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Blog from January, 2012

One of my favorite parts of editing The NICHD Connection is watching a theme emerge. You’ll quickly find that the theme this month is how to write. Whether you want to learn how to write for a living, how to write a K99, or how to write a personal statement, you’ll find a little bit of everything in this issue. Plus, Nichole Swan gives you a step-by-step how-to guide for writing your very own wiki page, hosted by NICHD.

The timing of a writing-themed issue couldn’t be better. The Fellows Intramural Grant Supplement, crafted by Dr. Kevin Francis and the NICHD Fellows Committee, was recently approved, giving fellows who apply for a grant of more than $30,000 a nice $500 stipend boost—and even more if the grant is awarded. So grab a pen and paper—or maybe a mouse and keyboard—and get writing!

Your Editor in Chief,
Shana R. Spindler, PhD

Please send questions, comments, and ideas to

In honor of our writing-themed issue, The NICHD Connection contacted former NICHD Fellow Dr. Abby Robinson (formerly Vogel), now communications officer at Georgia Tech, to learn about her exciting career as a science writer:

What does a science writer do? What’s your typical day like?
As a science writer at an academic institution, I spend most of my time preparing news releases that describe research results published in scientific journals and promoting those discoveries to the media. Developing and maintaining relationships with technology, science, and business reporters and assisting faculty in preparing for media interviews are other key aspects of my job. I also write feature articles for our research magazine that is published three times per year and manage our office’s social media presence. On a typical day, I might do any one (or more likely, several) of these tasks. As a science writer, I love that every day and every story is completely different than the one before.

What motivated you to enter this career field?
I always loved talking to other researchers about what they were doing in the lab, but didn’t always enjoy digging deeper into my own research area. Science writing gives me the freedom to learn about cutting-edge research in many different areas without having to spend a decade in the lab to get the cool results.

Beginning with your time at NICHD, what sequence of opportunities led to your current position?
While I was a Ph.D. student in a lab in NICHD, I was selected to participate in the AAAS Science & Engineering Mass Media Fellowship program ( I spent the summer of 2005 as a science reporter at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Following the fellowship, I took five graduate-level journalism courses at the University of Maryland and freelanced as a science writer for NIH, George Washington University’s Medical Center, and Georgia Tech until I graduated in 2007. Then I joined Georgia Tech full-time as a communications officer in the Research News office, where I’ve worked for more than four years.

Please describe the application/hiring process to become a science writer. Did it take a long time?
The application/hiring process for science writers usually requires writing samples. Because I had published articles for newspaper, government and academic outlets, I submitted at least one clip (writing sample) from each type of publication to show the breadth of my writing. The hiring process is not lengthy as long as you have previously written and published articles for the public about science.

To gain science writing experience while you’re at NIH, volunteer to be a science writer for NIH publications, at a local museum, or for your professional society. If you’re still in school, volunteer to write for the school newspaper or university research news office.

What aspects of laboratory work will translate well into this career field?
The ability to read scientific journal articles is one of my best assets--and one I learned while in the lab. Knowing and understanding the research and publication processes are also helpful skills and having a graduate-level degree in a scientific field provides instant credibility for a science writer at an academic institution.

Are there any particular resources that might help those interested in becoming a science writer?
Join the National Association of Science Writers (NASW): While you’re in the D.C. area, you should also join the local NASW group: Even if you don’t join NASW, check out the advice NASW provides for beginning science writers on its website.

Buy A Field Guide to Science Writers book:

Check out the Knight Science Journalism Tracker:

Apply for a science writing fellowship:

Attend a science writing workshop:

Make science journalism your next degree: Offered at MIT, Johns Hopkins University, Boston University, UC Santa Cruz, NYU, Texas A&M, and Lehigh.

Do you have any additional advice for fellows (either graduate or postgraduate level) who are thinking about entering this career field?
If you don’t want to work in the lab forever, but like to write and want to be close to science and continue learning about new scientific discoveries every day, science writing might be a good career choice for you.

By Heather Dolan

For high achievers applying to medical school, the personal statement can be a much-dreaded component of the process. For many technically inclined people, the prospect of firing right-brain neurons to create a concise, standout explanation of one’s reasons for making this major life decision is, frankly, alarming. But fear not: as a postbac at the prestigious NIH, you are swimming in a sea of, shall I say, “health”-y resources. The following is a compendium on how to write a winning personal statement, drawing from the advice of two experts here at the NIH (Part I) as well as that of fellow postbacs (Part II). Hopefully after reading this, your inner Shakespeare will break out, giving you a head start on this important aspect of the application process!

