Blog

Addressing Interpersonal Conflicts Throughout Our Professional Journeys

Ashley Pratt with mountains in the background

Ashley Pratt

Training can be a vulnerable point in an individual’s career. Positive relationships with peers and mentors promote the success of early-career trainees, who are continually learning from colleagues and relying upon these interactions to propel their careers forward. Careful navigation, with the support of trusted mentors and resources, may be necessary for individuals who are facing challenges within their professional relationships. When I began my training as a postbac at the NIH, interpersonal conflict was not something I was actively preparing for. 

The experiences of early-stage professionals have direct impacts on their long-term career goals. In the face of a mental health crisis among research trainees, positive relationships with advisors and a good work-life balance were found to be predictive of better mental-health and work experiences.1 So, perhaps a proactive approach to dealing with interpersonal relationships is important for trainees to consider throughout their scientific journeys.

Through my experiences as a postbac, I’ve come to find that positive relationships in the lab don’t just happen—they’re cultivated. Knowing what you need as a trainee, and the resources available to you, can help you proactively address the relationships with your mentors and peers. Like any other field, interpersonal conflict and challenges are bound to arise during research training. Although it might seem daunting to navigate new work environments and professional relationships, developing a skillset for dealing with these challenges is a valuable part of the training experience. Furthermore, there are many resources within the NIH to help trainees avoid (or address) these conflicts and advocate for their own career success.

Establishing goals and expectations early

Training needs vary from person to person, and with so many work and mentoring styles, it can often be challenging to navigate our professional relationships. Individuals may have learning preferences, prioritize goals differently, or benefit from specific forms of support. These factors are important to consider when establishing expectations. Doing so as early as possible ensures that you can cultivate a work environment and routine that supports your own goals.

Reflecting on your needs and familiarizing yourself with available resources are good places to start. In the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) Postbac Handbook (from 2019), Sharon Milgram, PhD, Director of OITE, and Yewon Cheon, PhD, Director of the OITE Postbac and Summer Research Program, state in the opening letter, “while senior investigators in your lab may provide some guidance, you will be expected to take responsibility for many things” such as “set your own schedule” and “actively seek learning opportunities.”2

Knowing what you’d like to accomplish during your training, and what you need to make that possible, are decisions that only you, as the trainee, can make. Resources provided by the OITE, such as the Postbac Handbook2, blog posts and information sessions, outline common objectives and opportunities for training at the NIH. Take advantage of these resources at the outset of your training to develop your own goals. 

Once your own needs and expectations have been established, it is important that you explicitly communicate those needs with the people around you. The earlier you do so in a new lab, the better. By advocating for yourself, you can help others understand how they can help you. If you have specific goals that require reasonable accommodations, you can work together with your principal investigator (PI) to find a schedule or plan that works for everyone’s needs.

Getting acquainted with your lab culture

In addition to setting and communicating your own goals, trainees should familiarize themselves with the preestablished community and culture of their workspace. Getting to know your PI, colleagues, and peers opens the door to helpful information and support. Trying to connect with these individuals as soon as possible, through informal interactions or scheduled meetings, is the best route to establishing familiarity in this new environment. Establishing expectations on both ends also helps ensure that you, as the trainee, are meeting the milestones of a successful and productive training experience.

Trainees should communicate their own needs, while also being receptive to the needs and expectations of the people they’re working with. After all, new trainees are entering a work environment with a previously established culture and practices. Being upfront and asking questions can help prevent any toes from being stepped on. In assessing the dynamics of scientific teams, L. Michelle Bennett, PhD, certified Executive Coach and former Director of the Center for Research Strategy at the National Cancer Institute,  and her colleagues found that many laboratory conflicts resulted “in part, from failure to state expectations explicitly.”3 In their commentary on the topic, they go on to state that “even something as simple and apparently obvious as work hours, when not addressed, can cause a great deal of stress for an investigator and uncertainty among lab members.” They suggest that mentors and PIs should write welcome letters and communicate lab expectations early on. As trainees, don’t be afraid to ask questions upfront to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Furthermore, trying to connect with one’s PI as soon as possible can help trainees voice their own needs while developing a relationship that is important for your future success. Depending on the personality of one’s PI or colleagues, a trainee may need to take initiative to establish these relationships by setting up meetings or seeking out conversations. In her book At the Bench: A Laboratory Navigator, scientist and writer Kathy Barker, PhD, states, “If the PI in your lab isn’t around a lot, take it upon yourself to stay in touch. Leave a note about a good result, pop into the PI’s office for 5 minutes, try to have lunch together. It’s your career, and you are the one to be hurt if the PI can’t remember you when it is time to write a recommendation.”4 Although doing so might seem daunting, establishing familiarity with the immediate work community is essential to cultivating a supportive environment.

Facing conflict head-on

Conflict can occur in any work environment. If you’ve done everything you can to cultivate positive relationships and you still find yourself in the middle of a tense or challenging situation, there are many resources available to help you improve the conditions of your work environment. However, open communication is typically a good place to start. 

In an interview with Erin Walsh, PhD, Director of the NICHD Office of Education, Dr. Walsh stated that a common problem she encounters with trainees and their colleagues/mentors is a lack of communication. Often, she adds, the main source of tension could be resolved if both parties were made aware of the problem through open conversations.  

Dr. Walsh also acknowledged that, unfortunately, sometimes open communication is not enough. You can always reach out to peers and mentors for guidance and support. But, if additional support and guidance is needed beyond your immediate network, there are many institutional resources at the NIH that you can turn to. Below is a brief list of those resources. 

NICHD Office of Education and NIH OITE

Individuals within these offices are happy to help NICHD researchers and trainees by talking about the concerns and challenges faced by these individuals. Drs. Walsh and Milgram, the respective directors of these offices, actively encourage trainees to contact them to schedule conversations. If needed, they can point trainees toward resources that will be the most helpful. Many helpful individuals in these offices can be reached by email:

NIH OITE Wellness Program

This office provides resources to directly address the well-being of trainees through seminars, group discussions and individual counseling. Organized events such as skill-building groups and wellness activities are available to help trainees reflect and develop tools for dealing with stress. 

