IOS Bids Farewell to John McDowell

John McDowell was a program director in IOS for the past year within the Plant Biotic Interactions (PBI) program. John was involved with numerous other NSF activities outside of PBI while serving as a rotator, including the Synthetic Communities and the BRC-BIO funding opportunities, among others. He is returning to his faculty position at Virginia Tech.

What was working in IOS like?

It was a definitive highlight of my professional and personal life. I was working in a cohesive environment motivated by shared goals, surrounded by friendly, smart, dedicated co-workers, who knew a lot of things that I don’t. An inherent aspect of the program director’s position is that it provides a broad view of the cutting edge within and well beyond the programs in which one participates. For these reasons and others mentioned below, I simply can’t overstate how rewarding I found this experience to be.

What was the highlight of your time at IOS?

There were many, a few of which I alluded to above. It was a joy to interact with Principal Investigators – particularly those who are new investigators – in  panels, at conferences, VOHs, and in individual meetings. I made new friends at NSF that I hope to keep for the rest of my life. I’d also like to emphasize a couple of unexpected highlights. First, going into my rotation, I underestimated how rewarding it would be simply to do different things in a different workplace, relative to the faculty position that I’ve held for decades. This connects to the second unexpected highlight: now that I’ve returned to my faculty position, I realize that I underestimated the degree to which I’ve been rejuvenated. I’m really excited about the years ahead!

What personal goals did you accomplish while at IOS?

I was afforded a full view of, and participation in, the processes through which programs are created, executed, and evaluated over time.  I learned a lot about how different programs cooperate, within and outside of IOS and BIO. It was also very interesting to get a sense of how the NSF renders Executive Directives into polices that manifest as programs and funding priorities. These dynamics were particularly interesting during this time of change at the NSF, highlighted by the inaugural year of the Technology, Innovations, and Partnership (TIP) directorate, about which I’m very optimistic. I was able to participate in developing a program that, in my humble opinion, defines one of the leading edges of biotic interactions (Synthetic Microbial Communities). Naturally, I was immersed in the Plant-Biotic Interactions program and hope that I served my community well in this capacity. I also learned a lot of biology outside of PBI and developed a more integrative perspective-in many dimensions-that will serve me well in the future. On a note of regret, I did not get as comprehensive a view of NSF beyond IOS and BIO as I had hoped. One year was not enough.

What are you most looking forward to next? 

I’m excited about fully re-engaging as a researcher and educator with a much richer perspective than I had a year ago. I’m returning to lots of exciting new data, fun papers and proposals to write, and teaching that’s better-informed thanks to my time at the NSF. I’m also eager to share my NSF experiences within and outside of my institution, and to continue as an NSF “ambassador” even after my tour of duty.

What would you tell someone who is thinking about joining the NSF, either as an administrative staff member or a program officer? 

First, some general advice for staff entering any position: if you subscribe to the stereotype of government organizations as rigid bureaucracies, then you’re in for a very pleasant surprise at the NSF. There are good reasons why the NSF ranks so highly in employee satisfaction: the hierarchy is relatively flat and open, and the atmosphere resembles academia, with considerable freedom and opportunities to learn and to innovate. In that vein, I was extremely impressed with IOS’s consistent emphasis on evaluating and renovating organizational structures and practices. Are there constraints? Of course, but they are relatively minimal and most of them make sense in the context of organizational goals. Now, some specific advice for prospective rotators. First, plan for >1 year if the opportunity arises. As I noted above, one year is not enough. Second, while everyone’s circumstances are distinctive during this time of adaptation to hybrid environments, I’d advise spending as much time as possible on site, to take fullest advantage of proximity to your delightful colleagues and to enjoy the opportunities in the Capitol Region. I’m happy to discuss my experiences with any prospective rotator; hit me up at or @_johnmcd.

Michelle Elekonich, Acting Division Director of IOS at the time, said about John, “John’s positive outlook and enthusiasm for the science were a great addition to IOS and he will be missed!”