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Director's Corner: Professional Development Workshop Helps Early Stage Investigators Build Independent Careers in Scientific Research

, by Sanya A. Springfield, Ph.D.

CRCHD-funded investigators discuss research findings with colleagues at 2015 CRCHD Poster Session as part of its annual Professional Development Workshop. Photo credit: Bill Branson, NIH.

Building a diverse workforce in biomedical sciences is critical to eliminating unequal burdens of cancer in our society and an integral part of the National Cancer Institute’s Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities (CRCHD)’s mission. Since the launch of CRCHD’s Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences (CURE) program in 1999, NCI has supported more than 3,000 underrepresented scholars in biomedical research and career development and workforce training. CURE provides funding opportunities for underrepresented students, trainees, and investigators at all stages of career development from high school to early stage investigator-level. Participation in the program provides grantees a path for becoming competitive, independent scientists in cancer and cancer health disparities research.

CRCHD CURE Professional Development and Mock Review Workshop

“The CURE program is unique because our CURE scholars and trainees receive hands-on program navigation from CRCHD program directors who identify opportunities for career growth and skill development. This relationship has been critical for many young investigators to achieve success,” said Dr. Peter Ogunbiyi, Branch Chief of CRCHD’s Diversity Training Branch. Dr. Ogunbiyi added, “CURE also serves as a doorway for researchers as young as high school students to join the NCI research enterprise.”

A seminal event that CRCHD organizes each year for CURE scholars and trainees is the Professional Development and Mock Review Workshop. The event includes informative presentations from NIH and NCI funding offices and career training centers on policy updates, grant submission guidelines, and interactive discussions that help attendees develop strategies to meet and advance their career goals.

Two of the event’s highlights are a Mock Review led by an experienced Scientific Review Officer who provides a mentored peer review experience to strengthen participants’ understanding of the NIH peer review process, and a competitive Poster Session where participants have the opportunity to present their research findings and share their intent for future research. “Both sessions are critical in helping CURE scholars develop professional skills necessary for meeting their career goals. We hold these sessions each year because we want our CURE scholars to succeed, whether it’s to become a tenure-track professor or to achieve research independence,” said Dr. John Ojeifo, Program Director, CRCHD Diversity Training Branch.

Presentation Highlights from NIH and NCI Staff

This year, NIH and NCI program staff and officials presented on NIH and NCI policy updates, offered tips on post-award grant management, introduced intramural research and training opportunities, and shared their personal paths for achieving research independence and tenure-track academic positions. The attendees received information to help understand program announcements for specific grant mechanisms – research, research training, career development, and fellowship, and administrative supplements, as well clarification on eligibility requirements for institutions and individuals.

The participants also learned about the new required biographical sketch format for applications, which allows researchers to describe up to five of their most significant contributions to science, along with the scientific background that framed their research, and extends the submission to five pages instead of four. The biosketch format is supported by the Science Experts Network (SciENcv) which facilitates building biosketches.

The CURE scholars also were introduced to the health disparities calculator (HD*Calc), a statistical software designed to generate multiple summary measures to evaluate and monitor health disparities. HD*Calc was created as an extension of NCI’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program’s SEER*Stat that allows the user to import SEER data or other population-based health data and calculate any of eleven disparity measurements, and apply the findings to their research.

Another highlight was a concurrent Young Investigators’ Special Session at which members heard from a panel of NCI staff who gave insights on various intramural fellowship and training opportunities at the NCI, including NCI’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics (DCEG), the NCI Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program , and NCI’s Division of Cancer Control and Population Science.

Setting goals and achieving career success

Other highlights of this year’s event were personal insights and experiences shared by NCI staff. Various speakers provided recommendations for achieving career success, which largely included mentorship, networking, fellowship, planning, and setting long-term goals. The NCI’s Stadtman scholar, Brid Ryan, originally raised in a small town in Ireland, offered her advice to the independent scientist, “Develop technical skills and learn about new techniques. Practice presenting your work and become good at it. Prepare time to study, write grants, and work on publications.”

Nicole LeRond, a former NCI Cancer Research Training Fellow and now Associate Professor at University of Maryland, advised researchers considering tenure-track positions to “be a productive scientist; be a good teacher; and be a good mentor.” She also told the CURE scholars that “networking is key. Talk to incoming students and the staff at your institution.”

Dr. Robert Rivers, Ph.D. provided advice for prospective fellows, “Get all the training and skills you need for the next step in your career, particularly the skills you are the weakest in.” Furthermore, he added, “Keep applying for grants, network, ask questions, and learn about K awards,” he said. “One of the greatest benefits of an NCI fellowship was the ability to grow my skill set and make invaluable connections throughout NCI and NIH.” Dr. Rivers now serves as Program Director for the Office of Minority Health Research Coordination at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

Reflections from CURE Scholars

David Borrego, a Ph.D. candidate from the University of Florida found the event to be “very helpful and the additional career opportunities I learned were an eye opener,” he said. “I walked away with a clear plan to improve my extramural grant writing skills, learn more about risk assessment, and learn about new trends in the field so I can one day enjoy a career of teaching and mentoring.”

Whitney Robinson, K01 awardee and third-place poster winner from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said, “The CRCHD workshop was a great experience in this stage of my career. As a third-year K01 awardee, participating in the mock review was particularly illuminating. I gained new ideas for how to write grants that clearly communicate to reviewers. The sessions on funding opportunities and career satisfaction were thought-provoking and energizing as I think about taking maximum advantage of the remaining years on my K01 award.”

CRCHD’s Dr. Peter Ogunbiyi reflected on this year’s event and commented, “We had a great group of young, bright investigators in attendance and we are hopeful that long-term professional connections will be established among the trainees and NCI staff. We are proud to be working with them in reducing cancer health disparities.” 

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