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Blog from February, 2012

Some of the more recent NICHD trainees are making big strides. Graduate students Madhav Sukumaran and Mark Ziats received the 2012 NIH Graduate Student Research Award (NGSRA) at the 8th Graduate Student Research Symposium on January 11, 2012. Both Madhav and Mark joined the NICHD as students at Cambridge University through the NIH Graduate Partnership Program. In honor of their achievements, The NICHD Connection invited them to discuss their studies:

Madhav Sukumaran
Madhav Sukumaran, under the guidance of Dr. Chris J. McBain (NICHD) and Dr. Ingo H. Greger (Cambridge University), studies AMPA receptor assembly and dynamics at the atomic level.

Neurons communicate at junctions, called synapses, where chemical messages bind to specialized receptor proteins on the receiving neuron’s membrane, initiating an electrical response. One receptor subtype (the AMPA-type glutamate receptor) is responsible for fast, point-to-point communication between neurons. Using high-resolution biophysical, electrophysiological, and crystallographic assays, we investigated the role of the AMPA receptor N-terminal domain (NTD), a section of the protein that was previously implicated in receptor assembly. We showed that the NTD plays an organizing role in the initial assembly steps and identified which NTD components controlled the assembly process. Not all AMPA receptor assemblies are created equal, so we explored the physiological and pathological conditions that create favorable and unfavorable receptor populations. Our investigations of the NTD molecular architecture revealed that the N-terminal domain might be more dynamic than previously thought. We also found that the N-terminal domain may have an additional role in the neuron: directly regulating receptor electrical function through potentially novel mechanisms.



Mark Ziats
Mark Ziats, under the guidance of Dr. Owen Rennert (NICHD) and Dr. Azim Surani (Cambridge University), studies long non-coding RNAs in the autistic brain.

Autism is known to be highly genetic, but the heritability is complex and the underlying molecular mechanism(s) remain unknown. To date, genetics studies in autism have focused on regions of DNA that make protein—but this represents less than 5% of the genome. We looked at differences in the expression of RNAs from regions of the genome that do not make protein (termed long non-coding RNAs or lncRNAs), because they are known to be involved in many fundamental genome regulatory processes. By assessing post-mortem brain tissue from autism patients versus normal controls, we discovered over 200 lncRNAs differentially expressed in autism and showed these are highly enriched for regions nearby genes involved in processes that are aberrant in autism. Additionally, when we compared lncRNA expression within two regions of the brain from a single individual, we discovered that the expression of lncRNAs is less complex within autism brains as compared to controls. This had previously been reported for mRNAs, and our results extend these findings to suggest that less complex transcriptional regulation in general may be a molecular mechanism underlying autism. We are currently following up this work by studying the network-biology effect of a subset of these lncRNAs in neuronal cultures.

If you didn’t get a chance to read last month’s issue, visit and download it from the archives, because this month we have Part II for both “How to Wiki,” by Nichole Swan, and “How to Write a Personal Statement that Pops,” by Heather Dolan.

The remainder of this issue is devoted to great announcements. Congratulations are in order for Madhav Sukumaran and Mark Ziats, the NICHD recipients of the NIH Graduate Student Research Awards. You will find their research summaries here. In addition, I am very excited to announce that the NICHD Annual Retreat Steering Committee has released the keynote speaker line-up for the 8th Annual Fellows Retreat in May. Curious who the speakers will be? Find out here! You will not be disappointed.

The NICHD Connection is a fun way to share your personal announcements too. If you have a photograph of something fun, exciting, or interesting, please send it to for inclusion in our “Life Outside Lab” column.

Your Editor in Chief,
Shana R. Spindler, PhD

By Nichole Swan

While we don’t want to be the wiki police, it’s important that we remind our users to refrain from posting patient data or other personally identifiable information. Also, as this is a professional, government setting (even on the web), we discourage uploading personal images, such as pictures of your children.

Hello again! Last month I showed you how to set up your wiki space, so if you missed out on that, please go back and check it out! In this installment of “How to Wiki,” I’m going to give you an overview of some of the cool advanced capabilities of the wiki.