If you are facing a stressful work environment or relationships, wellness advisors are available to meet with trainees one-on-one for direct support and counseling. These individuals can simply listen to you or provide more formal guidance. 

Information about these wellness resources, as well as wellness and resilience blog posts and other online resources, can all be found on the Wellness Program website

The OITE wellness office can also be emailed directly to ask for more information or to schedule an appointment with a wellness advisor: oite-wellness@nih.gov.

NIH Office of the Ombudsman

Trained professionals in this office can work directly with you to address any concerns relating to personal, interpersonal, or group challenges you may face within the NIH. This office can provide confidential support. 

The NIH Office of the Ombudsman can be contacted by email: ombudsman@nih.gov or phone: 301-594-7231.

NIH Employee Assistance Program (EAP)

The NIH’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), through the Division of Occupational Health and Safety, is devoted to supporting the health and wellness of NIH employees. EAP consultants are available to discuss challenges and assess your needs if you are facing a challenging situation. These individuals can also provide guidance and coaching through workplace conflict. This office can provide confidential support. 

This office can be reached by phone: (301) 496-3164 
Business hours: 8 a.m.–5 p.m., Mon–Thurs, 7:30 a.m.–4 p.m. on Fri.

If you are a victim of harassment or experience any other serious concerns that require an escalated response, the NIH Civil Program and the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion can get involved formally.  

By familiarizing oneself with these resources and considering these suggestions, hopefully trainees can feel more empowered to cultivate their own training environment to suit and support their needs. Science is a group effort. Therefore, these relationships are not one-sided and shouldn’t be addressed by the trainee alone. Mentors and colleagues can also support trainees by being conscientious of the trainee experience and directly communicating their expectations and needs.

Resources

References

  1. Evans TM, Bira L, Gastelum JB, Weiss LT, Vanderford NL. (2018). “Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education.” Nat Biotechnol. 36(3): 282-284. https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.4089
  2. Postbac Handbook. (2019). Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE).
  3. Bennett LM, Maraia R, Gadlin H. (2014). “The ‘Welcome Letter’: A Useful Tool for Laboratories and Teams.” J Transl Med Epidemiol 2(2): 1035. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc5479682/
  4. Barker, K. (2005). At the Bench: A Laboratory Navigator (Updated Edition). Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.

In this month’s newsletter, Ashley Pratt, postbaccalaureate fellow in the Hoffman lab, begins a multi-part series on how to foster a successful postbac experience. Her first article broaches the topic of interpersonal relationships in the lab and workplace conflict.

Do you have a topic that you’d like to explore? I encourage fellows at any training level—from summer student to senior postdoc—to reach out with article ideas. No formal writing experience is necessary, and I will work closely with any volunteer writers who’d like to practice or polish their written communication skills.

While you’re pondering potential pitches (that alliteration was not intentional, I promise!), check out the slate of upcoming activities in the February Rep Report, announcements, and events. And don’t forget to reach if you’d like to contribute to future newsletter issues!

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 shana.spindler@nih.gov.

Wednesday, February 8, 1–2 PM

Postbac Seminar Series: The Medical School Personal Statement
Led by Erin Walsh, PhD, Director, NICHD Office of Education

If you are interested in attending, please email Ms. Veronica Harker (veronica.harker@nih.gov). Zoom links will be distributed a few days prior.


Thursday, February 16, 1–4 PM

NICHD DIR Tenure-Track Investigator Virtual Symposia Series
“Consequences of fetal growth restriction: Child neurodevelopmental and postnatal growth outcomes”
Hosted by Katie Grantz, MS, MD

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 https://nih.zoomgov.com/j/1617965338.


Wednesday–Thursday, February 15 & 16, All Day

19th Annual NIH Graduate Student Research Symposium
Hybrid event

The NIH Graduate Student Research Symposium is the premier event for NIH graduate students to showcase their research to the NIH community. All members of the NIH community are invited to attend. 

More information and the symposium agenda are available at https://www.training.nih.gov/gsc/symposium/19th.


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.

The NIH Workplace Civility and Equity Survey has Launched

This survey is open to all NIH fellows and trainees who joined on or before July 17, 2022. Your participation in this survey is critical for shaping our efforts to create a workplace that is conducive to the highest quality of research and is inclusive, diverse, and harassment-free for all staff.  

Last month, you should have received an email invitation from NIHWorkplaceCES@mail.nih.gov with an individualized link to complete the survey. Your response is confidential. No one at NICHD or NIH will have access to individual responses. The survey will remain open for a six-week period through February 24, 2023.
 
For more information on the NIH Workplace Civility and Equity Survey, please contact NICHDWDPS@mail.nih.gov or Jemma Robinson, Chief, Workforce Development and Planning Section (jemma.robinson@nih.gov), or visit the survey website at hr.nih.gov/wces.


Genetics Policy and Genetics Education Fellowship Opportunities

Beginning this month, applications will be accepted for the 2023–24 Genetics & Public Policy and Genetics Education & Engagement fellowships, cosponsored by the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).

For more information, and to apply, visit Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship and Genetics Education & Engagement Fellowship.


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.

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 hyowon.ahn@nih.gov.


The 2023 Independent Research Scholars (IRS) program is now accepting applications, due March 1.

  • The program supports early-stage postdoctoral fellows to transition to independent research positions.
  • Participants will be given independent resources for lab personnel and supplies and will have the benefit of mentoring to assist with scientific and career development.
  • Additional questions can be directed to Dr. Charles Dearolf, OIR Director of Program Development (dearolfc@od.nih.gov). For more information and application details, please review the Sourcebook.

FARE2024 is coming up! Abstract submission occurs Feb 15 to 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.

The Health & Recreation Sub-Committee invites postdocs to join in an interactive virtual event, “Off the Clock,” featuring fun activities to help you get to know your NIH Postdoc colleagues. Grab your favorite post-work snack or beverage and join in this low-key opportunity to connect with others.

  • The first meetup is on February 2 at 5:30 p.m. EST (virtual). Registered attendees will receive a fun mocktail recipe to enjoy during the event! 
  • If you are interested, complete the following Google form to receive calendar invites and email reminders.

