This summer two postdoctoral fellows began academic careers as assistant professors, after only two years of research training at NIEHS. Heather Vellers, Ph.D., joined the Department of Kinesiology and Sport Management at Texas Tech University. Rachel Carroll, Ph.D., secured her professorship in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW).
Vellers said she always aspired to a career in academia and credited the mentorship she received from Steve Kleeberger, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Environmental Genetics Group, and during graduate school from Tim Lightfoot, Ph.D., at Texas A&M University.
These positions laid the groundwork for her current research interests and allowed her to explore new endeavors. “[My mentors] were really good at allowing me to develop collaborations and letting me do my own independent work in the lab, in addition to furthering [their] own work,” Vellers reflected.
Carroll came into NIEHS undecided about whether to pursue an academic or government research career, but has always had a passion for teaching and mentoring younger scientists. Encouragement and advice she received from institute colleagues was all the motivation she needed to pursue academia as a next career step.
Her mentor Shanshan Zhao, Ph.D., a lead researcher in the NIEHS Biostatistics and Computational Biology Branch, supported Carroll by helping her prepare the application package and practice her research seminar. Carroll credited her overall research experience and publication record as the biggest factors that helped her secure her new position.
Seizing opportunities for career growth
Busy tenures at NIEHS, both inside and outside of the laboratory, prepared Vellers and Carroll for new challenges ahead. Both scientists volunteered to write for Environmental Factor during their NIEHS years.
“There’s a higher sense of responsibility [at the university] because you have to develop and put together your own lab, including [abiding by] rules and regulations like biosafety, recruiting people to join the lab, writing grants, and being responsible for the money that will keep your research going,” Vellers explained.
The career development activity that most helped prepare Vellers was co-coordinating the 2018 NIEHS Biomedical Career Symposium. That work provided her a platform to manage people and learn delegation skills, as well as juggle finances.
A course called Teaching at the College Level, hosted by NIEHS Office of Fellows’ Career Development, helped prepare Carroll for an academic career, because teaching makes up a large part of her time. The course covered topics such as how to engage students during a lecture, develop a teaching philosophy and curriculum, and promote yourself with a professional webpage.
Both Vellers and Carroll plan to give back by being intentional mentors to the next generation of scientists. “Once I was in Dr. Lightfoot’s lab, I was a part of his family,” said Vellers. “It was life-changing for me, and I’d like to give that feeling to other students, regardless of what they want to do afterwards.”
Carroll’s mission is to drive home to aspiring statisticians the message that interpretation is of utmost importance. “In the real world, it’s important to interpret the results you get in a way that your collaborators and the public can understand,” she explained.
Carroll R, Lawson AB, Faes C, Kirby RS, Aregay M, Watjou K. 2018. Spatially-dependent Bayesian model selection for disease mapping. Stat Methods Med Res 27(1):250–268.
Carroll R, Lawson AB, Zhao S. 2018. Temporally dependent accelerated failure time model for capturing the impact of events that alter survival in disease mapping. Biostatistics; doi:10.1093/biostatistics/kxy023. [Online 24 June 2018].
Carroll R, Zhao S. 2018. Gaining relevance from the random: interpreting observed spatial heterogeneity. Spat Spatiotemporal Epidemiol 25:11–17.
Vellers HL, Kleeberger SR, Lightfoot JT. 2018. Inter-individual variation in adaptations to endurance and resistance exercise training: genetic approaches towards understanding a complex phenotype. Mamm Genome 29(1–2):48–62.
Verhein KC, Vellers HL, Kleeberger SR. 2018. Inter-individual variation in health and disease associated with pulmonary infectious agents. Mamm Genome 29(1–2):38–47.
(Anika Dzierlenga, Ph.D., is an Intramural Research Training Award fellow in the NIEHS Developmental and Reproductive Toxicology Group.)