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Cancer Research Training in the Era of COVID-19

, by Dr. Oliver Bogler

The newly appointed director of the Center for Cancer Training (CCT), Dr. Oliver Bogler, discusses the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic for the cancer research training community and advises trainees on how to continue to build their portfolio and networks. If you are a research mentor reading this, please share this blog with your trainees.

Oliver Bogler, Ph.D.

Director, Center for Cancer Training

Credit: National Cancer Institute

In January, I joined NCI as director of the Center for Cancer Training (CCT). At CCT, I have an exciting opportunity to focus on training and career development programs and to foster a 21st century workforce that advances cancer research through a scientifically integrated approach. Each day, I am inspired by NCI’s deep commitment to sustain and accelerate progress against cancer, and to support those in the formative years of their cancer research careers.

Recently, readers of this blog heard from NCI Director Norman E. Sharpless, M.D., who addressed the grantee community in a blog about NCI grant funding and operations during the COVID-19 emergency. Soon after that post, Dr. Sharpless and I discussed the importance of reaching out to our research trainees about the disruptions they are facing due to COVID-19. 

In some cases, research trainees may be the principal investigator on their F30, F31, F32, F99/K00, K99/R00, K08, K22 or a legacy K-series award. In other cases, those aspiring to become cancer investigators may be supported by a T32 training grant or are working with principal investigators who have an R01 or some other NCI grant.

The uncertainty surrounding the rapidly evolving COVID-19 public health emergency is having a disproportionate effect on research trainees. Because their training positions are time-limited, every month counts in the race to gain the skills necessary to become independent investigators. As we quickly discovered during the past few weeks, the reduced ability to engage with other professionals—due to the physical distancing essential to prevent the spread of COVID-19—raises challenges in many work environments. For those training to become cancer researchers, however, physical distancing and reduced interactions pose special problems. 

The always-ticking “career clock” affects eligibility for training awards and the window of time for career transitions supported by NCI awards like the F99/K00, K99/R00, and K22.  A pause of several months in research is a hardship for many dedicated to cancer discovery, but for trainees it’s both a challenge and an impediment.

As the leader of training initiatives at NCI, I want to assure our community of trainees that NCI genuinely understands the concerns you feel. We are working to address the current challenges to the fullest extent possible.  

In all instances, NIH and NCI will be flexible in how training awards impacted by COVID-19 are managed. This includes considering requests to extend phased awards such as the K22 and K99, including transitions to faculty positions. 

NCI will also consider requests to extend Early-Stage Investigator status and extensions to National Research Service Awards (NRSA) and fellowship awards for those affected by COVID-19. For career development awards, such as K08 and K12 awards, we are also allowing temporary reductions in the effort requirements for clinician–scientists being asked to concentrate on patient care during the current public health emergency. 

In all this, NCI is fully aligned with NIH’s stance on working flexibly with our grantees and trainees, as outlined on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Information for NIH Applicants and Recipients of NIH Funding. In particular, I recommend trainees read section VII of the FAQs where you will find details related to Training, Fellowship, and Career Development Awards. 

As we’ve witnessed, COVID-19 is an infectious disease where developments are often fast-moving. That’s why I recommend you bookmark and periodically check the NIH page and FAQs I cited above to get the latest guidance. If you still have questions, please reach out to the program officer listed on your notice of award. My NCI colleagues will do their best to address your questions.  

In the spirit of learning to dance in the rain while we wait for the storm to subside, let me share some ideas on making good use of your time away from the bench. No doubt you and your colleagues are already engaged in activities such as these, but perhaps the following may offer you some fresh ideas. 

The period of hibernation we are experiencing during the COVID-19 emergency is a great time to catch up on journals, analyze data, work on manuscripts, and prepare grant applications. This is also an opportunity to consider your career plans, acquire new skills (master statistical methods, learn more about analytical tools, and build your coding expertise), update your CV, and expand your professional network. 

Many institutions—your home institution, for example—offer online training or are expanding training to meet increased demand, and that may be a good place to start your search. Of course, don’t forget that your library may also have free e-books you can access. Many top institutions maintain online educational platforms that offer excellent content. And, the internet abounds with free educational materials, which come with the usual cautions about assessing the content to ensure it’s reliable. 

Lastly, overcoming the isolation of physical distancing is also important. I highly recommend building or joining virtual communities where you can share knowledge, insights, and advice with your peers. Good places to start include the resources of your home institution, such as trainee associations. National organizations, such as the National Postdoctoral Association, also offer useful resources. 

Thinking about your career aspirations during this challenging COVID-19 period will allow you to continue to make progress on your cancer research goals, and we at NCI are here to help and support you. As always, thank you for your inspiring dedication to advancing cancer research.

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