T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T     J A N U A R Y  –  F E B R U A R Y  2001



by Margaret Coulombe

Pioneer Class of the NIH Academy: (bottom, left to right) Vanessa Shaw, Nicole Brown, Carrie Viens, José Cordero; (middle, left to right) Acting Director LaShawn Drew, Tarice Barnes, Jessica Diggs, Sara Angleman, Working Group Co-chair Arlyn Garcia-Perez; (top, left to right) Mac Baker, Quetzalsol Lopez-Chacon, Juan Marin

Only 17 months after its conception, the newest kid on the NIH block—the NIH Academy, a postbaccalaureate training program that emphasizes health disparities—materialized last fall with a pilot class of 10 students.

These 10, says Academy acting director LaShawn Drew, of the Office of Education, have a well-defined interest in health disparities; otherwise, the entry requirements are much the same as those for the postbac IRTA program (about 350 students—also a program developed to recruit a diverse cohort of college graduates with a budding interest in biomedical research; see The NIH Catalyst, January–February 1998, "Bac-Tracking" and "Postbac to the Future"). In fact, because interest in the Academy is so much higher than the number of currently available slots, Drew advises potential participants to apply to both programs.

Creating an NIH Academy was recommendation #1 of a committee formed in 1998 by then-NIH director Harold Varmus to devise ways to increase the numbers of minority investigators at NIH; the committee’s findings* were released in April 1999; and an NIH Academy Working Group was formed by Michael Gottesman, Deputy Director for Intramural Research, the following month. Co-chaired by Arlyn Garcia-Perez (OIR and NHLBI) and Levon Parker (NINDS), the working group produced the blueprint for the new entity in a little under one year. Drew took the helm of the NIH Academy in April 2000, just days after the admission application was posted on its website.

By June 19th, more than 140 students had applied for the 10 places. With the application period for the next class (2001–2002) running from mid-November 2000 until April 2, 2001, the numbers seeking admission could triple, Drew observes.

The Academy has gathered 45 preceptors—consenting tenure-track and senior investigators recommended by the scientific directors at each institute for their research and mentoring excellence. Matching preceptor to trainee proceeds along lines of mutual selection. The preceptors and the trainees basically "match themselves," Drew says.

In the first round, once the top 10 applicants had been selected, Drew gave their applications, including their cover letters, to the 25 or so then-available preceptors. Each preceptor selected, in priority order, the five individuals they thought would fit best in their labs.

Drew then presented to the trainees a list of all the preceptors who’d selected them—and in what order—and advised them to set up an interview with each potential mentor. Some of the interviews were "eye to eye," she recalls; others were by phone and e-mail. It was then the students’ responsibility to choose their mentors and to inform Drew of their selections by a certain date.

Finally, each student signed a formal agreement committing to such things as working in a particular lab with a particular preceptor for the year, living in the provided housing (unlike the IRTA program, the NIH Academy is a residential program and has secured a small group of apartments in nearby Bethesda), and initiating the process of applying to a graduate or medical school.

Each institute with an academician provides the funding: a $21,000 stipend, increased to subsidize the required housing, and support to attend one scientific meeting a year (whether the student presents or not) and to cover any FAES courses the mentor deems necessary. The Academy’s research-based training balances seminars on topics related to health disparities with skills development and general knowledge workshops. Students learn how to deliver oral and poster presentations, analyze journal articles critically, and understand epidemiological studies and data handling, as well as how to maximize opportunities to get into graduate schools and to fund or repay the tuition for them. One night a week, research is presented—either by a preceptor, a student, or an invited speaker. Not infrequently, the topic involves health-disparities research.

Also as part of the curriculum, each student submits a proposal that allows the class to see the effect of health disparities on people and communities—to see, as Drew puts it, "the faces of the community that they will be serving. . . . How are you going to be a biomedical researcher if you aren’t going to see the faces of the people suffering from health disparities? You need to see the human side," Drew says.

This year’s proposals run from visits to clinics, like the Whitman-Walker Clinic, which serves Washington’s gay and lesbian community and has been in the forefront of HIV and AIDS care, to training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Field trips are planned to two Washington-based projects—La Clínica Del Pueblo, a Hispanic health clinic, and the Barney Neighborhood House, which provides free meals, medical services, and other assistance primarily to poor, elderly African-Americans.

Academy students will also be working in a Washington-based community health center for underserved and home-less persons with rheumatic diseases developed by NIAMS (see "NIAMS Turns Policy into Practice"), where they will assist in patient health education and information dissemination.

