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Environmental Factor, December 2012

Postdoctoral fellow recruitments aim for a more diverse NIEHS

By Robin Arnette

Trevor Archer, Ph.D.

Archer said one of the goals of the NIEHS IRTA diversity program is to provide fellows with the best fellowship experience possible. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Georgette Charles, Ph.D.

Charles is a stem cell biologist studying pluripotency, or the ability of a stem cell to differentiate into different cell types. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The NIEHS Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) scientific diversity program began six years ago, with the goal of increasing the participation of fellows and faculty from underrepresented groups at the Institute. When IRTA diversity program leader Trevor Archer, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Carcinogenesis (LMC), and co-leader, NIEHS Director Emeritus Kenneth Olden, Ph.D., started looking for young scientists of color, they took a targeted approach to recruitment.

“It was an expansion of something that had been going on before, which was we’d go to various scientific society meetings and encourage fellows to look at the science that was going on at NIEHS, and have them think about it as a place to go,” Archer said. “Now, we’re also encouraging scientific faculty here to go out and make a real effort to recruit talented young scientists.”

Doubling the numbers

Archer said that, until this year, NIEHS had three participants at any one time in the program but, because of the support of Scientific Director Darryl Zeldin, M.D., the program has increased to seven slots, with five currently filled. Zeldin said he expanded the program because enhancing diversity in the NIEHS Division of Intramural Research (DIR) is a high priority and improves the division.

“Zeldin’s willingness to find funds and grow the program, at a time when we all know budgets are tight, speaks to his commitment to making NIEHS more diverse,” Archer added.

Current diversity IRTA fellows include: 

  • Georgette Charles, Ph.D.
    Advisor: Guang Hu, Ph.D., LMC

  • Christine Ekenga, Ph.D.
    Advisor: Dale Sandler, Ph.D., Epidemiology Branch

  • Jose Colon Saez, Ph.D.
    Advisor: Jerrel Yakel, Ph.D., Laboratory of Neurobiology

  • Danielle Watt, Ph.D.
    Advisor: Thomas Kunkel, Ph.D., Laboratory of Structural Biology

  • Kimberly Wiggins, Ph.D.
    Advisor: Archer, LMC

Former diversity IRTA fellows Omari Bandele, Ph.D., and David Cavazos, Ph.D., have left the Institute. Bandele, who performed research with Michael Resnick, Ph.D., and Douglas Bell, Ph.D., in the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics, now has a permanent position with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Washington, D.C. Cavazos, who used his expertise while with Richard Paules, Ph.D., in the Laboratory of Toxicology and Pharmacology, is now at the University of Texas at Austin.

According to Archer, the diversity IRTA program is really about identifying talent, giving them the opportunity, and supporting them as they work with their mentors.  

“One of the things we do is to make sure that the mentors in the program have a good track record and history of mentoring, which really maximizes our fellows’ opportunity for success,” Archer said.”


Kimberly Wiggins, Ph.D.

Wiggins is interested in nuclear receptor transcriptional activation. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Jose Colon Saez, Ph.D.

Colon Saez studies the role of neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptor channels in neurological disorders. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)




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