Whenever I talk to former fellows who have secured their dream jobs, almost all of them have one experience in common: they attended as many career development workshops as possible. I can’t stress enough the importance of utilizing the resources provided by the NICHD Office of Education. Hey, without their support, you wouldn’t be reading this newsletter!
This month, we offer three event recaps that highlight some of the office’s activities:
- "The Secret Insider's View on Teaching-Based Professorships"
If you’ve considered a teaching-based career, check out Dr. Anna Roberts-Pilgrim’s summary of last month’s teaching-based professorship workshop led by Dr. Sydella Blatch, associate professor of Biology at Stevenson University, Maryland. You might be surprised to learn how many hours per week Dr. Blatch spent at work in the beginning of her professorship.
- “Mock NIH Grant Study Section”
For fellows who plan to submit a grant application in the near future, Dr. Suna Gulay recounts the Mock NIH Grant Study Section, a unique experience available to NICHD fellows. To steal from the previous workshop’s title, this really is a “secret insider’s view” on how grant study sections operate.
- “Acing the Interview”
No matter what your next career step is, you’ll likely need to have an interview. Dr. Yvette Pittman from the NICHD Office of Education reviews a recent BioCareers webinar on important points before, during, and after the interview process.
But before you catch up on any workshops you may have missed, please join The NICHD Connection in welcoming our new principal investigator, Dr. Claire E. Le Pichon, Unit on the Development of Neurodegeneration. Learn about her career experiences and exciting new research here.
Your Editor in Chief,
Shana R. Spindler, PhD
Please send questions, comments, and ideas to Shana.Spindler@gmail.com. We love to hear from you!
By Gülcan Akgül, PhD
Born in the United Kingdom to a French father and a Chinese mother, Dr. Claire E. Le Pichon moved to the United States, Hong Kong, France, and back to the U.K.—all before attending graduate school in New York. But now, Le Pichon has her dream job at the NIH, and she is happy to settle in the U.S. with her American family.
Le Pichon received her PhD from the Biological Sciences Program at Columbia University where she studied olfaction in Dr. Stuart Firestein’s lab. Her PhD project produced two first author papers, one in the Journal of Comparative Neurology and one in Nature Neuroscience, in which she identified a novel olfactory phenotype of prion protein knockout mice, using mouse genetics, electrophysiology, and behavior.
After her successful PhD, Le Pichon decided to enter the private sector during a time when academia and industry seemed very much separate worlds. She moved across the country to work at Genentech, the first biotech company and a leader at the forefront of cancer research. The year prior to Le Pichon’s arrival in California, Genentech started investing resources into neuroscience by recruiting bright, young scientists from biochemistry to behavioral neurobiology. Although initially hesitant to switch to industry—“I worried about that a lot at first, that if I went into industry, it would be a path of no return”—she justified her decision, thinking, “You can’t not take a path just because it might close a door somewhere else. There will be opportunities everywhere you turn.” She was right.
Le Pichon described the environment at Genentech as exciting and hard working, where smart and creative scientists from various disciplines worked together to make discoveries and develop new medicines without having to worry about funding. She was part of a translational neuroscience group working on targets to treat late onset neurodegenerative diseases like ALS and Parkinson’s disease. She benefitted from the team-oriented working environment and learned a lot about drug development.
During this time, Le Pichon observed a lack of basic knowledge regarding pathways involved in the pathophysiology of neurodegeneration. She said, “It was like a black box of unknowns,” revealing the frustration at the time. They wanted to find molecules to target for therapeutic treatments, but it was hard because a lot of the biology was still not well understood. This drove her back to basic science research.
In addition to basic science studies, Le Pichon missed the independence to pursue her own ideas, being able to direct her own research plan. She had a great opportunity to return to academia when her husband, who she met during her PhD studies at Columbia University, got a position to set up his own lab at the NIH. When Le Pichon moved back to the East Coast, she was determined to explore the possibility of an academic career for herself. After a short transition period as a research fellow at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), she received an offer to run her own lab within the NICHD intramural program.
Le Pichon is thrilled to have the opportunity to run a lab at the NIH. She will continue studying neurodegeneration. In particular, she is interested in the very early pathophysiology that the nervous system undergoes in neurodegenerative disease. Le Pichon hopes to identify pre-symptomatic cellular alterations, with the idea that the earlier one can intervene with a potential therapy, the better.
