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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

March 2016

Fifty years of unique training opportunities at NIEHS

As NIEHS celebrates 50 years of scientific research, Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., reflected on developing a high-caliber training program.

As NIEHS celebrates 50 years of environmental health research, NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., took a few moments to reflect on the institute’s development of a high-caliber training program. The NIEHS emphasis on training has resulted in a variety of mechanisms to support development of outstanding environmental health scientists. “It is an extremely important part of who we are,” Birnbaum said.

Top-ranked by postdoctoral fellows

High rankings of NIEHS as a top place for postdoctoral fellows to work reflect its opportunities to train with preeminent scientists and take advantage of cutting edge technologies.

Yet training at NIEHS involves more than postdoctoral research fellowships. For example, in partnership with Duke University, NIEHS offers a one-year research fellowship for third-year medical students to train in environmental medicine. “We have several programs that are unique,” Birnbaum said, citing the NTP training program in toxicological pathology, for graduate students, and the NIEHS Scholars Connect Program, which is aimed at undergraduate students from local community colleges and universities.

Strategic development of new scientists

Birnbaum emphasized that all these opportunities support the goals of the institute’s strategic plan, which calls for developing a sustainable cadre of environmental health professionals, across a range of related disciplines.

One step in establishing this cadre is to excite the next generation about environmental health sciences. The Summer Internship Program provides that opportunity to high school, undergraduate, and graduate students who want to learn the latest techniques and to understand pressing issues in environmental health research. In addition, the NIEHS Trainees’ Assembly (NTA) sponsors outreach programs that target middle and high school students, including DNA Day, Citizen Schools, and events during the North Carolina Science Festival.

“Training for boots on the ground”

The NIEHS training mission extends beyond students and fellows. As part of the federal Superfund program, the NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP) trains workers engaged in activities related to containment, removal, and transportation of hazardous materials, and emergency response.

“This unique program has provided health and safety training to over 3 million workers in the past 25 years,” Birnbaum explained. “Mobilizing WTP trainees to natural disasters, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, has provided boots on the ground,” she said.

Training opportunities evolve with the economy

As the need has increased for individuals with doctoral degrees to seek careers beyond academia and industry, training at NIEHS has evolved to follow suit, according to Birnbaum.

Trainees may take advantage of short-term assignments outside of the lab, for example. “It is an exciting opportunity for people to spread their wings,” she said, citing trainee experiences in other parts of the institute, such as the Office of Science Policy and the Division of Extramural Resources, which administers research grants. “We strengthen our training programs by giving trainees flexibility in opportunity,” Birnbaum concluded.

Trainees at NIEHS gain experiences in a variety of other avenues, such as volunteering to write for the Environmental Factor, to strengthen their writing skills and build a portfolio, or pursuing externships, such as those in regulatory affairs at Camargo Pharmaceutical Services and the Duke Translational Medicine Institute.

(Shannon Whirledge, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Yale University and a former Research Fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Signal Transduction.)

The NIEHS Office of Fellows Career Development

The Office of Fellow's Career Development (OFCD), directed by Tammy Collins, Ph.D., helps trainees improve professional skills, so they can successfully transition to independence in their chosen career. Specific areas include teaching and mentoring, leadership and management, career readiness, and communication. The office partners closely with the National Institutes of Health Office of Intramural Training and Education.

“I can’t overemphasize the importance of planning ahead, as soon as you enter your training position, so that you can determine the most useful steps to take,” Collins said. For example, she suggested that trainees interested in management should take the management bootcamp course.

“If you need to learn how to become a more effective leader, volunteer in leadership roles within the NTA or your scientific professional societies,” she continued, while cautioning against overcommitting. “Be sure you remain able to give your best, to maintain your reputation while expanding your network of mentors and advocates.” Collins highlighted other aspects of trainee support, below.

  • OFCD partners closely with NTA to organize an annual career symposium, which serves nearly 400 area trainees.
  • A new consortium — Enhancing Local Industry Transitions through Exploration (ELITE) — partners with area universities to help fellows explore industry careers and network with industry professionals through site visits to local companies.
  • Onsite career counseling is available to help trainees create an individual development plan, assess career goals, update a resume, and practice job interviews.
  • An alumni database facilitates connections with the NIEHS alumni community and provides information on their career outcomes.
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