Blog from January, 2021

Scientific progress benefits from having multiple ways to think about a problem. The way a person thinks stems from societal experiences in life—a cognitive model. Right now, in science, there isn’t an equal representation of cognitive models. Some groups are underrepresented within study populations and also amongst researchers. This absence limits the opportunities and directions for scientific progress. Over the next two months, we will highlight the efforts of underrepresented groups in science—not only at the bench, but in the clinical space too.

In medicine, when populations are underrepresented in studies and clinical trials, we hamper data collection for the population at large. This leads to unequal health outcomes. For our feature article this month, postbac Esther Kwarteng writes about the recently published FDA course of action for enhancing diversity in clinical trial populations.

Next month, we will continue with additional articles in support of underrepresented groups in science.

The rest of this issue includes information about giving virtual scientific talks—a much needed skill during this time—and an introduction to our new Institutes and Centers (IC) representative, Dr. Lauren Walling. In addition, many new announcements and events can be found within!

Your Editor in Chief,
Shana R. Spindler, PhD

Please send questions and comments to our editor at shana.spindler@nih.gov.

Clinical Corner logoThe primary purpose of clinical trials is to determine the safety and efficacy of medical treatments in the human body. The manifestation of disease, its progression, and the character of treatment may all present uniquely in subsets of the population, including those based on age, gender, racial and ethnic groups, lifestyle, and environment. Group underrepresentation in clinical trials can therefore result in the development of treatments that influence health disparities and inequalities across the United States.

In November 2020, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a course of action outlining the various methods of enhancing diversity in clinical trial populations, by means of altering eligibility criteria, enrollment practices, and trial designs. The FDA recommends establishing eligibility criteria that encompass the population(s) for which the drug is designed, resulting in a representative sample. To broaden enrollment practices, the FDA suggests enrollment of participants who reflect clinically relevant populations, including but not limited to women, children and adolescents, older adult populations, and racial and ethnic minorities. Additionally, the FDA endorses the adaptation of practices to augment inclusiveness—such as working directly with communities to address their needs, implementing electronic communication, using mobile medical professionals, and promoting representation across all subgroups.1

With the application of the FDA guidelines, stronger efforts can be made to combat not only the matter in question, but the larger predicament at hand—health disparities. Recognizing the inequality deeply rooted in this underrepresentation is important for the progression and potency of clinical trials for all people. Overcoming this impediment is a step toward health equity, essential to the advancement of medicine.

  1. Clark LT, Watkins L, Piña IL, Elmer M, Akinboboye O, Gorham M, Jamerson B, McCullough C, Pierre C, Polis AB, Puckrein G, Regnante JM. (2019). “Increasing diversity in clinical trials: overcoming critical barriers.” Current Problems in Cardiology, 44(5):148-172.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made in-person gatherings prohibitive for the past few months, and, even with vaccines available, will continue to prevent people from gathering for at least several more months. Because of this, we should be prepared to talk about our science (presentations, interviews, meetings, etc.) in a virtual setting—something that Mr. Scott Morgan, science communication consultant and director of The Scott Morgan Group, knows a lot about. 

A frequent presenter at NICHD, Mr. Morgan offered a workshop entitled “Speaking (Virtually) About Science,” on December 2, 2020. He began by reviewing relevant tips for virtual interviewing, including employing side and front lighting, having a professional background, being enthusiastic, wearing bright colors, and using a “speakerphone voice.” Repetition, summaries, lighting, and enthusiasm are especially important in a virtual setting. 

Mr. Morgan next stressed that—apart from unintended outbursts from unmuted participants—you will probably get very little feedback from a virtual audience (some might even have their cameras off). It is important for you to bring even more personal and vocal energy to your presentation to keep your audience engaged. 

Visuals are important. Mr. Morgan emphasized the use of animations to keep your audience interested and spoon feeding your story through transitions. Cartoons and schematics can provide helpful illustrations. They are also useful reminders for your audience when you include them in multiple relevant slides so that viewers can reorient if they miss something. 

Despite the drawbacks of virtual presentations, such as a lack of audience feedback, one benefit is that you can have all the notes you want (if they are not visible to your audience). Post-its and index cards around the edges of your computer can serve as prompts to control the rate and flow of information. Remember that you are central to your presentation— “an ambassador/spokesperson for your research.” 

Mr. Morgan, an excellent presenter with a wealth of experience, ended his talk by exhorting his audience to “always end early.” I highly recommend attending his workshops in the future.


Tips for Virtual Talks

  1. Use lighting from front/side, not from the top or behind.
  2. Use a headphone and microphone with your “speakerphone voice.”
  3. Sit in front of a simple, professional background (no windows!).
  4. Don’t use swivel chairs.
  5. Wear bright colors and layer clothing.
  6. Own your project.
  7. Remember that the camera is a presence barometer (your audience can tell when you lose focus)– stay engaged.
  8. Use notes.
  9. Repeat, summarize, and keep your audience engaged!
  10. End your talk early.

Our basic science representative is a postdoctoral fellow who serves on the NIH Fellows Committee (FelCom) on behalf of the institute's fellow population. Representative appointments last for 12 months and can be renewed for an additional year.

Responsibilities of the institute’s representative include attending all scheduled FelCom meetings, participating on a subcommittee, disseminating information to the fellows in their institute, communicating fellows’ concerns to the committee, and coordinating the distribution of information via subcommittees. In NICHD, our representatives also work closely with the Office of Education to plan events for all NICHD postdoctoral trainees.

If you would like more information about serving as a basic science or clinical postdoctoral representative, please contact Dr. Erin Walsh (erin.walsh@nih.gov) and for information about serving on a FelCom subcommittee, contact one of the committee chairs directly.

Dr. Lauren Walling

Lauren Walling, PhD



Introducing Lauren Walling, PhD

I grew up in Syracuse, New York and graduated from Cornell University with a degree in biology. During my time at Cornell, I was very involved in undergraduate research in a microbiology lab, which inspired me to join the Microbiology and Immunology department at the University of Rochester for my PhD research. I completed my thesis work in the lab of Dr. Scott Butler, studying bacterial toxin-antitoxin systems. In 2018, I joined the lab of Dr. Gisela Storz here at NICHD to conduct my postdoctoral research on bacterial gene regulation by small RNAs in response to environmental stress. Apart from research, I am also passionate about training and mentoring young scientists and making science accessible to the community through public outreach.

