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Environmental Factor, November 2015

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Fellows turn training into faculty positions

By Shannon Whirledge

Headshot of Anne Marie Jukic

“Try to learn from everyone around you, both peers and senior scientists,” advised Jukic, “and from your mentors, in terms of how they work. You don’t necessarily just want to complete a single paper or project, you want to learn how they practice science.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

This fall, three former NIEHS training fellows began new careers as assistant professors. Anne Marie Jukic, Ph.D., of the Reproductive Epidemiology Group, headed by Allen Wilcox, M.D., Ph.D., is now an assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health.

Bret Freudenthal, Ph.D., from the DNA Repair and Nucleic Acid Enzymology Group, led by Sam Wilson, M.D., joined the University of Kansas Medical Center. Natalie Gassman, Ph.D., also from Wilson’s group, was appointed assistant professor at the University of South Alabama Mitchell Cancer Institute.

Outstanding mentoring is key

It is not surprising that these highly successful trainees came from laboratories headed by researchers who have recently received honors as Mentors of the Year (see related stories on Wilson and Wilcox). “My PI [principal investigator], my co-mentors, and my branch chief have been very supportive of my career,” said Jukic.

“Wilson was instrumental in helping me prepare for an independent position,” said Gassman. Freudenthal had similar praise for Wilson’s career support. “[He] allowed me to be an equal peer in the work and establish a presence in the field,” said Freudenthal. “This is reflective of the incredible person he is.”

In addition to great support, all three fellows recognized the unique opportunities available to them at NIEHS. “The resources at NIEHS were instrumental in my growth and development during my fellowship,” Freudenthal said.

While at the institute, all three participated in the annual career fair and a grant-writing workshop, as well as seminars on writing research statements, applying for academic jobs, and negotiating offers. Wilson said this training paid off. “Bret and Natalie have truly outstanding communications skills regarding scientific writing, oral presentations, and literature assessments,” he noted.

Steps to achieve independence

Part of these trainees’ success stems from their recent National Institutes of Health Pathway to Independence awards. “The single most important thing to do when transitioning from fellowship to academia is to write a grant,” said Jukic. The process helps develop a research statement and lay out a trajectory for future research. ”It [grant writing] forces you to consider how your research will grow, and that is invaluable when you are presenting your work and interviewing,” said Gassman.

Wilson feels his trainees are at the beginning of what will be outstanding careers. “I am confident Bret and Natalie will be leaders in their respective fields in the not too distant future,” he said. Wilcox also expressed great confidence in Jukic, who he notes is not only off to a great start in her career, but has already been an important role model and mentor to other trainees in the Epidemiology Branch.

Networking is often vital to a trainee’s successful job hunt. Freudenthal gives credit to his mother-in-law, whose networking skills helped him find out about the opening for his current position.  

(Shannon Whirledge, Ph.D., is a research fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Signal Transduction.)

Headshot of Natalie Gassman

Speaking of Gassman, Wilson said, “One special contribution Natalie made to the group was her generous and steadfast diligence in promoting esprit de corps [team spirit].” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Headshot of Brett Freudenthal

“Try to do one activity a year that is outside your comfort zone and be honest with yourself about your goals,” Freudenthal suggested. “Once you identify a career path, go after it and ask for mentorship.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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