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Training grant directors meet at NIEHS

By Robin Arnette
December 2010

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.
In her overview to the meeting participants, Birnbaum touted the Institute's role in the recent Gulf oil spill. "NIEHS was one of the first agencies to respond to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, with staff on the ground days after the explosion to provide worker safety training for the cleanup," said Birnbaum. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Gwen Collman, Ph.D.
Gwen Collman (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Carol Shreffler, Ph.D.
Shreffler made sure that the NRSA meeting ran smoothly. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Charles Epstein, M.D.
Epstein serves as the program manager for epigenomics at The Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. He highlighted the innovations that his epigenomics mapping center has made since its inception. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Liam O'Fallon
O'Fallon, program analyst for Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEHP), explained what the PEHP does and relayed future program initiatives. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Directors of the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA)(http://grants.nih.gov/training/nrsa.htm) Exit NIEHS Institutional Research Training Grants (T32) met at NIEHS recently to discuss updates to the program. Carol Shreffler, Ph.D., program director for training and career development at NIEHS, chaired the Nov. 3 meeting and provided introductions for the day's speakers.

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., welcomed the attendees and gave the first presentation of the day - an overview of the ongoing research at the Institute. She said that NIEHS uses environmental sciences to understand human disease, but emphasized that public health was the common denominator for all of the divisions of NIEHS, including the Office of the Director, Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT), Division of Intramural Research (DIR), National Toxicology Program (NTP), and Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), the scientific journal published by NIEHS.

"Standard biomedical research is focused on the idea of 'bench to bedside,' but the mission of NIEHS focuses on 'bench to public health and prevention,'" Birnbaum maintained. "Our mission is one of the most ambitious missions of all the Institutes of the NIH. It's a challenge that I know we can tackle."

Gwen Collman, Ph.D., acting director of DERT, communicated information about funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) involving NIEHS, training opportunities in environmental public health, and several upcoming DERT workshops.

Next on the program agenda was the Chief of the NIEHS Program Analysis Branch Christie Drew, Ph.D. Drew outlined the development of CareerTrac, a trainee tracking system that will provide career outcome data for the more than 5,000 extramural trainees. The program, expected to go live in 2011, builds upon a prototype created by the Fogarty International Center. According to Drew, CareerTrac "will provide a sense of trainee outcomes - where they work, what they have accomplished, what areas of science they are working in, etc." Additionally, CareerTrac will assist Training Directors by saving trainee data from year to year and facilitating the production of key tables for their renewal applications and progress reports.

Several other speakers participated in the meeting including Paul Watkins, M.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Rodney Ulane, Ph.D., NIH; Harold Pincus, M.D., Columbia University; Charles Epstein, M.D., The Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT; and Astrid Haugen and Liam O'Fallon, both of NIEHS.

Concerns for the future of the biomedical workforce

In his presentation, Ulane highlighted the variety of NIH grants available for individuals to participate in biomedical research - everything from pre-baccalaureate to senior scientists. However, he mentioned that a number of circumstances contribute to the erosion of enthusiasm for a research career in biomedical science.

He said that for the past three years, the hiring of tenure-track faculty has not kept pace with the previous year, and the number of new and competing research program (R01) grant awards has remained essentially static at 10,000 per year since 2000.

"Yet, the total number of students enrolled in biomedical science Ph.D. programs has increased approximately 40 percent from 2000 to 2008," Ulane added. "It's not hard to see why the large number of postdocs waiting to enter tenure-track positions may wonder if they will ever get a chance to lead their own lab."

Ulane said that the biomedical research community could reverse this trend by hiring more tenure-track faculty and increasing the number of R01s. It could also boost the number of researchers by retaining more clinician and physician scientists and studying how and when to initiate inter-, cross-, and trans-disciplinary training.



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