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Gaining Skills and a Growing Professional Network through NRMN STAR

“I’m not scared to apply any more,” Dr. Brandy Piña-Watson says, after having completed a coaching group session with the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN). Piña-Watson is an assistant professor of counseling in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Texas Tech University. There she studies how the psychological and sociological factors that impact depression among Latinx adolescents and emerging adults, with an emphasis among Mexican Americans.

Until entering the NRMN STAR (NRMN Steps Towards Academic Research Fellowship Program) coaching group, she had minimal exposure on writing an NIH grant. She hadn’t received training on how to write an NIH grant application at Texas A&M University, where she received her Ph.D. in counseling psychology. The focus there was on how to obtain tenure, not how to write a grant, Piña-Watson says. And at Texas Tech there was a dearth of researchers winning NIH grants, leaving no one to mentor her on the process.

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Dr. Tanecia Mitchell on Earning her First NIH Grant

“I don’t feel like I have as many challenges now,” Dr. Tanecia Mitchell says, after securing her first National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant and having laid the foundation for many more to come. Mitchell credits earning the K01 grant, an award from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, to her experience gained from participating in the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN). The grant is to study mitochondrial function, oxidative stress, and inflammation in clinical patients with kidney disorders.

The five-year, $768,776 award marked not only the first NIH grant for Mitchell, but the first K01 grant awarded to the Department of Urology faculty at her institution. Prior to winning the grant, Mitchell worked as an instructor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. One month later after receiving the NIH award, Mitchell assumed the position of Assistant Professor at UAB’s School of Medicine.

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NRMN/Kat Milligan-Myhre

“I’m hoping that [NRMN] continues for a while,” says Dr. Kat Milligan-Myhre, believing it will increase the amount of tenured professors from under-represented groups in STEM.

Milligan-Myhre is an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and was excited when the NIH scored the R15 grant application she submitted in February to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. That enthusiasm paled in comparison to the feeling she had when she was informed in early December that the grant she had resubmitted in October had been awarded.

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Grassroots Science Detectives Solve Arsenic Mystery

In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) added the Iron King Mine Humboldt Smelter Superfund site in Dewey-Humboldt, Arizona, to its National Priorities List. Concerned if they could safely eat vegetables grown in their gardens, local citizens met with EPA officials. To answer that question, the medically underserved and low-income community received help from Monìca Ramìrez-Andreotta — then a doctoral student and a Superfund Research Program training fellow at the University of Arizona. But instead of taking the matter entirely in her hands, Ramìrez-Andreotta coordinated and collaborated with residents to analyze local arsenic levels and the potential risk to the vegetable gardeners in what would become the Gardenroots project.

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Feb. 20, 1962: First American Orbits Earth

Originally posted: 19 February 2008

WASHINGTON — By the end of 1961 the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union had heated up.

In August of that year, the Soviets sent up their second orbital flight, with Cosmonaut Gherman Titov aboard, while the United States had completed just two suborbital flights. Feeling the pressure, NASA decided to advance its flight schedule by dropping a third planned suborbital flight and instead accelerating its upcoming orbital mission.

That was good news for John Glenn, who had been disappointed to be picked to be the third U.S. astronaut in space behind Alan Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom. Glenn may not have been the first U.S. astronaut in space, but the affable pilot became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth after his Mercury capsule, dubbed Friendship 7, launched Feb. 20, 1962, from Cape Canaveral, Fla., aboard an Atlas rocket.

Glenn was a Marine fighter pilot who flew 59 combat missions during World War II and 63 combat missions during the Korean War. He also had served as a test pilot and as an advanced flight training instructor. In July 1957, Glenn achieved fame for setting a transcontinental flight time record by flying from Los Angeles to New York in three hours and 34 minutes.
In April 1959, Glenn was among the seven U.S. astronauts selected to launch into space for Project Mercury. The “Mercury Seven” also included Shepard, Grissom, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter, Donald “Deke” Slayton and Gordon Cooper.

NASA’s original plan was to have an open call to select astronauts for Project Mercury, but U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower made the decision to use military test pilots instead.

