Q&A: Getting to Know Dr. Joanne Tornow

Dr. Tornow visits NEON CASTNet Site
BIO’s Acting AD, Dr. Joanne Tornow, visits a NEON site outside of Boulder, Colorado.

BIO recently welcomed a new Acting Assistant Director, Dr. Joanne Tornow. Though she is coming to BIO after six years in NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences and the Office of Information and Resource Management, Dr. Tornow is no stranger BIO, having spent more than a decade in a variety of roles across the Directorate. We sat down with Dr. Tornow to get to know her a little better and welcome her back to her first home at NSF.

When did your interest in the sciences first begin?

I trace back my falling in love with biology and genetics to my 9th grade biology class. It all just made perfect sense and I loved it, so from then on, I was a biology person. At the time that I was in college, molecular biology did not really exist as a discipline, but microbial biology and microbial and molecular genetics was just starting, so I concentrated on what was then a very emerging area of microbial genetics. As I progressed, there was really very little debate in my own mind about what I was interested in. I love biology and knew I wanted to pursue it as a career.

Can you tell us a little bit about your journey from a career as a traditional, academic researcher to science administrator?

I did the traditional academic path – graduate school, postdoc, faculty position – and then there was an opportunity during my sabbatical to do something completely different that I was really interested in.

At the time, Dolly had just been cloned the year before and we were in the middle of the Human Genome Project. I was teaching genetics to undergraduates and molecular genetics graduate students, and these events were raising all of these questions about the intersection of science and policy, genetic privacy, cloning – it was really a fascinating time. So when I stumbled on the AAAS policy fellowship, I thought it would be a great opportunity to go and see how the policy side intersected with the science and then bring that back to the classroom.

I spent a year working on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs committee, getting experience working on the Hill and understanding how that process worked – how the federal budget is generated and how it drives policy. Then an opportunity came up to go to OSTP [the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy] for a year, and there I was able to work on things that were a little bit more relevant to my science.

What was your favorite part of working on the policy side of things?

Just a month or two after I started my fellowship in OSTP, the first papers on isolating human embryonic stem cells came out. Every month or so, something else was getting cloned. It created some really great policy questions, and so it was a wonderful time for me to be at OSTP – that was a fabulous year.

How did you ending up coming to NSF?

At the end of that year, I was getting ready to go back to my institution. I had been in contact with NSF because I knew that when I had initially planned to come to DC on my sabbatical that NSF had been an option. A position was available as a rotator and they reached out to me. By that time, after two years in DC I had sort of made the switch in my mind from doing the academic life to thinking about science in the bigger context, and it was really appealing to me both personally and professionally to stay in this area, so I took the position.

You and BIO have a long history together! When were you last here, and what projects were you involved with?

Starting in the Fall of 1999, I was program director for gene expression in the division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB). The portfolio for gene expression was much broader than understanding the control of transcription, which was my area of expertise. I was a program director in MCB for about six and a half years before leaving for a little bit to do a detail in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR) front office.

After that, I came back to be senior advisor in the BIO front office, but as it turned out, I went up to the Director’s office for about 8 months on a detail to work on a particular project for the Deputy Director, and so spent very little time in the front office. After that, I returned to BIO and was the Acting Division Director for MCB for two years.

By that time [former BIO AD] Jim Collins was finishing up his tenure and left, and I moved in to be the acting Executive Officer [equivalent to the current Deputy Assistant Director]. When a new AD was found two years later, there were a variety of vacancies in the Deputy AD spots, so I applied for those and that’s when I moved to the Directorate for Social, Behavior and Economic Sciences (SBE) as Deputy AD.

Each of these jobs – that whole path, including my details in EHR and in the OD, and my time in OIRM – all gave me different perspectives and really helped me when I came back to be an Acting Division Director and now Acting Assistant Director in BIO. Having spent the time at OSTP, on the Hill, in the OD – all of those experiences helped me be more effective here at NSF.

What are you most looking forward to for your time as Acting Assistant Director for BIO?

