Elise Feingold retires after spearheading program to build encyclopedia of DNA elements, ENCODE
She reflects on her 36-year career at NIH directing genomics programs and mentoring program analysts.
For most of her career at NHGRI, Elise Feingold, Ph.D., led the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) project, a monumental effort that sought to decipher and catalog all of the functional elements encoded in the human genome. She even coined the name of the program.
The endeavor resulted in the creation of a vast compendium of data, analyses and tools that is widely used by the research community and even helped to identify genomic targets for developing treatments for blood disorders that Dr. Feingold had studied decades earlier.
Throughout her tenure as a program director in NHGRI’s Extramural Research Program, Dr. Feingold managed a diverse portfolio of research grants in gene discovery, gene expression and functional genomics ranging from fellowships and conference grants to large, multi-discipline centers. Her first experience in managing a large multi-component consortium was working collaboratively with the National Cancer Institute on the early phases of the Mammalian Gene Collection project, which created a valuable community resource of full-length human and mouse cDNA clones and their sequences.
For the past few years, she served as a scientific advisor for strategic implementation, in which she helped prioritize and implement new genomics research programs. During her time at NHGRI, she also co-managed and mentored the group of program analysts, who are junior staff who provide key assistance in managing NHGRI extramural research programs.
Dr. Feingold reflects on her path to NHGRI, describes her experience leading the ENCODE program and shares advice for those considering different scientific careers in a conversation with science writer Sonja Soo, Ph.D.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Soo: How did you become interested in science and genetics?
Feingold: In high school, I took a biology class, and I just really enjoyed it and found it intuitive. When I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, I took this amazing class in human genetics, and it was phenomenal. I got very excited and said, “This is what I want to do.”
I didn't really know much about research in college. I had a short research experience that was not that exciting, but I still loved the field. So, I took a leap of faith and applied to graduate school. I ended up going to Yale University in their human genetics department, which was relatively new and small at the time. We had a seminar class taught by different professors where we learned about their research.
I fell in love with this one project, and the professor eventually became my Ph.D. advisor. We were studying the regulation of the switch from fetal to adult hemoglobin expression; it was just fascinating. I worked on that in graduate school and somewhat in my postdoctoral years. That was even before the word “genomics” was coined.
Soo: How did you transition from being a researcher to being a program director?
Feingold: I happened to be postdoctoral fellow at National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. While I really loved the science, I didn't love working at the bench. So, I started to do lot of informational interviews, mostly with people from the extramural side of NIH. I thought these jobs really fit me as a person well because I could be involved in the science, facilitate programs and work with people.
The year between my postdoctoral fellowship and my job as a program director, I participated in a wonderful program called the Grant Associates Program. The program trained bench scientists to be science administrators. I had the incredible opportunity to learn about grants, contracts, scientific review and budgets, and I shadowed an NIH institute director for a week. I did my program rotation at the National Center for Human Genome Research, and I was fortunate to get a job there afterwards. I just loved the small start-up feel of what eventually became NHGRI. Early on, there were very few of us working on it, but there was lots of energy, and it was very exciting.
Soo: Were there projects that you worked on that you're particularly proud of?
Feingold: The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) program is the one I feel most proud of, having worked on it for almost 20 years. I poured a lot of myself into that program. A fun fact is that I came up with the name “ENCODE.” It's been gratifying to pull people together as a consortium to create a resource that's highly used by the research community. As of a couple of years ago, the community published over 2,000 papers in basic biology, tool development and human disease studies using the ENCODE resource. It turns out that ENCODE helped to find an enhancer region that regulates fetal hemoglobin expression. It's now a major target for gene therapy for sickle cell disease and beta thalassemia. To me, that is like my whole career coming full circle.
I’ve also done a lot of work with standard research grants, and I’ve enjoyed working with junior researchers and helping to foster their career development. I'm proud of co-leading our program analyst group, who help manage our research consortia and different grant programs. It’s really rewarding to mentor young people, help them succeed in their first jobs, see them get excited about genetics and genomics and go on to have highly successful careers.
Soo: What is your advice for those interested in directing scientific programs?
Feingold: When I decided to switch over to the extramural side of the NIH 30 years ago, some of my colleagues felt like I was leaving science, but nothing was further from the truth. You’re approaching science in a different way, but you get to see the cutting edge and where the field is going. You get to help direct and facilitate science, so you're having impact at a different level — not as deep into anything, but much broader. It’s exciting and you get to help people, so I've loved it. One of the most wonderful things about being at NHGRI is that there are always new opportunities. NHGRI is a special place, and I feel fortunate to have been part of it.
Soo: Now that you're retiring, what are you looking forward to spending your time on?
Feingold: I love to hike, so I want to do more of that. One of my goals is to visit all the national parks. I also want to do a little more traveling beyond seeing the national parks. I would love to do more volunteer work to help getting out the vote because that's super important, as well as volunteer at local parks and finding ways to give back to the community through nonprofits in the Montgomery County area. My immediate plans also include working at NHGRI as a part-time contractor, so I’ll be able to transition into retirement more slowly and still interact with my amazing NHGRI colleagues.
Last updated: February 15, 2023