To begin editing your wiki, either go to a page you’ve already created or create a new one, then click on “Edit” and then “Edit this page.”

(Click on images to enlarge.)

By default, you will be in “Rich Text” mode. Many of the buttons will hopefully be familiar to you from other programs such as Word, or any rich text email program.

Rich text markup buttons

There are a few differences, though: for example, the “Insert” dropdown menu. I won’t go over all of these; let’s just focus on macros.

Macros are little snippets of text inside of {curly brackets} that generate something more complex--kind of like shortcuts.

There are two buttons that bring up the Macro Browser; one is in the “Insert” dropdown menu, and the other is in the main row of buttons.  Just look for the “magic scroll” icon!

Locations of macro buttons

You can also bring up macros by typing in Rich Text mode. Just start with a curly bracket ({) and macro suggestions will automatically pop up.
To give you an example of how macros work, let’s try the {cheese} macro. When we save the page, the macro gives us...


I like cheese!

But let’s try something you’re more likely to use. ¿ The {gallery} macro is perfect for displaying images, such as those you’ve created or generated in your research.

You can find it in the Macro Browser, or you can select “Gallery” from the “Insert” dropdown menu. First we’ll need to attach some images to display.

Don’t worry about saving the page for now; go back up to the Edit menu and select “Attachments.”

Attaching files to the wiki is just like attaching them to an email. You have the option of adding a comment for each file, which will act as an image’s caption when displayed with the {gallery} macro.

You can also attach multiple files at once, up to 25. Choose a few images and click the “Attach” button at the bottom when you’re done.

Adding attachments

Going back to edit our page (“Edit” → “Edit this page”), you can now pick the {gallery} macro out of the Macro Browser again.

The browser gives you a preview as well as all of the options for the macro. I’ve chosen to sort them by file name, and I’ve also given my gallery a title.

When you’re finished, click “Insert.”

Gallery macro options

In Rich Text mode, your macro will look like this:

Macro text

Save your page. Now you have a nice little gallery to display your images!  Click on each image to expand it.

Gallery macro result

I can also display my attachments using the {attachments} macro. This is useful when you have files other than images that you want to post to your wiki, such as PDFs and Word documents.

Create a new page (such as “Publications”--if you have it listed in your sidebar, you can just click the link and save it as a blank page).

Like we did before, go to the “Edit” menu and click on “Attachments.” Upload a few PDFs or Word document, and return to editing the page (“Edit” → “Edit this page”).

In the Macros Browser, search for “attachments.” Configure it the way you want it, click “Insert,” and save the page. The macro has generated a list with information about all of your files.

Attachments macro options

Et voila!

Attachments macro result

These are just a few of the many macros you’ll find on the wiki. Now that you have an idea of how they work, feel free to play around and experiment with them.

You may have noticed a tab at the top, above the Rich Text button, labeled “Wiki Markup.” This is a text-only way of creating page content. It might look daunting, but it’s actually quite simple. We’ve provided a cheat sheet in the right side bar, if you’re feeling adventurous and would like to give it a try. While editing a page, just click on the little black arrow on the right, which will expand the sidebar.

When not editing the page, the right sidebar will display links to helpful pages such as the site map, attachments index, and user preferences.

You can click the little black arrow again to hide the sidebar.

Black arrow which expands the sidebar    Help tips

Lastly, it’s important to keep your pages organized. By clicking on the aforementioned “site map” link in the right sidebar (or by going to “View,” then “Other pages,” then “Site map”), you can easily rearrange the hierarchy of your wiki pages by dragging and dropping. I recommend keeping all of your content nested under “Home,” and your “Navigation” and “Header” pages outside of the hierarchy altogether.

Site map

Managing page history Don’t be nervous! The wiki saves a version history of your pages (and attachments), so any mistakes are completely reversible. You can access a particular page’s history by going to “View,” then “This page,” then “Page information.” Once there, you can click on the “View Page History” link to the right of the page.

More Macro Resources:

Please note that not all macros listed on these pages are installed on our wiki. If there’s a macro we don’t have that you would like us to implement, please let Jeremy ( or me ( know, and we’ll see what we can do.

