Paula Mabee, Former Division Director, Bids Farewell to DEB


Paula Mabee, Division Director, BIO/DEB

Paula Mabee

 

After serving as Division Director for nearly two and a half years, I left DEB at the end of 2017, needing to return to my personal life and my academic home. After decades of NSF funding, panel service, and sending in ad hoc reviews, the opportunity to not only view, but to at least partially direct what happens behind the curtain, was immensely satisfying. And, from a personal standpoint, the time at NSF was probably one of the most interesting and fulfilling chapters of my professional life. Why? What did I learn about NSF to pass along to the DEB community, now that I’m on the “outside” again? What might you not know about the inner workings of NSF that I can share with you?

First and foremost, though previous participation as a panelist always left me with the feeling of trust in NSF, from experience on the inside, I can further say that I have enormous respect for the merit review processes put in place and the people who carry them out. The people – your scientific peers who are serving as Program Officers – and the administrative staff – that well-educated and carefully chosen cadre of personnel in DEB – are idealistically committed to the mission of supporting fundamental science for the well-being of the planet. They hold fairness as a core value and are scrupulous in its application. They also care about you as an individual; they take pride in your successes and pay attention to your journey through various career stages. Whether your proposal is awarded or declined, they have great respect for you. Unfortunately, given that nearly a third of the proposals received are well worth funding, and yet DEB success rates are much lower, POs are often the bearers of hard news. This is a tough position to be in – and out of their control – and yet one of their core values is to be as communicative and transparent with you as possible. They have my deepest respect.

Award decisions are made and justified by your scientific peers – the Program Officers serving at NSF – and my job included oversight of this process. For example, if a PO recommended declining a proposal that was deemed highly competitive by a panel (or, vice versa, recommending a proposal that was deemed non-competitive), an explicit and defensible justification was required. In each situation, I saw the thorough and thoughtful approach of POs in considering both the science and careers of the PIs.

And the science! Intellectually, it was really fun to read across the different proposals submitted to DEB. Great ideas in fundamental, diverse, and ambitious areas of science come into DEB. Part of the process for awarding funding involves presenting the list of proposals for recommendation or decline to the Division Director and Deputy Director. The POs pick out a few proposals that they find the most compelling or illustrative of what is happening in a field, and they describe the science to us. I was often filled with admiration for the ambition and vision of the science proposed by DEB PIs. The accomplishments of science and our understanding of the natural world are due to incredible people like you. And NSF recognizes this like no other institution.

Other things from my time at NSF:

  • DEB is responsive! When a directive or inquiry comes to BIO from our bosses, we answer pronto! Days are dynamic, busy, and long – think Madame Secretary and VEEP. Everything possible is being done to demonstrate the value of fundamental science to our nation!
  • The camaraderie in DEB is palpable. The teamwork between administrative and scientific staff is complementary and highly involved. We like each other 🙂
  • The learning curve for a rotator (PO or Division Director) is steep, but necessary and justified. It’s all about fairness!!! There are detailed processes that protect your proposal from reviewers or POs with a conflict of interest. NSF is looking out for you by training up the personnel responsible for handling your proposals.
  • Introspection, reflection. Where is your field going? What did you publish recently? What was the upshot of that workshop or meeting? Your NSF POs (and leadership) are listening. Retreats are a big thing in DEB – a time to hash over whether changes need to happen, to constantly re-evaluate whether NSF solicitations and DEB organizational structure reflects where your field needs to be.
  • Balancing the continued commitment to core programs with more specialized solicitations is one of the more stimulating aspects of serving as Division Director.   Discerning the future ‘fundamental’ or ‘core’ is best done as a team (see above).
  • It’s about the data. NSF – and DEB – has an appetite for remorseless analysis of the internal data relating e.g., success rates to gender, diversity, career stages, etc. To their dismay, little of this can be shared with you, i.e., the outside community, because these are data that are shared by PIs with the agency – not you. And NSF protects this.

