Chemistry-Biology Interface Training Summit

June 21-22, 2007
National Institutes of Health Campus
Bethesda, MD

On June 21 and 22, 2007, NIGMS sponsored the Chemistry-Biology Interface Training Summit. The program directors and two or three students from each of 21 nationwide Chemistry Biology Interface (CBI) training grant programs joined members of NIH for two days of meetings. The first day was devoted to science, and students presented their work in talks and posters. The day began with introductions and an overview and history of the CBI training grant program by Michael Rogers, the CBI Program Director at NIH, followed by a presentation by Jeremy Berg, NIGMS Director, on the role of chemistry and opportunities for its support by NIH. A keynote address was presented by Thomas Cech, President of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a Nobel Laureate, who spoke about his own research program at the chemistry biology interface and the importance of chemistry to biological research. In the evening session of the first day, CBI program directors presented posters describing their training programs.

On the second day, while students participated in roundtables about career options and an NIH intramural scientific poster session, the program directors met for the first time since the inception of the CBI program in 1992. The directors were asked to assess the current state of CBI training, to discuss strategies that work well in their own programs as well as what does not work, and to envision the future direction of the program.

NIGMS sponsored the meeting and organized the discussion to benefit not only those who already have CBI grants but also those who may wish to submit applications establishing their own training programs. All sessions of this meeting were open to the public, and attendance by faculty interested in establishing a CBI program was encouraged. This report summarizes the program directors' discussion and the student career session. An agenda for the entire meeting is available at


The CBI training grant program directors session was divided into four topic areas: 1) What is CBI training; 2) Cross training activities that work; 3) Enhancing diversity; and 4) Career preparation/expectations. The following discussion is organized around important elements of CBI training programs, the variation in the programs, and commonly accepted best practices.

Shared vision and common features of CBI training programs

NIGMS launched the CBI program in 1992 to encourage more chemists to participate in interdisciplinary biomedical training. The program aims to help biologists and chemists work together by teaching them to speak each others' language. All along, the program has sought to promote cross-training without sacrificing the depth of students' training in their core discipline. Individual programs may achieve cross-training in their own ways, but cross-training is the one essential required element in any CBI program. All other aspects of individual programs are means to achieving that goal.

The origin and structure of CBI programs varies. Some are based in chemistry departments, with the major impact of bringing biology training to a subset of the chemistry students. Other programs are based in biochemistry departments where the major impact is to teach more chemistry to students focused on biology. All programs are open to students in both areas, and it is important that the CBI program requirements not disadvantage students from one area from participating. CBI trainees are typically a subset of students drawn from different departments or programs, so the trainees participate in department activities as well as CBI activities. Most CBI programs serve a larger community than just the students supported by the training grant. In some cases, all the students in a larger university program may be considered CBI students although only a subset is supported by the training grant.

All CBI programs train students to develop competence in both chemistry and biology. All train students in understanding and being able to manipulate biological systems at the molecular level. The large majority of programs hold annual symposia, and the large majority require students to present their research to other members of the training program. Most programs have established new courses. Almost all programs have regular social events, typically associated with informal research presentations or poster sessions. Programs generally require student rotations or internships.

Course requirements

CBI programs vary in the number of science courses required of trainees, on top of departmental requirements, from six courses to none, with most programs requiring one to three additional courses. Directors advocated allowing programs flexibility in establishing course requirements. For example, one institution requires only that trainees take a seminar course plus one course of their choice from the cross-discipline. This flexibility keeps from overburdening students whose home departments already impose a large number of course requirements. In some institutions, instead of establishing all-purpose course requirements, directors consult with individual students to encourage cross-training. All programs provide specific courses on the ethical conduct of research.

The directors noted that meetings such as journal clubs or seminars, with presentations by students or faculty, can be a relatively informal way of offering instruction. Indeed, a number of programs give course credit for seminars or journal clubs. Directors see regular gatherings among all trainees as an effective way to breed cross-communication. Directors noted the value of giving students an opportunity to develop their presentation skills through journal clubs or seminars. For more focused didactic training, short intensive courses can serve as an alternative to semester-long courses.

Among required courses, many programs require a core course in chemical biology. Directors noted that it can be challenging to teach students from a broad range of backgrounds. One institution has received good evaluations for a required laboratory course with experiments that integrate chemistry and biology. Some trainers sought to integrate course work with anticipated seminars.

