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

Opportunities in a Nontraditional but Much-needed Science Workforce

It's unclear how many men and women with Ph.D.s in disciplines like molecular biology or electrical engineering engage in speed dating. Well, at least this kind of speed dating. In early November, in a hotel conference room in downtown Sacramento, a group of scientists from around the country are having rapid, one-on-one meetings with members and staffers from the California State Assembly and Senate. The meetings' purpose: to determine who might be the best fit in each legislator's office for the first class of California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) policy fellows.

The event was just one part of the fellows' intensive 3-week training program. The program's goal, explained CCST Executive Director Dr. Susan Hackwood, is to immerse experts in science, technology, and engineering directly in the policy process. "There are huge scientific issues facing our state legislature in medicine, genetics, transportation, energy," she explained. "We saw firsthand a vacuum between those who have knowledge in these fields and those making the policies. The fellowship program will be the bridge between them."

Inspired by the long-running and highly successful American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowships program, through which scientists have migrated into policy positions of numerous types, the CCST initiative represents one way for scientists to put their knowledge to use—and perhaps pursue a career—in areas beyond those that many in the biomedical or physical sciences would traditionally consider.

In terms of science careers, those having to do with policy have been the road less traveled, but, Dr. Hackwood believes, that is beginning to change. "We have a feeling that this is an untapped career path for highly trained Ph.D.s who are willing to be flexible and have an interest in bridging these two cultures," she said.

Policy is not the only avenue where scientists looking for somewhat nontraditional opportunities can get training. Another example: technology transfer. At NCI's Technology Transfer Center (TTC), more than 3,000 agreements between scientists, academia, and industry are brokered each year, explained TTC Director Karen Maurey. With the expanded application of patents and the explosion of technologies being developed as part of modern biomedical research, she said, technology transfer has become integral to moving promising research forward.

The TTC fellowship program provides the chance to learn more about technology transfer by getting intimately involved in it, Ms. Maurey said, including responsibilities such as drafting and negotiating Cooperative Research and Development Agreements between NCI and outside research partners or working with NCI scientists to report inventions so that promising technologies can be patented, licensed, and developed into new products and interventions.

"Typically the scientists who join our program love science and want to be part of it, but they aren't interested in continuing a career at the bench," she said.

That was exactly the case for Dr. Lisa Finkelstein, who, prior to enrolling in the TTC fellowship program 4 years ago, worked at the National Human Genome Research Institute. Dr. Finkelstein went from the TTC fellowship program into a technology transfer specialist position in the TTC, a decision she has not regretted. Technology transfer "allowed me to be involved in a broad array of things," she said.

Another cross-functional training option that came online just a few years ago is the NCI-FDA Interagency Oncology Task Force (IOTF) Joint Fellowship Program. The program's aim is to develop a group of scientists who can help to bridge the gap between research and regulation, and, in the process, improve the efficiency with which research can be translated from the clinic to the bedside.

Past IOTF fellow Dr. Arindam Dhar is now an associate medical director at Bristol-Myers Squibb. In his position, Dr. Dhar explained, he focuses on bringing small molecules from the preclinical setting into first-in-human clinical trials.

His IOTF training set the stage for the move into translational medicine. "The training really gave me a better perspective of how drugs are developed through preclinical studies to first-in-human trials, the use of biomarkers, and the regulations that guide the studies for FDA approval," he said. At the present, there is a huge need for and an emphasis on bringing more effective and safer drugs to the bedside quickly, he added, and the IOTF program provides experience to scientists and clinicians to address these pressing issues.

As Dr. Dhar's experience suggests, pursuing these types of fellowships does not necessitate transitioning to a new career path altogether. He noted that anybody from the industry or academia involved in translational research who trained with the IOTF program could return to their position "with a better understanding of the whole drug development process, from preclinic to the market, and definitely be better prepared to support or run any phase of clinical trials."

Dr. Hackwood expressed similar sentiments about the policy fellowship. Even if the fellows go back to their former positions, she said, "the skills they have learned and how to deal with policy and policymakers will be invaluable."