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Vol. LIX, No. 22
November 2, 2007
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NIH Research Festival: 20+ Years of Sharing Science


Dr. Abner Notkins (l), founder of the NIH Research Festival in 1986, and NIH deputy director Dr. Michael Gottesman meet at “a 20th anniversary” of the event.  Three plenary speakers (from l) Dr. Thomas Ried of NCI, Dr. Gary Felsenfeld of NIDDK and Dr. Shiv Grewal of NCI gather before the program.

Top, l: Dr. Abner Notkins (l), founder of the NIH Research Festival in 1986, and NIH deputy director Dr. Michael Gottesman meet at “a 20th anniversary” of the event.

Top, r: Three plenary speakers (from l) Dr. Thomas Ried of NCI, Dr. Gary Felsenfeld of NIDDK and Dr. Shiv Grewal of NCI gather before the program.

“We are here to recognize and celebrate the fact that this is a 20th anniversary for us,” said Dr. Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research, while introducing the plenary session of the 2007 NIH Research Festival. But, he added, this requires a little explanation.

NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni chats with NIAMS’s Dr. Catherine Kuo (c), co-chair of the job fair subcommittee and Dr. Sharon Milgram, director, Office of Intramural Training and Education.
The Natcher Conference Center is host site for the hundreds of tables, posters and other displays that comprise NIH Research Festival.

Top: NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni chats with NIAMS’s Dr. Catherine Kuo (c), co-chair of the job fair subcommittee and Dr. Sharon Milgram, director, Office of Intramural Training and Education.

Bottom: The Natcher Conference Center is host site for the hundreds of tables, posters and other displays that comprise NIH Research Festival.

“It was 22 years ago that [Dr.] Abner Notkins invented the idea of the Research Festival,” he noted. “That was in 1986, and we had the first one then. Then in 1987, there was a centennial celebration and we did not have a Research Festival. And last year, which would have been the 20th anniversary celebration, we were so excited by the science we forgot to celebrate the event. So we’re celebrating this year, and I can see lots of people are here to celebrate with us.”

In fact, about 4,000 scientists and NIH staff attended this year’s festival. Over 4 days, participants joined in 21 concurrent symposia, 600 poster presentations, 25 special exhibits on resources for intramural research, a job fair, a tent show, an awards presentation and, of course, two Festival Food and Music Fairs. And though this year’s event was much larger—as NIH is itself—than it was in 1986, the event still had the same goal. In founding the festival, Gottesman explained, Notkins “was particularly interested in generating discussions across NIH, not just within the institutes, and in recognizing our early- to mid-career scientists, who frequently were not stars at symposia.”

Notkins believed the then 15 institutes were self-contained and often isolated. Gottesman quoted him as saying that “more than a little of the very good work going on at the institutes was similar or even overlapping, especially at the basic levels, but investigators often had no sense of this common ground because scientists didn’t have much contact with each other.” Then Gottesman paused. “Sound familiar?”

He said that though many things have changed here since that time, “our core values at NIH have not changed. This is still, I think, the best place there is to do long-term, high-risk biomedical research, be it laboratory or clinical. We still attract and retain world-class talent and our facilities, instrumentation and ability to develop new technologies are first rate.”

So, said Dr. John Niederhuber, director of NCI, these 4 days still serve as “a tremendous opportunity for us to share, to learn about what one another is doing and to…develop rich collaborations.”

NHGRI director Dr. Francis Collins
Dr. John Niederhuber, director of NCI

Top: NHGRI director Dr. Francis Collins offers an update on recent genetic research progress.

Below: Dr. John Niederhuber, director of NCI, discusses the importance of sharing among scientists.

