Journey to the NIH: Insights and Inspirations from the 2012 NCBC Showcase

Postdocs get a glance at the entire field and their first inside view of NIH grant-making

If he were a graduate student now, Francis Collins would be studying computational biology. That’s what the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) told a rapt audience at the November 2012 National Centers for Biomedical Computing (NCBC) Showcase. The field of computational biology is “raining opportunities,” Collins said.


It was a message welcomed by the six distinguished postdoctoral fellows attending from Simbios, one of the six NCBCs. “Hearing that our field is at the forefront of research gave me a boost in continuing to pursue this line of study,” says Saikat Pal, PhD, a Simbios postdoctoral fellow who works on multiscale modeling of the knee.


But the showcase inspired the postdocs in other ways as well. In addition to sharing their research in a unique setting (see details box), they stepped outside their everyday research focus to take a look at the entire field and get their first inside view of NIH grant-making.


“Giving postdocs the opportunity to attend this kind of event is an essential part of their training,” says Russ Altman, MD, PhD, principal investigator of Simbios. “We are preparing the next generation of leaders in the field.”


Eye-Opening Breadth

Even in an interdisciplinary field like computational biology, it’s all too easy for researchers to develop blinders as they hone in on a specific research focus. With presentations about electronic medical records, medical imaging, genetics, and ontologies, the NCBC Showcase broadened that view for Lee-Ping Wang, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow researching molecular dynamic force fields. “It was definitely a real eye-opener to see all the different types of research,” he says.


But it was the distribution of research areas represented—or not—that left the biggest impression on Diwakar Shukla, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in bioengineering. Given that so many people work on molecular dynamics simulations—as he does—Shukla says he was surprised there was only one NCBC focused on it. Jenelle Bray, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in structural biology, made a similar observation. “None of the other NCBCs’ talks were even close to what I do,” she says. It’s a situation that points to both current NIH priorities and the challenges of supporting research in such a diverse field. 


Getting Behind the Scenes

For the postdocs, the NCBC Showcase was also a first behind-the-scenes view of what goes on in the minds of NIH decision makers. For example, Gert Kiss, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in chemistry, was impressed that, in addition to research for research’s sake, program officers care about the economics of NIH investments. “I was surprised to learn that they want at least some of their investments to eventually produce a profit or cost-savings and, in that way, help sustain the field.”


And Enrique Rojas, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow studying bacterial growth, was struck by the collaborative relationship between the NIH and the NCBC principal investigators. “It’s not as if you’re trying to get their money and they’re conservatively doling it out. Ideally, the relationship between researchers and the NIH would be one of cooperation and collaboration, and I did get that sense. That was encouraging.”


As they return to their labs at Stanford, the postdocs bring with them these inspirations and insights. “It wasn’t a normal science conference,” Rojas says of the NCBC Showcase. And perhaps that’s the point. 


Simbios postdoctoral fellows presented their latest research developments at the NCBC Showcase:


"Torsion Angle Normal Mode Analysis"

- Jenelle Bray


“Protein Engineering through Computational Design:  From Proof of Principle to Real Life Applications” 
- Gert Kiss


“Multiscale Modeling to Evaluate the Mechanisms Underlying Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome”

- Saikat Pal


“Chemical and Mechanical Regulation of Bacterial Cell Wall Expansion” 
- Enrique Rojas


“Mapping the Conformational Landscape of G-Protein Coupled Receptors Using Novel Computational Paradigms” 
- Diwakar Shukla


“Simple and Systematic Parameterization of a Polarizable Water Model” 
- Lee-Ping Wang


Abstracts for these posters can be downloaded at

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