Postdoctoral Training Reform: A Program For Scientist-Teachers

The time has come to set aside the notion that research scientists cannot be excellent educators capable of working in a wide range of institutions. The SPIRE program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), is helping a growing group of talented young scientists make this sea change a reality.

Started in 1999, SPIRE (Seeding Postdoctoral Innovators in Research and Education) was created with a threefold mission: to train new scientists in research techniques and prepare them for research careers, to train them to be skilled teachers, and to increase the presence of minority faculty members in the sciences.

It's Partly a Traditional Postdoc

SPIRE is a 3- to 5-year postdoctoral fellowship program. Successful applicants are admitted directly to the program, rather than being sponsored by a faculty preceptor; a SPIRE review committee of 15 researchers and science educators evaluates each application. Applicants directly contact research principal investigators (PIs) and labs to pursue their research training. For the first 2 years of the program, each postdoc focuses on research training under the guidance of a research mentor.

SPIRE postdoctoral fellows at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

SPIRE postdocs praise the wide range of research opportunities the program makes available. First-year fellow Mitch McVey says he "particularly liked the fact that the SPIRE program allowed us to select from a huge variety of labs at UNC-CH for our research training. I was able to choose a lab in a field related to my graduate work, but using a different model organism. I chose to work with flies because there are many labs using Drosophila at UNC-CH, creating an outstanding scientific atmosphere with a great deal of topic diversity." Ginny Hutchins, also a first-year fellow, switched fields in order to learn a new area and new techniques, because her goal was to "learn more about genetic techniques, such as gene deletions (knockouts), which are commonly used in yeast." She says, "The SPIRE program gave me the freedom to chose any research lab to work in without having to consider funding issues, and this allowed me more opportunity to switch research fields."

SPIRE's commitment to the scientist in each postdoc doesn't end with providing an excellent research environment. The program recognizes that research training is only one prerequisite for a successful science career: Aspiring scientists must also learn how to conduct themselves as professionals and develop a career plan. SPIRE organizes professional development workshops for its fellows covering topics such as time and paper management; job hunting, interviewing, and negotiating; and budget management.

It's Also a Teaching Postdoc

During their first 2 years, fellows attend intensive biweekly workshops on teaching. SPIRE contracted UNC-CH's Center for Teaching and Learning to develop a semester-long workshop series specifically for SPIRE postdocs. These workshops cover topics such as teaching and learning styles, learning outcomes, grading and assessment, syllabus development, and teaching portfolios. Fellows also attend intermittent panels and presentations by faculty recipients of teaching awards at UNC and at local SPIRE-affiliated institutions. Fellows are also encouraged to attend teaching conferences such as the National Science Teachers Association's annual meeting.

SPIRE postdocs develop a strong sense of community with like-minded colleagues. Science Ph.D.s with teaching aspirations are often discouraged by their graduate school advisers and misunderstood by their peers. SPIRE offers a supportive environment where participants understand, value, and encourage one another. For example, Hutchins says, "I feel fortunate to belong to a group of fellows rather than being 'on my own' in a traditional postdoc. It is very reassuring to be around other fellows who share the same interests and enthusiasm for teaching." Likewise, first-year postdoc Kristen Williams notes, "One very valuable aspect of the program--and this is something I had not anticipated before joining the program--is the other SPIRE fellows themselves. Graduate students are generally part of a group within a department and are usually pretty well supported, but postdocs often fall through the cracks, because they don't fall into student or faculty categories. The other SPIRE fellows are a great group of people, and we really provide a support system for each other. It's even better that we all have some common ground in terms of our career goals--we wouldn't be in the program if we didn't think that teaching was very important (and that's not necessarily a common view!)."

SPIRE organizes formal monthly "rap sessions" at which fellows take turns leading discussion on topics chosen by the group, such as balancing career and personal life, meeting national standards for science education, and increasing minority students' interest in science. The fellows also work together annually to plan a visit from a distinguished speaker, an event that is open to the entire UNC-CH community.

