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Q&A with NIH’s Susan Gregurick

Susan Gregurick is the director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) Division of Biomedical Technology, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology (BBCB) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She recently chatted with science writer and mathematician Analee Miranda about the NIH’s mission and research focus, funding opportunities and programs available for applied mathematicians, career prospects at the NIH, and more.

What is the focus of your division?

The BBCB advances basic biomedical research. There are two branches within the division: the Bioinformatics and Computational Biology Branch and Biomedical Technology Branch. The long-term goals of the division are to leverage and advance data science and technologies to answer fundamental biological questions, to develop a computing infrastructure for the biomedical research community, and to promote and facilitate the development and use of new computational and experimental technologies in biomedical research by facilitating training opportunities.

What is the structure of each branch within your division?

We have two different branches, each headed by a branch chief. Under the branch chief are four health science administrators. The Biomedical Technology Branch focuses on the development and dissemination of new and novel technologies to advance research in biomedicine. The Bioinformatics and Computational Biology Branch focuses on the development of new and novel methods and computational tools that advance biomedicine.

What are the backgrounds of the program directors who work in your division? Do you have researchers employed in your division or in any of the supporting branches?

We are (completely, in our division and most of the NIGMS) extramural funding (resource) administrators, so we don’t conduct our own research. We don’t have researchers actively doing research in our division. Though all of our health science administrators were at one time researchers or research professors in academia, they gave up their own research programs to come and work as federal agents to administer investigator-initiated research grants.

NIGMS has a good record of collaborating with the National Science Foundation (NSF)/Division of Mathematical Sciences. How did this collaboration begin? What did NIGMS gain that might not have happened in the absence of the collaboration?

It’s a longstanding collaboration that’s over 12 years old and was built from the bottom up due to interest from the program staff both at the NIH and the NSF, who noticed the opportunity to bring mathematical and statistical science into biomedicine research. At that time, the NIH received very few applications in the mathematical sciences through its normal grant process, like the Parent R01, which focused on new and interesting mathematical research that would impact biomedicine. This program was started to address that gap. It’s a real opportunity and also a wonderful collaboration between two different agencies. The NSF runs the application process – they issue the solicitation and receive all of the applications, then share these applications with the NIH. The applications are reviewed at the NSF under their review process. Once the review is concluded, both agencies get together and decide which of the meritorious and high-scoring applications should be funded by which agency. The NSF takes applications that are more focused in their mission area, and the NIH takes applications that focus much more on biomedicine. One of our goals is to create a pipeline for mathematical and statistical researchers to come to the NIH.

What kind of value do you think applied mathematicians bring that is vital to the success of NIH programs that you oversee?

They bring new concepts, new ideas, and new ways (insights) of looking at biomedical problems, a perspective that our researchers don’t always have. That they offer fresh sets of eyes that are trained differently and have a different way of looking at problems is really what I think is pushing the innovation and impact of these programs. We’re so very happy that they’re contributing to our research. They push the boundaries.

What can you tell us about how an applied mathematician can request funding from your division? Is the process similar to that of the NSF? What does a mathematician need to know before submitting a proposal to the NIH?

I’d be more than happy to talk about the process of getting a grant in to the NIH. If you’re not coming in through the NSF mathematical biology program, if you’re just coming in through the Parent R01, the most important thing to do is identify the institute to which you want to apply. Our division tends to take a lot of mathematicians, so identifying a program officer and making a connection can help. You want to get a program officer to at least look at your rough idea. We can’t look at your grant proposal but we’re more than happy to give you feedback on your white paper. Identify your studies section very carefully. The studies sections at the NIH focus on different areas and have different compositions, different makeups, and different knowledge about mathematics and statistics, so you really have to make sure that your application is going to the right study section. Those are the two most important things that a potential principal investigator (PI) can do to ensure success here at the NIH. We are here to help and serve, but reaching us by phone is not always the best first choice; I would say send an email – we always respond to email! I’d also like to note that our joint mathematical biology program with the NSF has a sort of hybrid method (process) that’s neither all NSF nor all NIH. That may be of particular interest.