The Mercury Seven were assigned to the Space Task Group based in Hampton, Va.

Over the next few years the group received training in various simulations, parabolic flights, pressure suits, survival skills and communications. They also took academic courses including space science, engineering and physiology. The astronauts were assigned areas of specialty to help design the Mercury capsule.
Glenn was responsible for the layout of the cockpit.

“The astronauts’ specialty assignments had some direct affect on the redesign of the Mercury suit, cockpit layout and the capsule hatch and window systems,” the NASA History Web site said.

Glenn’s flight originally was scheduled for December 1961, but inclement weather and technical problems with the capsule resulted in a series of launch delays. Finally, his Friendship 7 capsule was launched into space the following February.

Aside from a minor error that kept the capsule out of its proper orbital attitude for 38 seconds, the launch and the early part of them flight were nominal.

Glenn noted a dust storm over Africa’s west coast, the electric lights of two cities – Perth and Rockingham, Australia – and the quick onset of sunrise and sunset.

But at the end of the first orbit, Glenn lost control of an attitude control jet, which meant the capsule became like a car with its wheel alignment out of balance, the NASA History Web site said.

Glenn was forced to override the automatic control system – the Mercury capsules were designed to be primarily automated spacecraft – for manual control. He was able to maintain control but could not complete some of his observational assignments, and piloting manually meant the rate of fuel consumption increased.

However, the next reported problem was more serious. A landing-system monitor signaled to the ground that the capsule’s heat shield was not locked into place, meaning it was only being held in place by the overlying retro-rocket package. Without Mercury’s heat shield, the capsule would disintegrate during re-entry – along with Glenn.

After weighing their options, officials at the control center decided that instead of ejecting the retro-rocket package after readying the landing gear as is typically done, they would keep it in place and thus maintain the heat shield, the NASA History Web site said.

Mercury chief designer Maxime Faget approved of that course of action, as long as the retro-rockets were exhausted; any leftover fuel probably would ignite upon re-entry, the NASA History Web site said.

Although not immediately informed of the perceived danger, Glenn became suspicious of a problem when tracking stations kept asking him if his landing-bay deploy switch was turned off, the NASA History Web site said.

“We are recommending that you leave the retro package on during the entire re-entry,” the control center said, according to the 1963 U.S. National Archives documentary film “The John Glenn Story.”

During re-entry Glenn saw the retro-pack breaking into pieces and thought it was the heat shield and that he would be next, according to the NASA History Web site.

Fortunately, he was wrong. Glenn splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean safely after the nearly five-hour flight.

The heat shield was later found to have been locked firmly into place – its sensor simply had malfunctioned.

Untangling fibril formation and dissociation in Parkinson’s disease

Prions are a type of protein gone wrong. The complex three-dimensional structure of a prion’s progenitor protein has been altered, somehow causing it to no longer function as expected. Worse, the malformation of these progenitor proteins into prions causes them to aggregate into amyloid plaques that can result in a disease state. Prions are responsible for an odd sort of protein-caused infectious neurodegenerative diseases like Mad Cow disease and scrapie in livestock.

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What now for science?

What follows is a reprinting of the editorial penned by AAAS CEO Rush Holt originally printed in the Nov. 17 edition of Science found here.


Rush Holt

Chief Executive Officer of AAAS and Executive Publisher of the Science journals

Faced with the uncertainty of what the 2016 U.S. presidential election means for science, we may find some reassurance in understanding that the health of the nation’s scientific enterprise depends on much more than the attitudes of the particular person who is president. We must not forget that members of Congress and other national, state, local, and international officials also make policy and collectively constitute a considerable force that is in many ways more influential than the president alone. There is now important work to do ensuring that all citizenry, including the president, understand the powerful benefits of science and that decisions made with scientific input are more likely to succeed.

As the nation readies for a transition in leadership, an immediate question for most scientists is federal funding for government science agencies in the coming years. Here, there is actually less uncertainty. Congress, for several years, has been on a “sequestration” path that, without a substantial turnover in Congress’s majorities (as there was not), will reduce the fraction of the budget for discretionary funding, which includes science funding. The election thus preserves a trend whose reversal might have been hoped for, but was always unlikely.