Transgenic mice will be the main model for Le Pichon’s research. To study the function and dysfunction of the nervous system, she believes in the importance of being able to perform in vivo studies in mouse and to observe the organism as a whole. For example, with this system, you can monitor behavior (such as motor function) in parallel with neuronal connectivity (e.g., connections between motor neurons and muscle) and use these functional readouts to monitor disease progression. “Protecting neurons from degeneration is a big challenge. It isn’t good enough if we can prevent the cell body from dying but not also protect the proper functional connections to other neurons or to non-neuronal targets,” Le Pichon explained.
Le Pichon is an impressive and inspirational scientist, especially for aspiring female researchers. She is humble in describing her career history, but her success as a woman in science is evident. “You can’t ignore that there is more male presence than female in both academia and industry,” said Le Pichon, “but things are slowly changing.”
At Genentech, Le Pichon enjoyed working alongside a group of dynamic colleagues many of whom happened to be young parents like herself, and now she is excited to have a similar atmosphere, with limitless possibilities, at the NIH. Looking forward, Le Pichon added, “It’s a really exciting time for neuroscience because there have been so many wonderful technical advances, for example in genetic engineering, in imaging, and in sequencing, that enable us to ask types of questions we really couldn’t ask before.”
By Anna Roberts-Pilgrim, PhD
Have you ever wondered what it takes to work in a teaching-based professorship? Looking to shift gears into a more predictable routine than found with graduate school or postdoctoral fellowships? Wanting to get away from fume hoods and pipettes? Well, look no further than last month’s teaching-based professorship workshop.
On October 11, 2016, the NICHD Intramural Office of Education hosted "The Secret Insider's View on Teaching-Based Professorships" workshop, where Dr. Sydella Blatch shared stories from her six years of teaching experience. Blatch began her academic journey as a graduate student at Arizona State University. She later accepted a two-year postdoctoral position at the NIH and then continued on as an assistant professor of Biology at Stevenson University, Maryland. She is now an associate professor.
Blatch began the workshop with a dose of scientific reality. Only 15% of people with a PhD in life sciences get tenure-track positions within five to six years of earning their degrees, and only 7% of higher learning institutions are research-based (data from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching). This should motivate us all to broaden our employment horizons. She drew stark comparisons between teaching-based and research-based professorships, expounding on three key points.
First, teaching-based institutions are student-centered. This encompasses not only effective teaching, but also making time for students outside of the classroom. Your success or failure in this area determines your longevity!
Second, there is a large service component outside of the classroom in which you support the student body and campus events, as well as participate in departmental committees and institutional governance on many levels.
Third—this may come as a surprise—you are expected to conduct research for publication and to give students research experience.
These responsibilities lead to a very busy life, potentially filled with long hours and hard work. As Blatch demonstrated how her weekly schedule transformed from a neat six-hour day to monstrous 12-hour days—filled with meetings, service projects, research, and unscheduled office visits from students—we all gasped. Loudly. She assured us that they weren’t impossible tasks and that her work is rewarding and, most importantly, fun. Her workweek was eventually reduced from 70 to 40 hours.
For those of us who are lion-hearted and see this type of position as a chance to achieve our best, Blatch talked about how to apply for a teaching-based professorship and make ourselves viable competitors for aposition. She emphasized that teaching and research statements are opportunities to showcase how you will be an excellent teacher, mentor, and role model to the student body. A key part in making these statements competitive is a thorough examination of the job advertisement. Without this, your application package will fall short; you need to understand the mission and culture of the university and department to which you are applying.
So, if you have a love for sharing information, or igniting the fire of science in the next generation of Nobel Prize winners, you may have found your niche. But remember, teaching-based professorships are not for the faint of heart!
By Suna Gulay, PhD
Do you know how your grant applications are reviewed? Who are the critical people in the process, and how can you make the most out of your application? The NICHD Office of Education and the Division of Extramural Research held the workshop “Mock NIH Grant Study Section” on October 14, 2016. Attendees met Dr. Susan Taymans, who is the program officer (PO) in the NICHD Division of Extramural Research’s Fertility and Infertility Branch, and Dr. David Weinberg, who held the position of scientific review officer (SRO) from 2009 to 2014 and is currently Project Lead for the Human Placenta Project.
Drs. Taymans and Weinberg outlined the stages of a grant review and explained the responsibilities of program and scientific review officers. The event focused on the K99/R00 Pathway to Independence award.
K99/R00 review process and criteria
The K99/R00 grant review includes three steps:
- Peer review, during which R01-granted principal investigators review proposals in a study section
- Advisory Council review, which considers compliance of proposals with program requirements
- Final decision made by the institute director
Grant reviewers consider the postdoctoral fellow candidate as a “package,” taking into account the fellow’s PhD and postdoctoral achievements, career development plan, research proposal, mentorship, and research environment. All aspects must fit together to present a researcher in whom the institute would like to invest.