Expert Advice:

Dr. William Higgins, OITE pre-professional advisor, and Brenda Hanning, NICHD DIR Deputy Director, Liaison and Training, are both well-read in personal statements. Below are some of their finest suggestions:

According to Higgins, “the personal statement should include what you want admissions people to know about you and what they want to know about you.” Seems simple, but all too often even NIH postbacs fail to meet these two requirements. One common problem is trying too hard to make the personal statement eye-catching, and therefore writing some pretty strange things. Another frequent mistake is the “dead grandma” story: admissions people are not interested in your emotional response to the death of a family member, nor are they going to take well to your criticisms of the inefficient healthcare system and plan to singlehandedly amend it.

That’s not to say that a pivotal moment in a person’s life that shapes their thinking about a medical career shouldn’t be told. Brenda often reminds people that, “Your story is unique, no one else has had precisely these life experiences or ideas.” That should speak for itself, and so there is no need to find dramatic adjectives or metaphors to enhance what is already special. Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be self-critical: Am I describing what I believe it takes to be a physician? Why do I want to be the doctor, rather than another key member of the health-care team? How have my mentors led me to the certainty that this is what I want for my professional career?

NICHD postbacs have benefited enormously from their time with mentors in NICHD laboratories and clinics. This experience helps postbacs shape their thinking, expand their knowledge of the basic underpinnings of human development, and reflect on the direction their lives will take. “I really believe that the year, sometimes two, that a postbac spends at NIH is transformational,” says Brenda, “and people emerge with a stronger sense of self and their goals.”

Higgins agrees that a personal statement should focus on why you want to become a physician. He urges applicants to give concrete examples. When discussing clinical experiences, focus on doctors, not only on patients. “Discuss the challenges you want to face,” says Higgins. Also keep in mind that you do not need a “wow factor.” If you don’t have a publication in Nature or international experience administering aide, your “wow factor” can be your outstanding record.

If you don’t have a convincing reason for why you want to be a doctor, Higgins believes you should wait to apply. In the meantime, he suggests getting more clinical experience. For example, he encourages applicants to volunteer in an emergency room. This experience will give you a bird’s-eye view of doctors carrying out their jobs and responding to crisis situations.

If there are weaknesses in your application, you need to address these, adds Higgins. In doing so, do not make up excuses or place blame. For example, if you did poorly on the MCAT, mention that you are retaking it and expect to do much better. Your statement theme can be your “journey”: describe several meaningful experiences and include weaknesses as stumbling blocks overcome along the way.

“Ultimately, your statement has to be honest,” says Brenda. “As you read and reread it, you have to feel that ‘Yes, this is who I am,’” When fellows get advice from so many sources—which is a good thing—the final test is whether what’s on the page rings true for that individual. When Brenda was at UCLA in Pediatrics, and reading hundreds of personal statements for residency each year, the memorable ones rose to the surface not because they were similar or followed a formula but because they were genuine.

Remember: a good personal statement requires months of preparation. In fact, it need not begin with writing, but rather with brainstorming. Take several minutes every day to jot down one or two thoughts relevant to your personal statement. Eventually, piece them together to form a loose outline, then bang out that dazzling personal statement. Some additional writing tips: don’t ramble, strive for subject-verb agreement, be confident in your verb usage, and, suggests Higgins, develop an aversion to the word passion. Good luck!

Next month: Part II - Personal statement advice from fellow postbacs!

By Nichole Swan

Have you ever wished that you could have a web presence at NICHD? Perhaps a place for you to post a CV or talk a little bit about your research? You’re in luck! Although some of you are familiar with it already, many fellows may be unaware that we host our own wiki, known as “Science@NICHD.” While some groups use it for their lab websites or to host documents (we use it to host The NICHD Connection), fellows can use the wiki to create their own personal spaces. For examples, you can look at the spaces of the members of NICHD’s Biovisualization Team: Jeremy, Melissa, Tim (a former member), and me.

Setting up your personal wiki can seem a little daunting and counter-intuitive, so I’m going to walk you through the process, step by step. Buckle up, here we go!

(click images to enlarge)

Go to and log in with your NIH username and password (there is a “Log in” link in the upper right).

Log in

From the drop-down menu in the upper right, choose “Create Personal Space.”

