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.

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

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

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:

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.