The life of an NSF Program Officer (Part 1 of 3)

Dec 12 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I'm very excited this week to have a guest blogger to talk about the experience of an NSF program officer, from the inside. Rotating PO, Michelle Elekonich, has agreed to provide some perspective on how people become NSF program officers and what that decision entails. Over the next two days I'll have two more posts in this series. (Part 2, Part 3)

Let me introduce myself- I’m Michelle Elekonich. I am an associate professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV). My honey bee research focuses on cellular and physiological mechanisms of behavior, stress and aging (NSF funded) and also on the honey bee disease American Foulbrood (USDA funded). I came to NSF in August 2010 to be a program director in the Behavioral Systems Cluster in IOS and am currently the science advisor for IOS, part of the division leadership with the Division Director and Deputy Division Director. Now the disclaimer: these are my experiences and not an official NSF announcement or policy statement. Your mileage may vary.

You might be wondering how someone becomes a program director….I had been an external reviewer and panelist for NSF for a few years when one of my colleagues from UNLV who was rotator at the time called and said he wanted to nominate me as a rotator for the Animal Behavior Program in IOS. (Little did I know then each rotator is expected to help find his/her replacement). I agreed and sent him my CV. I figured an interview would be a chance to find out more and then I could decide …. it was fun to talk about my NSF funded work at NSF and meet all the program directors and administrative staff.

Then I waited …I interviewed in March, they called in June and I arrived in August. NSF spent July negotiating with my university – depending on how a rotator is appointed NSF returns different amounts of the salary, health benefits and retirement to the university. I was appointed as a Visiting Scientist, Engineer or Educator (VSEE – everything at NSF has an acronym) and my university used the salary savings to hire a temporary instructor. Some of my NSF rotator colleagues got some of the salary savings back to pay a tech or postdoc to run their lab while they were gone. I wish I had thought to ask for that! Since the colleague that recruited me had not gotten any accommodations, it did not occur to me that I would be able to either.

So how could I leave my lab on such seemingly short notice and come to NSF? About 8 mos. before I got that fateful phone call, my close collaborator left UNLV for a better position (good for him - we continue to collaborate), both post docs got jobs (Yay!) and my technician joined another lab as my grant was winding down (ya gotta do what ya gotta do). I was post-tenure and really feeling like I needed to get some perspective and I wanted to do something that mattered…since I could not afford to do a sabbatical on the half salary that my university would give me and I really enjoyed being a panelist – I thought why not- what better way to get a really BIG perspective on science than go to NSF? It could be an “alternative” sabbatical, sort of like doing an alternative spring break with Habitat for Humanity. I had just taken two new grad students, but they were deep in course work and I figured that it would likely be a year before they got most of their courses out of the way. NSF has a internal program called Independent Research and Development which would pay for my travel back and forth to my lab (I go for a week or so about 4 times a year and have lab meeting every week by Skype) and pay for me to attend meetings where my students and I are presenting – which also happen to be meetings that NSF wants representation at anyhow. You can read a little about my students’ reactions in this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I’ve ended up staying longer than I expected, but I think that has helped them be more independent.

The biggest determinate for people deciding to be a rotator at NSF seems to be timing – professional and personal. I’ve just described the timing professionally, personally the timing was also good. My stepdaughter lived with her mom and was finishing high school, so I did not have any children to worry about. Due to the recession, my husband’s business closed, so he had no reason to stay in Las Vegas and could join me in Arlington. Both of those things made the family issues easier for me than they might have been - but I know multiple rotators that have brought their families and enrolled their kids in new schools locally. For really little kids, NSF even has a day care on site.

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