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Educating Successful Researchers


I began to appreciate the importance of advocating and lobbying in support of biomedical and health-science research as I was completing my Ph.D. in pharmacology. During my tenure as a graduate student, I observed the impact of the government's commitment to double the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget. There was a perceptible shift among faculty members, from pessimism to optimism about securing an NIH grant. This was particularly true among the younger faculty members, with whom I identified most. Even the moderate increase in the stipulated NRSA postdoctorate stipend levels seemed positive.

Some faculty members, however, continuously dwelled on the challenges faced by academic biomedical researchers: paucity of academic faculty positions, inordinate amount of time required to fulfill job obligations, expectations that one be multitalented to succeed (excel in lab management, accounting, grant writing, public speaking, teaching, research). Their negative sentiments, coupled with my own experiences during graduate school, made me recognize that although I enjoyed my research, I no longer had the patience or enthusiasm for the process. I viewed improving the conditions for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows as a priority.

As luck would have it, shortly after I received my Ph.D., the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) advertised a position that seemed ideal--a highly respected organization was seeking someone to engage in policy directed toward the academic biomedical research enterprise. It was an opportunity to engage in biomedical health-science research policy and also work with a group of academic faculty members interested in graduate research, education, and training (the GREAT Group), predominantly in the academic medical environment. I began working at AAMC in the spring of 2002.

The GREAT Group is an AAMC professional-development group comprised of faculty and administrative leaders of Ph.D. and postdoctoral programs who have been appointed by their medical school deans. The group functions as a forum to help these Ph.D. and postdoctoral programs achieve their goal of educating successful researchers through, although not limited to, a Web site, a listserv, and an annual meeting. In addition, group members evaluate policy developments that affect the recruitment and retention of new scientific talent and provide direction on these issues. My primary responsibilities as executive secretary for the group are to develop agendas for steering committee meetings and assist in planning the agenda for the annual meeting. I also provide information and resources to the group, and if topics arise that I think might be of interest to the steering committee, I can schedule those as meeting agenda items.

I consider my role to be that of a facilitator and liaison between the GREAT Group members, GREAT Group Steering Committee, AAMC, and the biomedical research community. I monitor a portfolio of issues related to both biomedical Ph.D. education and trends in biomedical health-science research policy. Coordinating the efforts of other constituency groups is another aspect of the job. Currently, I am working with the members of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association ( PhRMA) AAMC Forum, which deals with industry-sponsored clinical trials in academic settings. I recently developed (with technical assistance from our Electronic Communication Specialist) a Web site to highlight some of these activities and projects.

I didn't matriculate in graduate school to pursue a career in science policy, but the skills of a good scientist are the same as those required in science policy: critical reasoning, analytical skills, and keeping track of relevant research studies. Verbal and interpersonal skills are also very important. Other attributes invaluable in science policy are organization, management of multiple projects, the ability to facilitate a meeting toward an objective, achievement of consensus in verbal communications and written text, and ability to work with individuals from different perspectives and backgrounds. Exceptional writing abilities are pivotal, and specialized training in statistics is beneficial.

Where does a researcher get this kind of experience? Volunteer. As an undergraduate and alumnus, I held leadership roles in several organizations that promoted my university. I did the same in graduate school. In the process, I learned how to plan meetings, develop agendas, and work with committees. I honed skills that one might not ordinarily get to utilize in graduate school. I would advise those interested in research policy to get involved with their institutions and gain committee and constituent experience.

Be familiar with the biomedical research community and leadership; be able to articulate your views. I would recommend enrolling in public-policy courses and exploring the possibility of a policy fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, National Academy of Sciences, or similar organization. For my part, I took a training course for clinical research associates that exposed me to the clinical-trials process and policies of the Food and Drug Administration. The transition from graduate student (or postdoctoral fellow) to administrator requires adaptation. I felt that my experiences outside of the lab and mentors have aided the transition process.

I couldn't be happier with my job. I am mentored, and I have been fortunate to be involved with multiple projects and issues. I wake up energized every morning, I drive by the Washington Monument, I read Science and Nature regularly, and (I hope) the work that I do has an impact on biomedical research and national health policy.