I leave DEB filled with deep respect for the scientists serving in rotating or permanent roles at NSF and for the incredibly smart and committed administrative staff who are interested in spending their lives in service to furthering your science. It was a privilege to work with them. If you have the opportunity to serve DEB, please do – say “yes” to those requests for ad hoc reviews (especially – they are a major bottleneck in the review process), panel service, and the opportunity to be a Program Officer or Division Director. I am also grateful for the opportunity to meet the many scientists involved in the awesome science supported by DEB, likely many of you who are reading this blog.

Meet DEB: Kendra McLauchlan


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Kendra McLauchlan

 

Name: Kendra McLauchlan, Ecosystem Science Program Officer

Education: B.A. Carleton College, M.S. and Ph.D. University of Minnesota

Home Institution: Kansas State University

Tell us about your research: I am a paleoecosystem ecologist, so I reconstruct past ecosystems, usually by deciphering records preserved in soils, sediments, leaves, and wood. My research questions tend to center around controls on long-term nitrogen cycling, changing disturbance regimes (particularly fire regimes), and how fires and ecosystems interact over space and time. I have worked mostly in the upper Midwestern U.S. because of the solid foundation of paleoecology and abundance of good kettle lakes in that region. I am starting to work in the coniferous forests of the western U.S. as well because of the urgent questions about fire in those systems. My approach is solidly empirical: I generate new datasets and synthesize large datasets to understand ecosystem processes.

What made you want to serve NSF? Being a rotator at NSF had not really been on my radar, but I’ve always enjoyed panel service and admired the gold standard of merit review that NSF upholds. When this opportunity came up, there was an overwhelming amount of support from my colleagues, lab members, friends, and family. The work atmosphere is positive and fun, and the new building in Alexandria is gorgeous.

What are you most looking forward to during your tenure at NSF? Working with talented people across different scientific disciplines, on a shared mission of enabling cutting-edge science. That shared mission can be elusive to find at a university. There are so many creative and interesting types of science, and so many different funding opportunities. It will be really rewarding to help support the broader research community of ecosystem ecologists, particularly with the sometimes difficult process of developing ideas into fundable proposals. That, and panel dinners!

Meet DEB: Christina Washington


 

Christina

Christina Washington, Program Assistant

 

 

What’s your role here at DEB?
I am a program assistant (only a few weeks old!). I am learning how to handle travel and reimbursements for visiting panelists and how to set up future panels.

How did you find out about NSF?
I found out about NSF when I did a search of science-related positions and I did some research on the organization. I immediately connected with their mission and the great projects they support.

Cats or dogs?
Definitely dogs. Cats look right through you.

Cake or pie?
Cake or pie? I don’t think people have to choose. I’ll eat both!

Anything else?
Just a side note, I’m a HUGE sci-fi fantasy and superhero fan. I love Marvel and have watched all their movies twice (probably more, shhh!) and DC (which is ok). I love NSF so much. Everyone is nice and very welcoming. I can’t wait to learn more!

 

 

Meet DEB: Genevieve Dabrowski and Megan Parks


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Genevieve Dabrowski

Genevieve Dabrowski, Program Assistant

What do you do here at DEB?

I’m a Program Assistant, which means I process travel paperwork, prepare for panels, and generally make sure staff and visitors are happy.

Tell us about yourself.

Being from a military family, I grew up all over the place, but my family is now settled in the D.C. area. I’m a returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Panama, Sustainable Agriculture, 2014-2016) with an M.A. in International Environmental Policy from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. When not at work I like reading, dancing, improv comedy, and being outdoors.

How did you find out about NSF?

I searched on USAJobs and the NSF brought me in for an interview. Given my science and environmental background, it seemed like a perfect fit. Thank you, NSF!

Which character from the Wizard of Oz do you most identify with?

Toto, because he was always there to assist Dorothy on her travels, which is what I do here!

Anything else?

