Digitizing Biodiversity Draws a Crowd: iDigBio Summit V Highlights

The fifth annual iDigBio Summit was held on November 4-6, 2015, at the Hilton Hotel, Arlington, Virginia.

General information about the Summit, the agenda, and recordings of the event can be found on the iDigBio wiki: https://www.idigbio.org/wiki/index.php/IDigBio_Summit_2015

One hundred thirty six scientists and students from 60 institutions representing 33 national and international biodiversity digitization initiatives participated.

A highlight of the summit was when the 15 Thematic Collections Networks (TCNs) supported by the Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (ADBC) program presented their reports. The reports underscored digitization progress, data accessibility and research accomplishments.

This year’s summit also engaged the participants in discussions focused on increasing mobilization of data, data use in research, long-term sustainability of the networks, products and cyberinfrastructure associated with digitization, and coalescing education and outreach efforts across ADBC-funded projects and the wider biodiversity collections community.

Here are some additional highlights as shared by participants on Twitter:

Related NSF Press Releases:

NSF awards fifth round of grants to enhance America’s biodiversity collections (PR 15-092)
NSF Awards Third Round of Grants to Advance Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (PR 13-135)
NSF Awards Second Round of Grants to Advance Digitization of Biological Collections (PR 12-082)
NSF Awards Grants to Advance Digitization of Biological Collections (PR 11-136)

Related media coverage:

Museum Specimens Find New Life Online, The New York Times Science, Oct. 19, 2015

Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in Biology

On October 13, 2015, BIO hosted an informative webcast about Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in Biology (PRFB). The deadline for PRFB proposals (for Fiscal Year 2016 funding) is November 3, 2015.

The webcast was lead by NSF staff from BIO’s Division of Biological Infrastructure and the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems.

BIO makes PRFB awards to recent recipients of the doctoral degree for research and training in selected areas* supported by BIO and with special goals for human resource development in biology (awards are not made to institutions). The fellowships encourage independence at an early stage of the research career to permit Fellows to pursue their research and training goals in the most appropriate research locations, regardless of the availability of funding for the Fellows at that site.

*For FY 2016 and beyond, the areas are:

  1. Broadening Participation of Groups Under-represented in Biology
  2. Research Using Biological Collections, and
  3. National Plant Genome Initiative (NPGI) Postdoctoral Research Fellowships.

The webcast provides information for potential applicants regarding when and how to apply and common pitfalls and problems to avoid.

To download a copy of the PowerPoint presentation used by BIO staff or to view the archived webcast, visit http://www.tvworldwide.com/events/nsf/151013/. To view the webcast, you must register with your email address (registration is free).

As of October 21, more than 120 participants registered for and participated in or watched the archived version of the webcast.

A later webcast, planned for 2016, will target graduate advisors of future applicants and established scientists interested in serving as sponsoring scientists to NSF Fellows in the future.

The postdoctoral research experience represents a critically important career transition for future leaders in biology. If you have questions about the PRFB Program, contact the Program Officers listed on the Program Summary web page (note, inquiries for program areas 1 and 2 should be sent to bio-dbi-prfb[at]nsf[dot]gov and for area 3, the NPGI PRF, inquiries should be sent to dbipgr[at]nsf[dot]gov).

Advisory Committee for Biological Sciences Convenes for September 2015 Meeting

On September 28th and 29th, 2015, NSF BIO hosted the Advisory Committee (AC) for Biological Sciences. The meeting web page, including the agenda and supplementary documents is here. View our Tweets from the meeting here.

The BIO Advisory Committee meets twice per year at NSF. These meetings are open to the public, as required by the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).

The committee comprises experts in the field of biological sciences, across many subdisciplines of biology. The current AC roster is here. NSF officials (BIO staff/management) are present for all official meetings of the AC. Currently, Dr. Jim Olds, NSF’s Assistant Director (AD) for BIO, is the Designated Federal Officer (DFO) for the BIO AC.

Dr. Jim Olds leads a Q & A session with the BIO AC.
Dr. Jim Olds leads a Q&A session with the BIO AC.

The agenda for each AC meeting is developed by the AD of BIO in consultation with the BIO AC Chair (currently Dr. Kay Gross).

So what does the BIO AC do?

Objective: The role of the AC is to provide advice and recommendations to the NSF concerning support for research, education and human resources in the biological sciences.

Duties: The duties of the AC include: reviewing and advising on the impact of BIO’s research support programs; advising on program management, overall program balances, and program performance; and advising as to the impact of NSF-wide policies on the scientific community. The BIO AC has no oversight or approval authority.

Committee of Visitors (COV): The BIO AC participates in each BIO Division’s COV assessment. A COV assesses a Division’s performance in the “integrity and efficiency of the processes related to proposal [or pre-proposal] review.” The BIO AC designates a representative to each COV, who ultimately presents the final COV report to the BIO AC for approval. Each COV is considered a sub-committee of the BIO AC; its external members are approved and appointed by the BIO AD as the DFO. The BIO AD (or authorized representative; e.g., Division Director) prepares a written response to each COV report that is then presented to the AC and NSF Senior Management. COVs convene every three years.