In my free time, I volunteer with Guiding Eyes for the Blind to train future guide dogs and teach dog training classes for their volunteer puppy raisers in Montgomery County and DC. I also love any excuse to get outdoors—hiking, camping, sailing, or scuba diving.

I am very excited to serve as the basic science representative for NICHD to support our wonderful community of trainees. I hope that many of you will participate in the NICHD Fellows Advisory Committee, which is a great place to suggest new training or career development opportunities and voice any concerns you may have. Additionally, you can always reach out to me with any ideas or concerns; my email is lauren.walling@nih.gov.

Dr. Aisha Burton Okala Makes 1000 Inspiring Black Scientists in America List

Congratulations to Aisha Burton Okala, PhD, for being named one of 1000 inspiring black scientists in America, featured on the Cell Mentor website. Dr. Burton Okala is a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Gisela “Gigi” Storz, where she studies the regulatory roles of small proteins on two component systems in E. coli. Following her postdoc, Dr. Burton Okala hopes to join the ranks of academia as a professor—and from the looks of it, she is well on her way!

Dr. Aisha Burton Okala

Aisha Burton Okala, PhD



Three-minute Talks (TmT) Competition Deadline to Enter: February 8

Don’t miss your opportunity to enter the 2021 TmT Competition!

Three-minute Talks 2021 logo

  • Learn how to explain your research effectively to a broad scientific audience, in three minutes or less, with one-on-one professional training from public speaking coach Scott Morgan.
  • Get the chance to win up to $1,000 for use towards approved training or scientific conference participation.

To enter, complete the submission form by Monday, February 8. The submission form, competition rules, and judging criteria are available at the NICHD TmT Webpage. Up to 10 DIR fellows (postbac, predoctoral, postdoctoral, visiting and clinical) are invited to compete for these science communication honors.


Mandatory Training for All Trainees: Your Rights and Responsibilities as an NIH Trainee

OITE will provide a virtual mandatory training for all trainees (IRTAs and Visiting Fellows) regarding your rights and responsibilities as a trainee, especially around new policies at the NIH. The goal of this session is to provide you with information to make sure that you are safe while at the NIH, and that you know the policies and resources to set yourself up for personal and career success. 

Research Fellows and Clinical Fellows are encouraged, but not required, to attend.

Participation is tracked by the NICHD Office of Education.

If you have successfully completed this training in the past (it was offered virtually on Nov-Dec of 2020), you do not need to attend again. This is only for trainees who have never taken the training or have not successfully completed it. The OITE will offer this session monthly.

See below for dates/times. Please register using your NIH email. Non-NIH email registrations will be deleted. You only need to attend one session

February 10, 2021
10:00–11:00 a.m.
Registration: https://nih.zoomgov.com/webinar/register/WN_YtU8qoTvTwOowd_CnPsB1w

March 23, 2021
10:00–11:00 a.m.
Registration: https://nih.zoomgov.com/webinar/register/WN_Idem9zCeTCerjlfLOKYT_A


NIH Grant Writing Course

Are you planning to apply for a NIH research grant in 2021? There are various application due dates for NIH grants, and we are offering a virtual grant writing course that’s just for you!

In collaboration with three other institutes, we are offering an NIH Grant Writing Course for fellows this April and May. Led by Dr. Paula Gregory (Professor, Department of Genetics, Louisiana State University), this course will help students prepare a successful NIH grant proposal, with special emphasis on the career transition “K” grant series. With high reviews from past participants, NHGRI has offered this course for several years, and as a result, many of their fellows have been awarded NIH grants!

The classes will combine didactic presentations with group discussions, assignments, and proposal writing. A distance-learning component will allow you to submit writings between the virtual meetings and receive edits and valuable feedback. Participants will also conduct an NIH mock study section. During the process of scoring real grant applications, trainees will learn about the review process and the key aspects of a successful application.

Below is the schedule for this on-campus course (must attend all sessions): 

  • April 15: 1 p.m.–4 p.m.
  • April 16: 9 a.m.–12 noon
  • April 22: 11 a.m.–4 p.m.
  • April 23: 9 a.m.–12 noon
  • May 6: 1 p.m.–4 p.m.
  • May 7: 9 a.m.–12 noon

There are four spots available for NICHD fellows. If you would like to join this course, please email Dr. Erin Walsh (erin.walsh@nih.gov) and indicate which NIH grant you are planning to apply for.


NIH IPPCR Course Online: Registration Still Open

Interested in expanding your clinical research knowledge base in 2021? Registration for the 2020–2021 NIH Introduction to the Principles and Practice of Clinical Research (IPPCR) course is still open!

This free, self-paced, online course is open for registration until July 1, 2021. Graduate students, clinical fellows and post-doctoral fellows are encouraged to enroll now.

The IPPCR course is a lecture series from thought-leaders around the world covering:

  • Study designs, measurement, and statistics
  • Ethical, legal, monitoring, and regulatory considerations
  • Preparation and implementation of clinical studies
  • Communication of research findings and other topics

To register, please visit the IPPCR website at https://ocr.od.nih.gov/courses/ippcr.html. If you have any questions, please contact Rebecca Hwang at ippcr2@mail.nih.gov.


NIH PCP Course Online: Registration Still Open

Registration is still open for the 2020-2021 NIH Principles of Clinical Pharmacology (PCP) Course!

The PCP course is a free online lecture series covering the fundamentals of clinical pharmacology as a translational scientific discipline focused on rational drug development and utilization in therapeutics. Topics covered in the course include pharmacokinetics, drug therapy in special populations, drug discovery and development, and pharmacogenomics.

The course is free, self-paced, and entirely online through the PCP website: https://ocr.od.nih.gov/courses/principles-clinical-pharmacology.html.       

A certificate of completion is awarded to participants who achieve a passing score on the final exam.