In her own travels to spread the word about the NIH Academy to potential students from diverse backgrounds, Drew has encountered obstacles to seeking such training in different cultural and economic settings. Not having enough money for both food and higher education is one barrier; being afraid of failure in striking out on a novel career path is another.

The NIH Academy is not the only NIH program to address health disparities, Drew notes. Every institute has a "strategic plan" to address the issue (see "Health Disparities Research Moves to Center Stage"), and health disparities are becoming a big blip on the national radar screen. The NIH Academy Working Group, Drew notes, anticipates that "eventually there will be ‘NIH Academies’ in different colleges and universities" around the country. She also envisions partnerships fostered by the NIH Graduate Program Partnerships (GPP). She and GPP Director Mary DeLong have discussed forging a combined Master’s in Public Health Program with several universities.

"A student comes into the Academy for one year, but that can be extended to two," she remarks. "Three students told me from the outset that they wish to extend their time here, so wouldn’t it be nice if during that two-year period they could work toward a Master’s degree? The degree could be a Master’s in Public Health with an emphasis or concentration on Health Disparities, or it could be a Master’s in Health Disparities. It would depend on the partnering school."

Such plans are tentative, but Drew’s advice to current and potential Academy students is not: "If you really have a desire, if that is what you know you are supposed to do, just settle it in your heart that that is what you will do." What she will do, she says, is "help you get there."

*The Report and Recommendations of the Committee for Recruitment of a Diverse Workforce in Medical Research, known as the Slavkin Report, after committee chair Harold Slavkin, former NIDCR director.




Some Destinations
Sol Lopez-Chacon, accepted to Stanford Medical School in 2000, deferred until 2001 in order to gain more NIH Academy experience. Jessica Diggs has been accepted into medical school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Others have been called in for interviews elsewhere, and still more plan on taking April 2001 MCAT and GRE tests for the 2002 entering class.



LaShawn Drew

LaShawn Drew, acting director of the NIH Academy, is herself an example of how early involvement at NIH can influence one’s life commitments. A graduate of Atlanta’s Spelman College, she came to work as a research assistant with Ana Chepelinsky at NEI and was drawn to the world of biomedical research.

In 1993, her bachelor of science degree in hand, she became a graduate student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she did basic research in sickle cell anemia.

A chance meeting with Rose Pruitt (then EEO officer for NIDDK) led to her entry into the NIH lab of one of the world’s foremost researchers in the hemoglobinopathies—Griffin Rodgers, chief of the Molecular and Clinical Hematology Branch and now deputy director, NIDDK. She became his summer student in 1995. A liaison between Howard University, NIH, and Rodgers enabled Drew to complete her dissertation research and thesis in Rodgers’ lab, where, after she received her Ph.D. in 1998, she stayed on as a postdoc until her appointment to the NIH Academy in April 2000.

During her graduate studies, she also taught courses through FAES at NIH and at local colleges and even devised course curricula for her church.

"Good mentorship taught me, now that I am in this position, how I can mentor others. One of the biggest lessons: Never tell someone that they cannot do something. You show them ways to better themselves—to get to the next step."

José Cordero

José Cordero is one of the 10 examples of dynamism that the NIH Academy is ushering into the world of health-disparities research and leadership. A graduate of the class of 2000 at the University of Tampa (Florida), he came to NIH with a degree in biochemistry and an attitude. "I want to open doors, to make a difference. I don’t know if I can, but I have it inside of me to want to, and I think that is all you really need."

In the lab of Juan Rivera, head of the Signal Transduction Group in the NIAMS Arthritis and Rheumatism Branch, Cordero does asthma research. Rivera, he says, offered him a position of independence and one in which his research could have the greatest influence on health disparities. "He said two things that were very important to me," Cordero recalls: "that he would expect of me as much as he expects of himself and that he saw science as a way of life, something you want to wake up to every morning.

"I feel lucky to be in that lab."

Cordero is fueled with an "internal urgency and a sense of purpose" about doing bench research, working with people, and saving lives. "I like the idea of answering questions at a very fundamental level and showing people that this molecule and this pathway can impact either deleteriously or beneficially mechanisms that occur in their bodies. It is so beautiful; it can be so small and have such an impact."

Cordero’s aiming to obtain M.D. and Ph.D. degrees and finds appealing the prospect of working in pediatric neurology. He plans on spending two years at the NIH Academy.

"There is something special about the whole atmosphere here (at NIH). You get that feeling of purpose here. I count my blessings."



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