A truer uncertainty is the role of science advice in the new administration. President-elect Trump’s wish to drive economic progress and thereby improve people’s lives cannot come about without advancing science, technology, innovation, and an education system that prepares a capable workforce. He would be wise to appoint a science adviser who is a respected scientist or engineer. The adviser should be fully integrated into the most senior decision-making processes not just on topics with an obvious science connection such as infectious-disease response, but on many matters with science and technology embedded, including diplomacy, cybersecurity, agriculture, advanced manufacturing, and resilient infrastructure.

Beyond research funding and science advice, there is much more that determines the health of the scientific enterprise. Will the U.S. join other nations in collaborative research in which there is full access to data and free exchange of researchers? Will scientists be appointed throughout the agencies? Will government scientists be able to speak freely about their research? In regulatory agencies, will accepted scientific findings be given precedence over political influence? Will financial and tax policies reward science-based activities in the private and public sectors? Most important, will the next administration be evidence-based?

Over recent decades, a disturbing trend in the U.S. government has been for ideological assertions to crowd out evidence. This trend accelerated with this year’s campaign in which candidate Trump made statements that were unsubstantiated or contradicted by accepted scientific facts. Will there be members in the new administration who are familiar with the practices and findings of scientific investigation?

What are scientists to do? Certainly at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), following a tradition nearly 170 years old, we will advocate forcefully that science be fully and positively integrated into public policy making. Science need not be politically partisan. Given that the economic and technological benefits of research are appealing to citizens across the political spectrum, science can bridge differences. The openness and directness of scientists’ communication can be unwelcome to politicians, but the scientific community must present its best understanding of relevant evidence clearly, directly, and without condescension. We must make clear that an official cannot wish away what is known about climate change, gun violence, opioid addiction, fisheries depletion, or any other public issue illuminated by research.

This election is said to have been about rejecting the political establishment. We cannot let that mean rejecting established facts. We hope that President Trump will be more grounded in specific facts than was candidate Trump and pay more attention to the process of careful, open vetting of hypotheses and claims.

Grant Writing Coaches Discuss their Experience Teaching NRMN Rising Scientists

As a psychologist, Denise Dillard has made a career of providing mental health care to the Alaskan community she comes from. She teaches the subject as an adjunct at Alaska Pacific University and heads the research department at Southcentral Foundation, a health and wellness provider for Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and nearby villages. But she has seen too few fellow Alaskan Native STEM professionals — she is of Inupiaq heritage — so she jumped at the chance to be a coach for the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) when her long-time mentors and GUMSHOE directors Dedra Buchwald and Spero Manson asked. The GUMSHOE program (or Grantwriting Uncovered: Maximizing Strategies, Help, Opportunities, Experiences) is one of four NRMN models that teach groups of postdocs and early career researchers how to write competitive grants.

Read more here.

That’s No Space Station: How Mars’ “Death Star” Moon Got its Crater

With its signature crater, the largest of Mars’ two moons, Phobos, is sometimes called the Death Star, calling to mind the “technological terror” prominent in the Star Wars films. The moon has not only spurred the public’s imagination, but that of astrophysicists as well. Many had wondered how the impact that created such a huge crater could have done so without destroying the entire body. At nine kilometers in diameter, the crater, Stickney, takes up a huge amount of the moon’s surface—for scale, the entire moon is only 70 kilometers around.

Read more here.

Latinx Immigrants/Entrepreneurs in Trump’s America

Like others finishing their doctorates in STEM fields, Dorn Carranza had to decide what to do with his Ph.D. His answer came when he was approached by representatives of Coalesce Corp., a biotech firm, interested in commercializing his bio-organic chemistry doctoral work at Baylor University on DNA-based enzymes. Now he too steers science and engineering students into entrepreneurship by helping them commercialize their research ideas in two different endeavors.

The image of the entrepreneur is likely embedded somewhere between the cowboy and the movie star in the American psyche. Talk of the small businessman is a common refrain among politicians. It fits the national narrative of a people who pride themselves on taking risks and being self-reliant.