The course will be of interest to graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and clinical fellows interested in expanding their pharmacology knowledge base.

For additional information on the course, please visit the website above or contact Rebecca Hwang at odpcp@mail.nih.gov.


NICHD Annual Postbac Course: Professional Development and Career Exploration

Our Annual Postbac Course launched on Wednesday, January 13, but it’s not too late to join our group!

Currently there are over 100 postbacs conducting clinical and basic science research in our intramural laboratories. During your one or two years of training here at the NICHD, we want you to have an enriched research experience, while at the same time growing more prepared and excited about your chosen career path. 

The year’s course will be entirely virtual and will be held on Wednesdays, from 1 to 2 p.m. The intent is to create a comfortable environment within a small group of peers to help postbacs improve their analytical skills as scientists, while expanding their knowledge of biomedical research and its relevance to human health. This course also focuses on professional development: learning how to present your science, exploring different career trajectories, meeting physicians and scientists from various clinical or research settings, and preparing for the medical or graduate school application cycle (including interviews!).

You’ll hear from a senior NICHD postdoc; a panel of physicians will share their personal and professional experiences in practicing as a pediatrician; and there will be a “Meet the Scientist” series where scientist in clinical, basic science, and industry laboratories will share their career journeys.

Schedule of Upcoming Topics

February 10Meet the Scientist: Basic Science Research
February 17
*Session begins at 12 noon*
Meet the Physician (Panel)
March 3Meet the Scientist: Clinical Research
March 10The Medical School Personal Statement
To Be AnnouncedMeet the Scientist: Industry Career Panel
To Be AnnouncedPostbac Poster Day: Organizing and Presenting Your Work
To Be AnnouncedJournal Club Session: Cloning a Gene—How to, and Practical Applications
To Be AnnouncedThe Graduate School Search and Application Process
To Be AnnouncedKnowing Your Why? The Key to the Medical School Interview
To Be AnnouncedThe Graduate School Personal Statement

Stay-tuned for the final schedule, which will be announced by email soon.

Enrollment in this course will be limited to 25 students to allow maximum participation and interaction with the instructors. At the end of the course, we will offer a certificate of recognition for all postbacs who attend at least seven sessions.

If you are interested in joining the class, please email Monica Cooper cooperm@mail.nih.gov to register, and let her know which sessions you plan to attend. 


Interested in Conducting a Literature Review?

There are many types of reviews—narrative, rapid, scoping, and systematic—all with different methodologies to use. The NIH Library’s Systematic Review Service can help you select the best type of review and methodology to use for your research. We offer software, classes, consultations, and resources to guide you through the entire process.

New at the NIH Library: Covidence Software

The NIH Library now offers Covidence, an online tool for managing and streamlining your systematic review. Covidence can help you screen and administer citations, conduct data extraction, and perform critical appraisal. Contact Alicia Livinski, alicia.livinski@nih.gov, to request access and for assistance with using Covidence.

Classes

The NIH Library is offering a series of one-hour webinars on systematic reviews. The February calendar of classes on systematic reviews may be found on the NIH Library website.

Consultations

NIH Librarians are available to help you select the appropriate type of review for your needs, and then identify and complete the steps of your review, conduct the literature search, and edit the final manuscript. Schedule a consultation to get started today.

Databases

The NIH Library provides access to the three primary databases used for most systematic reviews, and others are sometimes necessary. Talk to a NIH Librarian to learn more about each database, including relevant search functions.

Cochrane Library

Contains high-quality, independent evidence to inform health care decision-making, including the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), a curated registry of randomized and quasi-randomized controlled trials conducted worldwide.

Embase

Allows users to build comprehensive literature searches through its extensive, deeply indexed database and flexible search options. By applying the PICO (Patient or Problem; Intervention; Comparison or Control; and Outcome) framework, users can structure searches that address clinical questions.

PubMed/MEDLINE

Features advanced search functions and filters to find literature for your systematic review.

To stay up to date on NIH Library classes, events, resources, and services, subscribe to our e-news.

Wednesday, February 10, 1–2PM

Annual Postbac Course: “Meet the Scientist: Basic Science Research”
Gisela Storz, PhD & Matthias Machner, PhD

If you are interested in joining the class, please email Monica Cooper at cooperm@mail.nih.gov.


Thursday, February 11

Three-Minute Talks (TmT) Competition: “Speaking About Science” Workshop
Scott Morgan

Join us to learn about:

  • Scientific storytelling with only one slide
  • Speaking in plain language while addressing the human health relevance for your research
  • Creating effective visual aids

The deadline to enter the 2021 TmT Competition is Monday, February 8. Please visit the NICHD TmT Webpage for submission forms and more information.


Wednesday, February 17, 12–1PM

Annual Postbac Course: “Meet the Physician”
Physician Panel

*Please note that this session will begin at 12 noon*

If you are interested in joining the class, please email Monica Cooper at cooperm@mail.nih.gov.


Ongoing Events Around Campus

NIH-Wide Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) Events
For more information and registration, please visit Upcoming OITE Events.

NIH Library Training and Events
For more information and registration, please visit the NIH Library Calendar.

On November 13, NICHD DIR and DIPHR scientists convened, virtually, to share their latest research endeavors at the 2020 Scientific Retreat. I was blown away with the number of fellows who volunteered to write about the event. Thank you, so much, to the many postbacs and postdocs who contributed recaps of the day’s presentations. As an editor, I enjoy the diverse perspectives on current research. Join me in revisiting the 2020 Scientific Retreat!

One of the retreat presenters, Dr. Annie Martini, talks about why she pursued a reproductive endocrinology career in this month’s “Clinical Corner” column. Her favorite moments at the NICHD are heartwarming.

Looking forward, for fellows who are considering funding mechanisms, Dr. Aisha Burton shares a snapshot of the annual NICHD Office of Education Grant Writing Workshop. And, finally, don’t forget to visit our January announcements and events, complete with some exciting opportunities this year.

Happy New Year to all!

Your Editor in Chief,
Shana R. Spindler, PhD

Please send questions and comments to our editor at shana.spindler@nih.gov.

