The NICHD Connection

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Last night I volunteered at my local elementary school’s Family Science Night. I was assigned to the simple machines table. Levers, ramps, wheels, and pulleys were prepared for the curious hands of children. There was just one problem. After years of not-so-careful play, some of the simple machines—as simple as they were—were failing.

The pulley, in particular, was in rough shape. I nearly set it aside, tired of fixing it from one child to the next. But then I had an idea. Rather than relegate the pulley to the plastic bin under the table, I made an announcement that we had a problem. I told the large group of children that we needed to redesign the pulley to make it stop falling apart.

The atmosphere changed immediately. The children shifted from apathetic stares into focused engagement. One child grabbed the pulley, and a small group huddled around shouting out potential changes to the design. Just like that, they were working in a small team, stepping through attempts to improve the system, observing each outcome, and then trying again with a slight change when it wasn’t quite right. In the crowded room full of chattering children, I said as loudly and clearly as I could: “Now this is science!”

What a beautiful experience. I have to imagine that’s what an investigator feels like on a daily basis. Young minds, eager to solve frustrating problems, pass through a PI’s care and then out into the world to build their own careers in science and other sectors of society.

I tell this story in honor of Dr. Chris McBain’s designation as the new scientific director of the NICHD Division of Intramural Research. This year marks 30 years, exactly, since Dr. McBain joined NICHD and began shaping the minds of trainees as an intramural investigator. We’ve followed up with a few of those trainees (from the famous Pinky and the Brainslicers NIH relay race team) to see where their careers have taken them and to find out their most important lessons learned while in the McBain lab.

The science at NICHD is a bit more complicated than pulleys, levers, and ramps—just a bit. But the scientific process—so innocently demonstrated by a group of excited school children—now that, that’s exactly what NICHD training is about.

Your Editor in Chief,
Shana R. Spindler, PhD

This newsletter is for NICHD fellows and by NICHD fellows. We want to hear from you! Please send your questions, comments, and ideas to our editor at

Chris McBain

Chris McBain, PhD

Chris McBain, PhD, senior investigator in the Section on Cellular and Synaptic Physiology, has been designated as scientific director and director of the NICHD Division of Intramural Research (DIR), after serving in the role as the acting scientific director since 2021.

In this position, Dr. McBain will oversee all intramural research programs, units, and sections of NICHD. He will support the DIR with its objectives to understand the basis of human development and reproduction and to optimize the health of children and women.

The official announcement of Dr. McBain’s designation can be found at the NICHD Newsroom. For a closer look at his professional journey, check out “Get to Know: Chris McBain, PhD.”

As this is a newsletter for and by fellows, we thought it might be fun to tag up with a few fellows from Dr. McBain’s 30 years at NICHD. And who better to reach out to than members of the “Pinky and the Brainslicers,” the McBain lab racing team from the 30th NIH Institute Challenge Relay, held September 19, 2013.

Read on to learn about several post-training career paths and several important lessons gained from time in the McBain lab.

Pinky and the Brainslicers: Where They Are Ten Years Later

The McBain lab relay team wearing pink t-shirts and skullcaps that look like brains

McBain lab "Pinky and the Brainslicers" running team for the NIH relay race, September 19, 2013. From left to right (titles from 2013): Mick Craig (postdoc), Chris McBain, April Johnston (grad student), Libby Barksdale (postdoc), David Collins (postbac).

Mick Craig, PhD

Mick Craig in the lab wearing a formal Scottish kilt outfit

Mick Craig, PhD, attending a graduation ceremony. Photo courtesy of Dr. Craig.

Dr. Mick Craig was a postdoctoral visiting fellow in the McBain lab from 2011–2016. During this time, Dr. Craig studied how inhibitory interneurons coordinate electrical activity in the brain. “If you think about the brain’s electrical activity as music, my research examined how these cells act as the conductor,” Dr. Craig explains.

Today, Dr. Craig is a senior lecturer (the UK equivalent to an associate or tenured professor) at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.

“Dr. McBain is a truly outstanding mentor. The most important lesson that I learned from Dr. McBain was that the success of a group leader is not in the amount of grants they get, or the number of papers they publish. Dr. McBain taught me that the success of a PI is measured by the success of their trainees, and if I can look after my people even a fraction as well as Dr. McBain did, then I will have done my job exceptionally well.”

April Johnston, PhD

Headshot of April Johnson wearing a navy blue blouse

April Johnston, PhD, high school biology teacher. Photo courtesy of Dr. Johnston.

Dr. April Johnston worked on her graduate thesis in the McBain lab from 2013–2014 as a visiting graduate student from Karolinska Institute in the NIH Graduate Partnership Program. She studied how activating or silencing serotonin and dopamine receptor subtypes affects a rhythm, called gamma oscillation, in the hippocampus. Today, Dr. Johnston teaches high school biology.

“The most important scientific lesson from the McBain lab: surround yourself with competent, likeable people. Dr. McBain is a brilliant scientist, and he's also really good at finding, recruiting, and retaining good scientists. [He also taught me] to be systematic in your approach to experiments. Try simple experiments first before making your life overly complicated.”

