NIH Grant to support broadening career options for young scientists

Steve Koppes
Associate News DirectorUniversity Communications

The University of Chicago is one of only seven institutions nationwide selected in 2014 to receive a National Institutes of Health grant to establish a program specifically for broadening career exposure and training for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in the biological and biomedical sciences.

While nearly 20 percent of the University’s trainees go on to become academic tenure track faculty, non-academic jobs are playing an increasingly important role for PhD students in the biological sciences and other fields, and these positions are becoming more and more competitive to get. To address this issue, a team of principal investigators at the University applied for and was granted an NIH Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training grant, which will bring $1.25 million over five years for professional skills training, career exposure and support.

The grant funds the creation of a program called myCHOICE, a major initiative that launched at an evening event at the Chicago Innovation Exchange Skydeck on Oct. 13. The myCHOICE initiative leverages University-wide resources to increase the exposure of students and researchers in the biological and biomedical sciences to opportunities in teaching, business, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, health care delivery, information technology, law, policy, communications, marketing and other fields.

The effort is designed to help address the growing challenge of limited availability of tenure-track academic positions for PhD graduates and postdoctoral scholars, said Alan Thomas, associate vice president and director of UChicagoTech, the University’s Center for Technology Development and Ventures. The University of Chicago was chosen for the BEST grants in part because of the ability to leverage its innovation infrastructure to expose students to diverse and rewarding opportunities both within and outside universities, Thomas said. “Through the course of our daily business commercializing University inventions, and through programs we’ve helped build, like the regional Chicago Innovation Mentors program, we’ve built a deep Rolodex of people with science PhDs in non-academic careers who are happy to visit, mentor and make connections.”

The grant application leveraged the educational resources and programming of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and the larger University of Chicago Booth School of Business, as well as the University of Chicago Law School, the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, the University’s Institute for Translational Medicine and the Pritzker School of Medicine. It will draw upon the University’s new Chicago Center for Teaching and will make considerable use of the new Chicago Innovation Exchange on 53rd Street—a co-working and event space that hosts a variety of careers and is dedicated to integration of talent, programming and assets across the University and community.

Erin Adams, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and the lead principal investigator of the program, said the competition for the BEST grant was fierce. “We were one of only seven institutions to be awarded this grant this year; we will be joining 10 other awardees from last year to develop programs for alternative career advancement. There will be no future calls for applications.”

A good fit

The University’s BEST grant proposal relied heavily on the experience and expertise of myCHOICE’s principal investigators. Victoria Prince, dean of graduate affairs for the Biological Sciences Division, brings knowledge of how to most seamlessly and effectively integrate myCHOICE in existing training programs. Julian Solway, director of ITM, is also a member of NIH’s Clinical and Translational Science Awards consortium that helps convert biomedical research into health improvement. He has vast experience in creating and running large interdisciplinary programs. Thomas is well versed in entrepreneurial issues and is deeply connected to the business, investor and alumni communities. Adams has extensive knowledge about entrepreneurial and innovative careers from her work at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley.

“The University’s efforts to promote entrepreneurship and innovation fit well with the goals of the BEST grant, including developing methods to expose bioscience students to domains and professional skillsets outside their usual scientific training. Our goal is to best prepare our trainees for a competitive workforce, including positions in academic research,” Adams said. “We want trainees to be able to decide what career area they are best suited for and then prepare them for it, including giving them a professional network within which to operate.”

The BEST grant is designed to broaden the training and education of scientists not only on campus but also across the country. The program requires each BEST awardee to evaluate whether or not their approaches are successful, to share lessons learned with the other awardees during the course of the grant period and to work with other awardees to share information about successful approaches with others in the biomedical research training community nationwide.