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.)