Create personal space

On the next screen, you can customize your permissions.  For now, I suggest “Registered users” for “View and comment,” and “Me” for “contribute.”

Choose permissions

Next, choose “Adaptavist Theme Builder” as your theme.

This is how your layout looks at first.  Kind of plain, right?  No problem!  Click on “Edit,” then “Administration,” then “Choose Layout.”

Choose layout

Scroll down until you find “DEFAULTUSER” and click on it.

Click on the “Save” button at the very bottom of the page.

Save button

Now it’s a bit of a mess.  Let’s start fixing it by clicking the link on the left that says “Navigation.”

Fixing Navigation

Click on the “Select a page template” link.

Select page template

From the options on the Page Template Wizard, choose “User Page Navigation” and click “Next.”

User page navigation template

The edit box will now be filled with content generated by the template. There are a few lines of instructions (shown highlighted in purple) that you should read and then delete from the page. Each bulleted item will be a separate link on the sidebar, so you can add and remove items as you like.  Links that go to existing pages will be blue; those whose corresponding pages haven’t yet been created are red. Once you’re satisfied, you can click the “save” button.

Edit content of navigation

Now let’s take care of that header.  Click on the red “Header” link at the top of the page.

Header link

From the dropdown menu, choose “Heading 1” and type in the text that you want to appear in the header.  As this is a personal space, this should include your name and maybe some other information, such as your title, laboratory name, or research interest.

There’s one more “missing” item to take care of: your avatar, which will be displayed on your user page above the search bar.

Missing icon

Go to “View,” then “Account,” and then click on “Preferences.”


On the “Profile” tab, click the “Picture” link.  You can either choose one of the default icons (such as the one shown that looks like Johnny Depp), or upload one of your own.  Make sure it’s a JPEG, PNG, or GIF.

Choose or upload icon

Crop your image and click “Save.”

Crop and save image


Icon success!

After you’re done, you can edit each page by going to “Edit” and then “Edit this page.” I’ll go into more detail about editing your wiki next month, but for now, feel free to explore!

Edit this page

In Part Two, we’ll take a look at the more advanced editing capabilities of the wiki, including Rich Text, wiki markup, and macros.  Part three will delve into really personalizing your wiki space with colors and custom graphics.  

The NIH Pathway to Independence Award, also known as the K99/R00, began in 2006 as a way for postdoctoral fellows to transition from a position of training to that of an independent investigator. Known to many simply as the K99, the award is one of the most prestigious funding opportunities available, for both domestic and international fellows.

For the lucky K99 recipients, the award provides funding for one to two years of postdoctoral training and three years of independent research as a principal investigator. Given this timeline, most fellows apply for the K99 early in their fourth year of postdoctoral research.

Like many other grants, pages upon pages of eligibility requirements and directions for submission accompany the K99 application. Rather than reiterate what can be found in those documents, this article aims to discuss some of the K99 issues that can only be learned through experience. To help you get started, two NICHD fellows who have applied for a K99, Dr. Kara Lukasiewicz and Dr. Yvette Pittman, share their words of wisdom about writing a K99 proposal:

Many fellows have never applied for a grant like the K99. How much time would you advise a fellow to put aside to work on the proposal and application?

KL: Based on my experience, I would encourage fellows to start at least 3 months ahead of time. This all depends on your progress in your research, your advisor's availability, and the availability of other colleagues. Another thing to remember is that the K99 must be read and approved by Dr. Stratakis, our Scientific Director, so ensure you have your grant to him at least 2 weeks before the submission deadline.

YP: 3-6 months depending on how much time is committed to grant writing daily. Decide on how much time you are going to write daily before starting. For example, for the first month, I committed 90 minutes a day to writing. Once I got over the initial writing phase, I subsequently increased my allotted writing time per day.

Sometimes the hardest part of writing can be getting started. Did you find it helpful to start with one particular part of the proposal?

KL: I found it helpful to start with the Specific Aims page. Getting my ideas down on paper really helped me to focus. I also highly recommend attending the Grant Writers Workshop and Seminar that Brenda holds for us each summer. The space is limited, but if you can get your Specific Aims page written in time, you can get an invaluable critique and advice from David Morrison, co-founder of Grant Writers' Seminars and Workshops, LLC.

YP: I would start with the hardest section, Specific Aims, and complement it with easier sections, such as the biographical sketch and candidate’s background.

