Meet DEB: Andrea Porras-Alfaro and Lynn Christenson


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Andrea Porras-Alfaro

Name: Andrea Porras-Alfaro, Population and Community Ecology Program Officer

Education: Ph.D. University of New Mexico, M.S. University of Puerto Rico, B.A. Biotech Eng. Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica.

Home Institution: Western Illinois University

Tell us about your research: I am a mycologist (study fungi) serving as a visiting Program Officer. I am interested in fungal ecology in general and the interconnections of this field with other areas of ecology. My research has been mainly focused on the diversity and function of mycobiomes and their symbiotic interactions with plant communities in agricultural and natural ecosystems. I am interested in the emergent properties that result from complex microbial interactions and novel fungal consortia with potential to ameliorate the effects of climate change. For example, we are currently studying fungi that can facilitate plant adaptation to extreme conditions including extended periods of drought and high temperatures. In my lab, we use a variety of techniques to study fungi including cultures, bioassays, sequencing, and field experiments. I study root-associated microbial communities in different systems taking advantage of long-term field manipulations in arid systems and grasslands across the US. I am also working on soybean and corn plantations in Illinois, and the symbionts in tropical orchids. I am also very excited about strategies to improve student mentoring and success and increase participation and interactions of students from very different backgrounds.

Why do you want to serve with NSF? The opportunity to serve the broader scientific community, specially, a diverse and talented generation of scientists. I think it is a privilege to be at the forefront of science, innovation, and creativity. I was fortunate early in my career to have mentors who served at NSF and I have always admired their dedication to serve the scientific community in general. Here at NSF, I will be able to see the review process from a different perspective and benefit from training that is already impacting my professional development and career. I am excited to help facilitate the support of high quality science, its impact in society, and a diverse community of researchers and institutions.

What are you looking forward to in your tenure here at NSF? As a Program Officer, I am excited about the opportunity to support new initiatives and facilitate the review process focusing on the primary mission of NSF. I hope to continue my mentoring role by opening new doors for researchers in the different stages of their careers, establish new professional relations, and be of service to the community.

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Lynn Christenson with her dogs Rane and Ki

Name: Lynn M. Christenson, Ecosystem Science Program Officer

Education: University of Winnipeg, State University of New York of Environmental Science and Forestry, M.S. and PhD

Home Institution: Vassar College

Tell us about your research:  I am an ecosystem ecologist with a focus on biogeochemical cycling in terrestrial systems. My research includes how climate change and other human activities (forest fragmentation and urbanization) interact with herbivores, plants, and soils to impact nutrient dynamics.

Why do you want to serve with NSF? I wanted to serve science from the ‘other side’ and to gain a better understanding of how basic science gets funded. Or in other words, I wanted to participate in the potential new directions that science can go by encouraging and developing programs for investigators!

What are you looking forward to in your tenure here at NSF? I’m looking forward to meeting other people from other directorates and divisions from across NSF. I like to hear how other scientists/programs think about their questions and approaches. This will help me to think differently about how I ask my own questions and the approaches that I use in my own research.

Meet DEB: Stephanie Hampton, Division Director


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Stephanie Hampton

 

 

Name: Stephanie Hampton

Education: Ph.D. Dartmouth College (Ecology and Evolution), M.S. University of Nevada – Las Vegas (Biology), B.A. University of Kansas (Environmental Studies)

Home Institution: Washington State University

Tell us about your research: My core expertise is in aquatic ecology, particularly using statistical analysis of large data sets. I’m fascinated by the ways shifts in abiotic conditions can disrupt, strengthen, or even reverse the costs and benefits of organisms’ interactions with each other, often with dramatic consequences for ecosystems. Most recently I have been involved in collaborations that examine global patterns of warming temperatures and shorter winter ice cover on lakes, and thinking about how these changes alter relationships among plankton (the microscopic base of aquatic food webs). My interest in these topics mostly stems from 14 years of collaborative research on Lake Baikal in Siberia.

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Lake Baikal is covered with ice for 5-6 months each year. Frequently the ice is astonishingly clear, allowing a lot of sunlight to pass through, which can fuel big blooms of endemic algae. (Photo: Sergey Pesterev CC-BY-2.0)

 

It’s the oldest and most biodiverse lake in the world, with the highest rates of endemism. For example, over half of Baikal’s animal species are found only in Baikal. It’s also the largest lake, by volume, holding 20% of the world’s liquid freshwater – you could pour all of the Laurentian Great Lakes combined into Lake Baikal. As you can guess from the location in Siberia, it’s a very cold adapted ecosystem. A lot of the productivity occurs under ice, and warming temperatures seem to be shifting the balance between the cold-loving endemic species and the “cosmopolitan” species that are starting to find summers more hospitable. Baikal is an amazing place to work, with wonderful people, and I feel extremely lucky to have had this opportunity.

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The top predator in Lake Baikal is the Baikal seal, the world’s only  exclusively freshwater pinniped. (Photo: Sergey Gabdurakhmanov CC-BY-2.0) 

 

Beyond aquatic biology, I have other broad interests, and have gotten involved in diverse projects where my tools and perspective can be useful. For 7.5 years, I was Deputy Director of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), the first of NSF’s synthesis centers, and also a leader in DataOne, a NSF-funded data confederation initiative for environmental sciences. These programs have offered unique opportunities to use my quantitative tools, as well as my perspective as a biologist, to do interdisciplinary “science of science” research. For example, we’ve analyzed data on productivity in scientific collaboration, community practices in sharing data, contributions of natural history to science and society, and trends in teaching students to work with big data sets.

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Ask me about rotifers! The most graceful and fascinating of the zooplankton… here is the tiny beauty Plationus patulus. (Photo: S.E. Hampton)

 

Why did you want to serve with DEB?: I have been orbiting DEB for most of my career. The breadth of my interests has familiarized me with a variety of NSF directorates and divisions, but clearly DEB is my home, where I know the community and the culture well. My interactions with NSF have included countless proposals and panels, (more easily counted) awards, my role at NCEAS, Chair of the Advisory Committee for the NSF Biology Directorate…

Basically, over the years, I have learned that NSF is chock full of people who are super sharp and care very deeply about our community. From outside NSF, I have done my best to support the health of the scientific endeavor, especially through my work at NCEAS and DataONE, as well as doing a wide variety of professional service. Now I have the opportunity to contribute much more directly to supporting the vitality of science by working within the Foundation, which is exciting. Also, anyone who has served on DEB panels knows that the people in DEB are really nice, smart, and they work hard – it makes the position really attractive!

What are you most looking forward to during your tenure at NSF?: Most importantly, I am hopeful that my energy, perspective, and experience will be useful in enabling our scientific community to achieve its goals. Personally I find it very satisfying to help people and groups who have good ideas and are willing to work hard. Our community is seeing a lot of change right now – not just that NSF BIO programs are moving to a “no deadlinemodel, but bigger, global changes too. Technology has transformed our abilities to do research at scales both finer and larger than previously possible. NEON data are now online after years of planning and preparation. Interdisciplinarity and multi-institutional collaboration are becoming more and more common. Digitization and cyberinfrastructure are increasing access to biological collections. Data stewardship, data sharing, and research reproducibility are also becoming more prominent in investigators’ research planning. I’m very excited to see the creative ways in which researchers will take advantage of the new opportunities afforded by all this change – using, reinforcing, and expanding the scope of the theory, analytical approaches, and natural history knowledge that already have propelled so much success in our fields.

 

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


 

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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)

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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.