The Scientific Review Officer and Program Officer Career Paths

An interview with Dr. Aaron Pawlyk, Program Officer at the National Institute of Health

Dr. Aaron Pawlyk, Program Director of the Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolic Diseases at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease met with students and postdoctoral fellows at the session Speed Networking for Careers Beyond the Academic Bench, where he gave a presentation about the Scientific Review Officer and Program Officer career paths. Following the presentation, I was able to meet with Dr. Pawlyk and learn more about the careers of health science administrators.

What is the difference between a Program Officer and Scientific Review Officer?

Have you ever wondered who chooses the grants available for scientists? Why does one area of research have plentiful funds while another has few grants available?  A Program Officer, or PO, reviews the state of the field for their institute and identifies areas of research which need more support. Based on their findings, they next propose and design program announcements, which are communicated to scientists.

The PO is the point of contact for scientists preparing to submit proposals and for those who have received their score and reviewer comments. A PO is a great resource to scientists as they begin the initial phases of their grant proposal, as a PO can determine if a proposal is appropriate for the institute, point out areas of interest to the institution to scientists, and comment on proposals prior to submission. They can also help scientist understand the reviewers/ comments when a proposal is not funded and help to implement the changes required for a successful proposal.

A Scientific Review Officer, or SRO, is the point of contact for grant proposals that have been submitted and are undergoing the review process. An SRO assembles reviewers from the scientific community and manages study sections to ensure fair review of a grant. Upon initial submission, they determine whether the proposal is appropriate for their group, and makes recommendations of more applicable groups, if necessary. During grant review sessions, the SRO maintains appropriate review procedures, makes sure that there is ample time scheduled to review proposals, and takes notes of the discussions for each proposal.

The position of Program Analyst is another career which Dr. Pawlyk shared during the session. While the specific roles of this position vary by institution, the Program Analyst supports their institute by evaluating the effectiveness of existing programs and reviewing past funded research for use in the development of new programs. This position does not require an advanced degree, though it is required if a Program Analyst aspires to transition to the role of Program Officer.

What are the skills needed to become a Program Officer?

Dr. Pawlyk worked for several years in industry for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, in which he learned management skills as a senior research scientist, and as director of ALS Biopharma. These management roles made the switch easier into grant review. Scientists should think broadly when considering their own talents. He suggested that scientists consider their own management skills gained through the development and completion of a successful research project, including the organization of lab resources, advisement of undergraduate researchers, and thoughtful timing of experiments. Not all scientists receive direct training in management, though many gain experience in practice and can use their research projects as examples of their management abilities.

The ability to influence colleagues who do not directly report to you is also a valued skill for Program Officers and Scientific Review Officers. Creating successful collaborations with other scientists, the ability to develop positive relationships and to build consensus are valued skills.

Time management is another skill required by health science administrators. Managing both short and long-term schedules is important, as well as discernment to select projects and responsibilities that are worth the time spent. When managing review panels, timely review and scoring of proposals is essential.Participation in review panels and a successful history of grant awards is also a plus for a career in grants administration.

Lastly, Dr. Pawlyk recommended that interested scientists should take advantage of the career development sessions provided by their scientific societies, such as the events provided here at Experimental Biology. Of note, several pertinent sessions are occurring on Monday and Tuesday during EB2015.

Monday, March 30, Exhibit Hall B

10:30 Goal Setting, Prioritizing, Time & Stress Management H. Adams. H.G. Adams & Assocs. Inc., Norfolk, VA.

2:15 Translating Your Credentials on Paper A. Green. Univ. of California, Berkeley.

Tuesday, March 31

3:00 But I Have No Skills! J. Lombardo. Med. Col. of Wisconsin and Marquette Univ.

How do you find a job as a health science administrator? is the database where health science administrative positions are listed. Dr. Pawlyk suggests that scientists looking for jobs prepare their profile on the website ahead of time, as the duration of job listings on the site are short. When applying for a position, several essay and multiple choice questions are provided to assist employers in the interview process. Dr. Pawlyk recommended that you develop a relationship with your Program Officer, as they are a great resource for finding and applying for these positions. Program officers can also review your application to help you progress through the initial screening process to an interview.

Health science administration can be a very fulfilling career away from the bench.  Dr. Pawlyk stated that the favorite part of his position is the ability to meet research needs by creating programs and interacting with young investigators to support them in their careers. While he may not be performing research in a lab, great fulfillment may be found in providing the funding essential to achieve important biomedical discoveries by fellow scientists.


