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From Student to Scientist: NIMH Training and Career Development

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It’s back to school time across the country, with stores stocking up on pencils and notebooks, not to mention microwaves and desk lamps. Students everywhere are gearing up for another year of learning, gaining the skills both practical and emotional that will help them develop into full-fledged citizens of the adult world.

Similar scenes play out in the world of science. Excited young scientists are, as we speak, preparing to start graduate programs of all sorts, anticipating what will undoubtedly be among the most challenging and rewarding experiences of their lives so far. Slightly more seasoned postdoctoral fellows-to-be are frantically wrapping up their final grad school projects and preparing to switch labs (and usually cities and countries) to pursue advanced training in the fields they’ll likely spend their lifetimes pushing ever forward. Physician scientists-to-be are transitioning from the clinic to the laboratory, dreaming of the next breakthrough that will help their patients of tomorrow. And junior faculty are unpacking boxes full of shiny new equipment, interviewing applicants for technician positions, and telling anyone who will listen about the exciting new avenues of research they’ll be working on now that they finally have their own lab. While not all of these transitions are timed to the September new-school-year cycle, they all involve the same anticipation, optimism, and commitment displayed by students, parents, and teachers facing the first day of school.

The similarities don’t stop there, though. Raising a scientist, like raising a child, takes time, attention to developmental stage, caring mentorship, and (yes) money. Accordingly, NIMH takes its role in supporting the career development of young scientists seriously, whether those scientists are pursuing training in our Intramural Research Programs or the extramural scientific community.

Training in the NIMH Intramural Research Program: From science to success

The NIMH Intramural Research Program (IRP)—operating in facilities on the main campus at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD—is home to more than 600 scientists whose research covers the gamut from molecular neuroscience to clinical intervention research, all dedicated to the NIMH mission of improving the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses. Many of these scientists are trainees at various stages of their scientific development. The youngest of our scientists are still in high school—this summer, NIMH hosted 60 summer interns from high schools and colleges from across the country.

More than 100 recent college graduates are hired by NIMH labs on post-baccalaureate fellowships, typically spending two years learning cutting-edge research approaches and getting career advice from our senior scientists. Most go on to graduate school or medical school (or both!), and many go on to clinical psychology programs after their time at NIMH. NIMH labs also directly train some 30 graduate students who are on their way to getting Ph.D.’s from one of several partner universities located around the world. Another 100 or so scientists are postdoctoral and/or clinical fellows that have been recruited by NIMH labs after stellar careers in graduate school or medical school. These postdocs are the beating heart of NIMH science, performing much of the critical experiments that shape the future of mental illness research under the close tutelage of senior scientists and lab heads.

All of the trainees mentioned above work in an incredible scientific environment with unique opportunities for participation in high-risk, high-reward research. With access to state-of-the-art core facilities (shared, supervised laboratories that help all NIMH labs access highly specialized experimental capacities) for studies in neuroimaging, electro- and magnetoencephalography, advanced microscopy, rodent and non-human primate behavior studies, and clinical services, our trainees receive hands-on training in a broad variety of neuroscience techniques.

But career development opportunities for our trainees go far beyond laboratory science per se. The NIMH IRP Office of Fellowship Training, as well as the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-wide Office of Intramural Training and Education, provides numerous additional resources in areas such as grantsmanship, biomedical career survival skills, work-life balance, and using social media to communicate science, among others. These activities prepare our IRP trainees for success after NIMH. We’re proud of our outstanding trainees like Wan-Ling Tseng, recipient of a competitive K99/R00 award for transition to an independent extramural faculty position; Mark Eldridge, recipient of a Brain and Behavior Research Foundation NARSAD Young Investigator Award (marking the 4th year in a row NIMH scientists have received one of these awards); and Vincent Costa, who is transitioning to a faculty position at Oregon Health Sciences University, just to name a few.