But it’s also the reason many born elsewhere come to the United States. The story of the immigrant as an entrepreneur is also a well-worn trope. From Scottish-born steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to Russian-born Google co-founder Sergey Brin, this country has welcomed and nurtured businesses founded by its immigrants. According to the 2007–2011 American Community Survey, 17.3 percent of high-tech entrepreneurs are U.S. immigrants despite comprising only 13 percent of the overall population.

Yet in today’s hyperpolarized political culture, some see immigrants as a threat to native-born Americans and their jobs. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has echoed and megaphoned this xenophobia as policy with a special focus on Latinx immigrants. “For many years, Mexico’s leaders have been taking advantage of the United States by using illegal immigration to export the crime and poverty in their own country (as well as in other Latin American countries),” the Trump campaign site says. Yet even the Trump campaign website acknowledges the need for more professionals, even Latinxs, in STEM. That desire ends, however, when those STEM workers are not originally from the United States.

More than Just Stories

Here are some Latinx STEM entrepreneurs are actively disproving Trump’s assertions against them. They have established their entrepreneurial credentials in this country, overcoming this very prejudice and disproving its erroneous foundations.

Carranza didn’t want to pursue a career in a tenure-track academic position. Nor did he want to take a position in so-called alternative science career tracks, involving policy, industry, government, or even nonprofits. The Peruvian native found his entrepreneurial niche in helping others pursue theirs by first founding the company Curium, which integrates young scientists on projects to provide hands-on entrepreneurial experience, and now in his role as a program officer for the “E-team Program” at the nonprofit VentureWell. The E-Team program provides early stage support via funding, resources, and know-how to prospective student entrepreneurs — from undergrad to postdoc — to push their innovations from the lab to the marketplace.

“The three-stage program provides grant funding, experiential workshops, veteran coaching and a potential investment opportunity to help teams manifest their projects’ full commercial potential,” the E-team website says. “Our faculty grants support the creation of new courses and programs in which students develop ideas and gain the skills to bring them to market.”

Antonio Ulloa
Antonio Ulloa. Credit: Jennifer Stephens Photography

Antonio Ulloa, who hails from Mexico, has gone through that experience having built and sold his custom-built learning applications. Now he leads a company that creates ever-more accurate simulations of human brain processes. Founded in 2012, Ulloa’s company Neural Bytes takes data from MRI scan studies to simulate normal-functioning human brains. He had studied artificial intelligence and neuroscience going so far as a postdoc before then becoming a stay-at-home dad to help support his wife’s high-powered law career. Looking to return to a career in science, he applied for a second postdoc, but suffered some professional and personal setbacks, including a cancer diagnosis. On the mend after a recurrence of the illness, Ulloa then developed a startup that created mobile apps to improve the English skills of non-native speakers and also learning apps for children. While these endeavors weren’t monetarily successful, they provided the professional momentum he needed to overcome the dread and inertia that were holding him back at the time.

Ulloa first seriously considered starting his own venture as he was finishing up his computational neuroscience Ph.D. at Boston University, but he was intimidated by the need to create a business plan to start his enterprise. But he learned what he could about starting a company, including registering and developing a business plan, from government and business websites and his accountant, ultimately creating a limited liability company.

“I don’t have to follow a company line because the company line follows me,” Ulloa says. Working irregular hours — sometimes starting at 3:00 a.m. — allows him the flexibility he needs to prepare his children for elementary school. While he finds bookkeeping and preparing taxes are tedious — it takes up about 50 percent of his work time — he has found creating a concisely communicated business plan to be the hardest part of having his own business.

Saly Romero-Torres
Saly Romero-Torres. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Torres

Saly Romero-Torres also enjoys the benefit of controlling her schedule. While at Pfizer, she was often traveling internationally, which took her away from her husband and young son. These days, she still travels frequently to meet with her customers, but it’s different now, she says. “I call the shots. I can say yes; I can say no.”