Anne “Annie” Martini, DO, joined the NIH in 2018 as a clinical fellow in the Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility Training Program. She received her DO degree from the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine (CCOM) in Downers Grove, IL and subsequently completed her residency at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, IL.

Dr. Martini studies in vitro fertilization outcomes in patients who created embryos with oocytes that had been previously cryopreserved for fertility preservation. As part of a fellowship thesis in the Macfarlan lab, she investigates the role of ZCWPW1, a protein involved in homologous chromosome recombination, in female mice. In particular, she explores if this protein’s interactions with DNA during meiosis can be used to map ‘hot spots’ of chromosome recombination in female embryos.


Clinical Corner logo


We asked Dr. Martini a few questions about her interests to get to know the person behind the degree. Introducing Dr. Martini:

What influenced you to go into reproductive endocrinology and fertility?

I have always been fascinated by the physiology of reproduction. In medical school, this interest drew me towards a residency in OB/GYN. In residency, I found my REI rotations to be the perfect blend of meaningful patient interactions with my basic scientific interests. Fellowship has continued to confirm that I made the best career choice—being able to use my knowledge to help individuals and couples begin a family is the ultimate reward.

What led you to the NIH—why did you choose to do your fellowship here?

I did a month-long rotation during residency in the REI clinic at NIH. Having the opportunity to see and converse with patients with the rarest of endocrine and genetic disorders was an incredible experience and I knew that I would thrive in that type of setting for fellowship.

What is your most memorable experience so far while at the NIH?

I would absolutely say my most memorable experience is when I found out that the first three patients whom I performed an embryo transfer for all became pregnant. Our fellowship program places great emphasis on fellows getting hands-on experience, including embryo transfers. I felt so grateful in that moment for my training and to be able to help families in this special way. Another wonderful experience was traveling to Paris with the whole NIH fellowship to present our research at the Society for Reproductive Investigation conference in 2019!

Do you participate in any volunteer activities or hobbies?

For the last one and a half years I have been one of the co-chairs for the Clinical Fellows Committee. It has been a great experience that has allowed me to network with fellows outside of my program and institute. I also appreciate having the opportunity to interact with NIH and Clinical Center leadership.

I am very dedicated to fitness and spending time outdoors. Hiking is a favorite pastime for me and my husband. Being a native Chicagoan, we fell in love with the DMV area for its ample hiking spots and warmer/more tolerable weather!

Don’t forget to check out our recap of Dr. Martini’s 2020 Scientific Retreat Virtual talk, “Obese patients are less likely to pursue fertility treatment and take a longer time to do so, after initial infertility consultation”!

I attended the annual NICHD Office of Education Grant Writing Workshop, led by Dr. Cedric Williams, on November 19 and 20, 2020. Dr. Williams is a professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia who has over 20 years of experience with grants via National Science Foundation, NIH, and Department of Defense study sections.

The first day we studied the innerworkings of preparing a grant. We learned how study sessions operate and how to identify information that is necessary for a successful grant application. Three words stood out to me as take-away points:

  • Significance – Show how the proposed activity advances knowledge and understanding within the field or across different fields.
  • Innovation – Show how the proposal addresses the mission of the granting agency. Explain how you are implementing something new!
  • Approach – Verify that your specific aims are not dependent on each other. They can be linked only if you have demonstrated that the method works. You should ask questions about the same problem from different angles. Preliminary data is needed. Ensure that you address potential problems and alternative strategies!

On the second day, participants participated in a mock study session for half of the day. During the mock study sessions, we read the aims pages of three other workshop participants. After reading, we discussed each other’s grants for clarity and content. Later in the day, we received comments on our specific aims page from Dr. Williams (some of the comments made during the study sessions were the same as Dr. Williams’ comments). I would recommend this session to trainees who are preparing grant applications!

Dr. Bianchi was speaking to NICHD trainees directly. She asked you to think about how this experience has affected your life. How has it changed your goals and priorities? Write about it, she insisted. Take advantage of opportunities and make the most of it!

Dr. Bianchi’s inspirational words opened a day of engaging presentations by our diverse DIR and DIPHR investigators and trainees. Even through a virtual medium, the day felt like a community coming together to share research endeavors and newfound knowledge.

Thanks to a talented group of NICHD postbacs and postdocs, we recap the entire set of Scientific Retreat talks here. Our 2020 Mentor of the Year Awardees add to the mix with their mentoring mantras—a few words on what they think about mentorship.

Presenting the 2020 NICHD Scientific Retreat recap:

Understanding the Molecular, Cellular, and Structural Basis of Development

The Journey from a Tiny Cell to a Whole Organism: Following the RNA Path

By Megha Rajendran, PhD
(recap of “Molecular trajectories to determine cellular histories and their effect on development” by Jeff Farrell, PhD, Stadtman Investigator, DIR)

Having recently joined the NICHD, Dr. Jeff Farrell studies gene regulation during development using single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNAseq). During development, expression of cell-type specific mRNAs direct cells’ future identities (“specification”) and then drive them to differentiate into particular cell types (such as skin, brain, heart, and more). Dr. Farrell observes RNA levels in individual cells and then computationally reconstructs the path from distinct cell types back to common progenitors.

Following a time course of early zebrafish development, Dr. Farrell has generated an embryogenesis tree that begins with a single cell and branches into different cell types. The RNA expression levels in each branch show gene expression patterns and dynamics as cells adopt their identities. Knowing the genes expressed during particular developmental events paves the way for reverse genetic screens in his lab to test their function. Moreover, Dr. Farrell showed that cells at boundaries between tissues can express genes characteristic of multiple cell types, implying there can be multiple trajectories to the same cell type and will test how these different trajectories affect cellular behavior.