Check out these additional events and community-building opportunities:

  • Interested in Yoga? Visit the Bethesda Postdocs Slack #yoga channel for more information!
  • Weekly Running Group – The Running Group meets outside Building 50 (near the canopy and outdoor tables) on the main Bethesda NIH campus. Runs are usually at 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and are organized via a separate Slack page. If you're interested, you can join here. All ability levels are welcome to join.  
  • Montgomery County, Maryland announces free recreation membership passes for county residents in 2023! The free pass provides access to fully-equipped exercise rooms, open gym activities, and game rooms at any Community Recreation Center during regularly scheduled hours.

The Service and Outreach Subcommittee invites you to a scheduled volunteer event at Manna Food Center on Saturday, February 11 from 10 a.m. to 12 noon.

  • Volunteers will be sorting and packaging incoming food in their warehouse.
  • The subcommittee is seeking about 15 volunteers (all volunteers must be vaccinated for COVID-19 and pre-registered).
  • Email alex.vendola@nih.gov, if you are interested.

The Women Scientist Advisors Committee (WSA) will be hosting the WSA Scholar Symposium on April 13 from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The WSA Scholar Symposium highlights the outstanding scientific research performed by intramural women postdoctoral fellows and FARE award winners. More details to come.

National Postdoctoral Association (NPA)

  • All NIH postdocs/fellows get NPA affiliate individual memberships for FREE! Join now!
  • There are 28,500 jobs on the NPA Career Center. Upload your resume/CV for FREE!
  • Introducing NPA SmartSkills: SmartSkills is a free, virtual course for postdocs who are members of the NPA. Monthly classes are taught by experts and focus on building skills critical to career and personal success.
    • Upcoming SmartSkills: Industry (February 28 at 3 p.m.)

Did you know…

…that there are several ways to stay informed on postdoc activities and events?

I’m not a fan of uncertainty. Some people love it—thrive on it even, but that’s not me. So, you can imagine that when the inevitable imbalance of hormones, called perimenopause, slowly crept into my daily life, I. Didn’t. Like It. Since those first few months of noticeable change, uncertainty has been everywhere. My responses to innocuous things are unpredictable. The health monitor on my watch has displayed some surprising stats. And the best adjective I can use to describe sleep quality during this time is erratic.

I know this seems like a strange outlet to discuss these issues. I’d like to argue, though, that this is exactly the place to mention it. The NICHD is a driving force in advancing research on human health and development. And you, from early career trainees to senior fellows, are a critical part of that force. Every day you decrease uncertainty through your research, your ideas, and your efforts to better understand the human body. This, in turn, makes life better for people who benefit from the results.

For those of you who prefer to know the fine details of your future, we’ve compiled a list of the regularly occurring career development workshops, courses, and awards that are available to NICHD trainees throughout the year. You’ll also find near-term events in this month’s Rep Report and the January announcements and events. Mark those calendars!

Amid much uncertainty, one thing is certain: you have many exciting opportunities ahead as NICHD fellows. Happy new year to all. Here’s to learning, advancing, and forming connections with other fellows (with a little vulnerability while doing so)

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 shana.spindler@nih.gov.

2023 NICHD Early Career Awards

The NICHD Office of the Director (OD) will be accepting applications for this competitive, internal funding opportunity aimed at promoting the research careers of early-stage intramural researchers in the basic, clinical, and translational sciences. The Early Career Awards program aims to support proposals that benefit the career development of the applicant.

Please check your email for details on this opportunity and the application process—information was provided to appropriate listservs in early December. Applications must be submitted to Ms. Sara King (mullends@mail.nih.gov) by Monday, January 16, 2023, in order to be considered.


NICHD Annual Postbac Seminar Series: Professional Development and Career Exploration

Our Annual Postbac Seminar Series continues into the new year! Join us (virtually) on Wednesdays, from 1 to 2 p.m. (schedule and details below). 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.

Currently there are about 85 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.

This series 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
  • Preparing for the medical or graduate school application cycle (including interviews!)

Have an idea for a seminar topic? Know somebody who would make a great speaker for the series? We want to hear from you! Email Dr. Erin Walsh (erin.walsh@nih.gov) with your thoughts.

Schedule of Topics (All sessions take place via Zoom, from 1 to 2 p.m. unless otherwise indicated)
January 11LinkedIn: Building a Positive Online Personal Brand (Propel Careers)
January 18The Medical School Application Process (Erin Walsh, PhD, Director, NICHD Office of Education
February 8The Medical School Personal Statement (Erin Walsh, PhD, Director, NICHD Office of Education)

Stay-tuned for additional sessions, which will be announced by email soon.

If you are interested in attending, please email Ms. Veronica Harker (veronica.harker@nih.gov) to register and let her know which sessions you plan to attend. Zoom links will be distributed a few days prior.


Three-Minute Talks (TmT) Competition 2023

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.
2023 TmT Program Timeline and Details
Friday, January 27

Deadline to Enter

  • The submission form, competition rules and judging criteria are available at the NICHD TmT Webpage.

Wednesday, February 1
1 PM (Zoom)

Three-Minute Talk Training/Introductory 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, May
Dates TBD

Individual Coaching/Practice Sessions

  • 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

  • Top three will each be awarded $500 for approved training/travel
  • Finalist (Top Score) will be chosen to advance to the NIH-wide competition

June
Date TBD

NIH TmT Competition

  • NICHD finalist has a chance at additional $500 award if their score is within the top three overall

(With NICHD, NHGRI, NIDCR, NIDCD, NIAMS, NEI, NIDDK, NIDCD, NIAID, NINDS, NLM and NIEHS)


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

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 hyowon.ahn@nih.gov. 


FelCom is recruiting! Please submit a statement of interest to both FelCom Co-Chairs, Vasty Osei Amponsa (vasty.oseiamponsa@nih.gov) and Marja Brolinson (marja.brolinson@nih.gov), if you are interested in running for one of the following positions:

The Career Development Committee and the Division of Occupational Health and Safety (DOHS) are jointly organizing a panel on “Careers in Biosafety” for trainees from all career stages. Preceding the panel, the Director of DOHS will talk about numerous underrecognized career options in Biosafety and Biosafety fellowships. The committee is planning to host this event in late January. Stay tuned for the date and time!

