Headshot of Ian Trees, PhD

Ian Trees, PhD

As I stepped into the grand hall of the John Edward Porter Neuroscience Research Center, I was met with an unmistakable buzz of excitement and happy chatter. The venue, a 500,000-square-foot emblem of scientific endeavor, boasted an atrium and adjacent rooms—each adorned with a myriad of NICHD posters summarizing countless hours of meticulous research. This year marked a poignant milestone, with the NICHD Scientific Retreat returning in person after three years of fully virtual activities. The event, held on September 26, was made even more special with a spotlight placed on junior scientists, who enjoyed the honor of presenting the results of their innovative research to the entire division.

The retreat kicked off with a message from Dr. Diana Bianchi, Director of the NICHD, underscoring the NICHD’s 2025 Strategic Plan and igniting a spark of interdisciplinary camaraderie that persisted throughout the program. Then, NICHD Scientific Director Dr. Chris McBain offered heartfelt remarks that brought a palpable sense of community to the hall. As Dr. McBain explained, NICHD intramural researchers published nearly 250 studies in 2023 to date, and he commended NICHD junior scientists for their substantial impact NIH-wide. For example, NICHD postdoctoral fellow Dr. Jong Park (Section on Vertebrate Organogenesis) received first place at the NIH Three-Minute Talk competition; the institute is currently supporting a record five K99 grants; and 16 of the top-ranked posters at the NIH Postbac Poster Day belonged to NICHD postbacs.

As a junior scientist and retreat presenter, the Scientific Retreat served as an arena to both learn and contribute. The sessions were an exciting ride of intellectual stimulation, diving deep into the realms of genetics, endocrinology, cellular biology, epidemiology, and beyond.

Dr. Catherine Gordon, NICHD Clinical Director, delivered the first keynote comprising her insights on bone density and marrow composition in adolescents, which was met with sweeping applause. What followed was a procession of presentations that illustrated the quantity and quality of research being conducted at the NICHD.

A couple of highlights for me included Dr. Abhishek Mukherjee’s (postdoctoral fellow, Section on Neural Developmental Dynamics) graphic showing the formation of epithelial cell clusters in zebrafish, which was nothing short of poetic and elucidated the intricate choreography of biology and mechanics. And Dr. Eastman Lewis’ (research fellow, Section on Molecular Neurobiology) talk on the excitatory and inhibitory signals in the prefrontal cortex captured the audience’s attention, even with the lure of an impending lunch break. He reminded us that “it takes your prefrontal cortex not to leave my talk and go eat!”

Dr. Erin Walsh, Director of the Office of Education, presented the 2023 NICHD Mentor of the Year awards to Dr. Ryan Dale (Head of the Bioinformatics and Scientific Programming Core) and Ms. Mor Alkaslasi (Graduate Student, Unit on the Development of Neurodegeneration). During this particularly uplifting portion of the program, Dr. Walsh acknowledged the struggles of both mentors and mentees in the past few years, a journey that every scientist in the room has navigated in one way or another.

Mor Alkaslasi holding her framed award certificate

Fellow Mentor of the Year

Mor Alkaslasi, Graduate Student, Unit on the Development of Neurodegeneration

Photo courtesy of Ms. Alkaslasi

Ryan Dale holding his framed award certificate

Investigator Mentor of the Year

Ryan Dale, PhD, Senior Scientist, Bioinformatics and Scientific Programming Core

Photo courtesy of Dr. Dale

The sequence of informative talks continued as Dr. Ursula Kaiser, Chair of the NICHD Board of Scientific Counselors and Professor of Medicine at Harvard, delved into the genetics and epigenetics of puberty during the second keynote. Dr. Kaiser’s talk unraveled the complex genetic and hormonal interplay of puberty onset, connecting molecular intricacies to real-world implications I was particularly impressed during the final session of the day, when Dr. Kiyohito Taimatsu (postdoctoral fellow, Section on Vertebrate Organogenesis) dazzled attendees with a vibrant three-dimensional reconstruction of a zebrafish pharynx after utilizing a novel agent that he developed to make the surrounding bone and tissue transparent.

Each talk and poster during the NICHD Scientific Retreat was a thread in the rich tapestry of innovation that the Division of Intramural Research embodies, showcasing not just the depth of our scientific pursuit but the breadth of fields and ideas therein. The blend of seasoned insights from established scientists and fresh perspectives from junior researchers enriched the scientific dialogue.

As Ms. Amaressa Abiodun, one of the event’s primary organizers, aptly noted, “being together and the genuine happiness of seeing each other [shows] how important being at a venue is for building camaraderie—and maybe even the wellness of the attendees.” As I reflect on the retreat, the words of Dr. McBain echo in my mind, urging us to “step back from the science for a moment to appreciate the incredible research we do.”

The Scientific Retreat was more than a congregation of scientists; it was a celebration of the spirit of inquiry, the joy of discovery, and the promise of science fostering a better understanding of life’s complex phenomena. As a proud member of the vibrant scientific community that is the NICHD, the future seems nothing but promising.

Thank you to the 2023 Scientific Retreat Steering Committee and OSD Staff

A big thank you to the following individuals for making the 2023 Scientific Retreat a great experience for the NICHD training population.

  • Bobby Cheon, PhD, Earl Stadtman Investigator, Social and Behavioral Sciences Branch, DiPHR
  • Elizabeth DeVilbiss, PhD, MPH, MS, Research Fellow, Office of the DiPHR Director
  • Ritu Gupta, PhD, Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow, Section on Nutrient Control of Gene Expression
  • Pedro Rocha, PhD, Investigator, Unit of Genome Structure and Regulation
  • Amaressa Abiodun, Program Specialist, Office of the Scientific Director, DIR