The K99 straddles the transition between training and independent investigation, making the proposal unique compared to other grants. What differences between a K99 proposal and another grant proposal should fellows keep in mind?

KL: In my mind, the most unique aspect about the K99 grant application is the importance of the career development section. There are other grants that are considered "mentored" or "training" grants, but it really seems as though the K99 application gives high importance, if not equal importance, to both the career development and research plans.

YP: The importance of a well-thought-out career development plan is unique to the K99.

For fellows who have never applied for a K99, being able to anticipate challenges may make the process less overwhelming. What was the most challenging aspect of applying for the K99 for you?

KL: For me, the most challenging part of the K99 application was the amount of time needed to complete all the sections and have them reviewed and edited by my colleagues. There are many sections to the grant, so you really need to be careful to give ample time to write the sections and be able to have others read them over and comment on your content. I worked on the K99/R00 for about 6 weeks, but it was intense. At first I tried to still do experiments, but eventually, I had to dedicate all my efforts towards writing and editing my K99.

YP: I know that this sounds simple but getting started and overcoming writer's block. I would suggest creating a detailed writing timeline, which includes realistic deadlines for each section of the grant.

When tackling a K99 proposal, the more advice the better. What was the most important piece of advice your advisor gave you about writing a grant proposal?

KL: Often, when I write, I have great difficulty getting organized and getting my thoughts on paper. My advisor encouraged me to get things down on paper because she knew it was a hurdle for me. It eliminated a great deal of pressure to know that my writing didn't have to be perfect the first time around, and that we could edit it later. I know that seems obvious, but it was good to hear from my advisor.

YP: Write with clarity (reviewers of K99 are probably not familiar with your specialized research field). Also, give yourself enough time so it can be reviewed by several different researchers, particularly people that do not work in your field of interest.

Now that you’ve been through the process yourself, what advice would you give fellows applying for a K99?

KL: I would highly recommend starting more than 6 weeks before the deadline. Your mentors and other colleagues have so much going on that they cannot read and edit your grant in a day, they need to have plenty of time to do the job well. So, unless you love intense pressure, my advice would be to start early and get as much input as possible from as many people as possible.

YP: Give yourself enough time and find out every section that is required for submission before creating your writing timeline. This is so important but simple: read the instructions thoroughly several times. For example, every section has page limits, specific fonts required, and for the biographical sketch everything should be listed in chronological order staring with previous positions and concluding with the present.

Any other thoughts?

YP: I would advise fellows to go to grant writing seminars until they feel that what the seminars are saying is repetitive. The best source for submitting NIH grants is “The Grant Application Writer's Workbook,” which can be purchased at

The NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education offers two 4-week writing courses: Basic Science Writing and Writing and Publishing a Scientific Paper. Each class meets three hours once a week for one month.

The Basic Science Writing course is for those seeking a general improvement in their writing. Topics such as grammar, style, and the writing process are covered. The Writing and Publishing a Scientific Paper course is for trainees who have accumulated enough data to begin writing a manuscript. Participants will write a rough draft of a scientific paper, learn how to create figures and tables, discuss the abstract and cover letter, and learn about the publishing process, including why manuscripts might be accepted or rejected.

For both courses, attendees are expected to commit 8-10 hours per week of writing and editing outside the classroom. The class size is limited to 35 trainees, and each participant is expected to attend all four classes.

For more information and registration, please visit

NICHD Fellows Intramural Grant Supplement APPROVED!

Thanks to the NICHD leadership, the NICHD fellows committee, and the NICHD IC Basic Science Representative, Dr. Kevin Francis, NICHD fellows will have a little extra motivation when applying for research funding. Beginning January 1, 2012, basic or clinical fellows who apply for competitive funding in excess of $30,000 from either intramural or extramural sources will receive a one-time $500 stipend increase, limited to two applications per year. Yes, you read correctly: if you apply to two grants that meet all requirements, then you will receive a one-time $1000 stipend increase, just for applying! But wait, there’s more! Fellows whose applications are awarded will receive an additional $1000 stipend increase for the duration of the award. All applications must go through the Office of the Scientific Director to be eligible. For more information, please contact Kevin Francis at or Brenda Hanning at

Dr. Dylan Burnette Receives Merton Bernfield Memorial Award

Congratulations to Dr. Dylan Burnette, postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, for receiving the Merton Bernfield Memorial Award of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB). Dylan is the first intramural postdoc to receive the Merton Bernfield award. In honor of his achievement, Dylan gave a mini-symposium talk at the annual ASCB meeting on December 5, 2011, titled "Bleching/blinking assisted localization microscopy for super resolution imaging using standard fluorophores." To read more about Dylan’s research, his study can be found at

The SD’s Intramural Award Competition Winners Announced

Congratulations to all of the winners of the Scientific Director’s Intramural Award Competition! A group of senior advisers, with approval from Scientific Director Dr. Constantine Stratakis, organized the review of an impressive 31 submissions, from which nine were selected for award.

