by Rebecca Kolberg

Although there's no substitute for the one-on-one guidance of a wise mentor along the rocky pathway to becoming an independent researcher, some parts of NIH are beginning to realize that part of the responsibility for ensuring that trainees receive adequate training and mentorship rests with the institution itself.

Currently, there are no NIH-wide guidelines for mentorship. However, the newly established NIH Committee on Scientific Conduct and Ethics recently formed a subcommittee to develop mentorship guidelines to be appended to the NIH Guidelines on the Conduct of Research. In addition, two institutes, centers, or divisions (ICDs)-NIMH and the Clinical Center-are getting the ball rolling on their own.

In a report endorsed by NIMH Acting Scientific Director Sue Swedo and presented Oct. 16 to the institute's lab and branch chiefs, NIMH's Fellowship and Education Committee sets forth some far-reaching recommendations for improving the training of the approximately 150 basic research fellows and 25 clinical research fellows in the institute's intramural program. The recommendations include

"Our recommendations should enrich fellowship training at NIMH by providing greater uniformity of experience. This should improve both the recruitment and placement of fellows," says Alan Breier, chairman of the committee. "Well-trained fellows will produce better work in their branches, and that will improve the overall quality of science done in the intramural program." Now a tenured scientist in NIMH's Experimental Therapeutics Branch, Breier notes that although he received excellent scientific guidance as a postdoc at NIMH from 1984 through 1987, he felt ill-prepared for the world of competitive grant writing when he ventured out of NIMH to take a position as a senior scientist in charge of his own research group at a nearby university.

Many of the report's recommendations stem from a proposal authored by the NIMH Fellows Committee, which sent its suggestions along with a questionnaire to all of the institute's fellows in June. The Fellows Committee survey, which had a response rate of 27%, found that although the majority of fellows reported they were receiving good mentorship, about one fellow in eight "disagreed" or "strongly disagreed" with this statement: "My mentor has been helpful in promoting my professional development." Guinevere Eden, who chaired the NIMH Fellows Committee, says, "Although we didn't get a sense that most fellows had many really bad problems with their mentors, we felt if even one in 10 was experiencing difficulties, it certainly would be worth making the situation better."

Seven percent of NIMH fellows responding to the survey reported that they do not have adequate access to their mentors, and 17.5% said the research they are carrying out is solely in their advisers' best interests. In the space for further comments, one basic fellow wrote, "The nature and content of the [scientific] presentations are very tightly controlled by my adviser to the point where I feel that I am presenting only the adviser's ideas and interpretation of the data, and not my own." Another basic fellow observed, "Most fellows fail to progress due to correctable reasons that could be addressed in their first year, if only their mentors took the slightest interest in their eventual success."

Overall, clinical fellows seemed more satisfied with the quality of mentorship they had received than basic fellows. More than 70% of clinical fellows meet with their mentors individually at least weekly, compared with about 55% of basic fellows. More than 90% of clinical fellows consider their mentors to be helpful in professional development, compared with about 75% of basic fellows. All the clinical fellows who responded to the survey said they had been encouraged to present their work at scientific meetings, compared with 81% of basic fellows.

Both the Fellows Committee and the NIMH Fellowship and Education Committee found that there is a strong desire among clinical fellows for formal research training such as courses in statistics and experimental design. One clinical fellow wrote that he looked forward to taking part in the Clinical Center's Core Curriculum for Clinical Research but lamented that the first two offerings have been filled because preference is given to senior fellows.

Indeed, the Clinical Center is another part of NIH where the concept of institutional mentorship is being paid more than lip service. Begun last April, the 44-hour, accredited Continuing Medical Education course for fellows is taught by 30 staff members. Divided into four modules, the curriculum uses both didactic lectures and practical experiences, such as meetings of mock Institutional Review Panels, to teach everything from meta-analysis methods to ethical and legal issues to the design and funding of a clinical research study. Although clinical associates ideally would have encountered many of the topics during their three to four years of NIH training, Bruce Baum, clinical director of NIDR, says he considers the core curriculum to be a kind of "safety net" to ensure that departing trainees are equipped with the "fundamental set of skills deemed necessary for clinical research."

In addition to providing institutional mentorship in the form of the core curriculum, the Clinical Center also plans to address issues involving individual mentorship through the Medical Board's Training and Career Paths Subcommittee. In meetings that began this fall, the panel plans to conduct a systematic evaluation of the mentorship received by clinical associates and develop suggestions for improving the training experience for both students and mentors. "You can be a great scientist and not be a great mentor, and the reciprocal is also true," says Baum, who heads the subcommittee. "Personally, I don't think everyone should be a mentor."

According to Baum, the subcommittee particularly wants to study ways of recognizing NIH scientists who have an excellent track record in helping fellows go on to successful scientific careers. Clinical associates and senior scientists can submit their comments on mentorship to the subcommittee by faxing them to Baum at 402-1228. "Mentorship is not a trivial issue," Baum says. "It's the future of biomedical science."

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