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John Wingfield, the New Head of BIO, Helps BIO Address the Big Questions of Biology

In August 2011, John Wingfield, an environmental endocrinologist at the University of California, Davis, was selected to become NSF's Assistant Director (AD) for the Directorate of Biological Sciences (NSF Press Release). Before becoming BIO's AD, Wingfield joined NSF as the Director of BIO's Division of Integrative Organismal Systems in September 2010.

A conversation with John C. Wingfield.
Credit: National Science Foundation


Wingfield discussed his goals for BIO during a recent interview with Lily Whiteman, an NSF Public Affairs Officer.

Whiteman: What are some of the biggest questions in biology today?

Wingfield: I like to say that the organism in its environment is the ultimate frontier in biology. That's because many of the biggest questions in biology involve the ways that organisms interact with their environment and with each other, and what makes one species so successful in a particular environment, while other closely related species cannot tolerate the same environment.

To address these questions, we must gain the ability to predict what types of phenotypes (observable characteristics) are produced in an organism by interactions between its genome (entire set of genes) and its environment.

In other words, we need to be able to go from genotypes to phenotypes. And in order to do so, we must bring together and integrate new technologies used to study genes, molecular processes, and cellular processes with organismal biology--the study of organisms in their physical and social environments.

In addition, there are equally important areas of biology that cover synthetic biology, understanding the brain and biodiversity, which follow on the five Grand Challenges that were recently identified in a National Academy of Sciences publication. So, In essence, we have five major foci that we will support in the future, and these cover all programs in biology as well as collaborations with other Directorates and Agencies.

Whiteman: What are some of the major strategies that BIO uses to identify specific research goals?

Wingfield: When we consider what new directions to take, we always start with BIO'S portfolio--the proposals we have received and the projects that we are funding, which, of course, come from the research community. We review what questions researchers are asking; the innovative approaches they're developing, and the problems they're confronting.

By considering these factors, we may identify a particular research area warranting in-depth attention. Then, in order to help us narrow down our focus within that research area, we may hold a workshop where researchers with different specialties--who probably would not otherwise talk to one another--exchange ideas and collaborate on the development of priority areas. Next, we may issue a "Dear Colleague" letter to convey our interest in projects that would address workshop priorities.

Alternatively, we may hold an "ideas lab"--which involves bringing together panel members and researchers to brainstorm ways to address promising research directions and troubleshoot particular problems. And right, there and then--during the ideas lab--the researchers develop relevant proposals and, in real time, receive immediate constructive feedback (positive and negative) from panel members. Then, after the ideas lab, the researchers submit to us proposals that have been refined according to the feedback they received at the ideas lab.

Through these and other approaches, we help determine where BIO should be two, five or ten years down the line in order to enable and nurture new research areas as efficiently as possible.

Whiteman: What are some of the general ways that BIO can help advance studies on organismal interactions?

Wingfield: To answer that question, let me back up a bit: about 50 years ago, as some biologists continued to study organismal interactions, much of the rest of the biology community fractured--with molecular and cellular scientists going one way and environmental scientists and ecologists going another. Since this fracture occurred, the two groups have rarely communicated with another. But we have now reached a stage where we must look beyond the molecule up to the organism itself via a bottom-up approach and, at the same time, look from the organism down to the molecular level via a top-down approach.

But in order to do so, we must encourage molecular scientists, cellular scientists, environmental scientists, ecologists and organismal biologists to all join forces together, and, as a community, work together to address questions about organismal interactions.

How we can develop that community? This is one of the big questions that we are confronting now.

Also, it is important to recognize that we cannot answer big questions about organisms solely by focusing on a few model animals and plants in one location: the lab. Lab experiments are, and always will be, critically important. But in order to solve the big, global questions, we must also take the lab to the field more frequently.

Whiteman: Can BIO achieve its goals by itself?

Wingfield: No. BIO is looking outward and collaborating with other parts of NSF, other agencies and other countries. As part of these efforts, we are maintaining longstanding collaborations and developing new collaborations with other NSF offices and directorates including the Office of Polar Programs, the Directorate for Geosciences and the Office of Cyberinfrastructure. In addition, we recently kicked-off BioMaPS (or research at the interface of the Biological, Mathematical and Physical Sciences and Engineering), which will integrate research from biology, mathematics, the physical sciences and engineering into strategic investigations of living systems across scales from atoms and molecules to organisms to the environment.

