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!

Basic Research Goes to Washington

February 15, 2017

This week, NSF-funded research was on display on Capitol Hill for “The Arc of Science: Research to Results” event. Scientists whose work provides insights, products, or services to American citizens, businesses, and government interacted with congresspeople, congressional staffers, and representatives from various sectors of the economy, including health care, education, and industry. Guests enjoyed hands-on demonstrations of technologies directly stemming from NSF-funded research.

Attendees learned about BIO-funded research at the exhibit, “QSTORM: Achieving Pinpoint Surveillance Capacity Inside Living Cells.” The Principal Investigator, Dr. Jessica Winter (Ohio State University) and colleagues from the Museum of Science Boston showed how NSF is supporting teams of scientists and engineers to come together to tackle one of the last frontiers of microscopy – obtaining detailed images of the inner workings of living cells. The researchers explained to attendees how new breakthroughs in nanotechnology, chemical engineering, optics, and computer programming are allowing them to address this challenge.

Visitors to the exhibit had the opportunity to “turn on” a real set of amazingly bright and colorful quantum dots–the researchers use these to illuminate the tiniest features inside cells. Then, using a styrofoam and slinky model, the team demonstrated how they “turn off” a quantum dot using a gold nanoparticle tethered by a strand of DNA. Attendees learned how STORM super-resolution microscopy can reconstruct detailed images from overlays of pinpoint dots of light.

Dr. Olds peers into a small box sitting on a table by lifting up a small flap on the box. Researchers look on.
NSF Assistant Director for Biological Sciences, Dr. Jim Olds, used models of QSTORM quantum dots to discover how they enable scientists to look inside living cells. (Photo credit: NSF)

The QSTORM project, originally funded in 2010, has since received a second grant from NSF to work on implementing new imaging techniques made possible by the original science and to help establish partnerships which otherwise may not have come to be. Dr. Winter is working with the Museum of Science Boston to develop several hands-on demonstrations to explain the science of quantum dots to a broader audience.

The Arc of Science event was coordinated by the National Science Foundation and the Coalition for National Science Funding. Invited speakers included NSF Director Dr. France A. Córdova, Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), and Senator Gary Peters (D-MI).

To see additional highlights from the event, look for Tweets from @NSF with the hashtag #ArcOfScience.

BIO OAD Hosts HACU Summer Intern

August 15, 2016
Guest blogger: Nicolle Omiotek

This summer I was a HACU intern in BIO’s Office of the Assistant Director (OAD). I am from Illinois where I attend Elgin Community College. I have completed a variety of science and mathematics courses and was excited to spend the summer at the National Science Foundation.

You might be wondering, “What is HACU?” HACU is the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. The HACU internship program provides students who attend Hispanic-serving institutions with an opportunity to experience working at a variety of places including federal agencies. Luckily, I was selected by the NSF to be an intern for summer 2016. This internship has been a life-altering experience that has shown me that there are many potential career paths for scientists.

What did I work on during my internship?

My major project was to collect, analyze, and categorize data related to model species used in research supported by BIO’s Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS). Model species data in IOS’ funding portfolio have never been systematically categorized before.

I created a standardized method for gathering and analyzing information from proposals. I identified key terms related to my project such as species, kingdoms, and common names, and determined if the project involved single organisms or multiple organisms, and if the latter, whether the organisms were in a symbiotic relationship. The majority of the portfolio consisted of single-organism awards but some involved research on multiple species.

Photo of Nicolle in front of a sign for the Biological Science Directorate with a tv monitor behind her displaying a photo of a sloth.
BIO OAD’s HACU intern Nicolle Omiotek created multimedia displays for the BIO Directorate highlighting NSF-funded research.

Following the collection and cleaning of data, I envisioned a way to accurately represent the data visually. I presented my findings to NSF staff and other HACU interns. This was my favorite part because I shared the data I collected over the summer and the findings that I found most interesting.

To collect the data for my project, I read many NSF proposals, which meant I had the wonderful opportunity to learn about the exciting research that has been supported by IOS and the organisms involved. For example, I was fascinated to discover that the male sage-grouse has inflatable air sacs on its chest that are used in mating behaviors.

Another fun project I was able to work on included making slide presentations of recent NSF-funded discoveries for display in the hallways of the BIO Directorate. I also learned about communicating science via social media. In addition, I attended many lectures on diverse science topics at NSF.

A life changing experience

During my time in BIO/OAD I had the great pleasure to work with Dr. Caitlin Schrein, Science Writer, and Dr. Brent Miller, Science Advisor. They were helpful every step of the way. Overall my experience has been enlightening, exciting, educational, and inspirational for continuing my path into science. I am looking forward to applying everything I learned both academically and professionally.

Big thanks to Dr. Miller, Dr. Schrein, the entire BIO/OAD office and NSF, HACU, Dr. Sherrie Green (NSF), and Kathy Meisinger (Elgin Community College).

Learn more about the HACU National Internship Program (HNIP):  http://www.hacu.net/hacu/HNIP.asp

Follow HNIP on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HNIP