Last year, I was awarded an NSF graduate research fellowship. This fellowship pays my tuition and stipend for 3 years, so that my boss doesn't have to. This is a great help to our lab, though I don't really get much in the way of direct benefit* (other than a great line on my CV). Anyway, every year, we are required to submit an "activities report" that says what we've been doing with the money, which in the end is your money (if you pay taxes in the US that is). It's supposed to be written for a general audience, and since you all are paying for me to do the science that I love, I figured you should see it to.
Over the past year, I have been trying to understand how cells of the immune system respond when they encounter potential pathogens like viruses and bacteria. I study a cell type called a macrophage that patrols different tissues of the body and is able to engulf and destroy these invaders. In order to detect pathogens, macrophages express a number of receptors on their cell surface called "toll-like receptors" or TLRs. When a TLR is triggered, it sends a signal to the inside of the macrophage, causing it to express and secrete proteins called "cytokines" that alert the rest of the immune system to the danger. The immune system must respond differently to different kinds of infections, and the early signals produced by macrophages inform the rest of the cells of the immune system how to behave. More specifically, I study the earliest events in the TLR signaling pathway. Understanding how these receptors relay their signals may help us design more effective vaccines, or manipulate the immune system to deal with persistant infections.
In addition to my research in lab, I have also been heavily involved in a graduate student group called Science in the News, which engages in a number of activities aimed at communicating science to a wide audience. For last year's fall lecture series, I was in charge of recording and editing video of each lecture and posting them to the web. I also gave one of the lectures, "Living in a Microbial World." This is the first year that SITN has filmed the lecture series, and along with another graduate student Peter Wang, we made it a success. Even 6 months after the lecture series finished, our videos reach hundreds of people every month.
Finally, I have also been attempting to regularly communicate science via my blog, "We, Beasties"**. I started this blog with a fellow Science in the News participant, Heather Olins, to write about research and the science of bacteria and other microbes. In October of last year, we were invited to join Scienceblogs.com, a widely read network of science bloggers. Since then, we have had nearly 100,000 unique vistors and average over 200 pageviews every day.
Considering the size of the NSF budget, it's probably only a couple of pennies out of your tax bill that come to me, but I hope you think it's money well spent.
*Most graduate schools in science pay their students a stipend, but at many schools, getting the NSF stipend of $30,000/year can be a significant raise (according to a report in 2008 in the Chronical of Higher Education, the average biology research stipend is just over $18,000/year). At Harvard, our stipend last year was $30,500.
**Though Sb technically pays me for writing (assuming I get pageviews), I'm donating whatever I make from the blog directly to Science in the News. The NSF grant puts a lot of weight into what it calls "broader impacts" - those things that are communicating science to a wider audience. Because I wrote about the blog in my original application, I wouldn't feel right for double-dipping.