Even though NIH isn't a university, more graduate students are working in the life sciences here than at many universities. Michael Fordis, Director of the Office of Education, estimates that there are about 170 graduate students on the NIH campus. For most of these students, graduate training at NIH is independently arranged on an ad hoc basis. For the graduate students in the two-year-old NIH-George Washington University (GW) Graduate Program in Genetics, however, the situation is very different.
Under this program, developed by the Office of Education, GW provides a tuition waiver and students receive a predoctoral Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) fellowship from NIH for support during their graduate training. During their first six to eight months, students work in up to three different laboratories before choosing a thesis adviser. Over the next two years, they do research and complete their course work at GW. The program is small, limited to five students per entering class.
Students in the first class, which entered in the fall of 1993, selected laboratories in NCI, NIAID, NIAMS, and NINDS for their thesis research. Graduate students in the class that entered last fall will be doing rotations in NCI, NCHGR, NHLBI, and NINDS.
Andrea Kamage, an NIH-GW graduate student working on tumor vaccine projects with Judith Kantor of NCI, says she chose the program because "I got the university setting plus I got the NIH setting. At every other university I looked at, there was this tiny little group of students and that's all you'd ever see." Susan Zullo, who is doing her graduate work on developing a novel viral vector for gene transfer into the central nervous system with Joseph Higgins of NINDS, emphasizes the tremendous diversity of research opportunities. "You can work on just about anything you want here," she says. "The flexibility of the Genetics Program allows you to custom make your program."
NIH offers tremendous opportunities for graduate students, but it may prove daunting for students accustomed to campus life and student culture. "It's best for someone who is mature, self-motivated, and organized," Kamage says "Definitely, you have to be very independent because you're not going to have many people in your lab in the same situation as you are. More than likely, you'll be the only graduate student in the lab."
Klaus Strebel of NIAID cautions that the first year or two can be trying for both advisers and graduate students because the students must take a fairly heavy course load and are only in the lab part time. This means that the adviser essentially gives up a full-time position to a part-time worker. However, Strebel was very supportive of his student Mary Karczewski, saying that she has made important contributions to his lab's work and will be a co-author on several publications. In an attempt to understand how the virus infectivity factor (vif) protein of the human immunodeficiency virus-type 1 (HIV-1) is involved in infectivity, Strebel and Karczewski are trying to identify the subcellular distribution and to determine whether vif interacts with any specific structures in the cell and whether it directly affects any other viral proteins.
Students interested in the NIH-GW Genetics Program may obtain an application from either GW or the NIH Office of Education. The applicants are initially screened by GW and then by NIH, and the top candidates are invited to NIH for interviews with interested faculty. Final selection is based on the decision of each Institute, Center, or Division to support the student.
Candidates for the next class of students will be interviewing at NIH in the late winter and early spring. The Office of Education assists the students in identifying appropriate supervisors and helps arrange interviews. Once a student enters the program, the Office of Education is available as a central facility for graduate student services. All NIH investigators who work in the broadly defined area of genetics are eligible to serve as research advisers to students in the NIH-GW program. For more information on the program call the Office of Education at 496-2427.