SPIRE fellows spend their third year in residence at one of the historically minority universities in North Carolina (see sidebar), where they teach one course per semester. Fellows are considered members of the hosting school's faculty, and they are encouraged to attend faculty meetings and join committees to get a full sense of life as a professor. Each hosting department assigns a faculty member to serve as "teaching mentor" for the fellow-in-residence. SPIRE staff sit in on classes and are available to offer guidance and support. This feature was attractive to Williams, who says she "found it very appealing that SPIRE fellows would be mentored in their first teaching experiences instead of just being thrown into teaching something with little or no support, as might happen in a first job." Fellows also spend time preparing manuscripts for publication or setting up a lab at their host school to involve undergraduates in scientific research.

North Carolina Historically Minority Universities Where SPIRE Postdocs Teach

A Higher Purpose

SPIRE director Skip Bollenbacher, Ph.D., wanted this new program to serve as a tool for increasing minority involvement in the sciences. People of color continue to be underrepresented in science-related professions, and in 1989 Bollenbacher founded the Partnership for Minority Advancement in the Biomolecular Sciences ( PMABS). PMABS is a consortium of North Carolina schools (historically minority universities; high schools; and UNC-CH) committed to encouraging minorities to participate in science. SPIRE, one of the newest mechanisms of PMABS, pursues this goal by placing fellows in historically minority universities for their teaching year.

Science Postdoctoral Training Is Ripe for Reform

SPIRE coordinator Leslie Lerea, Ph.D., believes that the time is right for more universities to initiate SPIRE-like programs. Only a handful of such programs currently exist (see sidebar), and all are funded through the Minority Opportunities in Research (MORE) division of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). "The opportunities are out there," says Lerea. "The MORE division wants to promote minority education and diversity in the sciences--it wants to promote these programs."

NIH/NIGMS/MORE-Funded Postdoctoral Training Programs

But it's not just NIH that would like to see more programs like SPIRE. Postdocs themselves, according to Lerea, are clamoring for science training programs that also promote excellence in teaching. There is, says Lerea, "national awareness that postdoctoral training needs to be reformed. Postdocs are not getting what they want out of their training in order to pursue a wide range of career options." Antonio Baines, a first-year SPIRE postdoc concurs: "SPIRE will provide the skills and opportunities that should separate me from the majority of other postdocs applying for academic positions in the future." Likewise, McVey reports, "I think that the time is right for programs like SPIRE. I believe that its biggest strength is that it provides fellows with experience in juggling teaching, research, and service responsibilities before they go on the job market. Hopefully, it will also succeed in reaching its second goal: attracting more underrepresented students to the sciences."

Recipe for Success

Only in its second year, SPIRE is optimistic about the future of its trainees. Since the program's inception, only two of the 12 fellows have chosen not to complete all 3 years of training: both because they were offered irresistible opportunities. Second-year postdoc Brian Rybarczyk thinks the program will be successful: "I believe that we, as postdocs, can encourage minority students to choose science and research careers. I think being mentored in research labs and in the classroom gives students confidence in pursuing research careers. The SPIRE fellows who are minorities also serve as role models for undergraduates at these minority institutions to show them that anyone can have the opportunity for a successful career in science."

Lerea lists several key ingredients of a successful program. First, she says, is the involvement of key faculty members who are deeply committed to the mission. Second, minority-serving institutions in the local region must be interested. The pre-existence of PMABS was instrumental in SPIRE's creation, because there was already a long history of commitment and trust between UNC-CH and the seven historically minority institutions that host SPIRE postdocs. Lerea also believes that increased national awareness of existing programs like SPIRE will help other institutions looking for ideas create their own programs. Finally, as more potential postdocs learn about programs like SPIRE, Lerea believes they will demand more such opportunities.

Heather E. Macalister is a psychologist working at Duke University. She lives in Durham, NC.

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