Environmental Factor, May 2011, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Fellows urged to nurture careers
By Eddy Ball
Birnbaum flavored her talk with humor, as she urged trainees to take advantage of training in leadership, an important skill both for running their own labs and for motivating collaborators and colleagues. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Miller joked that important transitions in his career turned out to involve following long-time friend and former Acting Scientific Director John Pritchard, Ph.D. In his postdoc at a marine biology lab, Miller succeeded Pritchard, who in 1985 recruited Miller to NIEHS. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Cavanaugh introduced NTA members who represent each of the labs at NIEHS on the steering committee and described the role of NTA as a liaison between the Institute's 224 trainees and NIEHS administration. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Klotz, who completed her own postdoc at NIEHS, emphasized that career development experiences at NIEHS save much more time in the long run, than they demand initially of trainees with the foresight to take advantage of them. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Trainees gathered April 19 in Rodbell Auditorium for the annual NIEHS Trainees Assembly (NTA)(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/careers/research/nta/) General Assembly Meeting, moderated by NTA Steering Committee Co-chair Nisha Cavanaugh, Ph.D., an IRTA fellow in the NIEHS DNA Repair and Nucleic Acid Enzymology Group.
The event served as an orientation for new trainees and updated returning fellows on career and networking opportunities sponsored by the NTA and NIEHS Office of the Scientific Director. The meeting also featured talks by NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., Acting Scientific Director David Miller, Ph.D., and Director of the Office of Fellows Career Development (OFCD)(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/careers/research/fellows/) Diane Klotz, Ph.D., about their own experiences negotiating what often seemed to be labyrinthine career paths.
Focus on flexibility and communication
As the lead speaker, Birnbaum set the tone for meeting with her account of the first few years following her completion of a doctorate in microbiology that led, by twists, turns, and serendipity, to a fellowship in pharmacology and toxicology at NIEHS, as well as a tenured position at the Institute during the mid-1980s. Birnbaum joked about what must have been, at the time, very challenging interruptions in her career and shared advice with the trainees about developing communications skills to further their scientific training.
"Any opportunities you have to improve your writing, I urge you to take them," Birnbaum told her audience. "And the other area where I would urge you to take advantage of opportunities [during your fellowship] is oral communications."
With a slide of himself wearing a soiled lab coat at his rustic lab circa 1975 filling the screen behind him, Miller made some of the same points. Miller recounted, often tongue-in-cheek, his zigzag journey from bird studies as a postdoc in Maine to his current role leading the NIEHS Division of Intramural Research.
"I don't think I planned any of this," Miller said of his career and the high-profile papers that attracted job offers. "One of the things that I discovered early on as I worked on these manuscripts," he added, "was the fact that I could write. Just as Linda said earlier, writing is a critical skill. I urge my postdocs to write a lot, then get somebody to criticize it."
Events and opportunities
With the NIEHS Biomedical Career Fair just ten days away, planning committee co-chair Emily Zhou, Ph.D., called for trainees to fill the remaining open volunteer positions at the event and described the how-to emphasis in this year's fair. As Zhou explained, in addition to a keynote talk, workshops and career panel discussions, this year's event features a fast-paced networking dessert reception organized on the speed-dating model to maximize interaction. The format calls for having attendees change partners every few minutes during the one hour and 10 minute session, as practice for working the room at conferences and other gatherings.
Wrapping up the information session, Cavanaugh and Klotz discussed the many training opportunities and events sponsored by NTA and OFCD (see text box). The two groups are constantly refining their offerings to help trainees understand their career options and master every step in the process of pursuing the career they want, whether they end up applying their scientific training at the bench, in the classroom, in industry or government, in science communication, or elsewhere.
Career development opportunities at NIEHS
The best way for trainees to know what is available to them at NIEHS and elsewhere is to read messages from the fellows listserv and attend NTA/OFCD meetings. The NTA(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/careers/research/nta/) and OFCD(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/careers/research/fellows/) websites are also very helpful, and Klotz emphasized that she maintains an open door policy to help trainees get all they can from the fellowship experience.
NTA sponsors the annual Biomedical Career Fair, weekly coffees, and brown bag lunches with distinguished lecturers. The NTA also coordinates the selection of mentor of the year by trainees. The mentor of the year is recognized as part of the annual NIEHS Science Awards Day in November.
OFCD offers career exploration workshops on academia and industry, courses on scientific manuscript writing, and professional training in leadership, management, and interviewing. In recognition of the growth of online courses at every level, a new course helps trainees learn how to design distance-learning courses for the new media.
NIEHS also offers courses in improving spoken and written English for international trainees, as well as training on making effective presentations. Other experiences at the Institute, such with the Environmental Health Perspectives science outreach program, the NIH Sumer Internship program, and the monthly newsletter, the Environmental Factor, published by the Office of Communications and Public Liaison, can give trainees additional opportunities for honing their teaching and writing skills.