Presenting the team leads with their collaborators and the titles of their winning submissions:

  • Peter Basser, with Carlo Pierpaoli and Amir Gandjbakhche: Development of Ultra-Low Field (ULF) MRA Scanners
  • Ajay Chitnis: Analysis of Follower cell behavior in the zebrafish lateral line primordium
  • David Clark, with Bruce Howard and Alan Hinnebusch: Elucidate genome-wide mechanisms of nucleosome eviction from promoters during activation of RNA Polymerase II genes
  • Bob Crouch, with Roger Woodgate and Keiko Ozato: Relationship between RNA in DNA and genome integrity: causes and effects
  • Dax Hoffman, with Juan Bonifacino: Investigation of subcellular trafficking of Kv4.2 and DPP6
  • Bruce Howard, with Alan DeCherney: Identifying epigenomic mechanisms in human ovarian aging
  • Chi-Hon Lee, with Mark Stopfer and Thomas Pohida: Integration of Chromatic Information in the Higher Visual Center of Drosophila
  • Matthias Machner: Development of a Human Protein Array for Interactome Analysis
  • Leonid Margolis, with Roberto Romero: Immunobiology of the Uterine Cervix and Its Role in the Prevention of Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Spontaneous Midtrimester Abortion, and Preterm Birth.

Call for Applications for the Intramural AIDS Research Fellowships

A major mission of the NIH Intramural Research Program and the Office of AIDS Research (OAR), in the Office of the Director, is to train the next generation of researchers to continue the battle to halt the AIDS pandemic. To expand our efforts to build this workforce, the Office of AIDS Research, the Office of Intramural Research, and the Office of Intramural Research & Training will provide competitive fellowships to encourage the recruitment of new researchers from other scientific disciplines to the broad field of AIDS research. Postdoctoral trainees in the NIH Intramural Research Program and graduate students in the NIH Graduate Partnerships Program, both U.S. citizens and students from abroad, whose work is directly applicable to HIV/AIDS research, will be eligible for support.

For more information about application materials, please contact Brenda Hanning at

Call for Applications for the 2012-2013 Chateaubriand Fellowship Science Program

To develop scientific cooperation between France and the United States, this program is intended for American scientists at the doctorate level, wishing to conduct research in a French laboratory. The research would last for a 4 to 10 month period, initiating or reinforcing collaborations, partnerships or joint projects by encouraging exchange. All disciplines in Sciences, Technology, and Health are eligible, and knowledge of French is not mandatory. The due date for these proposals is February 1, 2012.
For more information, and how to apply please consult the website at

A Call for Projects with the Partner University Fund (PUF)

The Embassy of France to the US and the FACE Foundation are accepting proposals for the PUF, to promote innovative collaborations in research and education between French and American institutions, in all fields of study. Projects must be jointly submitted; French and American. These proposals, eligible for substantial funding, will be due February 6, 2012.

Engineering Experience Wanted

Attention all engineers working in the NICHD: Whether you are a postbac, postdoc, or PI, if you have some sort of engineering background (at the undergraduate or graduate level), and would be interested in being interviewed for an upcoming NICHD Connection article, please contact Heather Dolan at Heather is writing an article that will explore the unique perspectives of engineers at the NIH who are performing biomedical research.

Do You Have an Announcement?

Have you recently received an award? Have your labmates been honored for their achievements? Do you have a fun photo you’d like to share with the NICHD Fellows community? Please send your announcements to for inclusion in The NICHD Connection!


Career Paths in Industry
Pat Phelps, PhD, Deputy Director, GPP
Natcher, Balcony B
Register at


K99/R00 Grants Seminar
Sharon Milgram, PhD, Director, OITE
Building 50, Room 1227
Register at
Note: NICHD’s annual grants workshop, in partnership with NIDCR and NHGRI, will take place on July 11, 2012, this year.