There are a couple of things that I’m really looking forward to. One is that it’s been six years since I’ve been in BIO and I’m just really loving getting back in touch with BIO and catching up on all that’s happened – all the ways that the science and the programs in BIO have advanced. So that’s probably the best part about this – I’m really just getting back to my first love.

Farewell, Dr. Olds!

Photo Dr. James OldsOn January 10, 2018, Dr. Jim Olds’ term as Assistant Director for Biological Sciences came to an end. Since taking up the post in September 2014, Dr. Olds has led BIO through many big changes, including the conception of the Rules of Life Big Idea and implementation of a no-deadline submission mechanism for receiving and reviewing proposals. All of us at BIO would like to thank Dr. Olds for his excellent leadership over the past three and a half years, and wish him the best as he returns to George Mason University.

Dr. Joanne Tornow, Head of the Office of Information and Resource Management (OIRM) and former BIO Acting Deputy Assistant Director, will be taking up the mantle as Acting Assistant Director for BIO while the search for Dr. Olds’ successor is underway. Stay tuned to learn more about Dr. Tornow and the exciting things she has planned for the directorate in the coming months!

Coordinating Global Brain Projects Event

September 14, 2016

Coordinating Global Brain Projects

Due to revolutionary new technologies, neuroscientists are poised to significantly advance our understanding of the brain and behavior, with profound implications for health and society.

To enhance collaboration and better coordinate global efforts in fundamental neuroscience research, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will support a conference of scientists and government representatives from countries with significant investments in neuroscience research. Attendees, many of whom are members of the U.S. BRAIN Initiative, a public-private collaborative effort aimed at accelerating the development and application of new technologies to revolutionize our understanding of the brain, will exchange ideas and information about their efforts and identify new opportunities for collaboration.

rat hippocampus,
This image shows a rat hippocampus, a region of the brain critical for learning, memory and emotion. Credit: Elyse L. Aurbach, Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute, University of Michigan

NSF and The Kavli Foundation will support the event, hosted by Rockefeller University in cooperation with Columbia University.

“Brain diseases and disorders affect millions of families worldwide, leading to billions of dollars in medical expenses and lost productivity,” said NSF Director France Córdova, who will deliver opening remarks at the event. “This event is intended to promote collaboration and cooperation in emerging, large-scale international brain projects to further advance neuroscience research. NSF plays a pivotal role in funding brain research, bringing the research community together and shaping the vision for a global brain initiative.”

The NSF’s Assistant Director for Biological Sciences, Dr. Jim Olds, will present information about the NSF’s participation in the U.S. BRAIN Initiative.

The U.S. State Department, the Global Partnerships Forum, The Kavli Foundation and NSF will also host a complementary event at the U.N. headquarters in New York City the evening of Sept. 19.

Use the hashtag #globalbrain to follow the conversation on social media.

For event details, please see the official NSF Media Advisory: http://go.usa.gov/xKrFd

Related links:


Assistant Director for BIO Attends Cancer Moonshot Summit

On June 29, 2016, the Cancer Moonshot Summit was held on the campus of Howard University in Washington, DC. The National Science Foundation’s Assistant Director for the Directorate for Biological Sciences, Dr. Jim Olds, was pleased to represent the Foundation at the event.

From the Office of the Vice President of the United States:

“In his final State of the Union address, the President tasked the Vice President with heading up a new national effort, the Cancer Moonshot. The ultimate goal is to double the rate of progress—to make a decade’s worth of advances in cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care in five years—to ultimately end cancer as we know it.

The goals of this effort cannot be achieved by one person, one organization, or one discipline. Solving the complexities of cancer will require the formation of new alliances to defy the bounds of innovation and accelerate the prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and—ultimately—a cure. It’s going to require millions of Americans speaking up and contributing what they’re able.

The Cancer Moonshot Summit will be a venue to bring together all sectors that have a role to play in making progress on the Cancer Moonshot goals to share new ideas and launch new collaborations and actions.

