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Environmental Factor, May 2012

NTA meeting addresses accomplishments and concerns

By Eddy Ball

Tammy Collins, Ph.D.

Once Collins, above, Trivedi, and the other speakers began their presentation of what the NTA has planned, it was clear that trainees have accomplished a great deal, even in the absence of fulltime leadership of the OFCD. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Darryl Zeldin, M.D.

Zeldin told the trainees about the NIEHS Division of Intramural Research retreat on implementation of the Strategic Plan. “We have about a 21-page draft that is circulating through DIR now,” he said, “and I’m hopeful that in the next week or two we’ll be ready to roll that out [for division-wide comment].” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The NIEHS Trainees Assembly (NTA) held its spring 2012 general assembly meeting April 19 in Rodbell Auditorium, highlighting its accomplishments and plans for the upcoming year (see text box).

The trainees also took advantage of an opportunity to question NIEHS Scientific Director Darryl Zeldin, M.D., NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and NIEHS Deputy Scientific Director Bill Schrader, Ph.D., about career development training needs, the potential impact of federal budget constraints on the Institute’s training program, and, especially, progress toward hiring a fulltime director of the NIEHS Office of Fellows' Career Development (OFCD), vacant since the resignation of Diane Klotz, Ph.D., in 2011 (see story).

Assurances from leadership

Moderated by NTA steering committee chair Tammy Collins, Ph.D., the meeting opened with remarks by Zeldin, who addressed questions submitted earlier, before opening the floor for additional questions from the audience. After reassuring trainees that any downsizing of labs, as a result of budget constraints, would honor the established protocol of giving affected trainees a one-year notice of termination, Zeldin moved to the topic of most concern to the trainees.

“We realize [that naming a head of OFCD is] a priority,” Zeldin said, “and it has taken way too long … Diane is missed, and we really need someone. We’re working really hard to get it graded at the right level, so we can attract the best person and so we can keep them here.”

He explained that to avoid any more delay caused by reclassification of the job, his office plans to use a contract mechanism in the very near future to provide for the needed tasks and duties, while continuing to complete filling the director position with a permanent federal employee. “We do not anticipate that this position will go away anytime soon.”

When her time came, Birnbaum reinforced Zeldin’s assurances about filling the OFCD position as quickly as possible. “We’re convinced we can make this happen,” she said. “That can happen quite quickly once we find the right person.”

Self-directed career development

“I am a big believer that part of your job as a trainee is to learn as much as you can, not only about your science, but what it means to be a scientist broadly defined,” Birnbaum told the group. “My philosophy is, as a trainee, you want to spread your wings and fly … to expand your horizons.”

In response to a question about the Institute’s commitment to education and outreach, Birnbaum underscored the importance of inspiring young people about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers, as well as the career development opportunities that outreach programs create for fellows.

Birnbaum also challenged trainees to seek out information about a range of careers in science, not just the careers they thought they’d have when they complete their postdocs. “None of you, no matter what kind of five- or ten-year plan you have, will be doing exactly what you think you’ll be doing five or ten years from now.”

Planning and tracking progress for fellowship success

Schrader closed out the first part of the meeting with a discussion of trainee status reporting and renewal documents. “We put in process, a year ago, a document that’s supposed to track what you’re going to do when you get in the door and what the contract is between you and your boss,” he said.

As Schrader explained, the reporting and renewal documents are important, because of the decentralized nature of training at NIEHS. Trainees and supervisors have the opportunity and obligation to specify expectations in writing, to protect both parties with the training agreement. An important component of the reporting process, he said, is the individual development plan beginning with the start of the fellowship. By documenting how well trainees meet their goals, the development plans help keep trainees and supervisors on track and figure into whether fellowships are renewed each year.


Michelle Heacock, Ph.D.

Heacock was one of several trainees who expressed concerns about the cost of daycare. Their special employment status as training awardees affects income tax credits, access to federal employee childcare subsidies, and other benefits. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Tammy Collins, Ph.D. and Sarah Swerdlow, Ph.D.

Closing out the meeting, Sarah Swerdlow, Ph.D., helped as Collins drew the names of winners for door prizes, ranging from coffee mugs to a copy of “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

“There are ways to do just about everything in the government,” Birnbaum said about the drawn-out process of filling the OFCD position. “I tend to look for creative solutions.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Bill Schrader, Ph.D.

Schrader urged trainees to pay attention to the status and renewal documents that are used to evaluate performance. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


NTA resources and upcoming events

Collins, co-chair Darshini Trivedi, Ph.D., and other speakers from the steering committee spent the final half hour of the meeting with an introduction of how the NTA serves the Institute’s 230 trainees, and an overview of career development and training opportunity resources.

Collins described the NTA office space in building 101, room F182 (see story) and the fellows’ listserv, a central communications hub for announcements, training opportunities, and job openings. She also urged trainees to get involved, by volunteering for NTA activities.

Filling in for coordinator Nisha Cavanaugh, Ph.D., and Mercedes Arana, Ph.D., Trivedi discussed outreach and teaching career development opportunities with the Citizen Schools Project (see story). Collins also gave an overview of the NIH Summer Internship Program at NIEHS and the Brown Bag Lunch series (see story), which features guest speakers, in a range of scientific careers, describing their work.

Michelle Heacock, Ph.D., took attendees through a long list of upcoming workshop and training opportunities. These range from the next open Grantsmanship Workshop in 2014 to weekly mentor training sessions to be held this summer. Additional planned opportunities include courses on conflict resolution, general writing, and scientific writing and publishing.

Ashley Godfrey, Ph.D., surveyed writing opportunities with the Environmental Factor newsletter and her own experiences as a guest writer. She then joined Trivedi in a description of the April 27 Biomedical Career Fair. Now in its 15th year, this year’s event will highlight recent postdoc alumni in panel discussions of careers ranging from faculty in teaching-intensive schools to small biotechnology firms, as well as foster networking.

In closing the business section of the meeting, Collins highlighted the International Fellows Committee, fellows’ monthly coffee hour, and suggestion box, before ending with a drawing for door prizes.

For more information or to volunteer for NTA activities, contact Collins at collinstr@niehs.nih.gov or Trivedi at trivedidb@niehs.nih.gov.



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