The Fellows Safety Committee is working with DOHS to put on a special laboratory ergonomic session hosted by William Barnett, Safety and Health Specialist, Office of the Director, NIH, so stay tuned for future meetings! The committee is also looking for members to join. If interested, please contact Anna SantaMaria (anna.santamaria@nih.gov). Join the Fellows Safety Committee Listserv at: FELLOW-SAFETY-COMM@LIST.NIH.GOV.

The Service and Outreach Subcommittee shared volunteering opportunities in Montgomery County, MD:

  • Individual opportunity: dog walkers are urgently needed at the Montgomery County Animal Services & Adoption Center in Derwood, MD.
  • More volunteering opportunities can be found in this database.

National Postdoctoral Association (NPA)

  • All NIH postdocs/fellows get NPA affiliate individual memberships for FREE! Join now!
  • There are 28,500 jobs on the NPA Career Center. Upload your resume/CV for FREE!
  • Introducing NPA SmartSkills: SmartSkills is a free, virtual course for postdocs who are members of the NPA. Monthly classes are taught by experts and focus on building skills critical to career and personal success.
  • Upcoming events hosted by NPA: The 2023 NPA annual conference is scheduled in person (April 21–23, 2023) and virtual (May 11 & 12, 2023). Find more information here.

The Epidemiology and Behavioral Science Teams Group is calling all NIH Epi and Behavioral Science trainees to join their Teams Group to collaborate with other fellows, ask methods questions, and network with folks doing similar research. For any questions, reach out to postdoctoral fellows Jessica Fernandez (jessica.fernandez@nih.gov) or Jennifer Woo (jennifer.woo@nih.gov).

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

Wednesday, January 11, 1–2 PM

Building A Positive Online Personal Brand Using LinkedIn
Led by Lauren Celano, CEO and Co-founder of Propel Careers

For those of you interested in creating or improving your LinkedIn page, this webinar will provide guidance on leveraging this platform for developing your professional online brand. You will dive deep into which parts of a profile to focus on and how to customize your profile to your career area(s) of interest. Ms. Lauren Celano will discuss:

  • Strategies for highlighting your background and experiences as a compliment to your resume
  • How organizations use LinkedIn to identify talent for open positions and which sections are most important
  • How to use the job preference features to inform internal and external recruiters about what you’re looking for

To register, please email Ms. Katherine Lamb (katherine.lamb@nih.gov). The Zoom link will be circulated a few days prior to the event. Trainees of all levels are encouraged to attend!


Thursday, January 12, 1–4 PM

NICHD DIR Tenure-Track Investigator Virtual Symposia Series
“Axon biology in health and disease”
Hosted by Claire Le Pichon, 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 https://nih.zoomgov.com/j/1617965338.


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.

Paula Gregory, PhD, Associate Dean for Faculty & Educational Development at University of North Texas, offers grant writing guidance to NIH fellows through a series of workshops and a full course specifically focusing on the K99/R00 funding opportunity. These programs are highly recommended for trainees who plan to transition into an academic career. Until the next offering, here are Dr. Paula Gregory’s top tips on grant writing according to two NICHD fellows who recently attended one of her workshops.

Jeremie Oliver

Graduate Student, D’Souza laboratory

Jeremie Oliver headshot in a circular frame

“Always remember that grant reviewers have a broad range of backgrounds. Even though your proposal must be focused, it also must be understandable to everyone.

This workshop taught me not only how to construct an entire grant application using my own primary data, it taught me how to articulate my hypotheses, preliminary results, and experimental approaches in concise and understandable terms. Paula and her course opened my eyes to the principles and skills inherent to writing fundable grants at the trainee level and beyond.”


Joyce Thompson, PhD

Postdoctoral Fellow, Rocha laboratory

Joyce Thompson headshot in a circular frame

“Paula asks students to share their aims page and other documents and opens discussion from the rest of the class. I benefited a lot from sharing my aims page without hesitation.

[A useful strategy] I learned from my experience submitting the K99 was to just keep going. The K99 has so many documents, and it can seem intimidating and daunting. To make getting to the finish line easier, I used an Excel document containing a list of the application documents and their page limits. I set deadlines for each document, and as I finished them, I crossed them out. When I got stuck on a document, I just took a break and wrote some of the easier parts.”

Have you ever read an announcement and thought to yourself, I wish I had known about this sooner! Let’s try to prevent that. Check out some of the NICHD-specific training opportunities, awards, and seminars for 2023 below—and make a plan. Future you will thank you.

Three-Minute Talks (TmT) Competition 2023

This is a competition among intramural trainees to communicate, in three minutes or less, the substance of their research and its significance to improving human health—in such a way that can be understood by a broad scientific audience. Intramural fellows (postbacs, graduate students, postdocs, and clinical fellows) can enter the competition by completing a submission form (using the link below) by Friday, January 27, 2023.

Up to 10 fellows will be invited as NICHD semifinalists to compete for these science communication honors. All participants will receive professional coaching for oral presentation skills. See the January announcements for the full program timeline and visit the NICHD TmT Competition website for more details.

NICHD Early Career Awards

Postdoctoral fellows, research fellows, and clinical fellows in the NICHD Divisions of Intramural Research and Population Health Research are eligible to apply for the Early Career Awards. The Early Career Awards program aims to support proposals that benefit the career development of the applicant. Applications must be submitted by Monday, January 16, 2023, in order to be considered. See the January announcements for more information.

Intramural Research Fellowships

This is a competitive internal funding opportunity for NICHD postdoctoral and clinical fellows in their second or third year of training. The purpose of this research award is to promote grant writing among our intramural fellows while enhancing awareness of various application components for an NIH grant. Applications are typically due around the beginning of September.

Please note that attending the application training session is a requirement for submission. Led by the Office of Education, the session will cover various parts of an NIH grant and the review process for this fellowship. The training session is typically held in June (via Zoom). More information about this award program can be found online at Intramural Research Fellowships.

NICHD Fellows Intramural Grants Supplement (FIGS) Award

The objective of the NICHD FIGS program is to encourage fellows in the DIR to apply for competitive funding from intramural NIH or outside organizations and agencies, in order to develop their skills in grantsmanship, and in support of their career development. Award recipients are also contributing to the DIR by bringing in additional funding and resources, and as such merit recognition from the Institute.

