T H E N I H C A T A L Y S T
|N O V E M B E R - D E C E M B E R 1 9 9 7|
|F R O M T H E D E P U T Y D I R E C T O R F O R I N T R A M U R A L R E S E A R C H|
While NIH has been schooling new waves of medical researchers for decades, and doing it well, improvement of mentoring and training here is a major goal of intramural leadership. My thoughts on the subject have sorted themselves into ten expectations of what postdocs should learn as a result of their NIH training. This learning process requires individual as well as institutional mentoring, in addition to active effort by the fellow. Most, but not all, of these objectives are also relevant to other training positions, such as the postbaccalaureate IRTA program and our pre-IRTA programs for graduate and medical students.
1. Doing Science: The primary goal of training here is to learn how to conduct innovative, high-quality science, including how to choose problems, choose model systems, develop logical hypotheses, design experiments, and see connections among different fields that allow a scientist to make quantum leaps in understanding a problem. Fellows choosing a laboratory with a proven track record or choosing to work with a compelling younger career investigator have already taken a step toward this goal. The NIH role in this realm is to ensure that only the highest quality research is done here and that opportunities for learning and critical discussion, such as through our lecture series and interest group meetings, abound.
2. Reading the Literature: A postdoc must learn to read the scientific literature critically. This requires access to library services, on-line information, journal clubs that dissect papers, as well as the chance to peer review "real" papers.
3. Communicating: A trainee must learn to communicate results, in writing and orally. A postdoc must, therefore, be given the opportunity to write papers and reviews and, in addition to journal club presentations, should expect to give a seminar at least once a year, and preferably more, on their ongoing work.
4. Conducting Ethical Science: It's essential that postdocs familiarize themselves with the "NIH Guidelines for the Conduct of Research" and have opportunities to discuss cases of scientific misconduct and the importance of integrity, honesty, and effective teamwork. Every postdoc should know where to turn if there is a problem, be it to the Women Scientist Advisors, the Office of Equal Opportunity, their scientific director, the NIH ombudsperson, or our Office of Intramural Research. Each postdoc should take the appropriate required coursework in radiation safety, laboratory safety, animal care and use, research on human subjects, and the ethics training required by their particular institute.
5. Forming Collaborations: Learning how to form and maintain collaborations requires guidance from supervisors and mentors. Good role models are important here. In addition, experience and discussions with colleagues, as well as information in the Guidelines, may help. A recent article in The NIH Catalyst discussing the finer points of collaboration can be found on page 3 of the July-August 1997 issue.
6. Choosing a Career Path: During the usual two to three years of postdoctoral experience at NIH, research activities may be highly supervised and directed toward the research goals of the particular laboratory, institute, or supervisor. During this period, a good mentor will provide frank career advice about whether a future as an independent researcher, a support scientist, or some other science-related field - such as science writing, technology transfer, or grants administration - is appropriate. If a postdoc stays beyond three years, means to foster graduated independence, or preparation for a support role or other scientific career, should be incorporated into the program, so that fellows are ready to move on to life after NIH.
7. Networking: Each fellow should have opportunities to meet scientists throughout NIH and at extramural sites. They should attend at least one scientific meeting a year to present their work, as posters or oral presentations; be introduced to other scientists; and make contacts about research materials and job opportunities. Mentors ought to encourage senior fellows in the lab to accept speaking invitations to make their work known to a wider scientific community. Fellows should also take advantage of similar opportunities on campus - the FARE award program, NIH Research Festival, departmental seminars, and interest group meetings and workshops.
8. Respecting Resources: Postdocs need to recognize that public funds that support their work carry a burden of responsible stewardship. Good science requires mastery of the basics of budgeting of time, funds for research, and other scarce scientific resources, such as instrumentation, space, and personnel. Mentors ought include fellows in this budgeting process.
9. Mentoring: One goal of outstanding mentorship is to train students who themselves will be great mentors. Clearly, the process of mentorship is best taught by example, but fellows should also have the chance to supervise other students - and be guided and evaluated in that endeavor. More formal teaching experience, although not a primary objective of research training at NIH, is part of the mentorship process. My office is distributing a booklet on being a mentor entitled "Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend," which was prepared under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine and may be accessed at <http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/mentor/>. This booklet will be given to all principal investigators and to senior postdoctoral fellows leaving NIH.
10. Negotiating: Sometimes a fellow knows what resources are needed to succeed but lacks the negotiating or diplomatic skills to get them. Through example and advice, a mentor should teach a postdoc how to work through bureaucratic channels, how to convince others of the importance of their needs, and how to avoid antagonizing the very people who are pivotal in helping secure the desired items. The value of such skills should not be underestimated!
I hope this column generates serious discussions of the objectives of NIH training. I have asked the mentorship subcommittee of the NIH Committee on Scientific Conduct and Ethics to consider my list and to formalize an educational plan for our postdoctoral trainees. As always, I welcome your comments.