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by Fran Pollner

An online application system launched the first week of calendar 1998 will bring to an end speculation about who applies for and receives postbaccalaureate training slots at NIH. Their numbers, their demographics, their success in being placed in their institute of choice, and other relevant data will be maintained in a central database in the Office of Education (OE), with certain unlinked, anonymous demographic statistics available by password to EEO officers.

And an intramural scientist database to be launched by the Office of Intramural Research (OIR) before the end of fiscal year 1998 will end speculation about where the postbacs go and what they do after they leave NIH, information central to evaluating the success not only of the postbac but all NIH training programs--all of which and more this eagerly anticipated database is being designed to capture.

It may seem inconceivable that tracking systems like these are only now materializing when few would dispute that NIH has been training new generations of biomedical scientists since its beginning over a century ago. But it wasn't until October 1986 that the IRTA program, per se, was born.

IRTA stands for Intramural Research Training Award, an authority conferred by Congress in the Health Research Extension Act of 1985. Until then, recalls OIR Executive Director Richard Wyatt, "we had no targeted way to bring U.S. postdocs here for training." The main mechanism was to hire them as government employees.

    Several among about 70 postbac IRTAs brought together for the first time last fall

In contrast, foreign postdocs had been training at NIH under the auspices of the Fogarty visiting fellows program since the 1950s. There were 736 visiting fellows on campus the first IRTA year, when 103 U.S. postdocs set foot on NIH soil. "We aspired to parity between foreign and U.S. nationals," Wyatt said in an interview, "and today there are roughly equal numbers in postdoctoral training programs here--about 1,000 each--which seems to be a steady state."

Richard Wyatt

The first "predoctoral IRTA" fellows, doctoral candidates, arrived in 1989 to do thesis work. There were 13 the first year today, the census is around 250. (Medical students are another constituency, slated for treatment in a future issue of The NIH Catalyst.)

And it was only less than four years ago, in April 1994, that the "postbac" program--extending the pre-IRTA umbrella to fledgling owners of baccalaureate degrees with a proclivity for science--emerged. Their numbers doubled in the last year to about 200, according to Michael Gottesman, deputy director for intramural research, but should level off, if for no other reason than that tenure-track scientists are the mainstays of postbac preceptorship, and there are about 250 of them on campus.

With few exceptions, postbacs are here for one or two years, immersed in research and applying to schools of ever-higher learning. Until this fall, they were largely isolated from one another. Now they are linking up by e-mail, an interest group, and an OE-organized lecture series (see companion story, "Postbac to the Future," page 1).

Postbac Program Rationale

Created to give recent college graduates exposure to research and additional time to apply to graduate or medical school--and to "entice" them into research careers, as Wyatt puts it--the postbac program was also conceived in the language of affirmative action. Of the five types of IRTA programs (postdoc, predoc, postbac, technical, and student), the postbac is ideal for attracting disadvantaged students for whom access to biomedical research careers might otherwise be limited, including "minorities, women, and persons with disabilities."

Mindful that there appear to be fewer research jobs than research scientists these days, Wyatt does not see this IRTA cohort as a means to increase the ranks but rather to diversify them, not only in the fields of basic and clinical research but also in the related professions like tech transfer or communications that trainees may enter.

Not only will the central electronic application system keep track of how the program is meeting its goals, it may also serve to further them. According to Debbie Cohen, OE training program coordinator, applicants will specify as many as three institutes of choice the institutes will have one month to decide on the candidate. If the response is negative, the application will circulate in the general pool for another month, providing more opportunities and a more equitable review among all the institutes of candidates closed out of sites with long lines. This mechanism was unanimously approved by the scientific directors (SD) in December. NIH's desire to improve the postbacs' lot in life is also reflected in the stipend increase from $16,000 to $17,600 that went into effect January 1.

Today's Patchwork Data-Quilt

Data on the composition and post-NIH whereabouts of program participants thus far are incomplete. At a July 1996 SD meeting, Gottesman presented data from about two-thirds of the institutes covering the first six to nine months of the program. Of the 53 postbac awards made during that period, 55 percent were to women and 36 percent to minorities 17 percent were underrepresented minorities--seven African-Americans and two Hispanics. He called this record a "good beginning." Cumulative data since then are lacking.

Questions posed by The NIH Catalyst to a few institutes elicited a mix of responses reflecting different degrees of tab-keeping.

NCI's Jan Romanoff provided a chart tabulating 1996 data on race, national origin, and gender for 16 categories of NCI trainees. In those categories that include postbacs, race and national origin are "not specified" for more than half underrepresented minorities account for 13 percent of the remainder.

NIDDK's Allen Spiegel dispatched the results of a recent survey of lab and branch chiefs on the destinations of "pre-IRTAs who have left in the past year or so." Of the 50 or so persons accounted for, slightly more than half were female and more went to medical school than other graduate programs. There was no data on racial or ethnic composition or disability status.

NIAID's Richard Asofsky reported that 67 postbacs have passed through NIAID's doors since the program's inception, 32 of whom are currently on campus. Plumbing his institute's databases, he surmised (on a first-name basis) that 28 of the total 67 and half of those now present are female. As for racial and ethnic compositions, the anonymous tallies provided by his institute's EEO office are incomplete for IRTA postbac positions.

NIDCD's Jim Battey could supply more details about his postbac population because "it's a small program, and I know them all."

According to data he compiled on 50 student NIDCD trainees since 1994, 10 appear to fall under the postbac IRTA umbrella, by virtue of the duration of their tour at the institute. Six of these are female, and all but one are minority. Most went on to medical school.

Jim Battey

It's Battey's impression that the IRTA program is not perceived to be used exclusively for recruiting underrepresented scientists into biomedical research, unlike the minority outreach training program organized through the Office on Research and Minority Health, a door through which many NIDCD predoctoral trainees enter.

Who enters through which portal and the road they follow after will soon be a matter of more complete record. But according to an accolade by the late Lewis Thomas, which Wyatt is fond of citing, NIH trainees are the "youngest and brightest candidates for careers in biomedical research" who "deploy out to universities" to become "this country's leaders of academic science."

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