The Cancer Moonshot is a mission, and all of us #CanServe. How will you make a difference, break down barriers to progress, or catalyze change where you live or work?

Photo of Dr. Olds at Summit with quote: I can serve by ensuring support for the highest quality fundamental biological sciences research

#PollinatorWeek has US Buzzing

June 22, 2016

This afternoon the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released the Pollinator Partnership Action Plan (PPAP). The PPAP accompanies the National Strategy to Promote Pollinator Health, released by OSTP in 2015 along with the science-based Pollinator Research Action Plan.

The National Strategy to Promote Pollinator Health has three goals:

  1. Reduce honey bee colony losses to economically sustainable levels;
  2. Increase monarch butterfly numbers to protect the annual migration; and
  3. Restore or enhance millions of acres of land for pollinators through combined public and private action.

To compliment today’s PPAP release, the National Science Foundation (NSF) summarized the agency’s pollinator portfolio (i.e., what the NSF funds in this area). The NSF supports many basic research and education programs and projects relevant to the National Strategy to Promote Pollinator Health. The majority of awards related to pollinators are made through the Directorate for Biological Sciences, but pollinator research is supported throughout the NSF. The NSF Pollinator Portfolio summary can be found here: http://go.usa.gov/xq5QB.

A bumblebee foraging on the petals of a larkspur flower.
A larkspur flower with a guest—a bumblebee foraging on its petals. (Credit: Karen Levy, Emory University)

To celebrate #PollinatorWeek, the NSF has also published an article on Medium highlighting NSF-funded research news and discoveries related to pollinator health.

Learn more about the National Strategy to Promote Pollinator Health, the PPAP, and how you can nurture and celebrate pollinators on the OSTP blog.

NEON Management Update

March 16, 2016
(Updated links March 23)

The National Science Foundation has completed the process for selecting the new managing organization of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and have chosen Battelle Memorial Institute.

For more information about the selection and future updates about NEON, please visit the NEON Program Summary page and the NSF NEON Special Report on nsf.gov.

NEON site design
Image credit: neonscience.org

Changes to Graduate Research Fellowship Program Eligibility

(Links updated March 29, 2016)

On March 7, 2016 the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources issued a Dear Colleague Letter (NSF 16-050) identifying changes in eligibility to the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP).

Effective as of the 2017 competition (Fall 2016 deadlines), NSF will limit graduate students to only one application to the GRFP, submitted either in the first year or in the second year of graduate school.1 No change is made to the eligibility of undergraduates, of bachelor’s degree holders without any graduate study, or of individuals who have had an interruption in graduate study of at least two consecutive years.2

Read the Dear Colleague Letter and access Frequently Asked Questions (NSF 16-051)

1 First-year graduate students in Fall 2015 who applied to the 2016 GRFP competition will be allowed to apply a second time in Fall 2016, if they are otherwise eligible. All other graduate students are subject to the new eligibility requirements.
2 See the GRFP Program Solicitation: NSF 15-597

Press Release 16-033 (March 29, 2016): NSF awards 2016 Graduate Research Fellowships

BIO Buzz: 2015 in review

Dear readers,

Thank you for making the debut year for BIO Buzz a success! We are excited so many of you found the information here useful — 7000 views, wow! In 2016, we will continue to use BIO Buzz, the BIO Division blogs, and our Twitter account to keep you informed of the latest news and program offerings out of the NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences.

We have an amazing team of people, including executive, program, administrative, and IT staff, working hard to serve the needs of the community; effective communication is at the top of our list of priorities for 2016. If you have questions about your current  funding, BIO programs, or upcoming funding opportunities, please reach out to the relevant Program Director/Officer(s) (listed on Program Summary pages).

May 2016 bring great discoveries and exciting advances in science, technology, engineering, and math!

WordPress.com prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 7,000 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Click here to see the report for DEBrief, the blog of the Division of Environmental Biology.

Click here to see the report for the blog of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences.