Working Group on Innovation in NIGMS Training

June 17, 2005

Questions for Discussion

This workshop has been organized to take a look at graduate training supported by NIGMS in light of current and emerging scientific training needs. The impetus for the workshop comes, in part, from several questions that have been asked repeatedly by our Council, our review panels, and other advisors. How can graduate students be better trained for interdisciplinary and team research? Do the NIGMS training grant areas meet current training needs? Are students getting the skills that they need for the future? Should didactic training be changed?

Below are some more specific questions that the NIGMS staff has prepared to facilitate discussion. These questions are meant to be starting points. We encourage your broad creative thinking about graduate training.

1) TRAINING NEEDS: What additional scientific skills and outlooks are needed for the future?

  1. Do most trainees need better quantitative skills? While NIGMS now requires that applicants define their efforts to enhance the quantitative skills of their trainees, it would be helpful for workshop participants to articulate the specific nature of these needs and to discuss the feasibility of addressing these needs in the context of graduate-level research training.
  2. Do we need to enhance trainee exposure to concepts and opportunities relevant to research on human health and disease?

2) IMPLEMENTATION: In academia, what approaches should be developed and/or incorporated into training programs to achieve the needed skills and broad outlook?

  1. How can institutions develop broad training without sacrificing an understanding of critical fundamentals?
  2. Can interdisciplinary training occur in the context of department-based graduate degree-granting programs and/or discipline-based training grants?
  3. How can institutions and training grant programs meet the varying needs of predoctoral students for quantitative training?
  4. How can institutions enhance exposure of their trainees to concepts and opportunities relevant to research on human health and disease?
  5. Is training that emphasizes coursework passé?
  6. How can critical thinking be developed, formalized, systematized, and assessed?

3) NIGMS POLICIES: Are there other ideas for revision or redesign of NIGMS training programs? For example:

  1. Are there training support areas funded by NIGMS that should be removed or added?
  2. Should there be specific training support areas at all?
  3. Should the funding provided by NIGMS to an institution for training in a specific support area have a finite lifetime? (Fifteen years as a maximum, for example)
  4. Since NIGMS does not allow more than one training program in a given support area at an institution, how should NIGMS address the concerns of a faculty group wanting to mount a research training effort in an area that is already being funded at the institution? (Background: Sometimes closely related programs develop independently at large, complex institutions. For example, there have been biophysical training programs funded by other agencies, e.g. NSF, at institutions that also have an NIGMS molecular biophysics training program. If funding from the other agency ends, the faculty may seek NIGMS funding for a molecular biophysics program separate from the already supported program.)

Working Group Report

1) TRAINING NEEDS: What additional scientific skills and outlooks are needed for the future?

Do most trainees need better quantitative skills? Members of the working group agreed with unanimity that trainees needed better quantitative skills in concert with that outlined in the Bio2010 Report. Nevertheless, there were several important caveats that emerged during the course of discussion. In defining quantitative needs, there is no single approach or cluster of core competencies that can satisfy all the different NIGMS training programs. For example, while many training programs require that entering students have had math through differential equations and at least one course in probability and statistics, there are Ph. D. or training programs that do not require these skills. As the committee discussed this further, it noted that NIGMS should avoid being prescriptive and instead construct guidelines that allow programs maximum flexibility in addressing how additional relevant quantitative training will be provided. Examples include providing skill sets that range from tools that teach trainees how to probe how molecules work to tools required for parsing large sets of data. Almost all agreed that where appropriate, trainees need to understand how results are generated by machines and computer programs. They need to know and appreciate differences between disciplines to allow better cross-communication. And quantitative training needs to be accompanied by more rigorous training in communication skills, problem identification, and problem-solving. However offered, quantitative training needs to extend beyond that offered to undergraduates and it needs to emphasize the importance of self-learning and interdisciplinary collaboration.

Do we need to enhance trainee exposure to concepts and opportunities relevant to research on human health and disease? Here, the committee felt that most students are already informed and motivated to achieve relevant training in this area. It was pointed out that almost one-third of NIGMS trainees are M.D.-Ph.D. students and therefore are experts in one or more of these areas. Some committee members expressed concern that any increased emphasis on human health and disease would come at the expense of emphasizing the importance and value of non-targeted research that is the hallmark of NIGMS programs and its complementary nature. In addition, the benefits of additional training in areas related to human health and disease would have to be weighed with local degree guidelines and NIGMS mandates for increased training in responsible conduct of research, quantitative skills, and other training program-specific components.

What about training in ethics? Training in this area was viewed as strong but could be improved. One possibility is that programs evaluate mechanisms for providing refresher courses that include supplemental training in areas such as basic publication ethics.

2) IMPLEMENTATION: In academia, what approaches should be developed and/or incorporated into training programs to achieve the needed skills and broad outlook?

The committee discussed implementation at length and again came to the conclusion that no one size fits all. Nevertheless, there were several ideas noteworthy of further consideration and subsequent communication to program directors. Whenever possible, training should be interactive and demand collaboration on coursework material. It should emphasize problem-solving and training that accommodates all types of learning styles. Journal clubs were viewed as important components and modular approaches to core courses were emphasized as providing a good way to offer an abbreviated learning experience. Core courses should also have, whenever possible, an interdisciplinary emphasis. While it is clear that graduate education needs to offer new learning formats, didactic approaches are still valuable and often necessary.

