NSF BIO Assistant Director visits Ecological Society of America Centennial Meeting

by Dr. Jim Olds, BIO AD

This week, the Ecological Society of America (ESA) Centennial Meeting was held in Baltimore, Maryland, so I was able to visit and learn about some of the exciting research our NSF-funded students and PIs are doing in the field of ecology.

ESA banner


In the morning, I had an informative meet-and-greet session with a number of researchers who stopped by to chat with me about their research and their concerns and hopes regarding the future of biological science. We discussed the value of collaborative networks, of regional to continental scale data collection and access, of core funding through BIO’s Divisions, and a variety of other topics. Most important, I got to listen, ask questions, and learn from the scientific community. Though I am a neuroscientist, I am fascinated by and dedicated to absorbing as much information as I can about the fundamental science of the disciplines that are supported by the Directorate. As a young researcher and later as a mentor, I had the privilege of working at Woods Hole in Massachusetts, which fostered my appreciation for the dynamic nature of ecological studies and the challenges faced by researchers tasked with elucidating the interactions of organisms and their environments.

Dr. Olds with PIs during the morning meet and greet.

In the morning, I chatted with researchers from the University of Minnesota, UC Irvine, the University of Utah, and the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.

In the afternoon, I attended the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) session which included many Ignite-style presentations about the data and resources that NEON is or will be providing. The Q & A in this session gave me and other BIO staff members the chance to hear some of the questions the scientific community has about the Observatory. I followed up this session by attending some great podium presentations about collaborative networks and the Global Lakes Ecological Observatory Network (GLEON).

In the afternoon, I had the chance to talk with more researchers during another meet-and-greet session and visited the BIO booth in the Exhibit Hall. Many thanks to the BIO staff who took the time to speak with ESA attendees about the programs and resources BIO has to offer.

NSF booth at ESA

A great day culminated in a Synthesis Center Reception co-hosted by SESYNC, NIMBioS, NCEAS, and the John Wesley Powell Center for Earth System Science Analysis and Synthesis.

What is synthesis?

Synthesis centers are a signature activity for the Directorate. NCEAS began as an NSF-funded center and paved the way for other NSF-funded centers, including the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCEnt) at Duke, SESYNC, located in Annapolis, and NIMBioS at the University of Tennessee, which have all been great successes. These centers provide resources and sophisticated infrastructure to allow researchers from varied disciplines to gather together to address new questions that require the synthesis of data.

BIO Synthesis Centers

It was a great day at ESA! I look forward to attending other professional society meetings and conferences throughout my tenure as Assistant Director of BIO.

Mysteries of the Brain: Frontiers in Neuroscience

by Dr. Jim Olds, BIO AD

On Thursday, July 9, I had the pleasure of moderating a wonderful briefing on Capitol Hill, “Mysteries of the Brain: Frontiers in Neuroscience.” The National Science Foundation, Society for Neuroscience, and The Optical Society came together to co-sponsor this opportunity for Congress and the public to hear directly from leading researchers in brain science how far we have come and where we are headed when it comes to understanding the brain.


In 2012, Congress encouraged NSF to create a cross-Foundational activity in Cognitive Science and Neuroscience. Congress recognized that NSF was uniquely positioned to advance research in these areas and NSF responded by developing a cognitive science and neuroscience roadmap outlining our priority areas and potential funding mechanisms.

Then, in Fiscal Year 2013, President Obama announced the multi-agency BRAIN Initiative, with NSF as one of the three lead agencies, along with the National Institutes of Health and DARPA. As a result, the Biological Sciences Directorate—in cooperation with other NSF Directorates (SBE, MPS, CISE, and ENG) —initiated Understanding the Brain, a unique program for fundamental research in neural circuits and neurotechnology, which draws together NSF’s ongoing activities in Cognitive Science and Neuroscience and new BRAIN Initiative activities.

Understanding the Brain aims to generate the tools needed to explore healthy brain function and to establish a comprehensive understanding of how thoughts, memories, and actions emerge from the dynamic activities of the brain.  As Congressman Fattah stated at the briefing, “There is so much for us to learn!”

Learn more about the National Science Foundation’s Understanding the Brain program at http://www.nsf.gov/brain

Dr. Scott Thompson, Chair of the Public Education and Communication Committee for the Society for Neuroscience, and Chair of the Department of Physiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, agreed with the Congressman that there is an exciting future ahead for neuroscience and he emphasized the value of training and research for undergraduate students.


Another highlight of the event was watching an introduction to the new video series, “Mysteries of the Brain,” co-produced by NSF and NBC Learn. This series eloquently communicates the value and excitement of fundamental brain research and I hope you will find time to watch these terrific videos online.