More information about the application process can be found on the FIGS Wiki, and a list of funding opportunities for NIH Intramural fellows is available from the NICHD Office of Education.

NICHD Annual Postbac Seminar Series: Professional Development and Career Exploration

This series enriches the research experience of NICHD postbac fellows and prepares postbacs for their chosen career paths. Meetings occur (virtually) on Wednesdays, from 1 to 2 p.m. See the January announcements for additional details and a schedule of upcoming topics.

The NICHD DIR Tenure-Track Investigator Virtual Symposia Series

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. Symposia are held monthly on the second Thursday of the month at 1 p.m., and are open to all NIH faculty, trainees, and staff. Upcoming topics include:

DateTitleHost
January 12, 2023Axon biology in health and diseaseDr. Claire Le Pichon
February 16, 2023Consequences of fetal growth restriction: child neurodevelopmental and postnatal growth outcomesDr. Katie Grantz
March 9, 2023Bedside to Bench in Vascular AnomaliesDr. Sarah Sheppard
April 13, 2023Disentangling host-microbe interactions through the analysis of high dimensional multi-omics dataDr. Jamie Morton

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 hyowon.ahn@nih.gov. 


News from the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE):

  • OITE is planning an in-person “hot chocolate/coffee get together” in December—stay tuned!
  • Policy reminder: the US federal government does not allow trainees to work remotely when when abroad. Additional remote work is available at the following OITE webpage: NIH Trainee Telework

The Office of Intramural Research (OIR) welcomes Dr. Nina Schor as Deputy Director of Intramural Research (no longer acting). Read more here.

FelCom has two open liaison positions! If you are interested in running for one of the positions, please submit a statement of interest to both FelCom Co-Chairs: Vasty Osei Amponsa (vasty.oseiamponsa@nih.gov) and Marja Brolinson (marja.brolinson@nih.gov).

The Women Scientist Advisors Committee (WSA) shared key points from a recent meeting:

  • When WSA was founded 30 years ago, only 19% of IRP tenured scientists were women. Now, 27% of tenured scientists are women, still a relatively low number. However, 44% of tenure-track investigators are women. The 2022 Intramural Program Personnel Demographics can be found here.

The Health & Recreation Subcommittee is planning activities for the upcoming year and wants fellows to fill out a survey to mark the social events of your choice!

Looking for updates on events or to connect with other postdocs? Check out Bethesda Postdocs Slack! Despite the name, this Slack page is for all fellows! Join with a non-NIH e-mail here.

National Postdoctoral Associations (NPA)

  • All NIH postdocs/fellows get NPA affiliate individual memberships for FREE! Join now!
  • There are 28,500 jobs on the NPA Career Center. Upload your resume/CV for FREE!
  • Introducing NPA SmartSkills: SmartSkills is a free, virtual course for postdocs who are members of the NPA. Monthly classes are taught by experts and focus on building skills critical to career and personal success.
  • Upcoming event hosted by the NPA: The 2023 NPA annual conference is scheduled for in person (April 21–23, 2023) and virtual (May 11 & 12, 2023). Find more information here.

New Learning Opportunity: Coursera Licenses Available through OITE

Have you been wanting to learn a new topic, earn a certification, or just brush up on a topic you haven’t studied in a while?!? Coursera is an online learning platform offering courses on a large variety of topics. The Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) has purchased a large number of Coursera Course Licenses, providing access to courses in data science, informatics, biomedical sciences, scientific writing, and more. These licenses include access to almost the entire Coursera catalog at: https://www.coursera.org/browse.

Complete the online application to indicate your interest in participating in the NIH Learning Program @Coursera and please indicate your trainee level (postbac, student, postdoc/fellow) under the section titled “career status.” There are a limited number of licenses available. If a license is not available, you will be placed on the waitlist and receive contact when a license becomes available. Accounts that are inactive will be reassigned to the next person on the waitlist.

For questions about the licenses, please contact Dr. Phil Ryan at ryanp@mail.nih.gov.


Interested in Taking an FAES Course for Your Professional Development?

The Office of Education will sponsor several NICHD fellows and graduate students to enroll in a career/professional development course or workshop through the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences (FAES) for the spring 2023 semester. Course information can be found in the FAES 2022–2023 course catalog.

If you are interested, please contact Ms. Katherine Lamb (katherine.lamb@nih.gov) at least four weeks before class begins. It is important that you discuss this with your mentor and that he/she is supportive of your participation.


AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Summer Fellowship

Applications due January 2!

From the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship website:

“This highly competitive program strengthens the connections between scientists and journalists by placing advanced undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate level scientists, engineers, and mathematicians at media organizations nationwide. Fellows work as journalists at media organizations such as National Public Radio, Los Angeles Times, WIRED, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and NOVA…

…For 10 weeks during the summer, the AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows collaborate with media professionals at radio and television stations, newspapers, and magazines. As part of their job, the scientists and their journalist-hosts strive to make science news easy for the public to understand.”

For additional information about the program visit aaas.org/mmfellowship.


Save the Date: Building a Positive Online Personal Brand Using LinkedIn

Wednesday, January 11, 1–2 p.m.

For those of you interested in creating or improving your LinkedIn page, this webinar will provide guidance on leveraging this platform for developing your professional online brand. You will dive deep into which parts of a profile to focus on and how to customize your profile to your career area(s) of interest. Ms. Lauren Celano will discuss:

  • Strategies for highlighting your background and experiences as a compliment to your resume
  • How organizations use LinkedIn to identify talent for open positions and which sections are most important
  • How to use the job preference features to inform internal and external recruiters about what you’re looking for

To register, please email Ms. Katherine Lamb (katherine.lamb@nih.gov). The Zoom link will be circulated a few days prior to the event.


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

Wednesday, December 7, 1–2 PM

How to Evaluate, Build, and Highlight Transferrable and Career Relevant Skills
Led by Lauren Celano, CEO and co-founder of Propel Careers

Lauren Celano will provide insight on how to evaluate the transferable skills that are valued in various scientific careers, highlighting the essential non-scientific skills you can build while performing research, and demonstrating ways to apply these skills in your desired career to achieve your goals. Advice will be provided for various career paths, including research and non-research roles. Lauren will also provide guidance on how to package scientific and non-scientific skills on resumes, cover letters, and during interviews.