During the study section, applicants receive scores—ranging from 1 (high score) to 9 (low score)—for each category. Getting a poor number in any one area might affect the candidate’s overall score. Consider the following scores: Candidate - 2, Career plan - 2, Research plan - 2, Mentoring - 6, Environment - 1. Dr. Weinberg would score this application a 4 or a 5! All facets of the candidate and proposal are equally important.
Roles of the POs and SROs
POs and SROs provide help and guidance before, during, and after proposal submission. Before submission, POs provide feedback on the fit of your ideas with the mission of the Institute or Center, direct you to the appropriate funding mechanism and study section, and provide technical assistance during submission. After your proposal has been reviewed, the PO can provide notes from the meeting as well as advice on how to proceed.
The SRO organizes the study section and identifies expert reviewers to ensure a fair review of grant applications. Communicating with the SROs ahead of the submission ensures your proposal is appropriate for their study section. You can indicate in your application cover letter if you do not want a specific reviewer in your meeting. As soon as the application is submitted, the SRO will provide information about when the study section meeting will occur. You may also send supplementary documents that you would like considered during your grant’s review to the SRO at this point.
Reviewers assigned by the SRO provide initial scores and critiques on the grant applications before the study section meets. Based on these initial evaluations, 50% of applications are rejected at this stage. Finally, the study section meeting is held and the SRO collects overall priority scores and written comments to produce summary statements.
Lessons from the mock study section
During the mock study section, individuals with grant review experience met to review sample grant applications as they would during a study section meeting—but fellows got to listen in. The mock panel consisted of two grant reviewers, Drs. Janice Evans and Irina Burd from Johns Hopkins University, and four postdoctoral fellows who successfully received grant awards, Drs. Amy Palin, Erin Gray, and Brad Busse of NICHD and Dr. Carter Owen from Johns Hopkins University. As would be the case in a real meeting, all reviewers had expertise in the areas covered by the two sample grant applications. In total, the mock study section consisted of a chair (Dr. Evans), reviewers, and attendees.
The mock meeting started with the chair speaking and announcing the grants. Grants were discussed one by one. Each grant application was reviewed in depth by three reviewers beforehand. These assigned reviewers presented their view of the grant applications and shared their final overall scores with the panel. This set the range of scores within which the panel is expected to vote. The whole panel was encouraged to ask questions to ensure a fair review. Finally, voting took place. It was interesting to see how all the criteria were taken into account at once, rather than individual scores, to determine the final priority scores. The takeaways were:
- Avoid writing long paragraphs in your application
- Make clear distinctions between mentored vs. independent phases of the project
- Obtain necessary documentation when using human subjects or vertebrate animals
- Make every part of the application comprehensive and able to stand alone, focusing on the abstract and the specific aims pages especially
- Use the NIH biosketch to promote yourself and present perceived weaknesses as strengths, such as an imbalance between predoctoral and postdoctoral productivity
- Put forth a story about how your training, research, and career achievements will play into your future as an independent scientist. Your mentor’s letter and the institutional letter should also align with this
- Publish early during your postdoctoral training, as the number of first-author publications is more important than impact factors
- Show that you are worth the investment on the institute’s part
After the mock study section, the SRO sends the summary statement to the candidate and the institute. The statement includes the individual criteria scores and the overall score, as well as the critiques received. The candidate can then contact the PO to learn how the meeting went and the likelihood of getting funded. The candidate should rely heavily on the summary statement for guidance as it also provides a written assessment for each critique, especially if he or she is doing a resubmission. The grant application then proceeds to the next stage of review. Percentiles, rather than the overall score, determine if a grant will be awarded. Generally 5% is good indication of funding, while 12% marks a cutoff.
Overall, this workshop complemented the Grantsmanship workshop of July 2016 and successfully communicated the grant review process. Candidates should paint the best picture possible in the application package, communicating with POs and SROs to ensure they find the most appropriate funding mechanism and study section, hence increasing their chances of getting funded.
By Yvette Pittman, PhD
Lauren Celano, CEO of Propel Careers, recently led a Bio Careers webinar titled “Acing the Interview.” Just thinking about an interview can be stressful, but this session outlined how to prepare for and approach various questions and provided advice on following up after the interview. After attending this webinar, participants obtained valuable tips on how to excel.
