National Cancer Institute NCI Cancer Bulletin: A Trusted Source for Cancer Research News
December 1, 2009 • Volume 6 / Number 23

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Special Issue: Cancer Research Training

Intramural Training at NCI: A Wealth of Opportunities

People from all over the world and at various stages of their academic careers—high-school students through senior-level scientists—come to NCI to take advantage of a wealth of training opportunities. The knowledge and skills they acquire prepare them to undertake new challenges at NCI and beyond.

On-campus (intramural) research training at NCI is offered through the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program (CPFP), as well as specific programs administered by the Center for Cancer Research (CCR) and the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics (DCEG).

People at all stages of their education and careers come to NCI for training, the greatest numbers as visiting fellows from foreign countries, summer interns, post-doctoral researchers, and postbaccalaureate trainees. People at all stages of their education and careers come to NCI for training. Data from NCI's Center for Cancer Training. Click to Enlarge.

The directors of these programs meet regularly through the Center for Cancer Training, which administers the CPFP and all extramural training through its Cancer Training Branch, so they can coordinate efforts and maintain the quality of the experience for those who come to NCI. A shared goal is to ensure each trainee is progressing scientifically. The directors also work to provide fellows with the tools necessary to identify and meet their long-term career goals.

"The training programs at NCI and NIH have really blossomed in recent years," said Dr. Jackie Lavigne, who has been involved with these training programs and currently directs DCEG's Office of Education. She notes that for many trainees, coming to NCI is the best way to learn about the full breadth of research opportunities.

Together, the programs span the cancer biomedical research spectrum, from population-based studies to investigational therapeutics. The largest program is run by CCR, which offers fellowships for training in the basic and translational sciences, as well as in the clinic. About a thousand fellows are enrolled in the program. For clinical fellows, CCR offers a place to visit patients and conduct lab work all under the same roof. "It is rare that a researcher gets to do both clinical and basic research on essentially the same research problem. That is what CCR is set up for," said former CCR Clinical Fellow Dr. Sunil Sudarshan, a urologist and now assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center.

Another former fellow, Dr. Patrick Johnston, said that CCR provides an "environment where one can be mentored and further develop one's medical, scientific, and analytical skills to make fundamental discoveries that ultimately will benefit patients around the globe." Dr. Johnston is now a professor in the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology and dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry at the Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

To focus specifically on the challenges of cancer prevention, NCI established the CPFP. CPFP offers postdoctoral fellowship opportunities for individuals from diverse disciplines, including behavioral, laboratory, and clinical sciences, epidemiology, ethics, and public health. The program enrolls approximately 10 fellows per year for a 4-year fellowship.

Population-based studies, findings from which inform basic, clinical, and prevention research, are supported through DCEG. Each year, the DCEG Fellowship Program provides a scientific home to about 90 pre- and postdoctoral trainees and another 30 in the summer. Working with DCEG scientists, fellows design, carry out, analyze, and publish research studies on the causes of cancer and related conditions in human populations, as well as explore new approaches to cancer prevention.

Both the DCEG Fellowship Program and the CPFP attract people at different stages of their careers. Dr. William Anderson, for example, practiced medical oncology in rural Louisiana for almost 20 years before pursuing a second career in population-based prevention research. "As a medical oncologist, I saw a lot of cancers recur after standard systemic treatments and began to think that prevention would be a better cure," said Dr. Anderson.

After studying epidemiology and biostatistics at Tulane University, he came to NCI and studied breast cancer as a Cancer Prevention Fellow. After the fellowship, Dr. Anderson stayed on and became a tenure-track investigator in DCEG. Much of his current work uses mathematical modeling of cancer risk and disparities, in the hopes of generating hypotheses for causes of cancer that can be further tested by laboratory and clinical researchers.

The relationship between the CPFP and DCEG fellowship programs remains close, and many prevention science trainees straddle both divisions during their fellowships. They include Dr. Laura Beane Freeman, who came to NCI as a Cancer Prevention Fellow, then worked as a DCEG research fellow before recently accepting a tenure-track position in DCEG.

"I came to NCI for the concentration of resources and expertise, and the chance to work with world-class experts in the field," she said. "What we do in epidemiology is collaborative research; it's very important to have access to people who are the world's experts." 

This sentiment is seconded by Dr. Nilanjan Chatterjee, who arrived at NCI as a trainee 10 years ago after earning a Ph.D. in statistics from the University of Washington, Seattle. Today, he is chief of DCEG's Biostatistics Branch.

"What really excited me about DCEG was the number of studies and the number of experienced scientists who were already here. A lot was going on and I wanted to be a part of it," said Dr. Chatterjee.

"A lot of trainees I meet are excited about the opportunities in DCEG and want to stay on after completing their training," said Dr. Lavigne. "That speaks well of what we try to provide for them, and also speaks to the rewarding career opportunities, both scientifically and administratively, at NCI."

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