EpiTag Allows for Reporting of Dynamic Epigenetic Changes in Zebrafish

By Michael Hilzendeger
(recap of “Genetic analysis of vertebrate epigenetic regulators” by Aniket Gore, PhD, Weinstein lab, DIR)

Epigenetics is the study of how gene expression profiles change without altering the underlying DNA

sequence. Current research approaches provide a snapshot of the epigenetic landscape but lack real-time visualization of the process in live animals. Dr. Aniket Gore and his colleagues in the Weinstein lab created EpiTag, a transgenic epigenetic reporter zebrafish line, to uncover tissue-specific epigenetic regulators. The construct contains gene-silencing sequences (CpG islands) from dazl, a germline-specific gene, upstream of a ubiquitously expressed promoter that drives GFPd2 (destabilized GFP) expression. This allows for dynamic visualization of GFP in response to epigenetic changes.

GFPd2 expression peaks around 24 hours post-fertilization and decreases as the organism develops. GFPd2 is reactivated in regenerating tissues and responsive to epigenetic modulators like DNMT inhibitors, validating the approach. Forward genetic screening using the EpiTag line revealed mutants with dynamic tissue-specific GFPd2 expression. Candidate genes from some mutants included known histone and DNA modifiers, as well as novel proteins, warranting further study. The EpiTag reporter line is an innovative tool to study epigenetic regulation in a live, intact vertebrate.

Identification of Cholinergic Neuronal Subtypes in the Spinal Cord

By Anna Vlachos
(recap of “Single nucleus RNA-sequencing defines unexpected diversity of cholinergic neuron types in the adult mouse small cord” by Mor Alkaslasi, Graduate Student, Le Pichon lab, DIR)

A recent study from the Le Pichon lab examines  neurons of the mouse spinal cord by applying single nucleus RNA-sequencing methods. Graduate student Mor Alkaslasi defines the subtypes of cholinergic neurons within the spinal cord, as well as individual gene markers that can be used to identify specific neurons. 

MsAlkaslasi’s data indicates a possible correlation between the spinal skeletal motor neuron subtypes and the muscle types they innervate. This allows researchers to target and study a specific neuronal subtype while also expanding our understanding of spinal cord circuits and organization. The neuronal markers and transcriptional profiles provide a toolbox for researchers to use when studying the underlying factors of movement disorders, as many motor disabilities show links to spinal cord neurons and circuits.

Gut Busters: Pedadda Group Shrinks False Discovery Rates When Analyzing Microbiome Data

By Nicholas Johnson
(recap of “Differential abundance analysis of microbiomes with bias correction” by Shyamal Peddada, PhD, Biostatistics and Bioinformatics Branch, DIPHR)

In microbiome studies researchers are often interested in identifying taxa that are differentially abundant in two or more experimental groups. Due to various complexities in the data, standard statistical methods of analyses, such as ANOVA, t-tests, and regressions, are not suitable for analyzing these data as they may result in inflated false discovery rates. Thus, a large proportion of taxa are falsely declared to be differentially abundant by these methods.

To deal with these issues, Dr. Shyamal Peddada, Chief of the Biostatistics and Bioinformatics Branch, and his former trainee and collaborators, developed a statistical methodology called Analysis of Composition of Microbiomes (ANCOM), which is widely used by researchers.

Now, the Peddada group has introduced an improvement to ANCOM, called ANCOM-BC which normalizes microbiome data to eliminate the effect of bias introduced by sampling and other artifacts. They demonstrated, using some simulation studies, that both ANCOM and ANCOM-BC control the false discovery rates within the nominal levels while maintaining high power. In contrast to ANCOM, ANCOM-BC creates p-values for each taxon with corresponding confidence intervals, and it is computationally faster.

Placing Cellular Recycling Centers Where They're Needed Most

By Jacob Clarin
(recap of “The protein SNX19 tethers endolysosomal organelles to the endoplasmic reticulum to restrict their motility” by Amra Saric, PhD, Bonifacino lab, DIR)

Endolysosomes function like cellular recycling centers: they break down macromolecules into their constituent building blocks for use in future biochemical processes. In her recent talk during the NICHD Scientific Retreat, postdoctoral fellow Dr. Amra Saric of the Section on Intracellular Protein Trafficking focused on the intracellular positioning and transport of these degradative organelles. She explored if tethering proteins responsible for binding endolysosomes to the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) in yeast serve similar functions in their uncharacterized versions in humans.

Dr. Saric’s work found that one particular tethering protein, SNX19, is not only embedded in the ER lumen, but also attached to endolysosomes. This begged the question: What is the function of SNX19?

Production of a SNX19 genetic cell line revealed that endolysosomes were more widely distributed away from the nucleus in mutant cell lines. Dr. Saric ultimately suggested that SNX19 may be a key player in the processes that maintain a balance in endolysosomal distribution within the cell, and that this balance is implicated in several diseases, such as schizophrenia.

Probing the Invisible World of Cells: Evolution of Cryo-EM

By Megha Rajendran, PhD
(recap of “Towards in situ high-resolution structural biology of membrane proteins” by Doreen Matthies, PhD, Stadtman Investigator, DIR)

Dr. Doreen Matthies, new principal investigator in the Division of Intramural Research, shared her scientific journey solving membrane protein structures using Cryogenic Electron Microscopy (Cryo-EM). In this visualization technique, a sample is frozen to cryogenic temperatures and exposed to high energy electron beams. There has been a surge in Cryo-EM applications this decade, as advances in instrumentation and image processing enable the visualization of complexes, ranging from virus particles to small protein complexes, with near-atomic resolution. This resolution is similar to nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and X-ray crystallography, but without their limitations.

Cryo-EM can be expanded to study bigger structures, like cells and tissues, and allows for the study of proteins in their native environment for single-particle and high-resolution in situ structural biology. Dr. Matthies has used Cryo-EM to study lipid metabolism in neurons and to solve the structures of membrane-bound proteins, such as ion channels and transporters. Now at the NIH, she hopes to utilize Cryo-FIBSEM (Focused Ion Beam Scanning Electron Microscopy), which allows to look into samples thicker than 500 nm.


Setting the Foundation for Healthy Pregnancies and Lifelong Wellness

The Implications of Obesity on Pregnancy and Infertility Treatment

By Frances Fernando
(recap of “Obese patients are less likely to pursue fertility treatment and take a longer time to do so, after initial infertility consultation” by Annie Martini, MD, DeCherney lab, DIR)

As the prevalence of obesity in reproductive-age women increases—50% are overweight or obese—clinical fellow Dr. Annie Martini has become concerned about factors related to obesity and pregnancy. In particular, she is interested in the relationship between obesity and the pursuance of reproductive technology.