Thursday, December 8, 1–3 PM

NICHD DIR Tenure-Track Investigator Virtual Symposia Series
“Impact of social and socioeconomic disadvantage on children’s diet and eating behavior”
Hosted by Bobby Cheon, 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 https://nih.zoomgov.com/j/1617965338.


Wednesday, December 14, 1–3 PM

Chalk Talks with Scott Morgan

Chalk Talks are an increasingly important component of science communication. Once reserved for academic interviews, they are now common in industry and for tenure-track positions, such as the NIH Earl Stadtman Investigators program. This workshop will focus on the components that make an effective chalk talk and provide a safe place to practice new skills.

Topics include:

  • Connection to job talks
  • Relevance to faculty
  • What to draw on the white/blackboard
  • Levels of detail
  • Question anticipation
  • Tone and delivery

If you would like to attend, please contact Ms. Katherine Lamb (katherine.lamb@nih.gov).


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.

The NICHD 17th Annual Meeting of Postdoctoral, Clinical, and Visiting Fellows, and Graduate Students and Postbacs took place virtually on September 29, 2022. Dr. Henry Levin, Senior Investigator in the Section on Eukaryotic Transposable Elements, opened the day with a big thank you to the NICHD Office of Education and retreat steering committee. He then commented on the pandemic and its impact on the research and mental wellness of NIH fellows before offering a celebration of recent NICHD trainee scientific accomplishments (see our 2022 Year in Review!).

Following Dr. Levin’s opening remarks, fellows were treated to a day of learning and career exploration. The day included two insightful keynotes, a review of innovative culture at NICHD, multiple career focus panels, and engaging presentations from 27 trainees (including 16 three-minute poster talks).

Please enjoy the following recap of the morning keynote, the NICHD Innovative Culture Initiative introduction, and the featured fellow presentations from the 2022 Virtual Fellows Retreat—all written by NICHD trainees.

The 2022 Retreat Steering Committee

Chair: Anna Santamaria, PhD (postdoc, Rouault Lab)

  • Hyo Won Ahn, PhD (postdoc, Levin Lab)
  • Avik Dutta, PhD (postdoc, Love Lab)
  • Henry Lessen, PhD (former postdoc, Sodt Lab)
  • Amrita Mandal, PhD (postdoc, Balla Lab)
  • Thien Nguyen, PhD (postdoc, Gandjbakhche Lab)
  • Jeremie Oliver (graduate student, D’Souza Lab)
  • Tusharkumar Patel, PhD (postdoc, Yanovski Lab)
  • Christina Porras, PhD (postdoc, Rouault Lab)
  • Megha Rajendran, PhD(postdoc, Bezrukov Lab)
  • Bo-Mi Song, PhD(postdoc, Stopfer Lab)
  • Sanjana Sundararajan, PhD (postdoc, Dasso Lab)
  • Abhinav Sur, PhD(postdoc, Farrell Lab)

Decoding Signals, Developing Therapies

Lysosomes are more than degradative compartments, said Rosa Puertollano, PhD, Senior Investigator, Laboratory of Protein Trafficking and Organelle Biology, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, during her keynote presentation at the fellow’s retreat. She emphasized throughout her talk that lysosomes have an important role in cellular stress response, signaling, and disease.

Dr. Puertollano detailed how extracellular signals pass through lysosomes, combine with cytosolic signals, and form signaling cascades that can regulate transcription inside the nucleus. For example, nutrient deprivation inhibits the lysosome localized mammalian target of rapamycin complex (mTORC1) and activates the transcription factor TFEB, upregulating multiple lysosomal and autophagy-related genes. In fact, the latest research from Dr. Puertollano’s lab places TFEB and TFE3 (another transcription factor) as important cogs in the cellular response to oxidative and DNA damage, as well as defense against pathogen infection.

Dr. Puertollano also presented research into Pompe disease, a lysosomal storage disorder caused by defects in the lysosomal enzyme Acid Alpha Glucosidase (GAA). This lysosomal disfunction ultimately leads to a buildup of aberrant mitochondria and autophagic vesicles, thereby starting a signaling cascade of cell death. Her research is tackling the disease by increasing the efficacy of enzyme replacement therapy while at the same time developing novel gene therapy methods.

Summarizing her career, Dr. Puertollano emphasized that planning early for the postdoctoral to principal investigator transition is critical, and she encouraged fellows to identify nascent fields where many fundamental discoveries can be made. Her keynote address showcased how fundamental research in cell and molecular biology can provide insights that lead to better therapies and cures for diseases. It was an inspiring story that set the tone for the rest of the retreat.


Cultivating an Innovative Culture at NICHD

The NICHD Innovative Culture Initiative (3.1.2) was conceived as a result of the Management and Accountability focus area of the NICHD Strategic Plan 2020. The core team proposed several definitions for innovation based on benchmarking and best practices. After polling senior leaders at NICHD, the Institute now defines innovation as “translating NICHD’s evolving needs and opportunities into new or improved services, processes, systems, or social interactions that promote an enhanced workforce, infrastructure, efficiency, and a culture that encourages continuous improvement through creativity and idea exploration.”

Benchmarking results and interviews from peer organizations suggest that focusing on four main elements—people, behavior/values, governance, and sustainability—may support successful development of an innovative culture. The two main aims of the initiative are (1) to reinforce a culture where staff feels empowered to propose solutions and communicate new ideas that will encourage continuous improvement and stimulate change, and (2) to develop processes and strategies for promoting innovative best practices that can be incorporated into the NICHD working environment.

In October of this year, the 2022 NICHD Innovative Culture Survey was distributed to all NICHD full-time staff and fellows to evaluate the extent to which the Institute’s current culture supports innovation. Building on the survey, focus groups will further clarify insights and feedback. Please reach out to NICHDInnovativeCulture@mail.nih.gov if you would like to volunteer to be part of a focus group! Participation is very welcomed!


