Bye bye Baltimore

For the first time in days, I woke up in the hotel room with sunlight sifting through the curtain. What a nice day with fresh air and ample daylight! Even for the last day, the schedules are packed with multiple platform talks and poster showing.

I want to feature the Cryo-EM structure talk in the afternoon, as it did cover a great variety of research topics and new progresses. All four speakers are working with very challenging protein systems and getting enough particles for comprehensive structural details is only the last thing on their to-do list. Due to highly dynamic nature of the protein system movements, the inherent heterogeneity of the particle conformations is probably the biggest challenge. To solve the problem involves locking the system in a particular state with different substrates, finding the right conditions for the protein preparation, and also collect particles with different orientations on the surface. I really appreciate that several speakers took the time to explain to the audience the technical difficulties they encounter during the structural solving processes. In a way, the story not only tells about a sophisticated structure, but also shows us countless trial-and-error progress from highly driven scientists.

I really do enjoy the BPS experience, even when I felt rather clueless at some moment.

Bye bye Baltimore, and hopefully see you’all soon in Los Angelos.


Challenges and Opportunities in NIGMS reforms

Grant writing seems to become the central part of all PIs’ daily task, with multiple deadlines coming up all year around, and even a graduate student like me can feel the decline of the funding climate. While Biophysics Society meeting serves not only an opportunity to share and inform new biophysical advances,  also as an chance for people to voice and address concerns. Today at the “Conversation with NIGMS Director
Jon Lorsch” session, Dr. Lorsch introduced to us his vision and reform plan for the funding agencies. Of all, Dr. Lorsch specifically explained the new pilot program, “Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA)”. MIRA is an innovative program that grants the investigator more flexibility and sustained support compared to the normal R01 grants. The longer time duration, larger MIRA grant is designed to reduce the number of the grants that one PI has to write for application, decrease the total number of the grants application, and reduce the valuable time that academic faculty members spend on grant reviewing. MIRA appears to be quite bold reform aiming to streamline and increase efficiency for grant application processes. However, the question still remains, “Which PIs are more likely to get a grant like MIRA?” There are growing concerns over the increasing averaged age for PIs to get their first R01.  The national averaged increased from 35 yrs to 45 yrs in the past 30 years. The support for early career investigators appear to be the concern of most of the attendees. Although the MIRA also promises to boost the selection of young investigators, the challenges and competitions that the young assistant professors face on a daily basis still seems like a great barrier for the career development.

In a way that science grant is like trust fund: the money is there, but you need to wait until a certain age to use them.

Progress in electron microscopy structure

The recent technological advancement in electron detectors have greatly up the game for EMers (not sure if this is what they call themselves) in their pursuit for higher resolution structure. It is such a great pleasure for me attend the Platform talk featuring Electron Microscopy and solution Scattering. Ranging from studying the stabilization of HIV-capsid to use EM to visualize larger biological samples, EM definitely provide a robust tool for structural visualization with good phase contrast. One talk that I found particular interesting is from Doreen Matthies from the High Resolution EM lab at the National Cancer Institute. Her talk was focused on the missing electron density for mainly negatively charged Glu/Asp in the EM density maps, which she believes is due to a higher level radiation damaged experienced by those negative charged groups. As we all hope the electron dipoles functions as an elastic body and only scatters the energy away, there are always possible electron-chemical changes of the protein after multiple exposures. I guess the lesson is when shooting electron/X-ray beam over your sample, do not burn your sample out in the meantime.

All that said, EM has proven to be fast growing field in the past few years, I am quite looking forward to the Symposium Talk on Wednesday and all the poster sessions on the same topic in the coming two days.

A scientific career outlook for graduate students

This is my first time coming to such a huge multi-disciplinary society meeting. Although being thrilled to share my findings with other biophysicists and getting exposed to such a rich variety of research topics, I often feel a bit overwhelmed by sheer amount information that is being presented at the same time. However, I did find my own inspiring moment at the Education, Minority Affairs, and Professional Opportunities for Women Committees Travel Awardee Reception, where all awardees were presented with their travel award. We got to talk to other awardees about our research, while sharing nice desserts together. Most of all, we listened to Dr. Linda Columbus’ personal story about entering the scientific field and maturing as a biophysics scientist. Her personal story made me realize that every successful scientist all share their moments of self-doubt and insecurity. However, it is their desire for scientific exploration and drive for success that helped them push through the difficult moments and make critical progress towards their present success.

As a graduate student, we have all been told so many times about the extreme challenges and near minimum probability of becoming academic research professors. It is disheartening some time to feel that the path that you are passionate about is somehow remote and obsolete. It is always to know that professors are also human beings, and they were once uncertain, however, driven graduate students as we are now. Hopefully, some day, we get to tell our personal stories to young graduate students and inspire them for a future career in scientific research.