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NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Head of NIGMS Scientific Review Sunshine Retires

 Dr. Helen Sunshine in black blazer with gold H pin

NIGMS’s Dr. Helen Sunshine recently bid farewell to her 38-year NIH career.

Dr. Helen Sunshine, who recently retired as chief of NIGMS’s Office of Scientific Review (OSR), feels a bit like she’s on summer vacation. For the first time in decades, she doesn’t have—or want—a script for her life. She recently said farewell to her 38-year career at NIH without trepidation. 

“Many worry about the future as they approach retirement, but I didn’t,” said Sunshine. “There is no shortage of interesting things to do.”

A seed planted early in life by her high school teacher is what eventually led Sunshine to a career in science and ultimately to NIH. “I was inspired by my chemistry teacher who had a Ph.D.,” she said. “She encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry.”

Sunshine went on to earn a B.A. in chemistry from Barnard College followed by a B.Sc. in inorganic chemistry from Oxford University in England. She then returned to New York to pursue a Ph.D. in bioinorganic chemistry at Columbia University. 

For the next few years, Sunshine tried out different career options. In 1974, she joined Howard University as a visiting lecturer in chemistry. A couple of years later, she took a position as an instructor at Prince George’s Community College. Although the college offered her a tenure-track position, her heart was in research. So in 1976, Sunshine joined the NIH intramural program, working first as a postdoctoral fellow and then as a senior research scientist in the Laboratory of Chemical Physics at NIDDK. 

Sunshine joined NIGMS in 1981 as a scientific review officer in OSR. She briefly served as a program director and then chief of the biophysics section in the former Biophysics and Physiological Sciences Program. In 1989, Sunshine returned to OSR as its chief, a position she would hold for the next 27 years.

“OSR was a pretty small office when I first joined,” she said. “The reviews primarily involved research training grant applications and there were virtually no RFAs. The work has changed enormously since then.”

Known by colleagues for her intellect and wit, Sunshine worked throughout her career to uphold the highest standards of peer review. She was particularly focused on ensuring high-quality research training within NIGMS-supported programs. 

“Helen shaped the way we review research training grants here at NIGMS,” said NIGMS director Dr. Jon Lorsch. “Her knowledge and expertise, along with her passion for training future researchers, made her a great asset to our institute.” 

Sunshine was also an influential figure within the broader NIH community.

“Helen was a pillar of the NIH review community for many years and an encyclopedia of knowledge on peer review, particularly with respect to training grant mechanisms,” said Dr. Sally Amero, NIH review policy officer. “She trained a whole cadre of scientific review officers, was an active member of the review policy committee and always made time to help out a colleague or work on a project.”

Until recently, Sunshine even handled the review of some grant applications personally. “I had to shift gears and focus more on guiding and overseeing the day-to-day operations of the office, as the institute expanded and gained additional programs from NCRR,” she said. “We also had to make a lot of changes in our review process.”

While NIGMS has grown and evolved since Sunshine joined, one thing that has remained constant is her love for mentoring others and her appreciation for the relationships she developed over the years.

“I will miss my colleagues and our interactions as well as the intellectual challenges of my job,” Sunshine said. “But for now, I look forward to having time to myself. I will try to be more structured after the summer.” 

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