Mysteries of the Brain

After the video, we enjoyed three dynamic presentations from scientists at the forefront of brain research. Dr. Gary Lynch from the University of California, Irvine, has uncovered deep connections between learning and memory and his team’s work has played a key role in forming the modern theory of how synapses—the gaps between adjacent nerve cells—encode memory. Dr. Lynch has received multiple grants for basic brain research from the National Science Foundation with potential applications to education and human health. Recently, Dr. Lynch has been using a novel class of drugs in an attempt to reverse the negative effects of aging on the anatomy and physiology of brain cells.


Dr. Spencer Smith joined us from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he runs a neuroscience and neuroengineering laboratory. Dr. Smith is working to understand neural circuits to expand our understanding of how the brain processes information. Dr. Smith and his multidisciplinary team of scientists and engineers are developing novel optical systems to create high resolution images of nerve cell activity, for which he and his colleagues received one of the first BRAIN EAGER grants from the National Science Foundation.


Finally, we were privileged to hear from Dr. Aude Oliva from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Oliva has also received support from the National Science Foundation, including a Faculty Early Career Development Program grant for her work categorizing and identifying visual scenes. Dr. Oliva’s work combines state-of-the-art methods in neuroscience, cognitive science, and computer science to discover and model how perception and cognition are realized both in human and in artificial minds.


These three speakers discussed new, key, discoveries about the organ we think of today as more efficient than a 20-Watt ultrahigh performance supercomputer—the brain. They shared new insights about everything from how individual neurons operate to how distant parts of the brain work together, enabling us to learn, see and do almost everything we do.  It was so exciting to hear how science is finally unlocking the secrets to how memories are made and retained, and how we are developing new high-tech tools for seeing the brain in action.  It was evident some of this research will be the foundation for future treatments for degenerative brain diseases and traumatic brain injuries.

On behalf of the National Science Foundation and the Biological Sciences Directorate, I want to thank everyone involved in this event. It was a great day for science!

Understanding the Rules of Life: Examining the Role of Team Science

by Dr. Jim Olds, BIO AD

The National Academies recently released the report, Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science. This report was co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Elsevier. The goal of this consensus study was to examine the science of team science, or the collaborative process by which “large and small scientific teams, research centers, and institutes organize, communicate, and conduct research.”1 Some of the outcomes of this study are relevant to the NSF as a funding agency; for example, the study committee recommends that:

  • Public and private funders foster a culture within the scientific community that supports those who want to undertake team science through:
    • funding, white papers, training workshops, and other approaches.
  • Funders should work with the scientific community to:
    • encourage the development and implementation of new collaborative models (e.g., research networks, consortia),
    • develop incentives for team science, and
    • provide resources (e.g., information repositories, training modules).
  • Funding programs should support research on the effectiveness of science teams and larger groups, which will require community effort (e.g., new topics and new research methods).

team science quote

The ideas and recommendations in the report led me to consider the role of team science and single-Principal Investigator (PI) science in light of how BIO-funded researchers can contribute to understanding the rules of life. As a neuroscientist, I “grew up” in a world of single-PIs, but the next generation in neuroscience–my postdocs and grad students–are all part of big team science, in part due to the sheer complexity of the problem of understanding the brain. Thinking across biology, however, we see a more diverse picture. Though there are pieces of understanding the rules of life that require a team approach–for instance, when mapping out the wiring diagram of the brain (the connectome)–there are many problems that are beautifully amenable to single-PI science. For example, individual researchers may work toward understanding and enhancing photosynthesis, or sequencing Archaea from deep in the ocean to investigate the evolution of eukaryotic cells. Other projects may be a hybrid state of affairs between single-PI research and team science.

I think that there has always been a healthy balance at NSF between our experience and excellence in running big team science programs, facilities, and centers and our commitment across the Foundation to the Core Programs and single-PI research, and this serves the Foundation well. Some areas of research, like neuroscience, may be existence proofs for the effectiveness of team science; however, it is worth examining the science of team science within the various disciplines and sub-disciplines that contribute to our understanding of the rules of life.

1 National Academies, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. The Science of Team Science, Project Scope: http://sites.nationalacademies.org/dbasse/bbcss/currentprojects/dbasse_080231

Related opportunity: National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) Postdoctoral Fellows Program: Team Science: Research on Practices in the Transdisciplinary Environmental Sciences (Application deadline Aug 14, 2015)

Biology ab initio: Understanding the rules of life

Dr. Jim Olds, Assistant Director of BIO, speaking engagements:

July 20, 2015: Marine Biological Laboratory
August 31, 2015: LTER All Scientists Meeting, 2015 Keynote Address
September 28, 2015: Meeting of the Advisory Committee for Biological Sciences
February 11, 2016: Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI) Distinguished Public Lecture (Live stream: http://research.vtc.vt.edu/live-webcast/)