Experimental Biology: Things to do in Boston

Are you planning to come to Boston a little early or stay late to enjoy the city? Here are some fun places to visit.

Give a Day of Service to Boston on Friday, March 27th, spend the day at Cradles to Crayons. Cradles to Crayons provides children living in homeless or low-income situations with the essential items they need to thrive at home, at school, and at play. Put together a group of lab members or colleagues and get to know one another better, all while supporting a great cause.


File:Phineas Gage Cased Daguerreotype WilgusPhoto2008-12-19 Unretouched Color ToneCorrected.jpg
From the collection of Jack and Beverly Wilgus

See Phineas Gage! This is on the top of my list. The skull of Phineas Gage and the tamping iron that shot through his frontal lobe is on display at the Countway Library of Medicine on the Harvard Medical School campus. This small display is free to the public, though a photo ID is required to visit.




Miracle of Science Bar + Grill - Cambridge, MA, United States



Get your nerd on at the Miracle of Science Bar and Grill. The creative menu is displayed on a Periodic Table drawn with chalk on the wall. Share with your colleagues all the cool scientists you met and the weird questions visitors to your poster asked all while enjoying their acclaimed burgers and chicken skewers.

File:Gilbert Stuart 1796 portrait of Washington.jpg
Gilbert Stuart 1796 portrait of Washington


With collections from ancient to contemporary from across the world, you could spend a whole day at the Museum of Fine Arts. Second on the list of Things to Do in Boston by Tripadvisor, the museum is currently hosting an exhibit on Gordon Parks, one of the most celebrated African American photographers of his time, Gustav Klimt’s “Adam and Eve,” and a collection of fashion and jewelry from the 1930’s and 40’s, Hollywood’s Golden Age of glamour, just to name a few. Admission is free Wednesday nights after 4 pm, with a suggested donation of $25.

Chocolate Molino




Indulge at the Taza Chocolate Factory. With lots of samples, this informative $6 tour shows how Taza makes 100% Stone Ground, Mexican-style organic dark chocolate and vintage chocolate making machines. Currently, $1 of every ticket goes toward The Possible Project, a non-profit youth entrepreneurship center in Cambridge. Online reservations are required.

File:USA-The Freedom Trail.JPG




Work off the inevitable conference calories with a run on the Freedom Trail. This 2.5 mile trail leads you to 16 historically significant sights. Walk or run this route on your own, hire a walking tour guide, or join the Freedom Trail Run. The running tour stops at each site, so even beginning runners can participate. This 2-hour run is held on weekends and the $40 registration fee includes a free drink, T-shirt, and return boat ride.

Get down with the fishes at the New England Aquarium. This aquarium features a multi-story coral reef tank in which visitors can get an up close view at multiple levels and meet Myrtle, a 560-pound green sea turtle. You can also visit the hands-on tank, where you can touch rays and baby sharks. And don’t forget the penguins and sea lions!

Visit the Mapparium, a world-famous, 3-story stained glass globe. This map of the world as perceived in 1935 is revealed by a sound and light show at the Mary Baker Eddy Library. Play with the incredible acoustics, learn about major changes in the world, and visit the adjacent neoclassical Hall of Ideas.

Holy Spit!

I am a bit of a klutz. For example, my attempts to put on mascara usually end up something like this:

I am usually in a hurry in the morning, so my make up remover is a little spit on my finger. Sometimes I find it is just as good as soap!

Naturally, my curious mind started to wonder… what makes spit work so well as a cleaner? Is it just me, or does it really have some cleaning properties?

It turns out that spit has all sorts of cool properties, in addition to being a pretty cool cleaning agent.

First, it has antibacterial abilities that keep us safe from whatever might be living on our food when we eat it. This antibacterial capability can act in other ways, as well. When you see a dog licking its wounds, it is not only cleaning out debris; the saliva also acts as an antibacterial agent to prevent infection and promotes new growth. People have actually done research on this, which you can find at this link.

Saliva kills bacteria because it contains lysozymes, an enzyme that breaks down bacterial cell walls. It also has lactoferrin, a molecule which binds to iron, killing bacteria that need iron to survive. Lastly, saliva contains immunoglobulin A which binds to pathogens and triggers our immune system.