We also need to think more globally and promote international collaborations at all levels, from government levels all the way down to researchers and their students. Along these lines, NSF recently created a joint partnership with our Japan Science and Technology Agency to develop new ways to reduce the carbon footprint of humans.

Whiteman: How will the current climate of austerity and tight budgets impact BIO?

Wingfield: Well, of course, it's difficult to predict the future. But we try to prepare for various potential budget scenarios. Our first priority is always to protect the core programs of each BIO division, and to maintain existing synthesis centers. But, depending on our budget, we may have to delay the opening of new centers.

And no matter what the budget situation is, we can always plan for future research. In fact, this is a good time to step back and reflect on what BIO has been doing during the last few years; to interact with the research community to determine where BIO should be down the line; to identify bottlenecks that warrant attention; and to consider ways that we can enhance education. These kinds of activities will help us position ourselves so that, when funding for research increases, as we hope it will do, we will be ready to quickly start new programs.

Whiteman: You are continuing to lead research on migratory songbirds at the University of California at Davis. What are some of the practical applications of your research?

Wingfield: My lab researches the endocrine systems of songbirds—the hormonal control mechanisms that serve as links between these birds' environment on the one hand and their perception, physical responses, behavioral responses and morphology (their form and structure) on the other hand. Ninety percent of the songbird's endocrine system is homologous with that of humans, so this research has many potential biomedical applications for people.

Whiteman: Generally speaking, what are some of the major societal benefits of basic research?

Wingfield: Understanding how organisms influence the environment and vice versa helps us better understand our impacts on Earth systems. Also, there are so many ways that basic research has served, and will continue to serve, as a boon to agriculture, medicine, the bio-economy, sustainability and other aspects of the environment.

And it is important to remember that, at the end of the day, basic research also improves our quality of life. After all, the constitution says that we have a right to pursue happiness--which often involves enjoying clean, biologically diverse environments during leisure time.

Whiteman: Why do you think that basic research is vulnerable to misinterpretations by non-scientists?

Wingfield: The problem is that a lot of research focuses on organisms and processes that, at first glance, can be easily trivialized by non-scientists. And without understanding why a biologist is researching some little treehopper insect, or—in my case—researching songbirds, it's easy to wonder what on Earth that research has to do with enhancing human society.

So we must do a better job of helping the public at large, the media and even politicians understand that new discoveries about the fundamental, basic mechanisms of life often lead to the development of innovations that ultimately improve own lives and environment in very significant ways.

Whiteman: Has your research ever been misinterpreted by non-scientists?

Wingfield: Yes. Let me give you an example: some time ago, my research team and I showed that social interactions between male songbirds resulted in increases in their testosterone levels and their expressions of aggression, which--in turn--impacts these birds' social societies and reproductive success.

Our results laid the groundwork for recent research, highlighted in The New York Times, showing that participation in paternal care by human males decreases their testosterone levels, and thereby impacts their parental performances.

Nevertheless, our research was, at times, publically trivialized by The National Enquirer and even by some politicians. And of course there are so many similar examples of serious science being misunderstood or mocked by the public at large, the media and politicians.

Whiteman: What are some of the ways that you worked with NSF before you joined the NSF staff?

During the 30 years that preceded my arrival at NSF, I participated in many NSF panels and workshops. Also, since 1982, I have been receiving NSF funding for my research. My current position as BIO's AD offers me an extraordinary opportunity to give back to NSF. As an IPA, I may serve as AD for up to three years.

Whiteman: Can you please tell us a little about your family?

Wingfield: My wife, Marilyn, is an adjunct professor at the University of California at Davis, where she focuses on migratory birds. We frequently collaborate with one another, and we have published more than 20 research papers together.

Our daughter, Anna, is a senior at Goucher College in Baltimore; she is currently completing a semester abroad, studying art at the University of London. She is particularly interested in creating art via computer technologies. Our daughter, Emma, is currently working towards a master's degree in anthropology at the University College London.

When Anna and Emma were still young, they accompanied Marilyn and me into the field many times. Both of my daughters still very much enjoy wildlife and travel and, in more recent years, have accompanied Marilyn and me on various trips abroad to international conferences.

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