Extramural training opportunities: Tailored career development

For trainees in the extramural research community — that is, the many scientists and labs at medical schools and scientific institutions outside the NIH who conduct research supported by the NIMH — the name of the game in training programs is variety. NIMH sponsors research training through a large number of mechanisms, aimed at different phases of career development. Undergraduates might get lab experience by participating in research sponsored by R15 research grant awards, which go to scientists at institutions that don’t receive a lot of NIH funds. These awards fund cutting-edge science that also aims to inspire young people to consider careers in mental health research. Projects supported by NIMH R15s vary widely in their subject matter, and include, for example, research investigating the neural interactions that support the control of episodic memory or the role non-suicidal self-injury plays in the development of suicidal thoughts and actions.  

Research training during and after graduate school is supported chiefly as a collaborative endeavor between multiple NIH institutes with common interests in the brain and diseases of the brain. The jointly Sponsored Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Institutional Predoctoral Training Program in the Neurosciences (T32) supports multiple training grants that go to institutions like universities and medical schools which use these funds to ensure that early stage graduate students in neuroscience and related disciplines get the support, mentoring, and coursework they need to succeed in science.

In addition, NIMH supports broad-based T32 programs in areas spanning the research mission of NIMH (e.g., basic neuroscience, genetics, translational, treatment, and services research). NIMH also funds individual graduate fellowships, called National Research Service Awards (NRSAs; F30, F31), which help Ph.D. and M.D./Ph.D. students complete their thesis work by allowing them to focus on their research. To support postdoctoral trainees, NIMH offers both institutional (T32) and individual (F32) fellowships similar to those for graduate students. Finally, to support those transitioning from postdoctoral work to independent faculty positions, NIMH supports several mentored career development (K) awards, including the aforementioned K99/R00 transition to independence awards.

In addition to these general programs, several targeted programs aim to foster training in specific gap areas. For example, NIMH is participating in the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research K18 initiative on Short-term Mentored Career Enhancement Awards in Mobile and Wireless Health Technology and Data Analytics (PAR-18-881, PAR-18-882). This initiative fits in well with our recent emphasis on computational psychiatry, as well as efforts to develop more objective measurements of dysfunction in mental illnesses. Similarly, we’re committed to supporting predoctoral institutional (T32) programs that focus on innovative computational and/or data science analytic approaches towards behavior. Recognizing the need for increased research capacity in child and adolescent drug development, NIMH awarded a supplement to a site within the existing National Institute of Child Health and Human Development-funded Pediatric Clinical Pharmacology T32 Training Network, supporting a co-mentorship model in which an established pediatric pharmacologist co-leads the training with a pediatric psychiatrist. We also support a K18 career development opportunity in autism services research (RFA-MH-19-100, RFA-MH-19-101).

Supporting scientific diversity

From basic laboratory research to clinical and translational research to policy, diversity in the scientific workforce enhances excellence, creativity, and innovation. Thus, increasing diversity in the scientific workforce remains an important goal for NIMH and NIH. Evaluation of applications to all of the training programs detailed above pays close attention to this goal of increased diversity. In particular, NIMH requires institutional training programs to outline plans and results concerning the recruitment of underrepresented minorities and women, particularly with regard to renewals of existing programs.

NIMH also participates in numerous programs to specifically support the goal of increasing diversity in our scientific workforce through training. A mainstay of these efforts has been our Diversity Supplement program, through which investigators can apply for supplements to existing grants to support the involvement of researchers from underrepresented groups in the project. Another significant supplement program aims to ensure that those who might leave the scientific workforce temporarily—for issues such as childcare or eldercare, for example—have the support they need to return to science. We hope this re-entry supplement program will help address the disparities in the percentages of women who advance through various stages of training into independent faculty positions. Finally, NIMH supports a brand-new Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative effort to support scientists from underrepresented groups, including minorities and women, who are interested in technology development and neural circuits as they attempt to transition from postdocs to faculty positions. This special K99/R00 program addresses the particular disparity in the number of women and minorities participating in the NIH BRAIN Initiative. This initiative may serve as a model for adoption for other efforts across the NIH, depending on its success.

This variety of training programs, from intramural to extramural, from general to targeted, is aimed at renewing the scientific workforce that carries out the tremendous breadth of research supported by NIMH. Trainees supported by these programs will be the creative scientists of the future, and I have this to say to them: Back to school!