Directors discussed whether course requirements should differ for chemistry and biology students. Some programs require chemistry students to take straight biology courses but not the reverse, with directors citing the greater motivation of chemists to learn biology than the reverse. Other directors argued that if programs admit only biology students with solid backgrounds in chemistry, the two sets of students should not need separate requirements.

Length and timing of CBI training

Most CBI programs start funding graduate students at the end of their first year and provide 2 years of support. However, some programs begin to support students when they enter graduate school. Length of support also varies. While most programs support students for 2 years, some provide funding for 1 year and others for 3 years.

The directors discussed the advantages of different choices. Programs with a limited number of slots can support more students by funding each student for a shorter time. Longer periods of support, such as 3 years, may give students a greater sense of belonging to the CBI community. While trainees are expected to continue participating in the program after their support ends, actually requiring such participation can be difficult. Many schools do consider students to be part of the CBI program throughout their time in graduate school. One school considers students part of the program even in the year before they are paid by CBI. It is important that CBI students remain associated with the training program beyond their periods of support on the training grant. Interactions of the more senior students are especially effective at promoting cross training.

Several directors advocated waiting until after students' first years before beginning financial support. They noted that by then, students have a background of core courses that they can build on with cross-training. Also, students have had time to settle on a lab and project for their thesis work and can integrate CBI training into that core project. Directors felt that later enrollment results in a better retention rate and that, by seeing how students perform in the first year, CBI programs can make more informed selections. Some directors said that CBI fellowships should not be used as a recruiting tool, as they are if students receive a CBI offer when they are admitted into a graduate program, the directors' concern being that those universities gain an unfair advantage over other institutions competing for the same pool of students.

Other directors felt that using the CBI program for recruiting was appropriate and that it is important to introduce the program to students, especially those from underrepresented groups, who might not otherwise be aware of it. Some directors offered other points in favor of offering students slots in the CBI program immediately. If the CBI program requires rotations, students will be able to complete all their rotations in the first year instead of having to interrupt potential thesis work in the second year to do mandatory rotations. Also, funding students immediately can spare them the need to serve as teaching assistants in their first year, giving the students more time to juggle other first-year tasks—taking courses, doing rotations, and selecting a lab for their thesis. If students do not have to TA in their first year, they will have more time to take elective rotations.

Requiring cross-disciplinary research

The CBI directors discussed whether all trainees' projects should incorporate research in both chemistry and biology. The directors agreed that each student should be trained as either a chemist or a biologist but one who is comfortable with the other field. They concurred that the most effective interdisciplinary training comes from requiring students to conduct research in both fields, but further agreed that programs should be realistic about requiring such research and not impose excessive requirements on students. Some pointed out that as science evolves, the boundary between chemistry and biology may not be as obvious, arguing against an additional requirement to conduct research in the other discipline. Directors agreed that it is sensible to foster collaboration when a project would naturally benefit from cross-disciplinary research rather than to force the issue.

Most CBI programs require that each trainee's thesis committee include faculty members from both chemistry and biology. Departments may differ in their policies about committee meetings. In one institution where the chemistry department doesn't convene annual meetings, CBI trainees give the program director yearly reports. Directors noted that students rarely perform equally well in both chemistry and biology in their qualifying exams and that faculty tend not to expect equal mastery in the two subjects.

Rotations and internships

Most CBI programs require rotations. Typically, those that do not mandate rotations, beyond those required by individual departments, require an internship, for example in industry. Rotations or internships are optional for at least some of the students in one-quarter of existing programs. One program incorporates a sabbatical late in graduate school.

Some directors suggested giving course credit for rotations to encourage students to do them. Directors pointed out that differences in rotation policies among departments can create conflicts. If rotations are required of CBI students but not of students in their home departments, the CBI students need to be reassured that they will not be shut out of their lab of choice for thesis work because they were delayed by rotations. Directors suggested alternatives, including having students conduct abbreviated rotations over a single semester or allowing students to perform rotations over the summer before graduate school officially begins.

Directors agreed that doing rotations is generally a good thing. It can give students interdisciplinary training, although such exposure may not be as effective at the beginning of graduate training as later. Rotations also clearly give students an opportunity to make informed choices about where to conduct their thesis research. Rotations also help build a network among laboratories through students, lowering the barriers to collaboration.