Libby Barksdale, PhD

Libby Barksdale taking a selfie on the beach with sand and surf behind her

Libby Barksdale, PhD, on a run in Michigan. Photo courtesy of Dr. Barksdale.

Dr. Libby Barksdale was a postdoctoral fellow in the McBain lab from 2011–2015. During her studies, she designed and contributed to multiple projects investigating the impacts of altering the excitatory/inhibitory balance in the developing hippocampus on interneuron number and function.

Now, Dr. Barksdale is Director of Regulatory Affairs and Scientific Policy for a lung cancer patient advocacy group called LUNGevity Foundation. There, she works with the FDA, drug companies, clinical investigators, and patients to identify and address challenges affecting cinical trial systems. Dr. Barksdale notes that “it's a pretty far cry from developmental neuroscience, but it's very satisfying!”

“The most important lesson I learned in Dr. McBain's lab was not to be afraid to try something new. I didn't know anything about interneurons when I started and didn't know many of the techniques I would come to use. But sometimes you have to jump in and trust that your training has prepared you to handle the unknown.”

Dr. McBain wearing pink shirt and brain hat as he begins his leg of the relay

Dr. McBain beginning his leg of the NIH Relay Race on September 19, 2013.

Rep Report logoAs the current NICHD Basic Sciences Institutes and Centers (IC) Representative, I represent NICHD postdoctoral fellows at the NIH Fellows Committee (FelCom) meeting every month and share the latest news with you here. Do you have a concern or question that you want brought up at the next meeting? Contact me, Dr. Hyo Won Ahn, at

FARE2024 is here!
Abstracts due by March 15

The Fellows Award for Research Excellence (FARE) recognizes the outstanding scientific research performed by intramural postdoctoral fellows. Winners of FARE awards will each receive a $1500 stipend to attend a scientific meeting at which they will present their abstract, either as a poster or an oral presentation.

Register for the FARE application seminar: “Tips for Successful Abstracts,” led by FARE co-chairs, on March 2, from 1 to 2 p.m.

The Visiting Fellows Committee is planning an online Division of International Services/Visiting Fellows Committee Immigration Symposium event later this month. Join the Visiting Fellows listserv to stay updated on exact dates and times. Symposium topics will include:

  • Immigration updates and international travel
  • J-1 to H-1B – including a focus on J-2 dependents
  • G-7 Program Overview
  • A Q&A session

There were two important updates from the NIH Child Care Board. There is ongoing work to include fellows in childcare subsidy support. Importantly, new enrollments to the NIH Northwest Child Care Center are paused during a management transition. More information can be found on the Child and Family Programs website.

The Women Scientist Advisors Committee (WSA) reported on issues that were discussed during the listening session hosted by WSA in January, including:

  • Lactation room availability and conditions across campus
  • Loan repayment program (LRP) eligibility policy for intramural fellows on an IRTA or CRTA and General Research-LRP eligibility policy for research fellows. 
  • Questions about potential variability in parental leave for research fellows.
  • Current policy on childcare subsidy eligibility for IRTAs, CRTAs, and visiting fellows.
  • Potential discrepancies in the pursuit of research-intensive careers between women and men, specifically the need for resources and training focused on the unique barriers that women face when navigating the job market after NIH.

Did you know that there are several ways to stay informed on postdoc activities and events?

Wednesday, March 8, 1–2 PM

Postbac Seminar Series: Medical School Application Guidance
Led by Erin Walsh, PhD, Director, NICHD Office of Education

This will be an open Q&A discussion session (via Zoom) for anyone interested in additional guidance on putting together a medical school application package. Please email Ms. Veronica Harker to register (, and a link will be sent a few days prior to the session.

Additionally, please let Ms. Harker know if you would like to be added to our Medical School Application Support Teams Channel. This will be a dynamic, evolving platform for you to ask questions and raise discussion with your postbac peers.

Thursday, March 9, 1–4 PM

NICHD DIR Tenure-Track Investigator Virtual Symposia Series
“Bedside to Bench in Vascular Anomalies”
Hosted by Sarah Sheppard, MD, PhD

This series provides tenure-track investigators within NICHD the opportunity to organize a virtual mini-symposium to showcase their area of science to the NICHD DIR and larger NIH intramural community. These symposia are open to all faculty, trainees, and staff at the NIH.

Join the symposium at

Friday, March 24, 1–5:30 PM

“Polycomb, Transcriptional Control, and Development”
A symposium honoring Dr. Judy Kassis upon her retirement

Building 35, Room 620/630

Dr. Kassis has led the Section on Gene Expression since 1999 and headed the Genetics and Epigenetics of Development Affinity Group from 2015-2022. Symposium speakers will include:

  • Dr. Patrick O’Farrell, University of California, San Francisco
  • Dr. Mitzi Kuroda, Harvard Medical School
  • Dr. Robert Johnson, Johns Hopkins University
  • Dr. Karl Pfeifer, NICHD
  • Dr. Judy Kassis, NICHD

A full agenda with additional details has been sent out via email.