Biology ab initio: Understanding the rules of life

Abstract: The mission of the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Biological Sciences is to enable discoveries for understanding life. Our theoretical understanding of life is based on first principles; for example, that life comes in dynamic packages (e.g., cells and organisms) and these packages reproduce with variable heredity, expanding in population size until constrained. Among life’s first principles—the constraints, drivers, and feedbacks of evolution—there must be discoverable sets of rules that, once identified, would contribute to new or refined conceptual understandings of life, new approaches to studying life, and new, fundamentally different, questions about life and its origins. There have already been advances in our understanding of some rules, for example, in our knowledge of how protein dynamics contribute to their function and of developmental signaling, but many rule sets remain to be discovered. And such discoveries will be the engine for innovation in other disciplines that make use of biology. Understanding the rules of life is the business of biology in the 21st Century.

A Vision for BIO

by Dr. James Olds, BIO AD

JLO quote Vision 3As the child of two neuroscientist parents, I spent a lot of time in laboratories while growing up. I recall being mesmerized by the masses of glowing consoles composing my father’s electrophysiological suite and I was intrigued by what was, at the time, a truly impressive machine—the DEC PDP-8 general purpose mini-computer. Though fascinated by these tangible elements of scientific investigation, I was not motivated to pursue a life in science until, as an intern in the “A Year in Science” program at the Marine Biological Observatory at Woods Hole, I truly discovered the joys of doing science—the freedom of thought it affords, the thrill of exploration, and the potential for discovering something that has not been known before. These are the elements of the scientific endeavor that still drive my work as a neuroscientist, and they are the ideals that inform my vision of the future of BIO.

I believe the greatest opportunities to discover something new lie at the intersection of disciplines. The paradigm-shifting, ground-breaking opportunities are at the “sticky edges”—the boundaries where the BIO Divisions, and even NSF Directorates, meet. I believe we should strive to fund the types of research that explore these boundaries, despite the challenges we may face doing so. Humans understand now, more than ever before, that there is a common framework that connects all life and from the complexity of that framework emerges all the aspects of biology with which we are familiar. There is great promise in exploring that framework and connections between the biosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and atmosphere.

One product of studying complexity and emergence in biology is Big Data; data such as those that will be made available by the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) will allow us to make vital connections between life, water, earth and sky to inform public policy, human health, and to help us better understand the evolution of our own species, Homo sapiens, and our impacts on the planet.

JLO quote 2 Vision 3

NEON alone will produce terabytes of high resolution temporal and spatial environmental data. This amount and type of data requires advanced cyber infrastructure to make data processing and data accessibility possible and great scientific minds for analysis and interpretation. Therefore, these data will provide insights into new forms of high performance computing that we have not before imagined, as well as unique and exciting opportunities for the research community.

Support for this kind of research and data analysis involves funding and I am pleased to report that the BIO budget is going up. The estimated FY 2015 budget for BIO reflects a 10.2 million dollar increase over FY 2014 actual funding. This is great news, but I recognize the importance of trying to continue to grow the budget in years to come, both in terms of amounts of money and flexibility of spending. The pendulum is swinging in the right direction and, during my four year tenure as AD, I will do everything I can to maintain this momentum.

As the leader of an exceptional team of people in BIO, I know we have the human resource capability to make the Directorate an example of success within the National Science Foundation; however, I also am aware that achieving success depends on many factors, including job satisfaction and workforce capacity. Addressing these issues takes work and requires careful attention to the needs of the staff and researchers affiliated with BIO. In addition, it requires balance—a balance between meeting the needs of the Directorate staff and those of the scientific community, particularly young faculty looking to BIO for support for their research and education programs. I will do everything I can to lead from the front and to work with the NSF Director, Dr. France Córdova, the leaders of the other NSF Directorates, and BIO senior management and staff to achieve this balance and fulfill our vision for BIO.

Image credits

(Edit made Oct 16, 2015)


tornow headshotWelcome from BIO Assistant Director Joanne Tornow

As the Assistant Director of the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) at the National Science Foundation, it is my pleasure to welcome you to BIO Buzz, the blog for BIO’s Office of the Assistant Director. This blog will be a platform for disseminating information about policies, procedures, activities and initiatives that extend across BIO Divisions and affect the biological sciences community as a whole.

Our vision for the Directorate requires that the shared core values of the BIO Divisions—transparency, accountability, and inclusiveness—are reflected in the activities of the BIO Front Office. One step toward realizing this vision is to advance our existing communications strategy and enhance engagement within the Directorate and between BIO, the scientific community, and the general public. Effective communication is essential to fulfilling the missions of NSF and BIO. We hope you find the information here informative. Welcome to BIO Buzz!