When I came home from Peace Corps in Panama, I brought my two best friends with me. (Lucy the dog and Jordan the cat)

Lucy

Lucy

Jordan

Jordan

 

 

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Megan Parks with her husband and her dog, Cappuccino

 

Megan Parks, Student Trainee, Administrative Support Assistant

What did you study in school?

I studied Environmental Biology at George Mason University, where I focused on sustainable development, ecology, restoration, habitat conservation, and environmental dynamics. I am very interested in topics involving Urban Ecology and Ecological Restoration.

What’s your title and job here at DEB?

I am a Student Trainee whose role is somewhat of a hybrid between Administrative Support Assistant and Program Assistant. Typically, I help visitors and callers, schedule conference rooms, maintain calendars, assist in pre-panel preparation, retire the records from closed awards, help with travel, create a variety of documents, and maintain office organization.

What do you like about working for DEB?

DEB brings in the most amazing food to share with colleagues. And everyone has been so kind and welcoming. I can’t wait to work with everyone and learn more about each of my coworkers!

Where would you like to travel to someday?

It has always been my dream to travel the world, but I think my first trip would be Norway. I have family in Norway that I would love to meet and there are tons of beautiful places I have seen (on Google Images) that I would like to hike.

Sandwiches or Tacos?

I would have to say that I am more of a taco person. Tacos have a perfect outside to inside content ratio and their filling possibilities seem to be limitless. Unfortunately, tacos do have one downfall — the amount of filling they can hold (but I think that’s where burritos come in). For anyone interested in the largest possible volume of a taco, here is a little taco math.

What do you enjoying doing in your spare time?

I enjoy a lot of things that end with –ing, such as hiking, camping, hanging (with family and friends), swimming, running and dancing (badly, I might add).

Meet DEB: Andrea Weeks and Thomas Turner


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Andrea Weeks

 

Name: Andrea Weeks, Systematics and Biodiversity Science Program Officer

Education: B.S., Cornell University, PhD, University of Texas, Austin

Home Institution: George Mason University

Tell us about your research,

I am a visiting Program Officer and I am a plant systematist, which means I describe new species, discover how different species are related, and test hypotheses related to their evolution and historical biogeography. I have studied the tropical tree family Burseraceae, which is also known as the Frankincense and Myrrh Family, in particular the myrrh genus, Commiphora.  My research has more recently branched out to include plant groups native to the mid-Atlantic region of the United States near my home institution of George Mason University. People who are not biologists are typically surprised to learn that we still have much to discover about the species in our own backyards.

What made you want to serve NSF?

I have been fortunate to receive several awards from the National Science Foundation in the last decade, and I want to give back to the National Science Foundation and the community of my peers who supported my research and that of my students. The team-based approach of NSF was also very compelling to me, as was the opportunity to learn about new frontiers in biology.

What are you most looking forward to during your tenure at NSF?

The merit-review process at the National Science Foundation is widely regarded as the gold-standard among scientific agencies world-wide.  I am looking forward to both learning how we engage the community to push science forward as well as contributing to this effort.

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Thomas Turner

 

Name: Thomas Turner, Population and Community Ecology Program Officer

Education: B.S., Ohio University, PhD Florida International University

Home Institution: University of New Mexico

Tell us about your research,

I am a visiting Program Officer and I am an ecologist and evolutionary biologist who studies the distribution and abundance of aquatic organisms in desert rivers and streams. I am most interested in discovering how short- and long-term changes to river flows affect aquatic biodiversity.  Desert rivers are dynamic environments that pose special challenges.  Organisms must cope with rapid changes in resource availability and fluctuations in the intensity of interactions with other organisms.  Desert ecosystems also challenge scientists because we must devise experiments and make observations that capture and illuminate key biological processes against a backdrop of rapid and sometimes radical change.  In my research, I involve students at all levels to help prepare them for careers in environmental science and conservation.

What made you want to serve NSF?

The prospect of working at NSF was exciting to me for many reasons.  As a scientist, I wanted to learn about new areas of research and work creatively to find ways to advance science in general.  I am a research administrator at my home institution so I wanted to learn more about opportunities that would fit the research expertise of the faculty and students at the University of New Mexico.