Before the interview
Before the interview, it is highly recommended that you research the organization and interviewer(s) using any information available to the public. For example, look at websites, press releases, presentations displayed online, LinkedIn profiles, and possible grant summaries. It is also important to self-reflect—why this job, which of your skills are relevant to the organization, and how does this job align with your career trajectory? Two key questions are: “How are you branding yourself in your application materials?” and “How are you different from all of the other applicants?”
Never assume that everyone has seen or reviewed your resume. Look through your resume; it is important to feel comfortable talking about all of your past work experiences.
During the interview
You should analyze the position qualifications in the job ad to come up with your answers to typical questions (see right). You can accomplish this by breaking the job description down and describing your relevant experience for each part. Don’t forget to discuss your Ph.D. experience—it is key experience and always valued. For example, be sure to mention your research projects, plus your technical, problem-solving, and teamwork skills in and out of the lab.
Have your 30-second elevator pitch developed before the interview for the “tell me about yourself” question. If you haven’t done something the organization is looking for, talk about how you are willing to learn something new and give an example from your past experiences.
Always be prepared for behavioral interview questions (see below). For example: “Have you ever had too many things to do, and if so, how did you prioritize the tasks? How do you handle a challenge?” Using the STAR method helps to show your relevant experience. When you answer, think of a particular situation and address your task, action, and result:
Situation: the context within which a job was performed or a challenge was encountered
Task: a description of your responsibility to deliver in that situation
Action: how did you complete the task or endeavor to meet the challenge
Result: what was the outcome or result generated by the action taken.
Try not to talk over your interviewers and keep your answers succinct (less than one minute is best). If you don’t know the answer to a question, you can always say you will follow up with the answer. Admitting you don’t know is okay.
You want to always, always, ask the interviewers a few questions at end of your meeting time. A few example questions include:
- Can you describe a typical day or week?
- How would you describe the department’s culture?
- What is your managerial style?
- What is the vision for the organization?
After the interview
Remember, following up after an interview is a must. Send a thank you note within 48 hours, but do not send the same email to everyone. Individual notes should be customized, otherwise you can send a group message instead. You can mention something specific you talked about and show your interest again in the position and joining the team. The goal of an interview is to show you are a good fit both in personality and skill set, that the position is aligned with your career goals, and that you’re excited to join the team.
The full Bio Careers webinar can be found at http://biocareers.com/tv/job-search-acing-interview-0.
Congrats to Dr. Parmit Kumar Singh on His New Position with DFCI
We are happy to announce that Dr. Parmit Kumar Singh has accepted a position as Scientist I in the laboratory of Dr. Alan Engelmen at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI), Harvard Medical Institute, in Boston, Massachusetts. He will continue his work on the mechanisms of retroviruses integration, with a primary focus on understanding host chromatin factor LEDGF/p75 dependent HIV-1 integration and its connection with splicing. We wish Dr. Singh the best of luck in his new lab.
Dr. Singh Named Winner of the Salzman Award in Virology
For his outstanding work in virology, Dr. Singh was named the Poster Winner of the 18th Annual Norman P. Salzman Memorial Award in Virology. He will present his poster on November 17, 2016, at the Norman P. Salzman symposium, hosted by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health.
A Two-Part Series with Scott Morgan on Job Interviewing & Chalk Talks
If you are actively looking for a job this year, we strongly recommend that you sign up for these two small-group sessions with Scott Morgan. Given how competitive the job market is, we want you to be successful in your searches.
Interviewing - Wednesday, Nov 16, from 2 to 4 PM
This workshop focuses on sample interview questions to help you formulate effective answers. Mr. Morgan aims to increase your comfort level, enhance your confidence, and most importantly, prepare you for the interview process. Together, you will analyze expected questions, themes, dilemmas, and your demeanor through interactive exercises and peer review.
Chalk Talks - Monday, December 5, from 10-12 noon
Chalk Talks are an increasingly important component of science communication. Once reserved for academic interviews, they are now common in industry and for tenure-track positions, such as the NIH Earl Stadtman Investigators program. This workshop will focus on the components that make an effective chalk talk and provide a safe place to practice new skills.
- Connection to job talks
- Relevance to faculty
- What to draw on the white/blackboard
- Levels of detail
- Question anticipation
- Tone and delivery
There are 15 spots available for both workshops. If you would like to attend both sessions, or one of them, please contact Yvette Pittman (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Have you considered the NIH Pathway to Independence (K99/R00) Award?