In a recent study, Dr. Martini found that obese patients are less likely to pursue fertility treatment (and take a longer time to do so) after initial infertility consultation than women with normal BMI. Using a retrospective chart review, Dr. Martini stratified patients presenting with infertility by BMI and obesity classification. This allowed her to study 1) rate of drop out after seeking consultation for assisted reproductive treatment, 2) treatment outcomes, and 3) time to first treatment, if pursued. 

For those who underwent fertility treatment with BMIs out of the normal range (either obese or underweight), time to first treatment was significantly longer than women with normal BMI. Drop out rates after initial consultation also increased linearly with BMI. Her findings are relevant to several groups, including physicians, providers of infertility care, and women with non-normal BMIs who wish to become pregnant.

The Vicious Cycle of Diabetes Begetting Diabetes

By Frances Fernando
(recap of “Determinants and health consequences of gestational diabetes—a life course approach towards diabetes prevention” by Cuilin Zhang, PhD, MD, MPH, Epidemiology Branch, DIPHR)

“A vicious cycle,” is how senior investigator Dr. Cuilin Zhang describes the following gestational diabetes sequence: gestational diabetes, increased risk of obesity and cardio-metabolic disorders in childhood, hyperglycemia in adulthood and pregnancy—the cycle continues. Dr. Zhang looks for risk factors and etiological and prediction markers using data from epidemiological studies at each stage over life course (pre-conception, during, and post-pregnancy).

According to Dr. Zhang, pre-pregnancy risk factors for gestational diabetes include the absence of beneficial behaviors (for example, Mediterranean diet, and physical activity) and the presence of harmful behaviors (for example, Western diet, sedentary behaviors, and increased refined carbohydrate and animal fat intake). During pregnancy, gestational diabetes biomarkers include abnormal nutrient metabolism (specifically for iron, vitamin D, amino acids and fatty acids), irregular thyroid function, and genetic factors. Following gestational diabetes in utero, offspring may have deleterious metabolic, vascular, and reproductive health effects. Dr. Zhang’s research shows that gestational diabetes has compounding and interrelated effects that promote and perpetuate diabetes, and preventing gestational diabetes may hold the hope of interrupting the vicious cycle.

Vegetarian Diets Pose No Major Harm Nor Benefits to Gestational Outcomes

By Michael Hilzendeger
(recap of “Association of maternal vegetarian diets during pregnancy and maternal and neonatal outcomes” by Samrawit Yisahak, PhD, Office of the Director, DIPHR) 

Vegetarian diets are becoming increasingly popular in the United States. In 2012, 4% of men and 7% of women in the US identified as vegetarian. Given the high proportion of women vegetarians, Dr. Samrawit Yisahak and coauthors investigated the association of vegetarian diets and gestational outcomes using data from NICHD Fetal Growth Studies – Singletons.

Controlling for covariates including age, socioeconomic status, physical activity, energy intake, and diet quality, Dr. Yisahak et al. found no increase in the risk of preterm birth in neonates of vegetarians (defined as eating meat, poultry, or fish less than once a month). However, neonates of vegetarians were constitutionally smaller; they had lower birthweight but were otherwise healthy. Contrary to what is seen in the general population, a vegetarian diet was not inversely associated with gestational diabetes and hypertensive disorders of pregnancy. Moreover, a vegetarian diet was not associated with a higher risk of gestational anemia. In summary, the data suggest that vegetarian diets pose no great harm to pregnant women or their neonates, but no health benefits either.

Placental Gene Expression Profiles in Mothers with Abnormal Blood Lipid Levels

By Kristen Polinski, PhD
(recap of “Placental gene co-expression network reveals inflammation response enrichment in maternal dyslipidemia” by Marion Ouidir, PhD, Epidemiology Branch, DIPHR)

Maternal dyslipidemia during pregnancy may alter placental gene expression, impacting the risk of cardiometabolic disease in offspring. Using data from the NICHD Fetal Growth Study, postdoctoral fellow Dr. Marion Ouidir set out to identify networks of placental co-expressed genes that might interact with each other to have potentially biologically meaningful functions.

Using a weighted gene co-expression network analysis, Dr. Ouidir constructed 24 modules or clusters of highly correlated genes expressed in the placenta. This analysis identified a module composed of 39 genes that were positively correlated with both total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) in mothers with dyslipidemia. Further validation analyses reaffirmed six genes—LTF, MPO, PGLYRP1, ALX4, MAGEC2, and LUZP4—that collectively are lipid and cardiovascular-related. Dr. Ouidir's research highlights possible placental gene expression signatures in maternal dyslipidemia that might compose meaningful pathways underlying cardiometabolic traits later in life.


Developmental Influences on Health and Well-Being Across Childhood

Early Childhood Screen Time: Developmental Delays and Peer Play

By Kristen Polinski, PhD
(recap of “Trajectories of screen time and displacement of peer play by screen time in early childhood” by Diane Putnick, PhD, Epidemiology Branch, DIPHR)

A recent study conducted in the birth cohort Upstate KIDS, including individuals from 57 counties in New York State from 2008 to 2010, found an increasing trend in early screen time among one- to three-year-olds. These children exceeded screen time recommendations set by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the early screen time trend was associated with increased screen time at seven and eight years of age.

Building off these findings, Dr. Diane Putnick, staff scientist in DIPHR’s Epidemiology Branch, examined the consequences of increased screen time on child development, as measured by the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ) and displacement of peer play activities. Children with more screen time were more likely to fail the ASQ at three years of age, whereas children with more peer play time were less likely to fail the ASQ. Screen time’s effects on developmental delay were mediated by decreased peer play time, suggesting that peer play could potentially offset the negative effects of screen time.