What are you most looking forward to during your tenure at NSF?

I most look forward to meeting and working with colleagues from diverse backgrounds that share a common goal of making science more integrative and inclusive, and advancing the best research in the country.  I am also grateful to live near the coast and the opportunity to spend some time in streams, rivers, and estuaries here.

 

Meet DEB: Daniel Gruner and Kathryn Cottingham


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Daniel Gruner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Name: Daniel Gruner, Population and Community Ecology & Macrosystems Biology

Education: A.B. in Biology, Hamilton College, Clinton, NY, Ph.D. in Zoology, University of Hawai‘i, Mânoa, HI

Home Institution: University of Maryland

Tell us about your research,

I am a rotating Program Officer and an entomologist and ecologist interested in species interactions in food webs, the maintenance of biodiversity in ecological communities, and the biogeography of both, particularly on islands. Generally, I seek to test fundamental ecological theory in empirical systems and, using synthetic approaches such as meta-analysis, to apply basic principles to understanding and mitigating the impacts of global climate change and the spread of invasive species. In recent years, my projects have focused on mangrove-marsh ecotones in Florida and the Caribbean; evo-ecological community assembly and biogeography on Pacific Islands, primarily Hawaii; experimental manipulations of herbaceous plant communities in the global Nutrient Network; and on the ecology and integrative biology of invasive forest insects, such as the European Sirex woodwasp and the emerald ash borer.

What made you want to serve NSF?

The National Science Foundation has provided support for my research at every career stage, enabling numerous projects that would have been impossible otherwise. In the scientific tradition, we rely on peer review and public financial support to advance scientific progress, and we commit to serve our peers and institutions in kind. Foremost, I came to NSF to serve the scientific community and the greater population who rely upon science and support it with their tax dollars. I also expect to learn a great deal from colleagues at NSF and from the PI community that will help me better communicate my ideas and broaden participation in science.

What are you most looking forward to during your tenure at NSF?

When serving on review panels, I enjoyed diverse colleagues coming together to debate the merits of proposals at NSF. It is a privilege to read a broad array of interesting proposals, to meet new colleagues, and hear new perspectives while gleaning lessons for best practices in writing grants. Although we cannot fund all projects that come to NSF, the objectivity and fairness of the NSF review process has always been striking. As a rotating Program Officer, I look forward to diving deeper into this process behind the scenes and learning to hold this standard. At the very top of my list, I can’t wait to make those phone calls to early career scientists to announce their first major NSF award.

Cottingham

Kathryn Cottingham

 

Name: Kathryn Cottingham, Population and Community Ecology

Education: B.A. Drew University, M.S. University of Wisconsin at Madison, Ph.D. University of Wisconsin at Madison

Home Institution: Dartmouth College

Tell us about your research,

I am a rotating Program Officer and an aquatic ecologist with a strong side interest in the applications of ecological principles to problems in both environmental and human health. I typically approach problems using a mix of modeling, experiments, and field observations, as appropriate for the research question, and because my undergraduate training was in both mathematics and biology, I have a strong quantitative bent (although I can’t pretend to keep up with all the new, exciting techniques being developed in both modeling and statistics!).  Right now, I am particularly interested in the cyanobacterial taxa that have not read the limnology textbooks and are blooming in economically-valuable, low-nutrient, clear-water lakes located within mostly forested watersheds.  I want to understand what is causing those blooms, both within a summer and on longer time scales, and to evaluate whether there are management strategies that might keep the blooms from getting any worse in the future.

What made you want to serve NSF?

Being a rotator is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I see this position as an opportunity to give back to the broader ecological research community while also learning from the experience in ways that I hope will enrich my research and that of my trainees, collaborators, and institutional colleagues.  The seed was planted nearly 20 years ago, when my postdoc mentor, Tom Frost, rotated through DEB.  Tom spoke so highly of the experience – both professionally and personally – that I put it on the bucket list early in my time as a faculty member.  Since then, I have been eagerly awaiting the time when my kids would be old enough to take advantage of the many opportunities available in the DC-area that are not available in rural Hanover, New Hampshire.