By NIH postbacs, Compiled by Heather Dolan

Personal statements are a critical component to any medical or academic application. In the personal statement, the applicant has the opportunity to present those aspects of him or herself that cannot be found in a CV, test score, or academic transcript. But how does one craft a perfect personal statement that captures the applicant’s strengths and desires without sounding fake or inflated? In the January issue of The NICHD Connection, professional advisors offered tips about writing a winning personal statement. This month, fellow postbacs present extra advice based on their personal experiences. They discuss pre-writing ideas, the writing process, personal statement content, and editing.

The Pre-writing process

“Think about why you want to go to medical school based on what you enjoy about each of your research or clinical experiences. Then, think about what you learned from each one and how you could use that knowledge and experience to be a better medical student and eventually physician. Do all of this over the span of months so you have time to really reflect rather than trying to develop a half-baked idea that hasn't had time to fully develop.”

“Decide if you are going to be heartfelt or humorous: this will determine the tone for the rest of the statement.”

“If you're shy or abhor self-promotion, ask family, friends, and acquaintances how they would describe you (and don't take it personally).”

The Writing Process

“Write a core statement first. Then, get feedback from mentors and others before proceeding to write the actual personal statement.”

“If you are having trouble adding to the statement, an English class TA told me this equation: ICE - introduce, cite, and explain.”

“Be cohesive! Don't write individual paragraphs about things you've done and then stack them on top of each other. Although you talk about different experiences, the statement needs to be one coherent story that ties everything back to you!”

Personal Statement Content

“Don't miss the point: you are trying to tell them why you want to go to med school. If you feel like that point is getting lost in your story, stop and refocus. It’s not the worst thing to write: I want to go to medical school because. . . .”

“Don't restate anything that the admissions people can find elsewhere in your application - you are wasting valuable space! Instead, APPLY what you have done - talk about how it spurred your interest in what you want to learn next, your future career goals, and so on.”

“Focus on only a few research or volunteer experiences and describe your personal contribution. Instead of listing your duties, write about specific events. It makes a more compelling personal statement to write about a few things you are enthusiastic about, rather than to create a laundry list of all the volunteer, research, and clinical experiences you have had.”

“You may not be a very exciting person, have any life-transforming experiences, or have gone through any extreme personal challenges. In short, you’re a pretty typical candidate. To make your statement more than ‘I like science and I like helping people,’ write about your experiences. Why do you want to be a doctor? Nobody is born with such impulses, so where do they come from? What have you done to learn about the medical profession? What do you like about the profession? Once you get a list of answers to these questions, you can start assembling and tying them together. Although no one part is particularly standout, when they are strung together they paint a picture of you that is personal and accurate.”

The Editing Process

“Have many people read your personal statement. You don't necessarily have to incorporate all the changes suggested by readers, but having input from a variety of people can be helpful in shaping your personal statement.“

“NIH-ers tend to throw around a lot of acronyms, so have someone not affiliated with NIH read your statement and tell you if it is comprehensible.”

“Don't worry too much about the character limit at first. The best way to have a well-written essay is to edit extensively. My essay started at almost twice the character limit. By continuously editing and cutting things out my writing was better and my essay didn't have any of the fluff that I unconsciously put in initially.”

By Shana R. Spindler, PhD

In just a few months, we will be sitting in the beautiful Airlie Conference Center (subject to official review, in process at time of writing) anxiously awaiting the insightful words of the 8th Annual NICHD Fellows Retreat keynote speakers. We will have the honor of hearing from the renowned Director of the Whitehead Institute, Dr. David Page, and the always-entertaining scientist and writer, Dr. John Bohannon. To whet your appetite, here’s a little information about our esteemed guests:

David Page, MD (

If you are a male, Dr. David Page may know more about your Y chromosome than anyone else in the world. And don’t worry ladies; Page’s investigations haven’t ignored the X chromosome. In fact, he was the first person to discover that the sex chromosomes are evolutionary products of what were once two autosomes. Page has studied the Y chromosome for nearly his entire medical career. As a young college graduate with the “research bug,” Page joined the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology M.D. program, which allowed him to do research while receiving his medical degree. Through the program, he discovered not only his love for medicine, but also his attraction to laboratory experiments and his fascination with the mysteries of DNA, which would set the stage for the rest of his scientific career. Page is currently the Director of the Whitehead Institute, Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. But perhaps he is best known as the leading expert on Y chromosome sequence, gene composition, evolution, recombinant potential, and relation to disease and infertility.

