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Vol. LXVI, No. 22
October 24, 2014
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Brain-Oriented Research Festival Encourages Mingling

On the front page...

NIDDK director Dr. Griffin Rodgers (l) learns from NIA director Dr. Richard Hodes at festival.
NIDDK director Dr. Griffin Rodgers (l) learns from NIA director Dr. Richard Hodes at festival.

Somewhere in the unruly, uncharted depths of the brain lies the urge to communicate, share and, in the best-case scenario, shout “Eureka!”

It is in that spirit that NIH director Dr. Francis Collins launched the 2014 NIH Research Festival on Sept. 22. He encouraged free-form mingling and conversation: “Oftentimes, that’s how new ideas develop,” he told a Masur Auditorium audience assembled for the festival’s opening plenary session.

Continued...

Clearly endorsing what the Intramural Research Program likes to call “3 days of peace, love and science,” Collins offered four “snapshots of exceptional opportunities in biomedical research in the era of the brain.”

He began with NIH’s strong suit—unraveling mysteries through basic research. “That’s been NIH’s strength over many decades,” he said. Collins announced that NIH would soon be revealing the first $46 million in BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative grants. The 12-year program will focus on 7 priority areas in an effort to understand the most complex part of the human body.

Second, he emphasized the need to harness massive amounts of data in the service of better health: the BD2K, or Big Data to Knowledge initiative. This is a 6-year effort to wring public health advances from a burgeoning technical field. NIH announced a national network of centers of excellence just days later.

Another frontier where technology is currently far ahead of therapy is in the detection of the molecular bases of disease, which Collins said is proceeding “at a prodigious rate.” More than 5,000 disorders so far have been characterized at the molecular level, but only about 500 have a corresponding therapy, he reported.

Dr. Kandice Tanner, Earl Stadtman tenure-track investigator and head, tissue morphodynamics unit, Laboratory of Cell Biology, NCI, chats with NIBIB scientific director Dr. Richard Leapman (c) and NIBIB deputy scientific director Dr. Henry Eden. NCI director Dr. Harold Varmus (l) explains his poster to a festival attendee.
Dr. Kandice Tanner, Earl Stadtman tenure-track investigator and head, tissue morphodynamics unit, Laboratory of Cell Biology, NCI, chats with NIBIB scientific director Dr. Richard Leapman (c) and NIBIB deputy scientific director Dr. Henry Eden.

NCI director Dr. Harold Varmus (l) explains his poster to a festival attendee.

Photos: Ernie Branson, Eric Bock


He said NIH’s Accelerating Medicines Partnership with industry is ahead of its time schedule in tackling Alzheimer’s disease, type 2 diabetes, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. “Over the next 5 years, we expect major contributions on where we ought to go,” he said. “We also want to add schizophrenia—that would be a wonderful direction to go in.” AMP is funded at more than $230 million over 5 years, he added.

The week prior to Research Festival, the White House announced new strategies in the battle against anti-microbial resistance, Collins reported. A national strategy for combatting antibiotic resistance was unveiled, targeting such common infections as Clostridium difficile and MRSA, which tend to occur in clusters. Collins said NIH is also cosponsoring a $20 million prize for development of a rapid diagnostic test (3-4 hours) “so you would not lose a couple of days using an antibiotic that won’t work.”

Dr. Lisa Jenkins, mass spectrometry facility manager, Laboratory of Cell Biology, NCI, and NCATS biologist Dr. Wei Sun discuss Jenkins’ poster. NIGMS director Dr. Jon Lorsch (r) enjoys a lively discussion with a visitor. NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman lauds the IRP’s “enormous productivity,” which he said is due in large part to the work of research fellows.
At left, Dr. Lisa Jenkins, mass spectrometry facility manager, Laboratory of Cell Biology, NCI, and NCATS biologist Dr. Wei Sun discuss Jenkins’ poster. At center, NIGMS director Dr. Jon Lorsch (r) enjoys a lively discussion with a visitor. At right, NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman lauds the IRP’s “enormous productivity,” which he said is due in large part to the work of research fellows.

Collins’ last, but not least, emphasis was the need to prepare a diverse and talented biomedical research workforce for the future. “At a time when resources are unusually stressed, we need to encourage the early stage especially,” he said.

“We hope to gain some traction after 10 years of declining budgets,” he noted. Collins mentioned that he has met with some 300 members of Congress to educate them about NIH’s mission. He is concerned that “our workforce does not look like our nation—we need to do a better job.”

At one of several poster sessions, Dr. Fatima Ali-Rahmani (l), postdoctoral fellow at NCI, shows her poster to Kingsley Asiedu. NIDCR director Dr. Martha Somerman (l) describes her poster to a visitor.
At one of several poster sessions, Dr. Fatima Ali-Rahmani (l), postdoctoral fellow at NCI, shows her poster to Kingsley Asiedu. At right, NIDCR director Dr. Martha Somerman (l) describes her poster to a visitor.

Lorsch’s cookies tied for first place in the festival bake-off with biscotti prepared by NIA scientific director Dr. Luigi Ferrucci.
Lorsch’s cookies tied for first place in the festival bake-off with biscotti prepared by NIA scientific director Dr. Luigi Ferrucci.
Collins listed three recent accomplishments in achieving diversity: hiring Dr. Hannah Valantine to become NIH’s first chief officer for scientific workforce diversity, with the IRP as her first area of focus; a renewed commitment to ensuring fairness in peer review; and major new grants to be announced soon in three programs—BUILD (Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity) Consortium, NRMN (National Research Mentor Network) and CEC (Coordination and Evaluation Center, to monitor BUILD and NRMN progress).

The director also promised to unveil, at December’s meeting of the advisory committee to the NIH director, a working group’s vision for the next 10 years of the IRP, with the Clinical Center lying at the heart of the program.

The plenary session also included recognition of more than 200 winners of the 2015 FARE (Fellows Award for Research Excellence). “It’s a poorly kept secret around here that the enormous productivity of the Intramural Research Program is due in large measure to the work of the fellows,” said Dr. Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research.

This is the 20th year of the FARE competition, which drew 923 abstracts from a pool of some 4,000 postdocs and clinical fellows, said NICHD’s Sudhir Rai, cochair of the FARE 2015 subcommittee.

NIDA scientific director Dr. Anto Bonci (l) leads off the opening plenary session’s scientific talks with a discussion of optogenetics as potential therapy for substance abuse. Kicking off the festival, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins (r) discusses the research equivalent of Woodstock—“3 days of peace, love and science.”
NIDA scientific director Dr. Anto Bonci (l) leads off the opening plenary session’s scientific talks with a discussion of optogenetics as potential therapy for substance abuse. Kicking off the festival, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins (r) discusses the research equivalent of Woodstock—“3 days of peace, love and science.”

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