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.

Nobel Prize Brings More Attention to DNA Repair Research

We’re pleased that two long-time NIGMS grantees have been recognized with the 2015 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their studies of the repair processes that correct damage affecting base pairing or causing a distortion in the helical structure of DNA. This comes on the heels of the 2015 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, which was also given for discoveries concerning the DNA-damage response.

Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar, who will share the Nobel Prize with Tomas Lindahl, have received continuous support from us since 1975 and 1982, respectively. By asking questions about basic cellular processes, these scientists have provided a detailed understanding of some of the molecular repair mechanisms involved in health and disease.

Like any groundbreaking research, their studies have raised numerous other important questions. Some of these include: How do cells sense damaged DNA? How are the proteins that repair damaged regions cleared from the DNA after repairs are complete? How can we specifically undermine the DNA repair systems in cancerous cells so that those cells die?

For more details about the Nobel Prize-winning work, see our statement and links to additional material.

Lasker Award Recognizes Sustained Effort to Understand DNA-Damage Response

We congratulate our long-time grantee Steve Elledge of Brigham and Women’s Hospital on being recognized with the 2015 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award exit icon for “discoveries concerning the DNA-damage response—a fundamental mechanism that protects the genomes of all living organisms.” He shares the honor with Evelyn M. Witkin of Rutgers University.

For a quarter century, we’ve funded Elledge’s investigations of the molecular underpinnings of this fundamental biological process. While working with the yeast model system in the 1990s, his group showed that the Rad53 kinase plays an important role in coordinating DNA repair with progression through the cell cycle.

More recently, Elledge and his team have identified over 1,000 candidate proteins that may participate in the mammalian DNA-damage response. They are now seeking to uncover the precise functions of these proteins.

The Lasker Award is a fitting occasion to reflect on how far we’ve come in this field and the exciting opportunities that lie ahead.

Resource Spotlight: iBiology Videos

In this iBiology video, NIGMS Director Jon Lorsch gives an overview of the Institute and careers in scientific public service. He also answers questions from the scientific community during an iBiology Q&A session.

In this iBiology video, NIGMS Director Jon Lorsch gives an overview of the Institute and careers in scientific public service Exit icon. He also answers questions from the scientific community Exit icon during an iBiology Q&A session.

One of the research and training resources we help fund is iBiology Exit icon, a collection of high-quality, free online videos of scientists talking about their research, career paths and related topics. The project, which also receives support from the National Science Foundation and other organizations, produces material that is relevant to those at a range of educational and career levels, especially undergraduate students, graduate students and postdocs.

When Ron Vale started the iBiology project in 2006, his goal was to give people around the world broader access to research seminars. Since then, the scope has expanded. The collection now includes 350 videos that fall into three main categories:

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PRAT Program Marks 50th Year with Scientific Symposium

PRAT Symposium Speakers

Steven Paul, Weill Cornell

Jacqueline Crawley, UCSD

Richard Weinshilboum, Mayo Clinic

Katherine Roche, NIH

James Stevens, Eli Lilly

Jennifer Elisseeff, Johns Hopkins

Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, NIH

Elizabeth Grice, U Penn

Robert Ruffolo, Jr., Wyeth (retired)

Henry Bourne, USCF

In the years since the first cohort of postdoctoral fellows entered the NIGMS Pharmacology Research Associate (PRAT) program in 1965, the program’s alumni have become leaders in pharmacology, neuroscience, cell biology and related fields across multiple career sectors, including academia, government and industry. On November 6, we’ll mark the accomplishments of the more than 400 PRAT alumni in a full-day scientific symposium on the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD.

The symposium will feature presentations by 10 alumni spanning the duration of the program and is free and open to the public, although we encourage you to register to attend. If you can’t be there in person, you can watch the event live or later. If you have comments, anecdotes, historical data or photos from the PRAT program, please let us know by writing a note in the comments box on the meeting registration site or by sending me an e-mail message.

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