Proactive Postdocs: Coming Together for a Successful Fellows Retreat

What brought more than 400 pre- and postdoctoral fellows, clinical fellows, trainees, and other scientists to the Princess Royale Hotel in Ocean City, Maryland, 12 and 13 February ? A romantic setting for Valentine's Day? Hardly. What drew these scientists to Maryland's Eastern Shore was the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Center for Cancer Research Fellows and Young Investigators ( CCR-FYI) Third Annual Retreat. Postdoctoral fellows on the CCR-FYI Steering Committee have the full support of the CCR Office of the Director to organize this annual event, which has become the most ambitious program implemented by the committee to date. The purposes of the retreat are to

  • Promote interaction among fellows and young investigators at the CCR

  • Provide a forum for the presentation of original research

  • Aid in career development and training through presented lectures and workshops

  • Increase awareness of resources available within CCR, NCI, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The retreat has come a long way in since its inception. Incorporating suggestions from surveys distributed at past retreats, the CCR-FYI steering committee strives to make each annual retreat better than the last. One mark of its success is the fact that this year 245 of the 392 participants submitted abstracts. This level of participation was especially exciting because for the first time, with support from the CCR Office of the Director, the CCR-FYI Steering Committee was able to offer eight $1000 travel awards for Outstanding Oral and Poster presentations. Other changes included workshops and panels specifically designed to stimulate audience participation, discussion, and interaction. The fellows and trainees had many opportunities for networking with each other and the invited speakers throughout the retreat. In addition to impromptu discussions during the poster sessions, oral presentations and evening mixer, this year's retreat included "mentored lunches," which gave the participants the opportunity to meet informally with a speaker or panelist in small groups over lunch. Tables were also available to learn more about the newly created National Postdoc Association ( NPA) as well as the CCR-FYI Steering Committee.

No scientific meeting is complete without a few distinguished speakers, and the CCR-FYI Retreat is no different. Each year the retreat has included presentations by invited world-renowned biomedical researchers specifically chosen not only for their scientific accomplishments, but also for their obvious interest in postdoctoral training. This year, Michael Gottesman, deputy director for intramural research at the NIH, opened the retreat by guiding the audience through 20 years of research on multidrug resistance and the individual contributions of 48 postdoctoral fellows from his lab. Steven Rosenberg, chief of surgery at NCI, riveted everyone's attention by recounting the varied success of treating patients with tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes and then took a few moments to address audience members about advancing their scientific careers. Keith Yamamoto, vice dean for research at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, is such a strong advocate for young scientists in training that he took a red-eye flight from California just to attend 1 day of the retreat! In addition to research, his presentation dedicated a full hour to the current and future status of graduate and postdoctoral training. Ronald McKay of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) not only did a fabulous job relating his field of stem cell research to cancer, but also participated as one of the judges for the travel awards for outstanding oral presentation Last, Carl Barrett, director of the Center for Cancer Research, closed the retreat with a few comments about future training at CCR and used the rest of his time to invite questions, comments, and concerns from the audience. To the benefit of the retreat participants, all the invited speakers took full advantage of the opportunity to speak directly to a roomful of potential scientific leaders.

The retreat also included several workshops and panels designed to address issues of importance to postdocs. Editors from Cell, Science, The Journal of Experimental Medicine, and The New England Journal of Medicine shared the podium at the Science Editors panel and answered questions ranging from the life of a submitted manuscript to science editing as a career choice. Scientific careers were also explored at the Science Careers Workshop, which hosted scientists from the fields of technology transfer, science and technology policy, editing, K-12 teaching, and forensics. Other events at the retreat included a workshop on immigration and visa issues and a panel discussion focused on women and minorities in science.

The phrase "be proactive" seemed to resonate throughout the plenary lectures, workshops, panels and informal discussions as if it were the theme of this year's retreat. All the speakers encouraged the fellows and trainees to take an active role in their training and career development. They urged them to take advantage of all the available resources, such as any workshops and seminars offered throughout the year, as well as various interest groups, faculties, and committees on campus. They explained that being proactive often means making tough decisions such as switching labs if a PI is more of a supervisor than a mentor or perhaps deciding to leave bench science for a less traditional scientific career. In summary, their words suggested that the outlook for fellows is not as bleak as some might think, so long as fellows takes responsibility for their own career. For those members of the NCI's Center for Cancer Research, the annual CCR-FYI Retreat may help fellows take that first proactive step.

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