T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T M A R C H   -   A P R I L   1 9 9 8

'Hey, Buddy, Can You Spare a Cell Line?'


by Lee Mack

You are in the middle of a key experiment and suddenly realize you've run out of a critical reagent. A mad search through the lab's shelves and even your secret stashes turns up nothing. You ask next door and down the hall. Nothing. Frantic, you call the suppliers. Your reagent is on back order and could be shipped in a month. Unfortunately, your experiment has to be done in a week if you are going to present this fabulous new information at the national meetings. What to do, what to do. . . .

Many NIH fellows and other seekers in such dire straits are turning to an electronic mailing list created by postdoc Kevin Becker for the NIH Fellows Committee (FELCOM) four years ago. Facilitating the exchange of scientific information, reagents, and cell lines has proven to be one of the main functions of the list, but was not what the fellows had in mind at the outset.

The FELCOM list was launched when Becker found himself stuffing envelopes for the newly created FELCOM in 1994 and figured there had to be a more efficient way to reach the highly scattered postdoc and clinical fellows populations on campus. He and fellow Fellow Steve Scherer approached DCRT about setting up a list to operate under LISTSERV software technology (see box). The list was officially approved as a method of "promoting fellowship between postdoctoral staff and to provide a forum for educational, scientific and employment issues," according to the felcom Website. Becker sent out notices to the lists serving various interest groups on campus, and within six months the FELCOM list boasted more than 800 subscribers. Today it serves roughly that number--close to 40 percent of the intramural fellows.

The LISTSERV software (L-Soft, Landover, Md.) serves as a hyperefficient secretary, postal carrier, and librarian rolled into one. It addresses and distributes electronic messages to subscribers' e-mail boxes, automatically maintains the list of current subscribers, and archives the messages that have gone out over the list. The FELCOM list, known as Fellow-L is one of the largest electronic mailing lists at NIH its reach, speed, and utility has helped shape a group identity among the subpopulation of researchers it serves.

Becker says he had envisioned the list as a primarily nonscientific forum to address "the quality of life for postdocs on campus and how to improve it."

The list is moderated by two volunteers from the postdoc population who evaluate messages under the guidelines etched out by FELCOM and screen out messages that are personal and not research related--like personal housing requests or solicitations for employment, according to current moderator John Newitt, a fourth-year NIDDK postdoc. After a second of thought, he adds, "No spamming, either" ("Spamming" is flooding e-mailing lists with commercial requests.) Most people, he says, use common sense and stick to the science; it's infrequent that he finds himself censoring messages.

A couple of instances in the past few years have proved the list's potency in clarifying issues of general interest to subscribers not only in Bethesda but also at NIH's Montana and North Carolina campuses. One such issue was taxes. A long, confused e-mail debate over the tax status of fellows and the relationship of their IRAs to the IRS resulted in clarification from a tax specialist and the posting of tax information on the Fellow's Website at


(also, see "Just Ask!" page 4). Another issue was health insurance.

Although Fellow-L has not solved all the fellows' problems, most people asking for reagents, advice, or collaborations get positive responses, sometimes the same day. Sunita Agarwal, NIDDK postdoc, put out a request for NIH3T3 cells for an RNA isolation and the same day received several offers that allowed her to complete her experiment--and the interchange, she says, put her in contact with other NIH researchers and postdocs beyond her own institute.

Becker says he would like to see the list used more along the lines of his original conception, including to ferment discussion of touchy issues, such as NIH mentoring policy--to "thaw the block of ice," he says. Such discussions are not restricted by the FELCOM guidelines, but, historically, the institutionalized nature of the list has hindered such openness, according to Becker. Becker and others, however, have used the list to "seed" discussions of delicate topics that are then mediated by the Fellow-L moderators and concomitantly archived at

< ftp://helix.nih.gov/felcom/www/fellow-l-archive/maillist.html>.

Tyra Wolfsberg, current FELCOM co-chair, acknowledges that the list is more effective for some objectives than others, but concludes, "In the end, it's far better to have it than not have it."

List-en Up

Currently, NIH is home base for more than 600 DCRT-supported LISTSERV software-managed lists that serve subpopulations ranging in number from three (Listmaster list) to more than 26,000 (NIH-Staff list) on and off campus. The lists link up subscribers through what amounts to an electronic postman to deliver mail to a set of e-mail addresses in minutes--a system tailor-made to NIH, where people are researching related questions in buildings flung across campus and whose paths may never cross.

Electronic lists are ideal for grassroots attempts to unite people across space. Anyone on the NIHnet can set up a list by simply filling out a short electronic application (on the Web at <http://list.nih.gov>), outlining the purpose and some characteristics of the list and establishing a list owner willing to be responsible for the list. The application goes to LISTSERV software adminstrators, and Bronna Cohen, DCRT's primary LISTSERV software user liaison at NIH, says the request is processed within two working days.

I decided to test the system and set up my own list. Within a half-hour of submitting my idea, I found myself the proud owner of Fantasticideas-L, a brand new list touting itself as a vehicle for the spread of new science ideas.

To subscribe to Fantasticideas-L or any LISTSERV software-managed list, address an e-mail message to <listserv@list.nih.gov>. To subscribe, the body of your message should say: <subscribe fantasticideas-l Your Name> (Replace "fantasticideas" with Fellow-L or whatever list you want to subscribe to, and "Your Name" with your own name). For a compilation of all lists on campus, e-mail <listserv@list.nih.gov> and just write <lists> for your message.

A description of how to access a list's archives is at this Web address:

An exhaustive discussion of LISTSERV software operations and technology is posted on the Web at

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