Second, saliva contains mucous, which gives it it’s lubricating abilities. This is very important for digesting food, speech, and other activities…. Read here to learn what life would be like with a deficiency in saliva and the research that is currently being done to treat this disease.

Third, saliva contains digesting agents. These enzymes start the process of digesting in the mouth as you chew, and are often present in the stomach as well. The two main enzymes include lingual lipase and ptyalin, or alpha-amylase. These enzymes are the reason we can digest food, as well as use spit to clean up our make up 🙂

It turns out that I am not the only one that uses spit as a cleaning agent. At a museum in Cleveland, art conservators use cotton swabs moistened with their mouths to remove dirt from their art. They call it cleaning with a “mild, enzymatic solution.” For example, the painting “Oedipus at Colonus” by Fulchran-Jean Harriet was covered with cigarette smoke when it arrived at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Spit cleaning was decided as the best way to remove the stains while preserving the painting. You can read more about their process here.

So how EXACTLY do these two digesting agents, lingual lipase and alpha-amylase work? Let’s learn a little biochemistry.

Lingual lipase is secreted by the salivary glands of the tongue and breaks down triglycerides, or fats, into monoglycerides and fatty acids. You can read the paper from 1973 that originally discovered and located the source of lingual lipase in rats. That’s right, they dissected teeny tiny rat tongues.

Rat tongue: Top view showing circumvallate papilla (CP), foliate papillae (FP), lateral oral pharyngeal gland (P), and epiglottis (E). Adapted from Hamosh and Scow (1973) J Clin Invest 52: 88-95
Rat tongue: Top view showing circumvallate
papilla (CP), foliate papillae (FP), lateral oral
pharyngeal gland (P), and epiglottis (E). Adapted from Hamosh and Scow (1973) J Clin Invest 52: 88-95

They found that this enzyme is secreted by the salivary glands and released near the circumvallate papilla of the tongue. They also measured the enzyme’s activity at different acidity, or pH levels. Why does this matter? You may know that the stomach is an acidic environment, while the mouth is generally neutral. The pH at which an enzyme is most active can indicate where it usually functions.

Check out this figure from their paper.

Effect of pH on breakdown of triglycerides. Adapted from Hamosh and Scow (1973) J Clin Invest 52: 88-95
Effect of pH on breakdown of triglycerides. Adapted from Hamosh and Scow (1973) J Clin Invest 52: 88-95

This graph shows the activity of the enzyme versus the pH. The higher up on the graph the line goes, the more the enzyme is breaking down triglycerides into free fatty acids. The line travels from high acidity (low pH) to low acidity (high pH). The highest point in the line is at about pH 5, which is acidic. Since this enzyme is most functional at an acidic pH, that suggests that it can function in the stomach.

The scientists performed further experiments to confirm that lingual lipase indeed does originate in the mouth, yet also continues to digest triglycerides in the stomach.

The alpha-amylase ptyalin (pronounced “TIE-uh-lin”) breaks down starch found in foods such as potatoes and bread. It breaks down starches into smaller and smaller starches until they reduce down to maltose, which is digestible. Interestingly, the gene coding for ptyalin has undergone changes in time, depending on exposure to starch in diet, which you can read about in this paper published in 2007. For example, multiple copies of the ptyalin gene have been found in Japanese individuals, of whom starch is highly consumed in the form of rice. The Biaka, a group of people who live as hunter-gatherers in the rainforest and who do not regularly consume high amounts of starch, were found to have a lower number of gene copies. In the line graph below, people groups exposed to low starch diets are shown in black and gray, while orange and red indicate people consuming high amounts of starch. The y-axis shows the proportion of the people studied, while the x-axis indicates the number of copies in the ptyalin gene. You can see that a greater proportion of people with high starch diets have gene duplications.

Adapted from Perry et al. (2007) Nat Genet 39: 1256-60.
Adapted from Perry et al. (2007) Nat Genet 39: 1256-60.

Interestingly, just as spit may be used to clean ancient paintings, the alpha-amylase found in saliva is used in laundry detergents to get out stains from foods high in starch. This company sells a variety of enzymes found in the digestive process to use as an additive to detergents, and sorts their products by the stain removal desired.

Keep in touch with my blog, as I head to Boston for Experimental Biology. I will be blogging on behalf of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics!

For more information about saliva and digestion, read “Anatomy, Function, and Evaluation of the Salivary Glands” by Holsinger and Bui.