Featured Fellow Talks

Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Induces Multiple Response Pathways in Cortical Neurons

Mor Alkaslasi with her hair in a low ponytail and green trees behind her

Mor Alkaslasi

Mild Traumatic Brain Injury has widespread effects on the brain, from blood vessel damage to the induction of glial responses, but it is unclear how these injuries affect the health of individual neurons. Mor Alkaslasi, a graduate student in the Le Pichon laboratory (Unit on the Development of Neurodegeneration), studies how neurons respond to this type of injury at the cellular level.

Using a mouse model with fluorescently tagged neurons that activate Activated Transcription Factor 3 (Atf3), a transcription factor expressed in injured neurons, Ms. Alkaslasi observed the morphology of sensory and motor cortex neurons following mild traumatic brain injury. While most Atf3-expressing neurons were undergoing apoptosis, the change in the number of Atf3-expressing neurons following mild traumatic brain injury differed across cortical layers and neuron type. Ms. Alkaslasi also conducted single-nucleus RNA sequencing and found differences in genetic expression that may be predictive of whether the neurons would die. Future work aims to elucidate the different pathways that are employed by neuron types in response to mild traumatic brain injury.

Characterization and Categorization of Transcriptional Trajectories During Zebrafish Development

Abhinav Sur in a dark jacket and white button-down shirt

Abhinav Sur, PhD

With the vast number of cell types that generate during animal development, biological systems must coordinate this differentiation through programmed genetic expression. Abhinav Sur, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Farrell laboratory (Unit on Cell Specification and Differentiation), seeks to characterize such gene expression programs through his work using single-cell transcriptomics and bioinformatic analyses.

Dr. Sur and his colleagues have created a high-resolution single-cell gene expression atlas of zebrafish development encompassing the first five days of embryogenesis. Using this atlas, they explored whether gene expression programs are shared across distinct tissues and have shed light on poorly understood cell types. Specifically, the team found a poorly understood cell type in the zebrafish intestine called best4+/otop2+ cells that were only recently discovered (in 2019) in the human intestine. These cells share several genes expressed in human counterparts. Dr. Sur has characterized the sequence of transcriptional changes underlying the development of many cell types including best4+/otop2+ cells. The team is currently developing an online resource, called Daniocell, to openly share this atlas with other researchers across the world.

A Medley of Metals and Proteins in Iron Sensing

Anna SantaMaria in the lab

Anna SantaMaria, PhD

The production of red blood cells relies on a dance between regulatory proteins and iron. While iron is an element essential for many functions in the body including red blood cell production and oxygen transport, a high level of free iron causes toxicity and cell death. Anna SantaMaria, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in the Rouault lab (Section on Human Iron Metabolism), wants to understand how intracellular iron levels are sensed and controlled.

In cells, most iron atoms are stored in a large iron-storing protein called ferritin. When intracellular iron levels are high, a protein called Nuclear Receptor Coactivator 4 (NCOA4) prevents ferritin from being engulfed by autophagosomes, the cellular degradation system, and iron stays safely locked up. However, under iron starvation, NCOA4 promotes the degradation of ferritin-iron complexes allowing for the release of iron from storage. Dr. SantaMaria’s preliminary research suggests that NCOA4 may be binding iron-sulfur cluster(s) when iron levels are sufficient, thus allowing it to sense and react to iron levels. In the future, she plans to use spectroscopic techniques to detect the signatures of iron-sulfur clusters bound to NCOA4. Additionally, she aims to determine biological function of the putative iron-sulfur cluster by mutagenizing the iron-sulfur cluster binding residues in NCOA4 and observing the effect on iron metabolism and red blood cell production.

How Radiopharmaceuticals are Used to Detect Pheochromocytoma

Abhishek Jha at a poster session

Abhishek Jha, MD

Abhishek Jha, MD, research fellow in the Pacak laboratory (Section on Medical Neuroendocrinology), studies the diagnostic performances of various radiopharmaceuticals in the detection of pheochromocytoma and paraganglioma. Pheochromocytomas (PHEOs) are rare neuroendocrine tumors originating from chromaffin cells of the adrenal gland, and paragangliomas are those that arise extra-adrenally. Normally found in adrenals or in groups of nerve cells called ganglia, chromaffin cells are responsible for producing neurotransmitters, such as adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine), and releasing them into the blood stream. However, an overabundance of neurotransmitters from PHEOs can prove catastrophic for patients.

To determine the most sensitive diagnostic functional imaging modality in patients with PHEOs caused due to mutation in rearranged during transfection (RET), Dr. Jha compared positron emission tomography/computed tomography (PET/CT) scans using several radiopharmaceuticals (18F-FDOPA, 68Ga-DOTATATE, 18F-FDG, 18F-FDA) in 19 patients. Dr. Jha found that 18F-FDOPA had the highest detection rate, but due to the small number of patients, he emphasized that a larger multicentric study is warranted.

How Zebrafish Repair Blood Vessels

Leah Greenspan in a dark flowered blouse

Leah Greenspan, PhD

Leah Greenspan, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in the Weinstein laboratory (Section on Vertebrate Organogenesis), investigates the cellular behaviors and molecular mechanisms driving blood and lymphatic vessel repair after injury. Her latest work suggests that signaling mechanisms differ between initial vessel patterning versus vessel healing.

Using transgenic adult fish, Dr. Greenspan delivered skin-deep cuts and visualized blood and lymphatic vessel regrowth through high-resolution confocal microscopy. While the injury completely healed after ten days, vessel patterning didn’t return to its preinjury state. To examine how endothelial cells move during injury, Dr. Greenspan induced cell death in a small subset of vessels in larval zebrafish. While most blood vessels reconnected normally due to endothelial cell migration, some vessels adopted a new identity, demonstrating the plasticity of vessels after injury. As a next step, Dr. Greenspan plans to analyze gene expression changes during damage and recovery.

On Our Way to a New Preclinical Model for Juvenile ALS?

Zoe Piccus in a light red heathered top

Zoe Piccus

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a fatal neurodegenerative disease, typically appearing around 40 to 50 years of age. Juvenile ALS onset, however, is before the age of 25. Juvenile ALS has been associated with mutations in an enzyme that initiates and regulates biosynthesis of sphingolipids, important membrane lipids with roles in development and cell function. These mutations are predicted to increase canonical sphingolipid levels. Zoe Piccus, a graduate student in the Le Pichon laboratory (Unit on the Development of Neurodegeneration), studies the connection between sphingolipid levels and disease pathology in a preclinical animal model of juvenile ALS.