What are you most looking forward to during your tenure at NSF?

I am particularly excited to learn more about the full breadth of research that is being done across the country and around the world, especially in the DEB fields with which I have little firsthand experience, and to help make that research possible.

 

Meet DEB: Matthew Carling and Christopher Schneider


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Matthew Carling

 

 

Name: Matthew Carling, Evolutionary Processes Program Officer

Education: B.S. University of Michigan, Ph.D. Louisiana State University

Home Institution: University of Wyoming

Tell us about your research,

I am serving as a rotating Program Officer which means I do all the same tasks as permanent Program Officers (facilitate panels, make funding recommendations, day-to-day grant administration, etc.) but I’m also representing my community of investigators here at NSF for a few years before I return to my home institution in Wyoming. As an investigator, I am a museum-trained ornithologist and most of the work in my lab involves trying to understand the mechanisms and processes underlying speciation and adaptation. For example, we have a number of projects focused on using naturally occurring hybrid zones between closely-related bird species to understand both the generation and maintenance of reproductive isolation. As the curator of the University of Wyoming Museum of Vertebrates, I am also actively engaged in building and using museum collections not just for research, but also to engage the public in myriad ways.

What made you want to serve NSF?

The prospect of joining a dynamic and dedicated group of fellow program officers and staff working as a team to help push science forward. Plus, I’m not going to lie, there are better restaurants here than in Wyoming.

What are you most looking forward to during your tenure at NSF?

Community service. A core part of the mission of NSF is “to promote the progress of science,” and, to me, that involves working closely with the scientific community to identify the best ways to do exactly that – promote scientific progress. I am also looking forward to trying to help PIs, particularly early-career PIs, in any way I am able so they can better understand what makes a successful proposal.

 

Schneider

Christopher Schneider

Name: Christopher Schneider, Systematics and Biodiversity Science Program Officer

Education: B.S. Lewis and Clark College, Portland, OR, M.A. University of Texas at Austin, Ph.D. University of California at Berkley

Home Institution: Boston University

Tell us about your research,

I am serving as a rotating Program Officer. I am a broadly trained vertebrate zoologist, systematist, and evolutionary biologist specializing in the study of frogs and lizards. Much of my career has been spent studying the mechanisms that generate the remarkably high biodiversity of mountainous regions in the tropics, which comprise only about 5% of the world’s landmass, but may contain two-thirds of the world’s vertebrate animal species. I use a combination of expeditionary field work and molecular genetic analyses to test hypotheses about the origin of species, their history and biogeography. I have worked in Australia, Brazil, West Africa, Sri Lanka, Ecuador and the Caribbean and I continue to marvel at the stunning diversity and variety of species, many new to science, that we study.

What made you want to serve NSF?

NSF is the hub of some of the most exciting science on the planet and I’d imagined that working there as part of a purpose-driven team to support science would be deeply rewarding. Yet, somehow, the time was never right. My responsibilities to graduate students and my home institution (Boston University), a child in school, and a spouse’s career all conspired to make a move to NSF seem implausible. In addition, I love the academic life of scholarship, teaching, research, and student mentorship, so was not in a hurry to set that aside. But late last year the stars aligned. My lab became smaller and more manageable, the Systematics and Biodiversity Sciences Cluster in the Division of Environmental Biology had an opening, my wife accepted a great job offer in the area, and my child went off to college. Needless to say, I am thrilled to finally be working with the outstanding scientists and staff at NSF.

What are you most looking forward to during your tenure at NSF?

A key part of NSF’s mission is to support the basic sciences that drive innovation and understanding. It is exciting to be part of that mission and I look forward to working with my colleagues and staff to support the best science, develop new research funding opportunities, and maintain the vibrant atmosphere of exploration and discovery that advances science and education and inspires the public.