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NICHD Launches Biologist Forum

You wanted to learn how to sail. You joined the NIH Sailing Association. Easy enough. Now you want to learn how to perform long range PCR. Where to go? NICHD's Biologist Forum, where there is something new each month for NICHD biologists to learn.

The forum provides members with a venue to exchange information on scientific techniques and update their technical skills. Forum membership includes, but is not limited to, the "401 series" general biological science employees who perform professional laboratory work primarily in the areas of biology and chemistry. Current forum membership consists of employees from three NICHD laboratories.

The forum's founders created the group nearly 2 years ago to fulfill the academic and professional needs of NICHD general biological science employees. The forum provides a professional arena for the exchange of information regarding new scientific tools and technical skills. The small group environment allows members to learn about research projects in other labs, discuss scientific methods being successfully employed by others, and gain experience presenting information.

"I enjoy hearing about the research projects of my NICHD peers as well as having an opportunity to present my work in a friendly and neutral, but constructive environment," said Helen Murphy, an NICHD biologist.

The forum also seeks to establish clearly the role of the biologist as a professional contributor in the NIH scientific community.

"I do feel that throughout the NIH, these employees are sometimes overlooked with respect to their contributions, their continuing education, or broadening their opportunities," said Dr. Arthur Levine, NICHD scientific director. "Forums like this may bring them more visibility and more reward."

Monthly forum topics vary, but have included shortcuts and helpful hints for conducting DNA mutagenesis or purification, protein stabilization, sequencing and PCR reactions. "On a typical day I may be doing a yeast transformation, sequencing, protein purification from a cell culture, and a PCR reaction, which may seem like a lot to keep track of, but by getting tips from others who do this daily, it is much simpler to manage," said Belinda Jackson, a biologist conducting basic research in the Laboratory of Eukaryotic Gene Regulation.

The forum has also explored the use of NIH computer hardware and software, including the VAX, nucleic acid analysis software, and database searching software. "As a direct result of that meeting, I am now able to more easily manage and manipulate information files that I routinely use in my lab," said Murphy. Forums like this often attract nonmembers. "We hope that this forum gives members and nonmembers alike an opportunity to add to their skill base by learning the latest techniques. This is really a way to grow and learn new skills," said Klara Post, forum chairwoman.

The forum must, by nature of its environment, teach members how to negotiate their way through the ever-changing NIH administrative rules and regulations, like the new government "credit cards." Thus the forum may dedicate a session to a discussion of these new cards or other administrative processes altered by NIH reinvention efforts.

Post encourages general biological science series employees at NIH laboratories to convene their own forums to promote the exchange of technical information and scientific techniques. "Perhaps once a year, all of the forums across campus could meet to exchange information and ideas," she said.

Last month, the group provided training on Adobe Illustrator, a graphics package, to teach members how to scan, import and clean up images for placement in manuscripts. This month, the forum hopes to bring in a manufacturer to discuss options for use of nonradioactive materials for labeling purposes.

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