Prevent Overeating in Youths with Depression and Anxiety

By Nickolas Chu
(recap of “Inhibitory control and negative effect in relation to food intake among youth” by Meghan Byrne, MA, Yanovski lab, DIR)

Previous studies have associated pediatric obesity with two potential mechanisms: negative affect and poor inhibitory control. Negative affect can drive disinhibited eating as maladaptive coping with negative emotions. Inhibitory control involves the deliberate suppression of automatic thoughts and behaviors. In a recent study, Meghan Byrne investigated a potential relationship between the two mechanisms.

Ms. Byrne and her colleagues hypothesized that poor inhibitory control mediated the relationship between negative affect and disinhibited eating. To test this, the investigators recruited participants (8- to 17-years-old). A negative affect score was based on self-reported feelings of depression and anxiety. The participants also completed behavioral tasks to measure inhibitory control. Finally, participants were given a laboratory buffet meal and instructed to eat as much as they wanted. The research team measured total calorie intake. The study found that inhibitory control mediated the relationship between negative affect score and total calories consumed. These findings suggest that improving inhibitory control in combination with approaches to reduce negative affect may prevent overeating in youths with depression and anxiety.

Evaluating Parenting Classification in Late Childhood Type 1 Diabetes Management

By Ashley Pratt
(recap of “DIPHR Relations of diabetes parenting constellations with child disease management and well-being” by Chelsie Temmen, PhD, Social and Behavioral Sciences Branch, DIPHR)

Postdoctoral fellow Dr. Chelsie Temmen investigates how different parenting classifications influence the well-being and disease management outcomes of children with type 1 diabetes and their intensive care regimens during late childhood. Using data from a 24-month clinical study, Dr. Temmen describes three parenting classifications based on reported levels of parental involvement and parent-child conflict in type 1 diabetes management: harmonious, discordant, and indifferent. She evaluated the well-being, adherence to regimen, glycemic control, and other outcome factors for children across these groups.  

Harmonious” families, those who exhibited high involvement in disease management and support with minimal parent-child conflict, performed the best on outcome measures. “Discordant” families, those who reported high involvement and high parent-child conflict, consistently performed poorly on these measures. And finally, the “indifferent” group, those who scored low in involvement and conflict, fell between the other groups for outcome performance. Behavioral intervention improved glycemic control measures equally across groups. These findings indicate that high parental involvement in type 1 diabetes management is likely beneficial to the child, but only in the absence of significant parent-child conflict.


Screening and Developmental Health during a Pandemic

Developing a Biosensor Device for Early Detection of Respiratory Infections

By Ashley Pratt
(recap of “Development of a point-of-care multimodal biosensor for screening and monitoring patients with respiratory infectious diseases such as COVID-19” by Kosar Khaksari, PhD, Gandjbakhche lab, DIR)

In efforts to identify and treat COVID-19 infections, it is evident that early detection of related symptoms is important for improving survival rates. Two biophotonics labs led by Drs. Bruce Tromberg and Amir Gandjbakhche within the NIH and Dr Babak Shadgan from the University of British Columbia (UBC) are currently collaborating to develop a biosensor device for the screening and monitoring symptoms associated with respiratory infections, including COVID-19.

Postdoctoral fellow Dr. Kosar Khaksari described how some devices already exist to monitor symptoms—such as temperature—for clinical screening, but these devices have low sensitivity and specificity. Dr. Khaksari and her collaborators are developing an inexpensive, non-invasive device for point-of-care at-home detection and monitoring of infectious respiratory symptoms, such as tissue oxygenation, heart rate, and temperature in healthy patients. Collaborators at UBC have collected preliminary data on device efficacy, and a clinical protocol has been submitted within the NIH. Future goals seek to use a successfully developed device for the collection of respiratory data in patients with COVID-19 and other respiratory infections.

Is Pooled Testing for Covid-19 a Good Idea?

By Nicholas Johnson
(recap of “Group testing for COVID-19: Pros and Cons” by Aiyi Liu, PhD, Biostatistics and Bioinformatics Branch, DIPHR)

Group, or “pooled,” testing requires combining multiple samples into a single test to avoid the expense and labor of conducting many individual tests. This method first appeared during World War II to test for syphilis in prospective troops. But is pooled testing useful? According to Dr. Aiyi Liu, if the positivity rate is low, the cost and time efficiency improvements over individual testing can be substantial.

For example, researchers using lower-accuracy tests can achieve greater precision in surveillance studies by pooling tests. Subjects may also benefit from increased anonymity. Disadvantages of this method include the sample dilution effect of pooling, which necessitates a greater sample volume and might result in more false negatives. In diagnostic settings, the additional time required to identify positive samples within pools may reduce patients’ opportunity to act accordingly, though improved throughput may counteract this disadvantage.

The take home message: Dr. Liu emphasized that group testing is most useful when the infection rate is low.

Risk of Maternal to Fetal Transmission of COVID-19 is Low, But Not Zero

By Anna Vlachos
(recap of “SARS-CoV-2 in Pregnancy: The Risk of Vertical Transmission and mRNA Expression of Viral Receptor and Protease in the Human Placenta” by Roberto Romero, MD, DMedSci, Perinatology Research Branch, DIR)

Unfolding evidence in COVID-19 studies show that pregnancy increases risk of death and suffering from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, particularly for pregnant women of color. But how does the virus affect the fetus?

Recent findings from the NICHD Perinatology Research Branch indicate that the percentage of vertical transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from mother to fetus is 3.25%, which is relatively low, but still possible. Using single-nucleus RNA-sequencing techniques, Dr. Roberto Romero, Chief of the Perinatology Research Branch, and his group found a lack of mRNA expression for common COVID-19 cell entry mediators in placental cells. The rare cases of fetal infection may be explained by the expression of non-canonical COVID-19 mediators in the placenta.

These findings build on our understanding of COVID-19 and examine how some of our most vulnerable populations are affected. Though the risk of a mother transmitting COVID-19 to the fetus is low, it is not impossible. The virus still has a means of infecting cells in the placenta.

