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Environmental Factor, September 2012

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Collins to lead trainee career development at NIEHS

By Jeffrey Stumpf

Tammy Collins, Ph.D.

In addition to the NIEHS OFCD website that she will maintain, Collins plans to make use of social media to increase the connection between NIEHS trainees and alumni. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Deputy Scientific Director William Schrader, Ph.D.

Schrader feels that NIEHS is fortunate to have an OFCD director who has research experience, especially at NIEHS. “Collins will hit the ground running with a good understanding of the needs and challenges faced by our trainees,” Schrader noted. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

In late July, NIEHS named Tammy Collins, Ph.D., to direct the Office of Fellows’ Career Development (OFCD). As the former NIEHS Trainees Assembly (NTA) chairperson, Collins worked closely with co-chair Darshini Trivedi, Ph.D., in addition to many hardworking colleagues throughout the Institute, including those on the NTA Steering Committee, the NTA General Assembly, and the Assembly of Laboratory Staff (AoLS), to provide many of the much-needed services in the absence of a full-time OFCD director, following the departure of Diane Klotz, Ph.D., last June.

OFCD provides trainees with important seminars, courses, and workshops critical to developing skills necessary for their future career success. In addition, OFCD assists trainees with preparing job application materials and offers practice job interviews. Collins plans to continue the supportive role of the office, while expanding its reach to more postdocs through effective communication and an open-door policy.

Deputy Scientific Director William Schrader, Ph.D., is the NIEHS Training Director, and appreciates the value of resources offered by OFCD. “For over ten years, trainees have benefitted from an office that is specifically charged to aid them in aspects of their professional needs outside of the scientific support that their mentors provide,” Schrader observed. “In today’s complex workforce environment, our trainees can expect to select among nontraditional career paths, and to deal with highly competitive team science and business in ways that their forebears have never experienced.”

Catching up for lost time

With support and guidance from many, including Schrader, Debbie Wilson, the NIEHS Summer Internship Program (SIP) Coordinator, and Lori Conlan, Ph.D., director of Postdoctoral Services for the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE), NTA and AoLS members have continued very important programs that support postdoctoral career development during the time without an OFCD director. Now in her current position, Collins states that there are several immediate goals that the OFCD office plans to fulfill:

  • Finalize the upcoming workshop and training schedule.
  • Centralize the resources involving searching for and applying for jobs.
  • Manage a career progress tracking system that helps trainees focus on long-term goals.
  • Establish effective communication with trainees, particularly new ones who may be unaware of OFCD’s role.
  • Prepare for the upcoming 2013 NIH Summer Internship Program application process.
  • Coordinate fellows' activities with the Office of Science Education and Diversity, including the new Scholars Connect project.

Even with an already long list of priorities to be addressed by workshops and symposia, Collins plans to search for unmet needs in training by using a more personal approach. “I think it is important to meet with trainees from various groups to survey the landscape of career development needs throughout the Institute,” Collins said. “We need to determine where there are gaps that need to be filled.”

Collins already has identified an unmet need in the support of international fellows. In addition to providing workshops to help improve communication for trainees whose primary language is not English, Collins said she wants to establish an arrangement to ease the overall transition to working in the U.S. Collins may organize a system where international fellows are paired up with willing American fellows, to help them adjust to U.S. culture.

(Jeffrey Stumpf, Ph.D., is a research fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Genetics Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group.)

Transitioning from trainee to advisor

Trained as a chemist and biochemist, Collins earned an undergraduate degree from Appalachian State University and a Ph.D. from Duke University. After a brief stint of postdoctoral work at Duke, Collins joined the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Genetics (LMG) Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group, where she has researched the role of human topoisomerase IIIalpha in mitochondrial DNA replication and disease.

In addition to research, Collins progressively acquired more leadership responsibilities, by serving in various roles, from a co-chairperson in the LMG trainee action committee to being a member and chair of the NTA. Experience in decision-making helped her realize her passion for impacting policy that assists in the training of young scientists. Schrader notes that her dedication to helping trainees achieve their goals will improve mentorship at NIEHS.

“I am confident that Dr. Collins will also bring a sense of renewed enthusiasm to test out new training modalities — enthusiasm that I believe will serve all of NIEHS well as we move forward,” he said.

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