Advice: The Directorate often seeks advice from the BIO AC, or AC sub-committees, as authorized by the BIO AD, about matters such as:

  • Anticipated or emerging areas of research in the biological sciences, including, but not limited to areas of “high-risk” research, inter- or trans-disciplinary research, and trends in fundamental research supported by the “core” programs in BIO.
  • Strategic planning for research, education and infrastructure support by BIO for the non-medical biological sciences.
  • Strategic human resource development in undergraduate and graduate biology education, and inclusion of members of under-represented groups in STEM professions relevant to biology.
  • Development of metrics to determine the outcomes and impacts of the aforementioned activities.
  • Strategic communication with academic communities, professional societies, and NGOs that engage in or support biological research and education.

If you would like to make a recommendation for membership on an NSF Advisory Committee, please review the instructions for doing so here.

BIO AD Testifies Before the House Committee on Appropriations regarding Federal Investments in Neuroscience and Neurotechnology

On March 26, 2015, Dr. James Olds testified before the Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, United States House of Representatives, on Federal Investments in Neuroscience and Neurotechnology.

Testimony Overview

The human brain is arguably the most complicated biological entity we are aware of in the universe. With roughly 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synaptic connections linking them together, the brain is responsible not only for controlling basic physiology, such as breathing, but also for higher-level functions such as learning, memory, emotions and cognition.

NSF’s goal is to enable scientific understanding of the full complexity of the brain in action and in context. In order to meet this goal, fundamental research is needed to explore and discover the general principles underlying how cognition and behavior relate to the brain’s structural organization and dynamic activities, how the brain interacts with its environment, and how the brain can recover from lost functionality.

To address these issues, NSF is supporting interdisciplinary teams to develop the needed tools and to integrate their respective scientific disciplines at a rate they have not done in the past. NSF is strategically targeting its resource investments to advance the basic research needed to understand how healthy brains work and how they achieve cognition. An improved understanding of the healthy human brain is essential for dealing with the increasing frequency of neurological disorders that affect the human population.

Read more…

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.

Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) students share their research at summer’s end

The Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program supports active research participation by undergraduate students in any of the areas of research funded by the National Science Foundation.

Many REU programs hold symposia at the end of the summer at which students can present their research. The Biological Sciences Directorate was excited to see the outcomes of some REU projects shared via social media, thanks to faculty/researchers and students. Below are some examples of what was shared with the @NSF_BIO Twitter account.

#LCREU student symposium Wed Aug 5, 1 pm @uvmvermont Waterman Bldg 338. Posters, REU Zine, reception. @NSF_BIO

#LCREU students give final poster presentations on their summer research. @dvm_uvm @NSF_BIO

Fantastic job #LCREU cohort! Expect big things in future. @NSF_BIO Link to posters and zine http://www.uvm.edu/~ecolab/?Page=REU2015symposium.html&SM=REUsubmenu.html

Today is the 27th #BioREU symposium at @RGGSatAMNH. These students were so impressive (as always)! Thanks to @NSF_BIO for support.

Symposium talk 2: CT scanning of hyoid in #sharks by Rachel Hutchin. #REU @AMNH @NSF_BIO

Devin Hoffman shows in his #BioREU talk how much influence one taxon can have on tree topology. @RGGSatAMNH @NSF_BIO   Ashley Paynter from @binghamtonu on contagious clam cancer. #BioREU @theleechguy @RGGSatAMNH @NSF_BIO   More than 40% of our past @NSF_BIO #REU interns now in tenure track positions. Like @Annalida500 @LSU_FISH @okiewhaler @CookeSiobhan #BioREU     Hey...@NSF_BIO...our REU program will broadcast student talks. Come see what you funded. Session 1 (4-6pm PST)

#FHLREU student @noahb225 gives shout out to @Nautichthys on sculpin fins - implications for terrestrial locomotion

Katherine Corn calculated the effects of flatfish size on burial parameters. #FHLREU

Our @LouisCalderCtr summer #REU symposium kicks off at 9:30 with @theleechguy as keynote speaker, and then 12 undergrad talks! @NSF_BIO

First up. Rachelle Carino from St Francis college: catnip oil as a tick repellent #REU @NSF_BIO @LouisCalderCtr

Jenniffer Riley explores the natural history of bats in NYC #CSUR2015 @fordhamnotes @NSF_BIO #batgirl

Giselle Herrera explores the molecular ecology of coyotes in NY #CSUR2015 @fordhamnotes @NSF_BIO

Be sure to follow #REU on Twitter for more updates (you don’t need a Twitter account to follow along, just click here)!

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!

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.

The Science and Ethics of Genetically Engineered Human DNA (House Subcommittee Hearing)

On Jun 16, 2015, at 2:00pm the House Subcommittee on Research and Technology will hold a hearing on The Science and Ethics of Genetically Engineered Human DNA

Opening Statements
Subcommittee on Research and Technology Chairwoman Barbara Comstock

Dr. Victor J. Dzau, President, Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences
Dr. Jennifer Doudna, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of California, Berkeley
Dr. Elizabeth McNally, Professor of Genetic Medicine, Professor in Medicine-Cardiology and Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics; Director, Center for Genetic Medicine, Northwestern University
Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, Professor of Bioethics and Public Policy; Deputy Director for Policy and Administration, Berman Institute of Bioethics, Johns Hopkins University

Webcast: http://science.house.gov/hearing/subcommittee-research-and-technology-hearing-science-and-ethics-genetically-engineered-human