March and April

Three-Minute Talks (TmT) Individual Coaching/Practice Sessions with Scott Morgan

Practice your talk and obtain feedback on oral presentation skills and speech development.

This event requires registration. For more information, please contact Katherine Lamb at

The NICHD and NIH TmT competitions will be held in early June and during the last week of June, respectively. Dates to be announced in the coming weeks.

Ongoing Events Around Campus

NIH-Wide Office of Intramural Training and Education 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.

Congrats to NICHD Graduate Partnership Program (GPP) Graduates

Every year, GPP graduates are recognized at the annual NIH-wide Graduate Student Research Symposium. At this year’s Graduate Ceremony event on February 16, 2023, NICHD graduate students Connie Mackenzie-Gray Scott and Ondrej Uher, received certificates for the successful completion of their dissertation research.

  • Dr. Connie Mackenzie-Gray Scott studied under the mentorship of Dr. Chris McBain, NICHD, and Dr. Andrew Trevelyan, Newcastle University.
    Thesis title: “Feedback mechanisms in the interactions between cortical interneurons and pyramidal cells”
  • Dr. Ondrej Uher studied under the mentorship of Dr. Karel Pacak, NICHD, and Drs. Jindrich Chmelar and Jan Ženka, University of South Bohemia in Ceske Budejovice.
    Thesis title: “Study of cancer immunotherapy mechanisms in pancreatic adenocarcinoma and pheochromocytoma murine models”

Wei-Lun Huang Wins Graduate Student Elevator Pitch Competition

Congratulations to NICHD’s Wei-Lun Huang, graduate student researcher in the Gandjbakhche laboratory, on his Elevator Pitch Competition award at the 19th Annual NIH Graduate Student Research Symposium on February 15.
Wei-Lun studies “skin lesion matching and correspondence localization in total body photography” under the guidance of Amir Gandjbakhche, PhD, NICHD Section on Translational Biophotonics, and Mehran Arman, PhD, Johns Hopkins University.
This was the 7th annual elevator pitch competition. Graduate students from across NIH were assessed on their ability to describe their research to a general audience in less than two minutes, and a total of three students were selected to receive the award.

The Porter Book Club is Hosting its Inaugural Event on March 10

The Porter Book Club is a new literary series at NIH to get people thinking and talking about interesting books covering science, health, and society. All are welcome to join the book club on March 10 at 1 p.m. in GG607, Building 35, for the inaugural event.

Kenneth C. Catania, PhD, Stevenson Professor of Biological Sciences, Vanderbilt University, will speak about his book Great Adaptations: Star-Nosed Moles, Electric Eels, and Other Tales of Evolution's Mysteries Solved,* which chronicles his life’s research into the specialized sensory systems, brain organization, and behavior of unusual animals.

If you are interested in meeting with Dr. Catania, please email Fellows and anyone with an interest in science communication are encouraged to reach out.

* Catania, K. (2021). Great adaptations: Star-nosed moles, electric eels, and Other tales of evolution's mysteries solved. Princeton University Press.

Expand Your Clinical Research Knowledge Base in 2023

If you’re interested in learning more about clinical research, please consider the following opportunities:

Introduction to The Principles and Practice Of Clinical Research (IPPCR) Course

This free, self-paced, online course (40 lectures, ranging from 15 to 90 minutes each) is open for registration until June 30, 2023. Graduate students, clinical fellows and post-doctoral fellows are encouraged to enroll now.

If you have any questions, please contact

Principles of Clinical Pharmacology (PCP) Course

The PCP course is a free, self-paced, online lecture series covering the fundamentals of clinical pharmacology as a translational scientific discipline focused on rational drug development and utilization in therapeutics. The course will be of interest to graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and clinical fellows interested in expanding their pharmacology knowledge base.

For additional information on the course, please visit the website above or contact

Clinical Research Curriculum Certificate (CRCC)

Are you interested in a career in clinical or translational research? Do the “Introduction to the Principles and Practice of Clinical Research” and “Principals of Clinical Pharmacology” courses sound intriguing to you? If you answered yes, consider the NIH Clinical Research Curriculum Certificate (CRCC) program.

The NIH Office of Clinical Research will issue a formal certificate to those who successfully complete the required components of the Clinical Research Curriculum. If you have any questions about fulfilling the requirements for the certificate, please email

SAVE THE DATE: Postbac Poster Days (Hybrid)

Postbac Poster Days provides an opportunity for NIH postbacs to discuss their research projects and at the same time develop their communication and networking skills. For more information, please visit

The in-person poster day is scheduled for April 20. More information coming soon!

NIH UNITE: Ending Structural Racism (ESR) Activities

The NIH UNITE initiative was established to identify and address structural racism within the NIH-supported and the greater scientific community.

The ESR Intranet includes various resources like the ToolkitNewsletterFAQs, and other information.

UNITE Milestones and Progress and the Co-Chairs Corner (public ESR webpages) are other avenues to stay informed on UNITE efforts.