Education Corner: Structures and Other NIGMS Booklets Make
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
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
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
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,
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
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.
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 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
1See results from PISA (Programme for International Student
Assessment) at www.pisa.oecd.org. 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.