Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

NIGMS Aims to “Catalyze Change” with April 11 Graduate Education Symposium

Sharing some best practices for aligning the training of biomedical graduate students with 21st century needs will be the focus of a symposium to be held next month by the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS).

“Catalyzing the Modernization of Graduate Education” is designed to bring together students, institutions, and employers, present their perspectives on training grad students—and, organizers hope—put into practice what they learned for the benefit of tomorrow’s Ph.D.’s.

“The idea is to really catalyze change—not necessarily dictate what that should be, but just get the conversation going in hopes of bringing creative minds into it,” Alison Gammie, Ph.D., director of NIGMS’ Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity, told GEN. “The purpose of this symposium is really to pull together people who are also passionate about it, and have thought about these sorts of things.”

The symposium is set for April 11 at the NIH’s Natcher Conference Center in Bethesda, MD. Following opening remarks by NIGMS Director Jon Lorsch, Ph.D., speakers representing students, academia, and industry will present their perspectives on the challenges and opportunities in graduate education. A session focused on implementing and assessing change will follow, then a poster session and two sets of presentations in which academics and research institutions detail their educational innovations.

Among presenters of educational innovations at the symposium will be Cynthia N. Fuhrmann, Ph.D., assistant dean, career and professional development for the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS) at University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Dr. Fuhrmann, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology at UMass Med, told GEN that a major hurdle is getting students to take actions thoughtfully and strategically toward their careers: “Moving into any next position after training will require evidence of interest and readiness for that field and potentially direct experience. Often positions are attained through a professional network. All of this takes time, and trainees need to start early.”


However, students often delay thinking deliberately about their career or taking action until the very end of their training.

“I think one reason for this is that universities allow—and even encourage—trainees to take a head-in-the-sand approach,” Dr. Fuhrmann said. “Students and postdocs are the workforce underlying the biomedical enterprise, and there is great concern about anything that might distract them from focusing all energy, time, and creativity toward their research. Trainees care deeply about their research and do everything they can to move it forward. Faculty encourage this, and sometimes even discourage other activities.”

“Unfortunately, it is not unusual for trainees to feel that even openly sharing their interest in a career outside academic research might change their advisor’s perception about their scientific performance,” she added.

At GSBS, career development is included as one of six areas of expertise deemed central to successful doctoral training. Students complete annual individual development plans in which they reflect on their progress and set their own goals for moving forward.

“We are integrating lessons related to career development throughout the length of graduate training, in a time-efficient way that also synchronizes with various stages of their research—from recruitment, through first-year lessons, to a course dedicated to career planning in the third year, to interactions with scientific professionals in peer groups during their mid- and later-years,” Dr. Fuhrmann said. “These lessons and meetings are designed to build on one another over time, which we can do because all are required.”

Students are reporting that they are not only inspired to take further action in their career exploration, but also that they feel their plans for research are more concrete, she added.

Another presenter at the symposium will be Patricia Kovatch, founding associate dean for scientific computing at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, where she launched a graduate curriculum in scientific computing and biomedical informatics.

In a recent presentation she gave at Supercomputing Frontiers 2016, a conference held March 15–18 in Singapore, and shared with GEN, Kovatch said the master of science in biomedical informatics program is focused on “building practical computational and data science skills for the biomedical sciences to solve real-life clinical problems.”

The program consists of 45 credits, of which 10 include a “capstone” independent study project in a research or clinical field, either at Icahn Mount Sinai or at an industry partner. During the first year, students take biological sciences courses for computer scientists and computing courses for biological science majors. In the second year, students concentrate in one of five areas of expertise—genetics and genomic sciences; structural and chemical biology; systems biology; clinical and translational informatics; or design, technology, and entrepreneurship.

Kovatch, an associate professor of genetics and genomic sciences, and of structural and chemical biology at Icahn Mount Sinai, joined two colleagues last federal fiscal year in winning an R25 educational projects grant of $162,432 from NIH’s Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) initiative to create Community Research Education and Engagement for Data Science (CREEDS). Under the program, 150 graduate students take an intensive, self-tailored, 2-week summer school designed to showcase interesting, and current, collaborative case studies, with training in responsible conduct of research. Another 30 New York City–based graduate students will be mentored for team-based “DREAM” challenges designed to help them develop computational skills for solving difficult, real-life biomedical problems.

“As a result of this project, we will train over 180 people to develop team skills to understand, select and use genomics data tools and approaches,” Kovatch and colleagues Luz Claudio, Ph.D., professor of preventive medicine, and Andrew Sharp, Ph.D., senior faculty member and associate professor of genetics and genomic sciences, stated in an abstract of their grant proposal. The course will be offered online via Coursera, they added.

“Armed with this knowledge, we plan that the next generation of genomics scientists will be better placed to design, analyze and interpret high-throughput genomics datasets.”

Funding Supplements

The symposium is one of several initiatives through which NIGMS is working to modernize graduate education.

The institute has a March 31 deadline, 5 p.m. local time of the applicant, for applications by institutions seeking to fund courses and curricula aimed at training graduate students in research design and methods related to conducting reproducible and rigorous research. Funds would be awarded as one-time administrative supplements to NIGMS-funded predoctoral T32 training grants. NIGMS said it intends to commit $1.5 million in the current federal fiscal year toward 15–20 awards.

Two other administrative supplements are in the works and are undergoing review by officials. One will be designed to fund innovative courses and curricula for training grad student scientists and the other will encourage institutions to train students for a range of biomedical research careers beyond academia. “It’s certainly our intention to have them out in the springtime,” Dr. Gammie said.

The NIGMS symposium is the latest effort to bring together stakeholders in training biomedical Ph.D.’s. Last month, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) presented a detailed agenda for action toward reforming the dysfunctional system that trains and sustains recently graduated professionals. Two groups met last year. In October, a group of postdocs in the Boston region called Future of Research (FoR) held its second symposium, with a focus on the job market for postdocs and grad students. Also last year, the Future of Biomedical Graduate and Postdoctoral Training (FOBGAPT) held a national meeting whose topics included balancing Ph.D. supply and demand, reforming curricula, pursuing alternative funding, promoting diversity, creating new training models, and adding more real-world learning experiences and nonacademic career tracks.

“Some of these are focused on workforce development. While that’s a really wonderful goal, and it’s in our minds all of the time, we’re really thinking about training people to be the best biomedical researchers that they can be,” Dr. Gammie said. “We don’t want to lose sight of the fact there are skills that you need at the Ph.D. level.”

Among those skills, she said, are critical thinking and the ability to design a well-controlled experiment, to conduct that experiment well, to analyze the data accurately and with integrity, and then communicate that finding to a broader audience.

“The interpretation of the data requires a whole other set of skills that really was not true, say, 30 years ago, such as some computer savvy and statistical knowledge,” Dr. Gammie said. “The field is moving so fast, that many of the people who are doing the teaching don’t necessarily have the skills that are required for training the next generation of Ph.D.’s.”

Kenneth Gibbs Jr., Ph.D., a program analyst with NIGMS, illustrated the eagerness of stakeholders in graduate biomedical Ph.D. education to weigh in on the topics being discussed at the symposium: Within a week of announcing the symposium, registration for the day-long event nearly reached the venue capacity of 163. The symposium is now oversubscribed, but can still be watched online via links accessible at watched online via links accessible here.

“My sense is that there is still a large appetite for this conversation in the community,” Gibbs told GEN. “That includes students who are coming to participate, which is really an important voice. So we’ve made efforts to make sure students know about the symposium, and that institutions would bring in students. These are the voices that we think need to be heard as part of our conversation.”


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