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NIH Examines Trainee Opportunities and Experiences in the Life Sciences

Newsletter Editor, Bill Huckle, sat down recently with Dr. P. Kay Lund, Director, NIH Division of Biomedical Research Workforce (established in 2015 within the NIH Office of Extramural Research/Office of Extramural Programs) to learn about the NIH’s initiative that is comprehensively examining trainee opportunities and experiences in the life sciences.

P. Kay Lund, Ph.D. is the director of the NIH Division of Biomedical Research Workforce, which was established in 2015 within the NIH Office of Extramural Research/Office of Extramural Programs.


NAVBO: Good morning, Dr. Lund. I am here on behalf of NAVBO—The North American Vascular Biology Organization. NAVBO’s biweekly newsletter includes a column called “Spotlight on Trainees” that aims to provide news and career counsel to trainees at all levels. Having become aware of the NIH Biomedical Workforce Initiative and your leadership role in it, we are pleased to have the chance to learn more about the ongoing effort—and to bring the initiative to the attention of not only our organization’s trainee membership but also those mentors and educators responsible for helping to shape the next generation of scientists.

What are the circumstances that have made the workforce initiative a top priority right now?

P. Kay Lund: There were two reports produced by advisory groups to Francis Collins, the Director of the NIH. One was the Biomedical Research Workforce Report (2012), and the second was the Physician Scientist Workforce Report (2014). Those reports indicated that we needed a clearer picture of the biomedical research workforce. We knew about trainees supported on training grants and fellowships funded through the NIH, but many post-docs and pre-docs are funded on R01-type research grants or non-NIH sources of support. The existing information did not fully inform about how scientists were being trained and supported and where they were going after that. Also there is limited information about career paths of those who leave the NIH-funded workforce.

Both reports recommended that an office be set up within the Office of the Director, to better assess the biomedical research workforce, how NIH-funded trainees fit into that workforce, and then try to improve tracking outcomes and career paths of the trainees.

Reports highlighted an expansion in numbers of PhDs from 2008 on, but stable or even fewer MD and other physician scientists. As a result, another recommendation was to look at the balance between the PhD and the physician-scientists (includes those holding MD, DVM, DDS degrees and nurse scientists). For all groups, it is important to consider how we can better introduce research into their training without gaps that break momentum or leave out important content. We also want to accelerate entry into the research workforce, optimize retention, facilitate interactions between PhD and physician scientists and accelerate independence.

NAVBO: You have been in your role for less that a year, so it’s early days yet, but what are you able to tell us about your goals for the next several years?

PKL: One of the major goals for the first period has been to engage in outreach, to talk with professional societies, to talk with the different Institutes and Centers (ICs) at NIH. I chair the Training Advisory Committee here, which has representatives from each of the different ICs as training and career development priorities may vary across research fields.

My team includes experts in policy, evaluation and workforce diversity, as well as economic analysis and modeling. We’re using both NIH data and information in public databases to better look at the spectrum of biomedical research jobs, in academia, outside academia, and ask how effectively our funding is channeling people into those career paths.

High among the objectives for the biomedical workforce division is, to enhance the diversity of the biomedical research workforce and the physician-scientist workforce, working with the scientific diversity officer within the division and, in collaboration with the office of Dr. Hannah Valantine, NIH’s Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity.

NAVBO: Based not only on your experience as a researcher and educator but also since you’ve been in this new role, what advice you could give to an undergraduate who is contemplating graduate study in the life sciences, that in time would put them in good stead with what you know about the workforce environment ahead?

PKL: It’s important that undergraduates think ahead, especially if they want to do a PhD. This relates to the issue of the dramatic expansion in PhD scientist numbers and concern about whether there are sufficient jobs for those PhD scientists. The data that exist demonstrate that PhD scientists are very well employed—there has been very low unemployment for PhD scientists, around 2-3%, even during the recession. The question is, with the increase in PhDs, are the PhDs going to jobs that they wanted? Did they know what jobs they wanted before they did a PhD or entered the biomedical research workforce?

My advice to an undergraduate who is thinking about a PhD, and thinking about a career that involves research, is to get some hands-on research experience. Try to apply for awards if the program or institution has them; if not, try to find a lab that will allow a volunteer research experience. These experiences provide a sense of what research is all about. Students who have undertaken research experiences often grow in that lab to the point that they’re contributing significantly to a research project, giving them card-carrying experience. This is something that happened in my own laboratory and provided students with tangible experience about how a research career might fit their interests.

