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Diversity Training Programs Nurture Research Career

Science Update

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“It had never occurred to me to do a Ph.D. It’s nothing I’d ever thought of. I didn’t know anyone who’s done a science Ph.D.,” noted Frances Johnson just weeks before matriculating in a neuroscience doctoral program at the University of Pittsburgh. She was just completing a summer stint as a trainee in a neuroscience lab at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Intramural Research Program on the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD.

A U.S. Army veteran and math major at Western Connecticut State University –  who at times paid the bills working as a substitute teacher – Johnson says her interest in understanding the brain was sparked by curiosity about the origins of a friend’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.

“What caused something like that?” she asked herself. “I think everybody has this kind of curiosity. We have people in our lives, we have family members – especially around mental health.”

Johnson says she did a lot of reading and started taking courses at her local university, and eventually earned a masters in neuroscience at the University of Hartford. Then, to gain hands-on experience, she volunteered in the laboratory of NIMH grantee Dr. Arie Kaffman  at Yale University.

Diversity Supplements

But how could she support herself during this potentially career-transformative learning experience? Enter NIMH’s Office of Research Training and Career Development, which offers diversity supplements. These funding “add-ons” to already-supported projects enable grantees to pay a salary to trainees from groups that are underrepresented in health-related science. More broadly, the supplements provide support for experiences that enable candidates to contribute intellectually to the research and enhance their skills, knowledge and career prospects.

Dr. Kaffman and Johnson applied for and received a supplementary grant . It enabled Johnson to spend two years exploring the role of support cells called microglia in the long-term consequences of early life stress in mice.

“It’s a model that approximates a stressful or deprived childhood in humans,” she explained.

She has since published first-author papers on her Yale work in the journals Brain Behavior and Immunity  and Translational Psychiatry .

“Frances’ work provided my lab with important new tools to examine the effects of early life stress on brain function in a manner that is highly comparable with clinical work,” said Dr. Kaffman. “There is no doubt in my mind that the support provided to her by the NIMH will change her life.”

Johnson says Dr. Kaffman’s mentoring has “made all the difference…He gave me a real project.”

She also says her program officer at NIMH, Dr. Nancy Desmond, stayed in touch with her during her fellowship and helped her sort out options for Ph.D. programs.

“I think you need guidance from people who have already been there,” she said.

Summer Opportunities at NIH

After getting accepted to the Ph.D. program at Pitt, she learned about a diversity summer program for graduate students in NIMH intramural labs via the NIH intramural Office of Training & Education .  Through the Office’s Graduate Summer Opportunity to Advance Research (GSOAR) Program , Johnson worked last summer in the NIMH intramural Unit on Functional Neural Circuits, under the preceptorship of Dr. Soohyun Lee. The unit studies neuronal communication on a cellular level, particularly as it relates to decision-making.

Among other things, Johnson said she learned how to perform viral injections in mouse brain, which combined with genetic editing techniques provides a powerful tool for delivering probes, modifying function, and discovering the brain’s molecular secrets. As she begins her Ph.D. program, she says she’s most interested in learning about the roots of vulnerability to mental illnesses.

“I’ll try to learn anything that crosses my path, because you never know where the keys will be found. I’m interested in getting answers to the questions and I’ll go wherever that curiosity leads me,” she said.

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