Ms. Piccus generated a mouse model containing the juvenile-associated ALS mutation and assessed the mice for elevated sphingolipid levels and ALS-like neurodegeneration. Piccus found that circulating sphingolipids in serum harvested from mutant mice exhibited increased levels of canonical sphingolipids. The mutant mice also demonstrated a neurodegenerative phenotype characterized by age dependent increases in serum neural filaments, changes in nerve ultrastructure, signs of degenerating axons, decreases in nerve to muscle connectivity, and mislocalization of certain proteins—supporting its use as an animal model of juvenile ALS.

A Novel Player in Arterial Development

Miranda Marvel in a green knit sweater

Miranda Marvel, PhD

Epigenetic modifications trigger large-scale, programmatic changes during development. Postdoctoral fellow Miranda Marvel, PhD, in the Weinstein laboratory (Section on Vertebrate Organogenesis) recently identified kdm4ab as a novel epigenetic regulator of arterial development in zebrafish.

Zebrafish development serves as a foundation for understanding human development, thus understanding epigenetic regulators of the circulatory system has direct implications on human health. Dr. Marvel used EpiTag transgenic zebrafish, which differentially express fluorescent proteins in response to changes in DNA or histone methylation, to link abnormal epigenetic patterns with defects in arterial vessel development. Looking for fish with abnormal arterial vessels, she zeroed in on a gene called kdm4ab. The kdm4ab mutant zebrafish exhibited downregulated arterial gene markers and upregulated venous marker genes, according to RNA-seq experiments. Dr. Marvel plans to further examine the association between downregulated arterial marker genes and altered histone methylation patterns to better assess kdm4ab’s epigenetic role.

The Beauty of (A)symmetry

Tyler Bruno wearing a blue suit

Tyler Bruno

Structural asymmetries are essential across all stages of development. For example, asymmetries help orient cells along the plane of a tissue. Tyler Bruno, a postbaccalaureate fellow working in the Sackett laboratory (Cytoskeletal Dynamics Group), previously studied (with Dr. Becky Burdine at Princeton University) the role of a protein called Kurly in establishing these asymmetries during embryonic development. The role of Kurly in establishing developmental asymmetries in ciliated tissues has been extensively detailed, but Mr. Bruno wants to uncover Kurly’s role in development in nonciliated tissue contexts.

Mr. Bruno first explored the impacts of Kurly mutations on early zebrafish development. At early stages, Kurly mutants divided into disorganized clumps of cells—in contrast with the well-structured wild-type—but the mutant morphology normalized by the 256-cell stage. Bruno also characterized the downstream impacts of Kurly’s role in cellular asymmetry by measuring cellular shape and structure at both early and later developmental time stages. In all, Mr. Bruno hypothesized that Kurly serves as a scaffolding protein, recruiting other proteins that help initialize polarized cellular processes.

Just Keep Breathing: Zebrafish Gills as a Model of Lung Endothelium

Jong Park out in nature

Jong Park, PhD

The animal models currently available to study gas-exchange functions in vertebrates are limited. Jong Park, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Weinstein laboratory (Section on Vertebrate Organogenesis), presented the zebrafish gill as a new model for studying gas exchange in the vascular endothelium.

Dr. Park showed that the externally located zebrafish gills provide a unique model for studying gas exchange because they are optically clear and experimentally accessible, unlike mammalian lungs. Using single-cell RNA sequencing of dissected adult zebrafish gills, Dr. Park found that many specialized lung cell types are conserved in gills, and he identified a novel vascular endothelial cell subtype. In situ hybridization revealed that these novel cells are localized to the highly vascularized distal tips of the gill filaments where oxygen exchange takes place, suggesting an important role for these cells. As Dr. Park continues to characterize these novel endothelial cells using transgenic lines, he hopes to uncover their role in zebrafish models of lung diseases, such as acute respiratory distress syndrome, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or even COVID-19.

New Animal Models Could Aid Intellectual Disability Research

Rachel Cosby with a brick wall background

Rachel Cosby, PhD

Mutations in a Thanatos-Associated Protein (THAP)-coding gene called THAP7 could be responsible for some forms of intellectual disability (ID), according to DNA analysis conducted by Rachel Cosby, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Macfarlan laboratory (Section on Mammalian Epigenome Reprogramming). Dr. Cosby utilized this insight from human patients to develop animal models of ID.

ID affects about two percent of individuals worldwide and is characterized by an IQ of less than 70, in addition to major skill impairments. The THAP7 gene is conserved across vertebrates, which enabled Dr. Cosby to observe mutant THAP7 phenotypes in a zebrafish model. Loss of THAP7 function led to reduced longevity in zebrafish, confirming the significance of THAP7 for organism health. Dr. Cosby also created a THAP7 knock-out mouse and will characterize the phenotypes of the mouse to evaluate its potential as a model for ID. Dr. Cosby plans to elucidate the unexplored functions of THAP7 to further uncover the pathology of ID induced by this mutation.

Demystifying Ribosomal DNA Repeats

Paul Atkins out in the snow with his black Labrador

Paul Atkins, PhD

Tandem repeats are an important, yet mysterious characteristic of ribosomal DNA (rDNA), the DNA that encodes the RNA strands critical for ribosomal function. Across species, some rDNA sequences are highly conserved while others are variable. Paul Atkins, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Levin laboratory (Section on Eukaryotic Transposable Elements), is developing S. pombe (a type of fission yeast) as a model organism in which to study rDNA tandem repeats.

Dr. Atkins designed a pipeline to compare yeast genome datasets and created a novel method for assembling rDNA repeats from long DNA sequences. He compared 95 strains of S. pombe and S. kambucha and found a five-fold range of variation in rDNA repeat numbers. To explore the underlying mechanism of the variation, he performed a genome-wide association study and identified differences in genes that are involved in DNA maintenance, replication, and homologous recombination. Dr. Atkins plans to further investigate the role of these newly identified genes in regulating rDNA repeat number.