A second point is that some work-study experiences, are not really research experiences, but rather, helping with the general lab work and maintenance. In addition to that, students can always ask questions such as ‘Can I attend lab meetings?’ ‘Are there seminars I should go to, that would give me a sense of what a research career is like or what careers are available?’

Talking to others who are working toward the PhD or doing a post-doc is also really important for an undergraduate. There have been “Future of Research” meetings, across the USA which have been organized by groups of post-docs to discuss career paths for PhDs and post-docs. These meetings discuss how people should be thinking strategically, about what degrees they should go for, what jobs exist and which training and postdoctoral experiences best match their career aspirations. A number of undergraduates and graduate students have attended the Future of Research meetings that were initially geared specifically to post-docs, and they’re asking really good questions when there!

NAVBO: What steps can young investigators take to stay competitive and enthusiastic, once they’re out on their own?

Communicating with early-stage scientists themselves has been something of particular importance to me. One reason I wanted to take on this role is that I was concerned about keeping up the morale of our young scientists. Personally I have felt that it’s a wonderful job to be a scientist—I’m sure you have felt that too—and I think we as investigators need to do a good job of allowing our students to be captured by the excitement of science, which can be exciting and rewarding for a lifetime. Being a scientist is a flexible job in many ways, in academia in particular, and writing a grant is actually fun, if you can immerse yourself in it…

NAVBO: Yeah, I agree that grant-writing can be a highly satisfying exercise, but that’s a hard sell for some people!

PKL: It is. I have two daughters - one is an MD resident right now and one’s a high school science teacher. When they were younger and I was writing a grant they would basically say that they “lost me for a while,” because I was so immersed in the grant. They would ask their father if it was ok to call me. But I was immersed in the grant, and as a scholarly activity, whether you’re awarded the grant or not, you become an expert in that area…and in my case certainly emotionally attached to the research possibilities. So I really want to send that message out, that it’s the act of writing the grant that is important—even though obviously we’d all like to get it funded—but the process of writing itself is very valuable. So among my priorities is to emphasize the amazing rewards of science, research and writing.

I’ve been talking about the idea of the “multi-dimensional” scientist. We know that we have to train experts in a particular area, and that we each have to have in-depth expertise in the clinical and basic science questions we address. But I also think we have to have “cross-discipline literacy.” As an example, I got into RNAseq analysis in the last few years, and I realized I didn’t know enough about that data process to ask the right questions of the people who were helping me do the bioinformatics. I realized that I had to become literate in this area, to seek courses in the basics so that I knew the essential issues to address, during data analysis planning. Cross discipline literacy is really important in modern science, for trainees and new and seasoned investigators alike.

NewsBEAT: Developing cross-disciplinary literacy—that’s an appealing concept. You mentioned basic science training alongside gaining clinical competence or knowledge. I gather that you feel that combination is important.

PKL: Yes, absolutely. As a PhD student in the UK, I ran a clinical assay. Every day I talked to clinicians about the results—we would discuss the assay, a potential new diagnostic test. That experience made me realize that I needed access to clinical expertise to be sure to ask the relevant questions in my research. Just about every grant I have written had a clinician collaborator, and that has been really, really valuable. Similarly, in terms of training graduate students, we brought physician-scientists onto the graduate committees, because this was a great motivator for the graduate students to learn more about the disease they were researching and present plans and findings to an expert on that disease. Creating partnerships between physicians and basic scientists is a huge win-win.

Since I arrived here, I have worked with our office director, who co-chaired the Physician-Scientist Workforce Working Group, on the implementation of some of the recommendations in that working group’s report. This includes physician scientists defined broadly, to include those trained in veterinary medicine, dentistry, or nursing as well as MDs. We are considering different research “on-ramps,” that would reduce the gaps in time between research experiences during and after clinical training, because those seems like times when we may lose some physician scientists from the pipeline.

NAVBO: Speaking of combined basic science and clinical training, what are your thoughts on the value of dual degree programs, MD/PhDs, DVM/PhDs, and the like.