The committee also recommended that a new system be put in place to provide training and periodic feedback to NIGMS program directors. This could occur through annual (or regular) meetings of program directors. Including all program directors for all NIGMS T32 programs might be problematic. Instead, this might be better handled by conducting smaller meetings with program directors from each specific area of NIGMS-supported training. This regular meeting would provide a venue for different programs to inform each other about what works and what does not work.

The committee also recommended that consideration be given to forming site visit teams composed of four program directors that provide feedback/review to training programs sometime in the middle of their funded cycle. The intent would be to offer critical evaluation and advice in preparation for the next competitive renewal.

Finally, the committee endorsed the notion of developing interactive Web tools and information, presumably in partnership with NIGMS staff. Committee members also endorsed the value of site visits when programs are reviewed and recommended strongly that this occur whenever possible.

3) NIGMS POLICIES: Are there other ideas for revision or redesign of NIGMS training programs?

The committee felt that the number and types of NIGMS programs were fine as presently listed. The members did feel that the move to interdisciplinary training has been well received and that continued emphasis on “interdisciplinary” is almost passé. They also viewed as positive the continuing evolution of departmental-based graduate programs to thematic training programs that include faculty and students from several different departments.

Additional Comments
  • Important points in NIGMS program announcements (PA) should be emphasized by the program and during its review. These points need to be in the PA and accompanied by a background statement. The applicant must identify the problem and must explain the steps planned or taken to address issues such as:
    • Quantitative training
    • Disease/physiology survey
    • Collaborative, interdisciplinary training
  • Applicants should provide the institution’s point of view on the intent of the training grant and give the institutional overview
  • Reviews
    • Site visits are essential; they must be held whenever possible
    • Reviewers must directly address the important PA requirements


John Nilson, Ph.D. (Chair)
Director & Meyer Distinguished Professor
School of Molecular Biosciences
Washington State University
Fulmer 639
Pullman, WA 99164-4660
Tel: 509-335-8724

Paul Axelsen, M.D.
Departments of Pharmacology & Medicine
University of Pennsylvania
105 Johnson Pavilion
3610 Hamilton Walk
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6084
Tel: 215-898-9238

Robert Bloch, Ph.D.
Department of Physiology
University of Maryland
School of Medicine
655 W. Baltimore Street
Baltimore, MD 21201
Tel: 410-706-3020

Peter Bruns, Ph.D.
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
4000 Jones Bridge Road
Chevy Chase, MD 20815-6789
Tel: 301-215-8890

J. Chloe Bulinski, Ph.D.
Department of Biological Sciences
Columbia University
Fairchild Center Rm 804A
1212 Amsterdam Ave.
New York, NY 10027
Tel: 212- 854-5570

Melanie Cobb, Ph.D.
Dean of Pharmacology
UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas
Department of Pharmacology
6001 Forest Park Drive, Room ND7.214D
Dallas, TX 75390-9041
Tel: 214-645-6122

Timothy (Tim) Donohue, Ph.D.
Department of Bacteriology
University of Wisconsin
390b Biochemistry Bldg.
420 Henry Mall
Madison, WI 53706
Tel: 608-262-4663

Carol Gross, Ph.D.
Department of Microbiology & Immunology
UCSF Mission Bay Campus, Genentech Hall
600 16th St., Box 2200
San Francisco, CA 94143-2200
Tel: 415-479-4161

James Hogle, Ph.D.
Department of Biological Chemistry & Molecular Pharmacology
Harvard Medical School
Building C2-122
240 Longwood Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Tel: 617-432-3918

Robert (Bob) Kelly, Ph.D.
Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering
College of Engineering 1, Box 7905
911 Partners Way
Raleigh, NC 27695
Tel: 919-515-6396

Sharon Milgram, Ph.D.
Department of Cell & Developmental Biology
UNC a Chapel Hill School of Medicine
Mason Farm Road
506 Taylor Hall CB7090
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7090
Tel: 919-966-9792

Charles D. (Dale) Poulter, Ph.D.
Department of Chemistry
University of Utah
Department of Chemistry
315 South 1400 East Rm. 2020
Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0850
Tel: 801-581-6685

Guillermo Romero, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Pharmacology
University of Pittsburgh
School of Medicine
W1345 Biomedical Science Tower
Pittsburgh, PA 15261
Tel: 412-648-9408

Lawrence Schramm, Ph.D.
Department of Biomedical Engineering
Johns Hopkins University
720 Rutland Avenue
Baltimore MD 21205-2196
Tel: 410-955-3026

Gary Stormo, Ph.D.
Department of Genetics
Washington University
Campus Box 8510, Room 5410
4444 Forest Park Parkway
St. Louis, MO 63108
Tel: 314-747-5534

Wang, Yu-Li, Ph.D.
University of Mass. Med. School
Dept. of Physiology
377 Plantation St. Ste 327
Worcester, MA 01605
Tel: 508-856-8781