A Chance for Interaction

Things got off to a strong start with a plenary session—“Chromosomes in Modern Biology and Medicine”—that attracted a standing-room-only (or, actually, sitting-in-any-seat-or-square-foot-of-floor-possible) crowd at Masur Auditorium. NHGRI director Dr. Francis Collins began the session with an update on the impressive recent progress in genetic research. Some have called 2007 the annus mirabilis—or “extraordinary year”—for the genetics of common disease, “because after many years of basically wandering around in the desert, trying to identify variations that were responsible for risks of illnesses that have hereditary contributions but are clearly not inherited in a simple way, we finally have the tools to do that,” he explained. “And those investigations are resulting in an absolute deluge of new information about diabetes and heart disease and mental illness and a long list of other conditions.”

Other plenary speakers discussed chromatin boundaries, heterochromatin and chromosomal cancer research.

Then, it was off to Natcher, where hundreds of scientists had a chance to present their work in posters. Dr. Melissa McKay, one of a select group of winners of a 2008 Fellows Award for Research Excellence (FARE), presented her poster in a rare visit to campus from NCI-Frederick. “It’s so nice how [the festival] brings the whole NIH together,” she said. “It gives everyone a chance to see what people in the other institutes are doing.”

Dr. Brajendra Tripathi, NEI, said he loved the chance to share his research. “You can interact with new people, make new contacts and actually get some new ideas.”

Meanwhile, in a list of abstracts featuring mesenchymal progenitors and trypanosomatid parasites, NICHD’s Dr. Oishee Chakrabarti’s poster, another FARE winner, stood out for its title: “How Lack of Coat (Color) Makes a Mouse Crazy!”

“People are attracted to the title, and they’re attracted to the material,” she laughed. “It’s a great mix.”

NICHD’s Dr. Oishee Chakrabarti’s poster, a FARE winner, stood out for its title: “How Lack of Coat (Color) Makes a Mouse Crazy!”
Dr. Kan Cao of NHGRI explains elements of her poster to a festival patron.

Top: NICHD’s Dr. Oishee Chakrabarti’s poster, a FARE winner, stood out for its title: “How Lack of Coat (Color) Makes a Mouse Crazy!”

Bottom: Dr. Kan Cao of NHGRI explains elements of her poster to a festival patron.

At lunch, attendees had a chance to sample food from local restaurants like Hard Times Café, the Bean Bag and Ben and Jerry’s, while listening to blues rock—think Johnny B. Goode and Elvis’s Little Sister—from local musicians.

“The whole idea is to bring the local community to NIH,” said Randy Schools, president of R&W, who organized the food and music fairs. “It gives everyone—not just the scientists, but staff too—the chance to relax and have a lot of fun. That’s what it’s all about.”

Advice for the Future

On the third day of the festival, in an opening address for the job fair, NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni provided advice to young scientists, both in speech form and in an opportunity for researchers to ask him questions personally. “Whatever you think of what your career will be today, let me assure you, there’s a 99-percent certainty that whatever you envision today is not what’s going to happen,” he began.

While citing many of his own career experiences, both positive and negative, Zerhouni offered several tips for early-career researchers. “Lesson number one, first and foremost, find a mentor who’s willing to listen to you, and who has the ‘why not?’ philosophy, not the ‘why?’ philosophy,” he said.

He also suggested a multidisciplinary approach. “Lesson number two is to reach out, go out of your way, go out of your shell, talk to people who are not biochemists like you or engineers like you and try to really network,” he explained. “People often shy away from that because they are afraid of looking stupid. You look stupid for awhile, but because you did, you’ll learn something that will make you smart in the future.”

His third lesson, he said, is that if you want to make a change in the world, be prepared for a lot of naysaying. “Don’t shy away from controversy,” he advised. “Scientific contest is something you should cherish, because that’s where the truth comes from.”

Zerhouni also made predictions for future trends in research and he left the crowd on a positive note. “I think you are entering an era where the goal is to transfer health and medicine through discovery,” he said. “I don’t think there’s been a more exciting era in science. The opportunities are enormous.”

Then he wished them well on their job search. “Really surprise us with greatness, that’s what we’d like to see.” NIH Record Icon

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