PKL: Over the course of my experience, I have trained or interacted with all of the above. Actually a lot of the individuals holding dual degrees got their PhD separately, not in an MD/PhD or dual degree program. I think there is merit to both paths, and that it’s important for anyone considering their training experience to ask themselves whether they want to immerse themselves in research during their clinical training, or is the on-ramp going to be when they’ve been in the clinic and they’ve subsequently identified a question that they really want to ask. I believe we should encourage both, and broaden the access points when physician-scientists can get into research.

NewsBEAT: It can be hard for someone in their early 20s to take a candid look at themselves and assess their own strengths and weaknesses. Many scientists who really enjoy the work at the bench find, once they are successfully reach an academic position, that there are aspects of the job that they not only don’t enjoy, but are not particularly good at. A more clear-eyed look taken earlier would probably be helpful.

PKL: Take advantage of career development offerings for students, postdocs or early-stage faculty that more and more institutions are making available. The limitation all of us face is time—how much time can we apportion to the lab, to teaching, writing, and so on. Having an articulated goal allows specific individual development plan to take shape. This is probably good for all of us; to say, in addition to the nuts-and-bolts research and things I need to do every day, I judiciously choose one new thing I will take on this semester or this year, that will become part of my skill set.

For labs with undergraduate researchers, one strategy that has proved particularly valuable is to have more than one student in the lab at any given time. There’s always a trade-off in that it takes additional time, but it creates a cohort of undergrads and also gives graduate students and post-docs the opportunity to mentor undergraduates.

NewsBEAT: Turning to the mentor/educator side of the equation—for those of us who write training grants or participate in training programs that have either institutional or extramural support, can you foresee either recommendations or even structural changes in programs that we would need to take into account as we look ahead 5 or 10 years? Will the nature of these programs change in view of the findings from this office?

PKL: Multiple ICs at the NIH are looking at their training programs right now. A number of papers have come out about changing traditional graduate training. The things that are being discussed are some we’ve already mentioned: having an opportunity for students to gain additional skills in the area of their expertise. NIGMS has funded a number of supplements to awards to add career development activities.

Another example is the NIH BEST program—Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training— which is an NIH Common Fund program that has funded grants at 17 different institutions, with different training models and approaches: some engage small cohorts of trainees, some are open to all graduate students, some include grad students and post-docs. But the unifying concept is to give each of the trainees awareness of research-intensive careers within and outside of academia. I think that more and more students and post-docs will want those experiences, which certainly give them the opportunity to be more involved in their career choices.

In 2003, I published a piece in Gastroenterology called “The Flexible PhD,” describing how I was recognizing that there was a change afoot, that not all of the people coming through the graduate programs really wanted to do a career in academia, and how as a mentor I grappled with key questions, such as, what does the mentor, the lab gain, and the research gain, from allowing students to go off and gain these ancillary experiences? I think a reasonable expectation is if the student or the postdoc goes out and does, for example, a writing-intensive experience, that they take the lessons learned back to the lab and say, you know, this is what it gave me, and this is how I think its going to help my research and our research overall. That really helps reinforce that this is a win-win situation.

On the other side, how do students and postdocs find mentors who think these experiences are a good idea? I say: ask! When you’re interviewing for a lab, ask what the mentor’s view is on getting these cross-discipline literacy experiences or these career-development activities that may bring you some additional skills. That will help inform whether this is a lab that’s going to be supportive or not. Knowing this at the time you choose a lab is a really good thing.

NewsBEAT: They really are. Thinking back on my own experience, students often will seek out these experiences quietly on their own, and their advisor might find out later. But it’s far better to be open, in agreement about their value, and backed by a advisor’s enthusiasm.

I’m happy to hear you describe some of these trends that have popped up in various institutions. Our own students, traditional PhD candidates and also DVM residents, have taken the initiative and, with the support of our administration, created programs to help fill what they see as gaps in their preparedness for the working world. Clearly that’s going on lots of places.

PKL: Yes. The NIH Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training ‘BEST’ program is a program that is testing innovative ways to incorporate career development into training. The BEST program is now in its third year at some of the institutions, and a major goal is to gather materials and outcomes of some of the initiatives and disseminate them to other institutions. It will be very interesting when those evaluations are completed.