Almost two years ago, she decided to found a data-analysis startup called Bio-Hyperplane after having been a scientist at pharmaceutical powerhouses Merck and Pfizer. “I’ve always been business-oriented,” she says, so the decision to start an entrepreneurial endeavor was more of an evolutionary step than a revolutionary one. While pursuing her doctorate in analytical chemistry from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, for example, she took a two-year fellowship at the university’s Innovation Realization Lab, where she learned about intellectual property and entrepreneurial training. She also took courses specifically for scientists and engineers to earn what the university calls a “mini-MBA,” and while at Pfizer she did some business development work.

Romero-Torres came to the mainland to earn her doctorate after getting a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez. She’s been living in the mainland ever since. Even when born here in the United States, Latinxs are not always seen as such. While U.S. citizens since 1917, Puerto Ricans occupy an odd landscape since they are often not seen as such. In a Economist/YouGov Poll taken this year just 41% of those surveyed believed Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

Having already overcome initial feelings of inadequacy and culture adjustment when first arriving on the mainland, starting a new business still made Romero-Torres nervous. She worried about the responsibility of succeeding being solely on her shoulders. But the opportunity for independence drove her forward, and she doesn’t regret her decision. “Even though so much responsibility may sound scary, it is very empowering to know that you do have the control and full accountability on your work,” she says.

But there is not just one way to exercise scientific entrepreneurship. The bench scientist turning his or her research into a commercial application or venture is just one among many pathways available for someone considering entrepreneurship.

Marga Gual Soler
Marga Gual Soler. Credit: Photo courtesy of Future-ish

“Being an entrepreneur is a state of mind,” according to Marga Gual Soler. “If you don’t like your reality, change it.” She focuses on what she calls “intraentrepreneurship.” This involves developing a personal brand and finding value in soft skills — in her case being bilingual and “bicultural.” If you don’t yourself, others will define you, she says. Soler advocates self-invention, including writing your own job description.

The Spanish native felt isolated counting cells for days on end during her doctorate training as a cell biologist. Looking to get away from the lab, Soler sought out and secured entry into programs mostly foreign to scientists: the UN’s Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development and Georgetown University’s Global Competitiveness Leadership Program.

She is now project director for the Center for Science Diplomacy at AAAS. If this sounds like a made-up job, that’s because it is. She created her own position. Solar uses scientific exchange to improve relations between the United States and less-than-friendly nations, like Cuba.

Soler believes the science community often operates from a position of privilege when it needs to make scientific knowledge more accessible to the public. The idea originated from a friend who hosted a poetry slam in her native Spain. So she hosted several “science slams” in Spain, Mexico, and Uruguay at museums and even a farmer’s market.

Disproving the Rhetoric

But what do these stories mean if Trump is elected president with his proposed strongly anti-immigrant policies? While his policy positions remain murky and mercurial, his feelings at least on immigration are clear. “The influx of foreign workers holds down salaries, keeps unemployment high, and makes it difficult for poor and working class Americans — including immigrants themselves and their children — to earn a middle class wage,”according to a white paper entitled “Immigration Reform That Will Make America Great Again”

According to Forbes about 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies have been started by immigrants or their children. The business publication goes on to talk about a negative trickle-down effect taking a hard-line stance against immigrants would have on the U.S. economy. As risk-takers, immigrants are more likely to start businesses that add job opportunities to native-born Americans, not take them away.

But there has been little to parse about Trump’s stance on scientific issues, let alone how immigrants and foreign-born scientists would fit into his immigration plans, other than his statements about the H-1B visa. He stopped just sort of saying he’d end the program altogether, arguing it provided a cheaper alternative to U.S. workers. The Trump campaign site rails against the temporary pass provided for so-called highly skilled to work in the United States: “I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions.”

Trump’s incendiary rhetoric may be stirring but it’s far from true. The numbers themselves don’t add up. While there is no direct way to account for the numbers of foreign-born Latinx STEM entrepreneurs, some relevant numbers are. In 2009, 20 percent of STEM workers is foreign‐born, of which 36 percent are Latinx in 2009, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce report. Latinxs made up 15 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2011 and seven percent of the STEM workforce.

No matter what you think of Trump’s intended immigration policies, rhetoric is at least misleading if not outright deceitful. When you dig into it, if he becomes president he would make the country less competitive scientifically and economically.