John Bohannon, PhD (

In that fantastic place where science meets art and culture, you will find Dr. John Bohannon, otherwise known as the Gonzo Scientist. Bohannon is the creator of Dance Your Ph.D. Contest, co-writer of Green Porno, and mastermind behind the Science Hall of Fame. Bohannon began his adventures in science with his doctoral degree in molecular biology, which on his website he claims is a result of following a girl to Oxford. Bohannon then studied bioethics in Berlin as a Fulbright scholar. He has subsequently become a visiting researcher at Harvard University, where he examines the ethical facets of science and public health policy. After embedding with military forces in Afghanistan, Bohannon organized the first release of civilian casualty data by the military and the United Nations. Throughout Bohannon’s journeys, he has served as a correspondent for Science magazine. There he maintains, among other writings, the Gonzo Scientist, a column that explores—and actively experiments with—the intersection between science and culture. To watch Bohannon use the arts to portray a complex problem, check out his latest TEDxBrussels talk.

Don’t miss your chance to meet Dr. Page and Dr. Bohannon! Mark your calendars now for the NICHD annual fellows retreat on May 7 and 8, 2012!

Congratulations to NICHD Staff Award Recipients

Congratulations to the following individuals for their recognition at the 2012 NICHD Staff Awards Ceremony held on January 18, 2012. Staff members with their respective awards:

  • Drs. Chris McBain and Meg Keil, National Institutes of Health Awards of Merit
  • Drs. Mark Stopfer and Tamas Balla, NICHD Mentor Awards
  • Dr. Alicia Armstrong, NICHD Collaboration Award
  • Administrator Becky Preston, NICHD Mentor Award
  • Administrators Ann Fox and Valerie Leftwood, Group NICHD Mentor Award

Save the Date! 8th Annual Fellows Retreat May 7 & 8, 2012.

The 8th Annual Meeting of NICHD Postdoctoral, Clinical, and Visiting Fellows and Graduate Students will be held May 7-8, 2012. This is a not-to-be-missed event, so please be sure to mark your calendars! For a sneak peak at the key speaker line-up, please see the article in this issue. For more information, contact Brenda Hanning at

Calling All Fellows of NICHDIt's Image Competition Time!

The 8th Annual NICHD Fellows Retreat will be held in May 2012, and we would like one of you lovely people to supply us with an image that represents some of the work done by us here at NICHD.

Do you have an image of your science that you would like us to use as the image for this year's retreat? The winning image, chosen by the Retreat Steering Committee, will be showcased on the retreat website, on posters, and used as the front cover of the event program.

All submissions that we receive will be used to produce a gallery of our varied imaging talents on the retreat website, so even if yours isn't chosen as the main image, your work will be displayed. Have a look at last year's submissions here ( and if you think that you have something interesting, then send it over (at the highest possible resolution) to Nicki Swan (

The deadline for submissions is February 13th. Best of luck!

Congratulations to NICHD NGSRA winners!

Congratulations to Madhav Sukumaran and Mark Ziats, recipients of the 2012 NIH Graduate Student Research Awards (NGSRAs). Great job to all Graduate Student Research Symposium participants on your posters! Please see the article for Madhav’s and Mark’s research summaries.

Dr. Gisela Storz Receives GPP Outstanding Mentor Award

Congratulations to Dr. Gisela Storz on her receipt of the Graduate Partnership Program Outstanding Mentor Award, presented at the 2012 NIH Graduate Student Research Symposium on January 11, 2012. Dr. Storz’s mentees, Maureen Thomason and Xuefeng Yin, nominated her for the honor.


NICHD Fellows Committee Meeting
1st floor CRC atrium
Come one, come all!