NewsBEAT: An issue we’ve all wrestled with for many years in the life sciences, or the sciences closely related to medicine let’s say, is that the pathway for a PhD to securing either an academic position or even a desirable private-sector position has involved doing at least one postdoctoral fellowship. I have assumed this all along to be not so much a reflection of the marketplace, , but rather a period where you can mature as a scientist, and thus is really an essential part of one’s training. There is an evolution of one’s ability to think—gaining the ability to take joy in writing the grant and the scholarly exercise that you mentioned earlier. I’m curious to know whether this is consistent with the data on employment, or what your gut feeling is on that?

PKL: I think it’s highly discipline-specific. I think all of us would agree that for those who know they are committed to an academic in research career, the postdoc is the way to go. For those who think they are committed to a career in research, the postdoc is still the way to go, because without that, you’re really not going to know.

On the other hand here are recent graduates who have gone directly into other careers, writing careers, for example, or directly into the commercial sector — who are completely satisfied and really enjoying that choice and didn’t have to do an extended postdoc.Again, I think that’s how career development activities in graduate school can be really important, so that students are informed about these different paths and what is required to take the next step.

The IRACDA (Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards) program through NIGMS is one that I have personal experience with. It involves a traditional postdoc but also a pretty intensive teaching experience as well. The teaching experience is at undergraduate institutions that traditionally serve underrepresented groups. The concept has been that this combination gives training toward a faculty position as well as the postdoc research experience. It also is taking research to typically less research-intensive institutions, and allows some of the students from those institutions to have research experiences at the more research-intensive institutions. The program recognizes that career development toward teaching is something we want to stimulate. A lot of those postdocs have gone into faculty positions, across the whole spectrum of different types of institutions.

NewsBEAT: This sounds like a recognition of the value of career paths at additional types of institutions than a traditional top-tier academic institution, recognizing those paths, legitimizing them and helping to make trainees aware that these exist and are worthwhile destinations.

PKL: A portion of the IRACDA postdocs go into research-intensive institutions and medical schools, while others go to primarily Masters or undergraduate institutions and also community colleges where they would have an emphasis on teaching. Typically however they’re hired also to do research at those undergraduate/Masters institutions.

NewsBEAT: From the point of view of an institution that’s had a successful training grant in Discipline X let’s say, do you anticipate new sorts of criteria that will be applied regarding the tracking of trainees, where they wind up—documenting whether our collective investment really has produced the kind of trainee that fits the spirit of the program, or the realities of the marketplace? I’m aware that there exist already criteria by which the track-records of programs can be judged—outcomes that are weighed in applications for renewal.

PKL: My recommendation would be to contact the program officer of the particular NIH Institute or Center (IC) ahead of developing any training grant application. Each IC will have its own set of priorities and thoughts in terms of where the training grants go, to best match the mission of the particular institute.

For the training grants, a new set of “training tables” have been developed, called xTRACT, that are not required to be used yet. We’ve asked PIs of training grants to test-drive them. We’ve reduced the number of training tables from twelve to eight, and the intent is to allow tables to pre-populate with existing information, so the PI doesn’t have to fill in information again every time. The rationale is to streamline the application process in the future and also to be sure we can better collect data on outcomes.

NewsBEAT: Are there ways that those of us in the extramural world, who not only have students ourselves but also may be involved in training programs, to participate in the effort that your office is undertaking?

PKL: There are a few ways. I’m interested in hearing about experiments in approaches to training. If you have adopted creative ways of bringing new career development opportunities to your programs, and especially if you’re going to objectively evaluate them as well, that would be really useful information for us to know. If you feel that there are gaps in opportunities for training and career development, that’s important for us to know too.

We have a new Research Training and Career Development website—I would appreciate it if students, postdocs, faculty, visiting that site provide us feedback on additional items, things they would like to see there; or if there are ways we can streamline it, make it more useful. We think it’s a really good website, but feedback from students and trainees themselves would be great.

One of the pieces of advice I give to students and postdocs is: Join your professional society! Go to the professional society meetings and engage in the career development opportunities there. Again, if you think there are things that are particularly valuable going on at your particular meeting or society, give me the heads-up: someone from our division could be interested in that.

NewsBEAT: NAVBO’s most recent national meetings have included sessions organized and chaired purely by trainees, having in part to do with career development.

PKL: That sounds like a great experience and trainees are indeed the future scientific leaders.

NewsBEAT: Thank you for making the time to meet with me today, Dr. Lund. We look forward to following the work that the Workforce Initiative has undertaken. Best wishes for your success.