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Environmental Factor, August 2012

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Educating the next generation of environmental health scientists

By Ashley Godfrey

DERT Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D.

Collman provided a short introduction about the Institute’s mission and how innovative training programs fit within the new strategic plan that will govern NIEHS for the next five years. She stressed that training and education play a major role in fulfilling the Institute’s research goals. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Audience members at the Human Genes and the Environment Research Training Program

Students and training directors from the three programs, as well as DERT health scientists, listened as Shreffler described the program’s history and its objectives. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Trainees took center stage at a meeting of grantees and participants in the Human Genes and the Environment Research Training Program July 9 at NIEHS. The meeting brought together graduate students, postdoctoral trainees, and training directors from the three universities, awarded grant funding in 2007 to develop innovative new training programs, in an effort to bridge the gap between genomics and environmental health sciences research (see text box).

The program, which is led by NIEHS and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), is a component of the NIH Genes, Environment, and Health Initiative, a multi-institute program developed to speed up research on the causes of common diseases.

“The intent of this funding opportunity is to produce trainees who can unravel the influences of both the environment and genetic factors, and who can develop new technologies in these fields,” explained Carol Shreffler, Ph.D., program officer for training and career development in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT).

Nurturing young researchers

In her opening remarks, DERT Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D., gave a brief overview of the new NIEHS strategic plan,(189KB) which will guide the Institute for the next five years. Collman described some of the strategic goals that will aid in achieving the Institute’s mission, in particular, goal number nine, which specifically speaks to the importance of education and training.

In order to move a more transformative environmental health sciences field forward, Collman said, attention needs to be paid to inspiring a diverse and well trained group of scientists. She stressed that this requires increasing the role of transdisciplinary training and recruitment of scientists, from a wider range of scientific disciplines and diverse backgrounds, to build greater diversity in the environmental health sciences workforce.

Defining a new interdisciplinary training program

During the program introduction, Shreffler explained that the goal of the program is to train a new generation of researchers who are equally at home in both genomics and environmental health sciences. This task requires defining a new interdisciplinary team approach to training and mentoring postdocs and graduate students.

Instead of focusing their training in just one research area, trainees should learn to interact seamlessly with scientists from both disciplines. The young researchers would then gain the skills necessary to speak both scientific languages and feel at home working within both fields, instead of just one or the other.

The training opportunities are structured so that each trainee is supervised by a team of at least two mentors, one with expertise in the relevant environmental exposure or exposure biology aspect of the research, and the other with relevant genetic and genomic expertise. Funding to develop new curriculum components within each university is also built into the training grants, to provide trainees with a common unifying set of skills and knowledge.

Filling a training need

According to Shreffler, this kind of interdisciplinary training and research was rare prior to the training grant, and the three funded programs have all been very successful at establishing a working model for disseminating the new paradigm to additional programs. Bringing students together, from each of the universities, to present their research and learn about research from their peers at the meeting was a part of encouraging and creating an environment that enables students to integrate the different scientific disciplines.

Another important training component stressed in all three programs is career development and progression to independence for senior level trainees and postdocs. According to presenters, conventional training programs too often overlook such skills such as communication and personnel, budget, and laboratory management, forcing new investigators to learn these necessary skills on the job.

“If we [as senior researchers] are bad mentors and not paying close attention, we may lose students who fall through the cracks,” stated Terrence Monks, Ph.D., project leader for the University of Arizona training program.

(Ashley Godfrey, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the Molecular and Genetic Epidemiology Group in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Carcinogenesis.)

Graduate student presenting at the Human Genes and the Environment Research Training Program

Everyone gathered around to listen to the students present their research in short 10 minute talks, giving both students and program directors a chance to see what types of research students at the other universities were doing. The daylong program also included a grantsmanship workshop, a tour of NIEHS, and a visit to two labs in the intramural research program. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Daniel Gilchrist, Ph.D.

At their final stop on the tour, the group enjoyed an impromptu hallway talk by postdoctoral fellow Daniel Gilchrist, Ph.D., on transcription of RNA polymerase II. Gilchrist is a member of the NIEHS Transcriptional Responses to the Environment Group. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Michael Borchers, Ph.D.

Moderator for the Gene-Environment Interactions Training Program, Michael Borchers, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati (UC), explained the unique history behind the university, which has made it a hub for environmental health studies in the Midwest. He also stressed that the UC program allows its students to explore cutting-edge technologies that help them to learn how to think outside the box and make new research discoveries. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

John Schelp

NIEHS Special Assistant for Community Engagement and Outreach John Schelp, center, led the visitors on a tour of NIEHS, which included a stop at the Clinical Investigation of Host Defense Group lab. While there, they heard postdoctoral fellows Kymberly Gowdy, Ph.D., left, and Jim Aloor, Ph.D., describe their research and answer questions about working at NIEHS. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Training programs in human genes and the environment

Interdisciplinary Training in Genes and the Environment — Harvard University School of Public Health, project leader Marianne Wessling-Resnick, Ph.D.

This program will address the critical need for well-trained scientists who have an understanding of, and commitment to, cutting-edge research at the intersection of molecular and environmental exposure biology, and statistical and computational methods. The training program will involve active participation by 30 accomplished and experienced multidisciplinary faculty members, including environmental health scientists, molecular biologists, molecular epidemiologists, computational biologists, biostatisticians, and bioinformaticists. The two goals of the program are to train true collaborative partners and to encourage interdisciplinary research, especially in genetics and the various omics platforms arising from new methodologies. The program proposes support of 8 predoctoral students, in years 3-8, as well as support for training of one postdoctoral fellow per year. All trainees will be provided an outstanding opportunity to become equally skilled in genomics, environmental health sciences, and quantitative methods, in order to attain leadership roles in interdisciplinary studies of human genes and the environment, with the ultimate goal of serving public health interests in developing effective disease prevention and intervention strategies.

Gene-Environment Interactions Training Program — University of Cincinnati, project leader Daniel Nebert, M.D.

The goal of this program is to train predoctoral and postdoctoral students, who will be versed in the ways that environment exposure and genetic diversity interact to alter the onset of disease. Achieving this objective requires an interdisciplinary team approach and the collaborative efforts of research faculty, clinicians, postdoctoral, and predoctoral trainees. A mentorship team approach will be used to educate trainees in multiple areas of gene-environment interactions. Predoctoral training will include required coursework, laboratory rotations with the team of mentors, and hands-on work in several areas of exposure assessment, high-throughput genetic variability measures, and biomarkers of exposure and disease. Postdoctoral training will include programs in laboratory and personnel management, pilot grant applications, and an intensive yearlong grant-writing workshop to prepare them for independent research.

Human Disease and the Interplay Between Genes and the Environment — University of Arizona, project leader Terrence Monks, Ph.D.

This program will establish a Human Genes and the Environment Research training program. It will build upon three interdisciplinary predoctoral and postdoctoral training programs integral to the creation of a successful multidisciplinary training program that trains scientists in environmental genomics and genetics. The curriculum has been created specifically to address the unique requirements of a multidisciplinary training program. This is especially important for the new generation of scientists who will need to communicate effectively across multidisciplinary boundaries. The training program faculty consists of a core of 17 scientists, from 10 departments. Six principle units are participating in this training program and five of those units are members of the BIO5 Institute, which brings together scientists from disparate disciplines to solve complex biological problems. To ensure the program is known for its multidisciplinary emphasis, it will be administratively housed within BIO5.

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