Midnight in the Garden of Training and Education: Postdocs at the GREAT Meeting

Every year, medical school deans, provosts, and other administrators from around the country gather to discuss biomedical graduate (and postdoctoral) education and training. This meeting of the GREAT group (the Graduate Research, Education, and Training group of the Association of American Medical Colleges) is an opportunity for medical school administrators to learn about the activities and programs at fellow research institutions and to discuss studies of the state of biomedical education and larger policy issues.

As graduate students and postdocs are well aware, the decisions made by these administrators affect their education and training. So, although the GREAT group meeting is held primarily for medical school and university administrators, the presence of trainees at the meeting helps ensure that trainees' needs and perspectives are heard. For the past 3 years, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) has provided support, allowing a group of postdocs from a variety of institutions to attend the GREAT meeting. Encouraging and funding postdoc attendance is very much in keeping with the BWF's goal of supporting the career development of young scientists. Moreover, Victoria McGovern, a BWF program officer, notes that at the GREAT meetings, deans are discussing the same issues she finds postdocs around the country debating. "For postdocs to see administrators struggling with the same issues can be a very positive experience," says McGovern.

Postdocs attending the GREAT meetings are given a golden opportunity to network with the decision-makers at many medical schools. But for most postdoc attendees, the highlight of the meeting is the "gathering of postdocs." Held during the meeting's free afternoon, this gathering allows the postdocs to freely discuss issues important to them and exchange ideas with their fellow postdocs.

The first time postdocs gathered at the GREAT meeting (1998), they generated a document outlining changes that they felt needed to be made in their treatment and training. Last year, the GREAT meeting focused on "educating the scientific workforce," and it included several posters reporting on postdoc issues, such as survey results from postdocs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the University of California, Berkeley, mentoring practices, and professional development.

In October 2000, the postdocs met once again at the GREAT meeting, this time in Savannah, Georgia, where the general focus was "The Biomedical Ph.D.: Taking Stock of the Degree and the Profession." The topics covered under this broad banner included the particular challenges facing underrepresented minority scientists, career-development issues, mentoring, studies of graduate education, and ethics. The 16 postdoc attendees (see sidebar) participated in the sessions--asking questions, offering comments, and enlightening the attendees to the early-career scientists' point of view (read the opinion of one postdoc participant, Pauline Wong, the President of the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association). As Dave Engelke, director of the University of Michigan's Program in Biomedical Sciences, notes, "The participation of postdoctoral fellows in discussions of the future of graduate education is not only welcome, but essential. The faculty and administrative representatives who attend the GREAT conferences tend to be the individuals who are most attuned to graduate student and postdoctoral issues, but even we don't have a comprehensive view of the problems and opportunities encountered in both the training phases and subsequent career development."

On the Monday afternoon of the meeting, postdoc attendees met for their gathering and what became a marathon session, during which they tried to cover all of the topics on the table. The postdocs discussed their take on the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy guide and came up with a lot of advice for graduate students about how to embark on their postdoctoral training. (This advice can be found in this article's companion piece.)

Fellows in attendance:

Arti Patel, Chair of Fellows

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), NIH

Janeen Azare

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

Kristan Burrows

Case Western Reserve University

Amit Kumar

National Cancer Institute (NCI), NIH

Melanie Leitner

Washington University

Laura Licato

M. D. Anderson Cancer Center

Lisa McCawley

Vanderbilt University

Vanessa Ott

National Jewish Medical Center/UCHSC

Nupur T. Pande

University of California, San Francisco (UCSF)

Kimberly Paul

Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Gil R. Sambrano


Trinia Simmons


Deborah Swope


Michael Vagell

Stanford University

Patricia VanBergen


Pauline Wong

Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Most of the postdoc attendees are involved in active or fledgling postdoc associations, and the bulk of the gathering was spent exchanging ideas and suggestions for these groups. For postdocs representing newly formed organizations, the presence of representatives of established organizations at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and the University of California, San Francisco. was invaluable. Questions flew around the room: How do you structure an association? With a president and other officers? Or by committee? Where did you find a list of your institution's postdocs? And more. (These questions--and their answers--are summarized in another accompanying article.)

For Melanie Leitner, who is starting an association in the Neuroscience Department at Washington University in St. Louis, the advice she received from other associations was most beneficial. Her association has since "implemented these GREAT suggestions, and is off and running." Even the more established associations benefited by networking with and learning about activities at their peer organizations. Kim Paul, vice president of the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association (JHPDA), found that listening to the experiences and issues of less established postdoctoral organizations made her realize how much the JHPDA has accomplished. And she notes that, "despite minimal administrative support, no money, and fewer active members, many nascent postdoctoral organizations have sponsored successful events by being creative in how they structure their events and how they garner funding. Hearing about their successful and creative solutions has stimulated us to rethink our approach to funding and designing events."

By the end of the 3-day meeting, postdocs had learned more about general issues of education and training and had developed new or stronger ties with their fellow postdocs from around the United States. This network of postdocs provides the participants with resources they can draw upon as they meet the challenges for forming and maintaining a postdoc association at their home institution.

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