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by Doris Brody, NIGMS

More than 300 postdocs have graduated from the PRAT (Pharmacology Research Associate) Program since its inception over 30 years ago. Many of the former fellows of this small intramural research training program supported by NIGMS have now become leaders in academic and industrial research in pharmacology all over the country. One graduate, Alfred Gilman, M.D., Ph.D., who is at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1994. Several PRAT graduates currently head laboratories in the NIH intramural research program.

What distinguishes PRAT from other NIH postdoctoral fellowships, such as the standard IRTA (Intramural Research Training Award)? Rona Hu, M.D., a current PRAT fellow in the NIDDK Laboratory of Neuroscience, mentions the support that goes with the program and the considerable research independence permitted PRAT fellows.

Michael Rogawski, M.D., Ph.D., a former PRAT fellow (1981-83) who is chief of the Neuronal Excitability Section in the NINDS Epilepsy Research Branch, also cites the greater independence of PRAT fellows, saying, "the [financial] obligation is to the fellow, not the laboratory - the result is greater freedom."

Anita Roberts, Ph.D., deputy chief of the NCI Laboratory of Chemoprevention and a current member of the PRAT Advisory Committee, says PRAT differs "in that the applicant finds a sponsor and then, together with the sponsor, writes a research proposal. The applicant is chosen both on the appropriateness of the project and the lab in which the research will be carried out. . . .The PRAT fellow becomes a member of a group with an identity."

When the PRAT Program was created in 1965 at the request of then NIH Director James Shannon, M.D., the goal was to train researchers studying chemical-biological interactions in the environment and broad aspects of pharmacology and toxicology, including applied mathematics, biometrics, organic chemistry, biochemistry, physics, and instrumentation. Today, there is a heavy emphasis on molecular biology, biochemistry, signal-transduction mechanisms, cell biology, structural biology, and immunology - in addition to drug metabolism, chemistry, and drug design. PRAT Advisory Committee member Hynda Kleinman, Ph.D., chief of the Cell Biology Section of the NIDR Laboratory of Developmental Biology, says, "One really needs to be as knowledgeable as possible in as many of these areas as possible because of the nature of today's scientific research."

PRAT Co-directors Rochelle Long and Alison Cole note that "understanding mechanisms of drug action is just a beginning. Pharmacology can be an almost limitless field. In this era of rational drug design, the discipline encompasses the most basic to the most clinical sciences, from chemistry to cell biology to medicine. To predict target therapeutic sites, it is necessary to understand thoroughly how molecules, cells, tissues, and organisms function."

The goal of the PRAT Program is to attract and train the most promising future leaders in pharmacological research. In addition to fellowships, the program provides lectures, workshops, and career development and grantsmanship mentoring. A current PRAT fellow, Maria Rivera, Ph.D., who is in the NCI Laboratory of Drug Discovery Research and Development, believes that these elements are particularly important. Rivera is a former participant in another NIGMS training program, the Minority Access to Research Careers Program. Her goal is to become a faculty member at a university in her native Puerto Rico, where she would like to "motivate students to get involved in research."

The PRAT Program is seeking fellowship applicants and NIH preceptors for the next round of review, for which applications are due by Jan. 1, 1997. Applicants for the PRAT Program must have received a Ph.D. or a professional degree (M.D., D.D.S., D.O., D.V.M., or Pharm.D.) in a basic or clinical science within the past 5 years. They may not be conducting postdoctoral research at NIH or FDA at the time of application. Before submitting an application, they must identify a preceptor at NIH or FDA and contact him or her to develop a scientific plan. Potential PRAT preceptors must apply to become preceptors in the program and must have recent research productivity and experience in training postdocs.

To receive a PRAT fact sheet, contact the PRAT program assistant, Sandra Cain, at 594-3583 (e-mail: prat@gm1.nigms.nih.gov).

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