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NIMH Institutional Training Grant Program Directors Meeting

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Meeting Summary
Bethesda, Maryland

Sponsored by:
National Institute of Mental Health

In March 2009, the NIMH convened a meeting of institutional training grant (T32) program directors supported by its Division of Neuroscience & Basic Behavioral Science (DNBBS) and the Division of Developmental Translational Research (DDTR). The overarching goal of this meeting was to engage Program Directors in a dialogue about future innovations in institutional training grants supported by the NIMH.  A workgroup of the National Advisory Mental Health Council (NAMHC) recently provided strategic recommendations for research training (PDF file, 49 pages). In response to the workgroup's recommendations, the Institute decided to assemble training grant directors to discuss the unique challenges and opportunities associated with managing institutional training grants. Twenty-nine extramural participants attended the meeting along with NIMH staff from DNBBS, DDTR, the Division of Extramural Activities (DEA), and the NIMH Director’s office.

Prior to the meeting, a questionnaire was disseminated to all participants to help guide the meeting agenda and discussion topics. While many specific points were raised, four general areas emerged: 1) the NIMH Strategic Plan and the NAMHC Workgroup on Research Training report; 2) emerging trends in the academic community; 3) recruitment and retention of a diverse workforce: policy changes and strategies; and 4) best practices for training programs.

Presentations by Division Directors and program staff contextualized the environment for training opportunities at the NIMH. The Institute Director, Thomas Insel, M.D., emphasized the need to address transition points in the career pipeline and the importance of using evidence-based evaluations of practices and programs to inform training decisions.

The NIMH Strategic Plan and the NAMHC Workgroup on Research Training Report
The recently released NIMH Strategic Plan (PDF file, 46 pages) and the NAMHC report entitled “Investing in the Future” were highlighted as guiding factors used by the NIMH to determine funding priorities. Participants generally agreed there is a strong link between mentor (at times referred to as preceptor) research interests and the research conducted by trainees and, as such, research focus should be a central factor in determining the mentors who participate in a training grant application. A brief discussion regarding the Institute’s planned activities in response to the NAMHC workgroup report followed.  Participants recognized that the NIMH is currently developing multiple initiatives that will stem directly from recommendations made in this report. Finally, it was acknowledged that an overarching challenge will be to develop, identify, and support forward-looking programs that are training the NIMH workforce of 2015, 2020, and beyond.

Emerging Trends in the Academic Community
One of the initial concerns that participants raised was how the current economy is influencing academic faculty hiring decisions. During a breakout session, attendees also acknowledged that successful strategies for addressing issues such as recruiting and retaining highly-skilled young scientists are quite variable, reflecting the diversity of areas of science represented at the meeting. Another discussion topic focused on how to build strong mental health-focused training programs in areas that are interdisciplinary, yet specialized. A question arose concerning to how the NIMH might integrate strategies from other areas of science to accomplish these goals. This discussion then led to the increasingly integrative nature of science and the importance of trainees understanding how basic science discoveries can inform clinical practice and also how observations in patient populations can inform research questions at the bench. One model suggested to help trainees better understand the interconnectedness of their research involved the use of mentoring teams comprised of mentors with perspectives that span from basic to applied approaches. Participants also indicated they felt the development of courses in the neurobiology of disease, with particular emphasis on mental health disorders, played a central role in helping trainees and mentors develop the requisite broader understanding of the bench-to-bedside and back again concept.

Recruitment and Retention of a Diverse Workforce: Policy Changes and Strategies
Initial discussions on this topic focused on the recent changes in the NIH definition of diversity. Many issues surrounding diversity recruiting were raised, e.g., the practical limitations of an advanced graduate training grant recruiting beyond those already in the larger graduate program; the unwillingness of individuals to self-identify as having a disability; and how to document that an individual is from a qualified disadvantaged background. Workshop participants offered a number of approaches to enhance the diversity of trainees in their programs such as word of mouth; summer transition programs; engaging alumni networks; utilizing institutional diversity offices; building partnerships with academic institutions that serve largely diverse populations; establishing mentoring teams that incorporate mentors outside the trainee’s scientific area; designing programs that help bridge transition points for underrepresented individuals; and using student-led groups to cultivate an environment that is welcoming to students from diverse backgrounds.

Best Practices for Training Programs
While participants acknowledged that “best practices” can vary significantly across scientific areas, geographic regions, and the level of the program, they offered many examples of fruitful practices. One practice was to leverage NIH-awarded trainee slots by encouraging college deans to provide matching funds for these slots in some ratio. Another approach was to utilize ongoing research projects as starting points for junior pre-doctoral trainees to begin their research track, thus ensuring progress is made in a timely manner. Similarly, participants indicated that developing an individualized timeline that included measurable and realistic milestones for trainees, particularly postdoctoral scholars, was a sound practice. Another approach required that trainee thesis committees meet regularly, during which time the mentor is not present so as to facilitate development of trainee skills in responding to questions. Multiple participants indicated that their programs have been using community outreach activities spanning the undergraduate to faculty level that actively engage trainees in developing effective communication skills and a sense of integration within the community. Several participants expressed the importance of structured and frequent writing opportunities for trainees; strategies included attending writing seminars, grantsmanship courses, preparing funding applications that were then reviewed by visiting scholars and subsequently receiving feedback from these mock reviewers, having multiple examples of (stage appropriate) successful funding applications on file for trainees to review, and providing financial incentives for trainees to write extramural funding applications. Participants discussed multiple programmatic activities that help build cohesion among trainees and mentors. These included targeted career development activities (e.g., project management, mentorship, and ethics), student journal clubs, including postdoctoral scholars as active participants in program/departmental seminar series, and annual symposia organized to a large extent by trainee input. Finally, participants suggested that service on T32 review panels was informative for mentors in preparing subsequent renewal applications.

In summary, T32 Program Directors and NIMH staff discussed the unique challenges and opportunities associated with training future NIMH investigators. Post-meeting evaluations by attendees indicated they found the discussions both with NIMH staff and between T32 Program Directors to be highly informative. Participants emphasized the need for continuing this dialogue as they move forward in shaping the direction of their training programs to ensure the trainees of today are well-prepared to be the NIMH workforce of tomorrow.

For more information, please contact James D. Churchill, Ph.D., 301-443-3107.