Tammy Collins, Ph.D., is moving on after 10 years in her role as director of the NIEHS Office of Fellows’ Career Development (OFCD). Collins will soon begin her new role as program officer at Burroughs Wellcome Fund, where much like her work at NIEHS, she will support biomedical researchers in their quest to improve human health.
Environmental Factor recently spoke with Collins to learn more about her proudest accomplishments, her thoughts on the value of mentorship, her fondest memories, and more.
Environmental Factor: Tell us how your journey at NIEHS began.
Tammy Collins: After graduating from Appalachian State with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, I attended graduate school at Duke University. I learned about NIEHS when I attended the annual NIEHS Biomedical Career Symposium, and thereafter worked with Bill Copeland, Ph.D., in the Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group.
I had a mindset that once I got to NIEHS, I was going to get involved in addition to doing research, so I joined the postdoc association(https://factor.niehs.nih.gov/2010/september/inside-fellows.cfm#:~:text=Tammy%20Collins%2C%20Ph,community%20among%20trainees.%22) and became president of the NIEHS Trainees Assembly [NTA]. At the same time, the previous OFCD director left, and I was able to fill in some of the gaps by developing and teaching new workshops. I did this to ensure that trainees remained supported, and I really enjoyed that role. That is what led to me ultimately deciding to apply for the job.
OFCD has since changed significantly because I was an office of one when I first started out. I have been fortunate that the institute supports it so much and has allowed it to grow. We now have a team of four, and that has really impacted what we accomplish and the services we can provide.
EF: The goal of OFCD is to support trainees and help them gain core competencies in five fundamental areas: career readiness, communication, leadership and management, teaching and mentoring, and wellness. You and your team have created numerous trainings and other experiences in each of these areas and more. Which ones hold special meaning for you?
TC: There are so many that stand out but perhaps the two that I would highlight include our research mentor training course and our career outcomes tracking taxonomy and dashboard.
Mentorship is paramount to the trainee experience, and we recommend a whole person approach. We train our fellows in what it means to be a good mentor and emphasize that mentorship extends beyond supervising or advising. It involves supporting someone as a whole person — both professionally and personally — and maintaining that relationship throughout their life. Mentorship is not just applicable to the research environment, so training fellows in how to become good mentors will have impacts that extend into whatever career path they choose.
Secondly, our team, which included former trainee Richard Gilliam, created and published a new career outcome taxonomy — a highly detailed analysis and visual representation of NIEHS postdoctoral career outcomes over the past two decades.
Accompanying that Nature Biotechnology publication is the NIEHS Alumni Career Outcomes dashboard, which tracks more than 1,100 NIEHS alumni since 2000. The website dashboard allows visitors to visualize statistics such as where in the world trainees end up and what types of jobs they have settled into.
That publication helped to dispel myths about what it means to be a postdoc in the government. For example, there is a notion that if you complete a government postdoc, you can’t get an academic job, but what we were able to show is that we do have a large proportion of alumni who go into academia and we also have alumni doing many other things, too.
I have been surprised at the breadth of reach the article has had; it has been an impactful paper, and it has changed the attitudes of many.
EF: As you reflect on your time at the institute, what memories stand out the most?
TC: I really cherish the relationships I have built with my colleagues and the trainees over the years. My OFCD team — Hong Xu, Katy Hamilton, and Edith Lee — have been amazing to work with, and it has been an absolute joy teaming up with them to support NIEHS trainees. It will be difficult to ever find another team that gels together like we have. We also could not have accomplished our work without the support of my supervisor, Paul Doetsch, Ph.D., deputy scientific director, and NIEHS Scientific Director Darryl Zeldin, M.D.
Some of my favorite memories are those one-on-one conversations when alumni tell you how they got into a new position and how much they love what they are doing. Just seeing that you make a difference and can actually help people figure out what they want to do with their lives, this is why I have loved working at NIEHS.
When I started cleaning out my office, I came across all the thank you cards I received over the years. I was reading back through some of those, and they brought tears to my eyes. These are the most meaningful things to me.
Citation: Xu H, Gilliam R, Peddada S, Buchold GM, and Collins TRL. 2018. Visualizing detailed postdoctoral employment trends using a new career outcome taxonomy. Nat Biotechnol 36, 197–202.
(Jennifer Harker, Ph.D., is a technical writer-editor in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)
View the slideshow below for several of Collins’s favorite memories from her time at NIEHS.