Leveraging Trans-NIH Initiatives to Study COVID-19

By Nickolas Chu
(recap of “NICHD and the Research Response to COVID-19” by Rohan Hazra, MD, DER) 

For the final presentation of the 2020 Scientific Retreat, Dr. Rohan Hazra, NICHD’s Acting Associate Director for Extramural Research, talked about NICHD’s role in studying COVID-19 in women and children. In 2018, the NIH Pediatric Research Consortium was established as a trans-institute initiative to harmonize pediatric studies. As the lead institute of this initiative, NICHD was optimally placed to become one of seven NIH groups to coordinate a response to COVID-19. Co-leading with NIDA, NICHD has worked to formulate a research agenda targeting pregnant and lactating women and children.

When healthy children began exhibiting multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) weeks after infection, Dr. Collins reached out to the directors of NICHD and NHLBI and asked them to head a trans-NIH group to study these new symptoms. By building research protocols with pre-existing investigator communities, NICHD has been able to collect data quickly on children with MIS-C—with the goal of understanding the long-term consequences of MIS-C and COVID-19 infection.


Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Dr. Rohan Hazra as Chief of the Maternal and Pediatric Infectious Disease Branch. Dr. Hazra is no longer in this position.

Wednesday, January 13, 12PM

Annual Postbac Course: “Career Planning Step One:  Knowing the End of Your Rainbow”
Triesta Fowler, MD

If you are interested in joining the class, please email Monica Cooper at cooperm@mail.nih.gov.


Wednesday, January 27, 1–2PM

Annual Postbac Course: “The Medical School Search and Application Process”
Triesta Fowler, MD

If you are interested in joining the class, please email Monica Cooper at cooperm@mail.nih.gov.


Ongoing Events Around Campus

NIH-Wide Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) Events
For more information and registration, please visit Upcoming OITE Events.

NIH Library Training and Events
For more information and registration, please visit the NIH Library Calendar.

Seeking Image Submissions for the 16th Annual Fellows Meeting

We are beginning our search for the feature image of the 16th Annual NICHD Fellows Meeting.

The winning image, chosen by the Fellows Advisory Committee, will be showcased on the fellows’ retreat website, on posters, and used as the front cover of the event program. Also, to highlight everyone’s imagery, all submissions we receive will be used to produce a collage posted on the 2021 retreat website. You can always take a look at the image submissions from previous years at http://retreat.nichd.nih.gov

In addition to image resolution and quality, selection criteria include the relevance to our institute’s mission and artistic view of the image. All submissions (at the highest possible resolution) should be sent to Nicki Swan (jonasnic@mail.nih.gov) by January 31, 2021 with a brief caption for the image.


NICHD Annual Postbac Course: Professional Development and Career Exploration

Our Annual Postbac Course launches on Wednesday, January 13!

Currently there are over 100 postbacs conducting clinical and basic science research in our intramural laboratories. During your one or two years of training here at the NICHD, we want you to have an enriched research experience, while at the same time growing more prepared and excited about your chosen career path. 

The year’s course will be entirely virtual and will be held on Wednesdays, from 1 to 2 p.m. The intent is to create a comfortable environment within a small group of peers to help postbacs improve their analytical skills as scientists, while expanding their knowledge of biomedical research and its relevance to human health. This course also focuses on professional development: learning how to present your science, exploring different career trajectories, meeting physicians and scientists from various clinical or research settings, and preparing for the medical or graduate school application cycle (including interviews!).

You’ll hear from a senior NICHD postdoc; a panel of physicians will share their personal and professional experiences in practicing as a pediatrician; and there will be a “Meet the Scientist” series where scientist in clinical, basic science, and industry laboratories will share their career journeys.

Schedule of Topics (All sessions take place from 1 to 2 p.m. unless otherwise indicated)

January 13Career Planning Step One: Knowing the End of Your Rainbow
January 27The Medical School Search and Application Process
February 10Meet the Scientist: Basic Science Research
February 17 (Begins at 12 Noon)Meet the Physician (Panel)
March 10The Medical School Personal Statement
To Be AnnouncedMeet the Scientist: Industry Career Panel
To Be AnnouncedPostbac Poster Day: Organizing and Presenting Your Work
To Be AnnouncedMeet the Scientist: Clinical Research
To Be AnnouncedJournal Club Session: Cloning a Gene—How to, and Practical Applications
To Be AnnouncedThe Graduate School Search and Application Process
To Be Announced

Knowing Your Why? The Key to the Medical School Interview

To Be AnnouncedThe Graduate School Personal Statement

Stay-tuned for the final schedule, which will be announced by email soon. Enrollment in this course will be limited to 25 students to allow maximum participation and interaction with the instructors. We ask that all participants attend at least seven sessions. At the end of the course, we will offer a certificate in recognition of your participation.

If you are interested in joining the class, please email Monica Cooper (cooperm@mail.nih.gov) to register, and let her know which sessions you plan to attend.


Three-minute Talks (TmT) Competition 2020

Now Seeking Postdoc & Clinical Fellows, Graduate Students & Postbacs

  • Learn how to explain your research effectively to a broad scientific audience, in three minutes or less, with one-on-one professional training from public speaking coach Scott Morgan.
  • Get the chance to win up to $1,000 for use towards approved training or scientific conference participation.
  • Visit the NICHD TmT Program website for more details: up to 10 DIR fellows (postbac, predoctoral, postdoctoral, visiting and clinical) are invited to compete for these science communication honors.

Three-minute Talks 2021 logo

2021 TmT Program Timeline and Details

Monday, February 8

Deadline to Enter

Thursday, February 11

“Speaking About Science” Workshop

  • Tips on scientific storytelling with only one slide
  • Speaking in plain language while addressing the human health relevance for your research
  • Creating effective visual aids

March & April, Dates TBD

Individual Coaching/Practice Session

  • Meet one-on-one with public speaking coach Scott Morgan
  • Practice your talk and obtain feedback on oral presentation skills and speech development

June, Date TBD

NICHD TmT Competition

  • Finalist(s) will be chosen to advance to the next round
  • Finalist(s) will each be awarded $500 for approved training/travel 

June, Date TBD

NIH TmT Competition

(With NICHD, NHGRI, NIDCR, NIDCD, NIAMS, NEI, & NINR fellows)

1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners will be chosen to receive an additional $500 training/travel award