Education Corner: Structures and Other NIGMS Booklets Make Science Accessible

ALISA ZAPP MACHALEK is a science writer at the National Institute General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) at NIH. She earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in biochemistry and has research experience in neuroanatomy, biochemistry, agronomy, and breakfast cereal chemistry (at Kellogg's).

While working on her M.S. at UWMadison in the early 1990s, she used the PDB almost every day while creating molecular models for the 2nd edition of Principles of Biochemistry by Lehninger, Nelson & Cox.

At some point, she decided she liked writing about science better than doing it. She solidified her career choice by enrolling in the graduate science writing program at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

At NIGMS, Alisa writes science education booklets, news and feature articles, profiles of scientists, research highlights for Congress, and occasional policy and publicity documents. She writes on all the areas within the NIGMS mission, including structural biology, computational biology, cell biology, chemistry, genetics, developmental biology, pharmacology, anesthesiology, trauma and burn injury, and wound healing.

The Structures of Life, a free booklet about structural biology, will be available in an updated edition this summer.

As a scientist, you probably don't need to be convinced of the value, importance, and beauty of molecular structures or the thrill of studying them. But try explaining it to the public - or to teenagers.

That's just what The Structures of Life seeks to do. This free science education booklet is published by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), a part of the National Institutes of Health that supports a good chunk of the world's structural biology research.

Naturally, the Protein Data Bank is featured throughout the booklet, both as a source of several images and as the repository into which structural biologists deposit their data to make them freely available to the scientific community.

Why does NIGMS produce science education materials?

The Structures of Life and our many other science education materials help NIGMS show the public how their tax dollars are leading to research advances.

Improving K-12 science education in America is important for many reasons, says Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D., NIGMS director

"Of course, part of it is long-range workforce development," he says. "But it's broader than that. The ability to think critically and to solve problems is hugely important for all aspects of society. Many have cited the uncomfortably low math and science scores of American students1 as evidence that, to remain leaders in the global marketplace, we will need to improve K-12 science education."

Our goal is for NIGMS educational materials to contribute to this effort. We try to encourage an understanding and appreciation of science in all readers by showcasing scientists doing cutting-edge research and explaining its potential implications.

We hope that the materials help inspire some readers to pursue careers in biomedical research. Because role models can be pivotal for young people choosing and pursuing careers, we feature male and female scientists from diverse backgrounds, geographic locations, career stages, and scientific fields.

We also strive to show that scientists have full, interesting lives and unique personalities. In our semi-annual magazine Findings, we've written about a crystallographer whose clarinet skill landed him in Carnegie Hall, an NMR spectroscopist who is also a former professional basketball player, a computational biologist who is an expert mountain climber, and many others.

To increase understanding of the nature and importance of basic, untargeted research, we use examples from areas of science within the NIGMS mission, including structural biology, computational biology, cell biology, genetics, pharmacology, and chemistry.

Who uses the materials?

Our booklets are used by teachers, homeschoolers, museums and science personnel, student workshop leaders, science curriculum advisors, and teacher trainers programs around the country.

Most of the materials are geared for a high school audience, but the publications are also used in some advanced middle school classes and introductory college courses.

Here are a few examples of how NIGMS science education publications have been used recently:

  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology distributes NIGMS booklets to the teachers in its Summer Teacher Workshop as examples of exemplary supplementary resources and uses PowerPoint slides from Findings to instruct teachers how to incorporate multimedia into their lessons.

  • The Arizona Biomedical Research Commission uses the publications to educate its members about the science underlying the grant applications they are reviewing for funding.

  • The Distance Learning Unit in Queensland, Australia included part of an NIGMS booklet in its Senior Biology curriculum, which is distributed on CD-ROM and posted online for students who can't attend school because they live in remote areas or are disadvantaged by personal circumstances.

Related Resources

You can order any of our publications at

Teachers can order classroom sets from order/classroom.htm

Educational outlets (museums, science centers, teacher training facilities, etc.) can order larger quantities by contacting our office at 301-496-7301 or

The Structures of Life (HTML and PDF)

Past issues of the journal Findings have included articles on computational biologist David Baker (September 2005), biophysicist Dorothee Kern (February 2003), and structural biologist Mavis Agbandje-McKenna (March 2006)

Structure of the Month and Technical Highlight of the Month from the Protein Structure Initiative,

Fact Sheet: NIGMS-Supported Structure-Based Drug Design Saves lives.

What is available and how can I get them?

In addition to The Structures of Life and Findings, NIGMS publishes booklets on genetics, pharmacology, cell biology, and biochemistry; a monthly electronic newsletter called Biomedical Beat; and a number of fact sheets. We also offer a small but growing collection of images and other multimedia resources on our website.

Our newest publication, available this summer, is called Computing Life and covers computational biology.

If you have suggestions about how to improve or use any of our publications, we'd love to hear from you. Contact the NIGMS Office of Communications and Public Liaison at or 301-496-7301.

1See results from PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) at PISA is run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a multinational body dedicated to building strong economies worldwide. PISA tests reading, math, and science skills of 15- year-olds around the globe. In 2003, it also tested real-world problem solving skills.