What kind of positions in the NIH would be suitable for mathematicians? What are the requirements and how would they apply? 

They can apply to work as postdoctoral fellows at the NIH. We have a Postdoctoral Research Associate (PRAT) Program for postdoctoral fellows to partner recent Ph.D. graduates with intramural researchers at the NIH. We also get a number of fellows from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) who do policy and analysis work. It’s a postdoctoral-type fellowship where they are not necessarily doing research, but doing much more programmatic work. That’s a great career path for some. In fact, we have an AAAS Fellow now who is a cosmologist and string theorist. He has no background at all in biomedical science or medicine.

How has your division handled the funding constraints brought about by Congress in recent years? Now that Congress has increased funding and may increase it again over the next few years, what do you see as the priorities for the NIH moving forward?

It’s tough whenever we get funding constraints by Congress. Our mission is really to prioritize and fund the most impactful and meritorious science that we receive through our grant application process. You’ll see that our success rate (for proposals) has dipped in prior years, and that was troubling to many people. However, with some really innovative new ideas as well as increased funding from Congress, we now have a success rate for proposals at a near-record high. In Fiscal Year 2015 (FY-15) I think it was at 28%, and we’ve probably been able to maintain that in FY-16. 

I also want to tell you about one innovative program that my director Dr. Jon Lorsch started just last year as a pilot project, which we will soon implement as a full-scale program. It is called the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) program, and is applicable to anybody in biomedical research that falls within the mission of NIGMS – mathematicians and statisticians doing work that is relevant to biomedicine. It is a sustaining grant, starting at usually $250K/year and given to any investigator to fund all of his or her work in an NIGMS-related laboratory. It offers a longer preparative time and requires a slightly shorter, more visionary proposal. We hope to sustain participants’ labs for many years, so they don’t have to continually write more and more R01s to have a career in science, given that they make good progress on their research. This is just one more avenue for folks who are part of the SIAM community to come to the NIGMS and contribute to our mission. We especially encourage early-stage investigators – someone within ten years of their Ph.D. or an assistant professor at a university or college.

Since our mathematical biology program is teamed with the NSF, we make sure that we are pulling mathematicians and statisticians to our research areas. The program did not sustain any cuts during this funding period but there were cuts in other areas, so in some sense they (the biomathematicians) were buffered a little because this is a high-priority program for us.

Do you have international collaborations within your group? Are there satellite offices of the NIH in other countries? Are there funding opportunities for international students (or researchers) who are interested in working with the NIH? 

If there’s a collaboration that a PI is bringing through their grant, then we are certainly happy to fund those (informal international) collaborations. But Joint Programs, some that are international, are helped through the Fogarty International Center. To my knowledge, we don’t have any international programs, but we certainly watch international sciences through collaborative science proposals.

Are there internships available for applied math students who are interested in biological applications of mathematics? 

We don’t have junior program officer positions, but we do, through the AAAS program, hire a number of people from the Ph.D. to postdoctoral levels; after the postdoctoral period, we do hire them in our Office of Program Planning, Analysis and Evaluations. However, almost all of our program officers have been academic researchers and have either received tenure or worked in national laboratory settings and been promoted to the equivalent of a tenured position. Although it’s not always true, we want to hire people who understand what it is like to be a PI and to conduct a research program, manage a budget, and manage graduate students.

Susan Gregurick, Ph.D., is director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) Division of Biomedical Technology, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology (BBCB). In this capacity, she oversees programs that join biology with the computer sciences, engineering, mathematics, and physics. Prior to joining NIGMS, she served as acting director of the Biological Systems Science Division at the Department of Energy (DOE). She also developed and managed the DOE’s Systems Biology Knowledgebase. You can contact her at greguricksk@mail.nih.gov.

Analee Miranda is a freelance curriculum writer and mathematician. She is a subject matter expert on the radar scattering effects of UHF/VHF/HF radar on humans. Her current research interests include discovering new medical applications of radar technology.

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