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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

January 2016

NIEHS fellows advance on career paths

Three NIEHS fellows are among the latest trainees to take major steps in their scientific career paths.

Three NIEHS fellows are among the latest trainees to take major steps in their scientific career paths.

Two research fellows in the Molecular Endocrinology Group — Shannon Whirledge, Ph.D., and Sivapriya Ramamoorthy, Ph.D. — are transitioning from NIEHS to fulltime professional employment, while Visiting Fellow Melike Caglayan, Ph.D., is receiving the coveted National Institutes of Health (NIH) Pathway to Independence Award.

Whirledge, who was herself a recipient of the Pathway to Independence award, will be starting her career as an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at Yale University, where she will continue her research on nuclear receptors in reproduction. In October, Ramamoorthy began her new position as study director at Metabolon, a metabolomics-based clinical diagnostic company with headquarters in Durham, North Carolina.

Caglayan, who joined NIEHS in 2013 after completing her doctoral study in Turkey on DNA polymerases, will continue with advanced training and an increase in stipend under mentor Samuel Wilson, M.D., who heads her group (see text box ).

Quality mentoring and career development

All three trainees praised their training experience and the supportive mentoring they received from their group leaders. “My PI [principal investigator and group leader] was very supportive of this job search,” Whirledge said of lead researcher John Cidlowski, Ph.D. “He always believed that I would achieve an academic appointment.”

Like Whirledge, Ramamoorthy, a 2014 FARE awardee who came to NIEHS in 2009 from the University of Miami, pointed to the constructive criticism paired with independence, fostered by Cidlowski and a network of co-mentors in her group and other NIEHS labs.

When it came to career development, the trainees credited opportunities offered by the Office of Fellows Career Development (OFCD), which helped them develop a real-world skill set by complementing their lab-based scientific training with specialized workshops, the annual Biomedical Career Fair, chances to teach, and opportunities to improve communication skills.

Whirledge, who came to NIEHS in 2009 from the Baylor College of Medicine, was especially impressed by a seminar on applying for academic jobs given by Sharon Milgram, Ph.D., director of the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education. For her part, Ramamoorthy singled out Denise Saunders, Ph.D., an administrative specialist in the NIEHS Division of Intramural Research, and Tammy Collins, Ph.D., OFCD director, for helping her prepare a curriculum vitae and resume for her job search.

Some trainees, including Whirledge, also reached outside NIEHS to attend meetings and courses given at nearby universities and organizations. Whirledge honed her scientific writing skills by taking advantage of writing opportunities with the Environmental Factor, where she built an impressive portfolio.

Almost without exception, trainees who land the best jobs credit their networking as a key to success. Although Whirledge said her mentor played an essential role in her job search, other trainees learned of jobs at scientific conferences, from people in their networks, and from virtual networks, such as LinkedIn.

(Eddy Ball, Ph.D., is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

Smoothing the pathway to independence

The Pathway to Independence award, also known as a K99/R00 award, is designed for a two-phased, timely transition from a mentored, postdoctoral research position to a stable, independent research position. At NIEHS, the award triggers an immediate merit increase of $2,000 annually in a trainee’s stipend.

The first phase, known as the K99, provides 1-2 years of mentored support, which is followed by up to 3 years of independent support (R00) after the trainee finds a position as a scientific researcher. Typically, awardees have published high-impact studies prior to receiving the award, and they can build upon that foundation with additional mentored support.

With an impressive list of published studies and the independent support they bring to the interview, awardees have a clear advantage in the job market.

Caglayan said she was grateful for the supportive atmosphere in Wilson’s group and the help she also received from other members of the group. “My PI was very supportive of my NIH K99 grant application with his exceptional and world-renowned expertise and experience in mentoring,” she said. “He always encouraged and motivated me, which helped me to improve my skills and qualities.”

So far during her two years at NIEHS, Caglayan has been first author on two studies, both selected as intramural papers of the month, that explore the mechanisms of base excision repair of DNA. A critical step in the process is the handoff of toxic repair intermediates at the final step of repair, DNA ligation.

“Dr. Caglayan has discovered that oxidative stress-induced oxidized repair intermediates cause DNA ligation failure. This could be an important source of stalled repair intermediates that trigger cell death,” Wilson explained.

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