At the initial thought of applying for this prestigious career transition award, you may feel a bit overwhelmed and ponder where to start. The Office of Education is here to guide you and offer our support as you go through the application process. Throughout the year, there are three application deadlines: February 12, June 12, and October 12. After you have met with your mentor to discuss your interest in applying, and have secured his or her support to pursue your research ideas, we highly recommend that you arrange a meeting with Dr. Yvette Pittman (email@example.com).
At the beginning of your grant writing experience, we will provide you with a detailed checklist of items that you will need to complete—starting from five to six months before the deadline to the in-person electronic submission date. In addition to the newly organized checklist we have in place, we have summarized the documentation required for a completed application. We can provide a document full of advice for fellows applying for career development awards. Let us know if you are interested.
Scientific Writing and Publishing Online Course Offer
The American Society for Microbiology is offering a “Scientific Writing and Publishing” online course. From January to April 2017, the course includes a series of webinars every other Thursday (detailed schedule below), pre- and post-webinar assignments, structured mentoring, and a community for practice. The program goals are to familiarize participants with the entire scientific writing and publishing process and to provide the skills set needed to publish in scientific journals.
The Office of Education is willing to sponsor up to five NICHD fellows and graduate students to participate. If you are interested, please contact Yvette Pittman (firstname.lastname@example.org) by Monday, November 21.
- Tips for crafting impactful titles and constructing a meaningful abstract
- Strategies for writing the first paragraph of the discussion
- Common mistakes to avoid in publishing
- Tips for selecting a journal, suggesting a reviewer, and understanding the review process
Participants who successfully complete all assignments will receive a certificate of completion.
Dates of Webinars and Schedule
Webinar #1: Thursday, January 12 at 2:00 pm EST
Writing Compelling Titles and Abstracts
- Key Elements of Effective Titles and Abstracts
- Practical Tips for Crafting Compelling Titles and Abstracts
Webinar #2: Thursday, January 26 at 2:00 pm EST
- The Introduction: Its Purpose and What it Should Include
- Your Overall Research Question: How to Tell the Reader Why You Did What You Did
- Your Introduction’s Last Paragraph: Leave the Reader Hanging or Reveal the Punchline?
Webinar #3: Thursday, February 9 at 2:00 pm EST
Figures and Figure Legends
- Rendering Your Awesome Data: How to Craft Informative Figures and Tables
- Choosing the Right Graphical Style for Your Data
- Putting the Most Information into a Figure While Maintaining Clarity
- Choosing Fonts and Symbols: Size Matters
Webinar #4: Thursday, February 23 at 2:00 pm EST
Results and Methods
- Coordinating Figures, Figure Legends, Results and Methods: What Goes Where?
- The Results Section: What You Did, What Data You Obtained, and What Conclusions You Drew
- Letting Your Results Tell a Story
Webinar #5: Thursday, March 9 at 2:00 pm EST
- Getting Started: Strategies for Writing the First Paragraph
- Discussion Modules: An Approach to Writing the Bulk of the Discussion
- Discussion Do’s and Don’ts
Webinar #6: Thursday, March 23 at 2:00 pm EST
Authors are from Mars, Reviewers are from Venus
- If It Isn’t Published, You Didn’t Do It
- Planning and Writing Drafts... What Is an Author?
- Why This Journal? Why This Editor?
- Understanding and Responding to Reviewers (AKA Making the Editor Your Ally)
Webinar #7: Thursday, April 6 at 2:00 pm EST
How to Review a Manuscript
- Criteria Used to Evaluate Manuscripts
- Why Journals Use Different Criteria
- How to be a Good Reviewer
Monday, November 21, 2 – 4 PM
Interviewing Workshop with Scott Morgan
Learn about the interview process through interactive exercises and peer review. More workshop information is available in November Announcements. There are 15 spots for this event, please contact Yvette Pittman (email@example.com).
Tuesday, November 29, 10 – 11:30 AM
Responsible Conduct of Research Training for NEW Postdocs
Discussion of Ethical Research Practices: Making Good Choices
This Mandatory training is for all postdocs who started after January 1, 2016.
An interactive session that promotes both self-directed and team-based learning required for all new postdoctoral fellows, through the Office of Education. Led by Dr. Gisela Storz, this session will include case studies and reading assignments related to research integrity and discussions on ways to reduce risk factors.
The session will begin with a brief discussion on pre-assigned reading materials, followed by small-group, team-based learning exercises involving complex cases that promote discussions of either fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, mentoring expectations, and/or trainee responsibilities. The workshop will include good practices of data management and presentation, including lab notebook management—both physical and electronic. For additional details and planned reading assignments, contact Yvette Pittman (firstname.lastname@example.org).