postdocs in your labs and departments.

We launched this annual lecture series three years ago both to highlight the achievements of our early-career grantees, and to encourage undergraduates and other students to pursue careers in biomedical research. This year, a group of nearly 30 students from the ASCEND programLink to external web site at Morgan State University attended in person (and asked some outstanding questions!).

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Four NIGMS Grantees Recognized With 2017 Nobel Prizes

I’m delighted to congratulate four members of the NIGMS community who became Nobel laureates this week. Early this morning, the Nobel Academy announced Joachim Frank, Ph.D., of Columbia University as one of today’s winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry for the development of cryo-electron microscopy, which simplifies and improves the imaging of biomolecules. On Monday, the Academy recognized current and former NIGMS grantees Jeffrey C. Hall, Ph.D., of the University of Maine; Michael Rosbash, Ph.D., of Brandeis University; and Michael W. Young, Ph.D., of Rockefeller University, with the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm.

Our Institute has a strong track record of funding scientists who receive Nobel Prizes. Since its creation in 1962, NIGMS has supported the work of 87 Nobel laureates—43 in physiology or medicine and 44 in chemistry. These investigators perform cutting-edge basic research in many different organisms and experimental systems that is the foundation for understanding normal life processes and disease.

The importance of investigator-initiated basic biomedical research, the NIGMS bedrock, was summed up brilliantly during this morning’s Nobel Prize announcement Exit icon. In response to a reporter asking why most of this week’s Nobel laureates are from the United States, Professor Göran K. Hansson, Secretary General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, stated:

The United States has … allowed scientists to perform fundamental research to focus on important questions in science; not forcing them to immediate applications, not controlling them in a political way; and that freedom combined with very good resources have been very helpful to the United States.

Dr. Hansson noted that the United States is not alone in its philosophy, also recognizing the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, United Kingdom, and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, for providing resources for basic, foundational science “that have turned out to pay off in practical applications later on. …”

To learn more about NIGMS Nobel laureates, see our fact sheet; also see our resources on circadian rhythms and cryo-EM.

Once again, congratulations to Drs. Frank, Hall, Rosbash, and Young on their exceptional recognition. These are also great wins for basic, foundational biomedical research.

Early Career Scientist Shares Her Passion for Basic Research, Mentoring and More

I recently sat down with NIGMS-funded early career scientist Namandjé Bumpus to talk about her research and career path. Questions came from undergraduates across the country, including Thorne Varier in the Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity program at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. I invite you to watch the archived videocast and share it with students and postdocs in your labs and departments.

The Q&A was part of the Second Annual Early Investigator Lecture for Undergraduate Students. We launched the lecture series last year to highlight the achievements of our early career grantees and encourage students to pursue biomedical research careers.

Namandjé, an associate professor in the department of medicine, division of clinical pharmacology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, started with a scientific presentation that walked us through her research investigating the mechanisms involved in HIV drug activation and metabolism. She also described an exciting new project that involves genotyping people to identify genetic variations that may also influence these processes. Then, during our conversation, she talked about when she knew she wanted to be a scientist (a professional society played a major role), how mentors have supported her along the way, what she would have done differently and why basic research is so important for medical advances. Some other highlights from the lecture are on Twitter (#ecilecture).

Much of what Namandjé shared relates to scientists at any career stage. I hope you and your trainees find the lecture as inspiring as I did.

Namandjé Bumpus on ECI 2017 lecture

During the 2017 NIGMS Director’s Early Career Investigator Lecture, Namandjé Bumpus discussed her research on drug metabolism (left), answered questions about her career path (middle) and met with undergraduate students (right).
Credit: Christa Reynolds and Emily Carlson, NIGMS.

Second Annual Early Career Investigator Lecture for Undergraduate Students

NIGMS' Early Career Investigator Lecture with speaker Namandjé N. Bumpus, Ph.D.

Last year, we launched the NIGMS Director’s Early Career Investigator Lecture series. Open to everyone in the scientific community, the lectures are directed at undergraduate students to introduce them to cutting-edge science while inspiring them to pursue biomedical research careers. The series also highlights the achievements of some of NIGMS’ early career grantees.

I’m excited to share that the 2017 lecture will be presented by Namandjé Bumpus, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine-division of clinical pharmacology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Namandjé is an NIGMS-funded recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Her lecture, “Drug Metabolism, Pharmacogenetics and the Quest to Personalize HIV Treatment and Prevention,” will take place on the NIH campus on Wednesday, April 5, from 2:00-3:00 p.m. EDT. It will be videocast and archived on the NIH videocasting site.

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Transfer of Science Education Partnership Awards to NIGMS

I’m pleased to announce that NIGMS is the new home for the Science Education Partnership Awards (SEPA). These awards, which were transferred from NIH’s Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives, support research and educational activities that complement other workforce diversity and training programs within NIH mission areas. The change will allow the SEPA program to be better integrated with other NIGMS capacity-building and research training programs and will increase opportunities for synergies between them.

The SEPA program promotes partnerships between biomedical and clinical researchers and pre-kindergarten to grade 12 teachers and schools, museums and science centers, and other educational organizations. In addition, the program provides students from underserved communities with opportunities to learn about research careers; supplies teachers with professional development in science content and teaching skills; and improves community health and science literacy through its science centers and museum exhibits.

SEPA will be housed in our Center for Research Capacity Building (CRCB), which supports research, research training, faculty development and research infrastructure improvements in states that historically have not received significant levels of research funding from NIH. It also supports faculty research development at institutions that have a historical mission focused on serving students from underrepresented groups.

We do not plan to alter the mission or goals of SEPA as a result of the transfer, and the program will continue to be administered by Tony Beck, who has served as its program director since 2001.

If you have any questions about the transfer, please contact Tony Beck or Fred Taylor, acting director of CRCB.

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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Moving Further Afield

In recent talks for iBiology Exit icon  and TEDx Exit icon, NIGMS grantee Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado proposes that because so much of biomedical research focuses on only a handful of model organisms we are limiting our knowledge of biology. He suggests that many important discoveries lie waiting in species that have not yet been the subjects of sufficient investigation. This is a topic of interest to us as well; in fact, Dorit Zuk, director of our Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology, is currently leading an internal working group that’s examining the varied landscape of organisms studied by NIGMS grantees and the new scientific questions that could be answered using a diversity of organisms. We’ll be discussing these topics in future posts.

In addition to the number of organisms we study, other aspects of the biomedical research system may be limiting the breadth of our knowledge. For example, does the expectation that junior faculty work on a problem closely related to their postdoctoral research constrain our explorations to “islands” of study, leaving vast areas under- or unexplored?

The forces keeping biomedical junior faculty within their postdoctoral research areas include the expectations of faculty search committees, grant review panels and funding agencies, as well as the promotion policies of academic institutions. Interestingly, in the chemical sciences, junior faculty are usually expected to develop projects that are distinct from their postdoctoral work, which often involves moving into completely new areas of study. Why the sociology of chemistry evolved so differently in this regard from other fields related to biomedical research is an interesting question.

Should the biomedical research enterprise change its expectations to empower junior researchers to move further away from their postdoctoral work when they start their independent research careers? Would this accelerate the pace of discovery? New programs such as the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Awards (MIRA) for Early Stage Investigators give us an opportunity to revise our expectations for researchers at the beginning of their independent careers. Would this be desirable? What might we look for in assessing outcomes? If we, as funders, successfully made such a change in expectations, would the rest of the research ecosystem make parallel changes to support efforts by junior scientists to leave their home “islands” and move into new territory?

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on these questions.