Sabbaticals or internships are done later in training than rotations. Directors whose programs require sabbaticals or internships tout the merits of the approach in fostering interdisciplinary experience and connections. Internships done in a lab in another field, either on or off the home campus, can teach students cross-disciplinary skills complementing what they are otherwise learning. Industrial internships or internships in government laboratories can expand students' perspectives. However, some directors cautioned that internships could interrupt students' graduate school trajectories. Industrial internships seem to work best if senior researchers in a company and a university have an established relationship.

The consensus was that industrial internships should not be mandated for all CBI students. Some universities lack nearby companies. Some industrial internships raise intellectual property issues. Some companies have too many requirements, such as extensive safety training, that may make short internships impractical. If students are already conducting research in both chemistry and biology in their primary labs, an outside internship may not add much cross-disciplinary training. Also, the timing of internships should be flexible, fitting in with the flow of students' individual research projects. Often, an internship may be more appropriate after a student is off CBI funding. In such cases, CBI, the student's thesis advisor, and the host could all contribute to students' support.

Directors also hesitate to require internships or sabbaticals if students already get cross-training from rotations. Some directors argued in favor of leaving the management of students' thesis projects to each thesis advisor and student. Others pointed out that making outside experience mandatory is the only way to prod faculty to participate in a training opportunity that interests and benefits students but will take students away from their home labs.

Career preparation

Career expectations and preparation are a major concern of graduate students. Before the CBI Summit, each program filled out a program description that was circulated at the meeting. These program summaries listed the number of graduates that had gone into careers in universities, small colleges, the pharmaceutical industry, the biotechnology industry, government, and other occupations. The provided data showed that roughly 30 percent of more than 200 graduates beyond the postdoctoral years had gone into university or small college positions, with slightly more in universities. Approximately, 45 percent had gone into the pharmaceutical or biotechnology industries with a two-to-one ratio favoring the pharmaceutical industry. Another 10 percent had entered government positions. Finally, about 15 percent had entered other occupations, such as editing, law, instrument facility management, and medical school.

A session of the CBI summit was devoted to career preparation and expectations. Symposia, colloquia, and retreats, which are widespread among CBI programs, give students exposure to possible career paths by allowing them to meet prominent researchers and scientists, including those outside academia if they are invited. Additionally, such events give students an opportunity to share their own research, develop presentation skills, and gain experience in organizing events.

Among other steps toward career preparation, all programs require ethics training. Some programs fund trainees' attendance at national meetings. Some programs use trainees to mentor undergraduates. Some universities offer career days, CV-writing workshops, or grant-writing workshops. Some provide electives introducing students to entrepreneurial opportunities in biotech and pharmaceutical companies. Career days can bring together speakers with diverse career paths, giving students perspective on the possibilities open to them. Some directors noted that fostering opportunities for informal interaction with faculty, such as monthly lunches with the director, can help students get more personal career advice.

Enhancing diversity

The proportion of underrepresented minority (URM) students in graduate school is lower than the proportion in college. However, URM representation has increased in NIGMS training grants to 12 percent in the last decade, from 6 percent in the decade before. (URMs make up 30 percent of the general population and 20 percent of the college population.) NIGMS has not established a target for what percentage of training grant slots should go to URMs, but the expectation is to improve continually.

Several directors advocated that programs on campus coordinate the recruitment of URMs, since, as things stand, different programs compete for this pool of students. The National Science Foundation sets an example of coordinating recruitment among different training programs and could serve as a model. For example, faculty teams from a university could recruit together.

Directors discussed recruitment and retention approaches that work well. A program that brings students to campus during the summer before graduate school officially begins can be helpful. So are regular meetings that bring URM students together, for example through monthly seminars, annual symposia, and annual weekend retreats. Shared housing in dorms and social activities can help foster a supportive environment.

Supporting URM students' travel to meetings not only benefits the students but can be a good way to recruit future candidates. Similarly, URM graduate students can be used to mentor undergraduates. One program employs a full-time counselor for URM CBI students, someone who works well with the department chairs. Typically, programs require CBI-affiliated faculty to participate in recruitment, for example by visiting colleges with high URM populations or proposing their own alternative approach. Directors noted the value of informing undergraduates in advance of the training expected of them in a CBI program.

Directors advocated encouraging student feedback on how well various measures work. Well-meaning programs that single out URMs, for example for extra tutoring, may backfire by unintentionally stigmatizing URMs. One way to avoid this is to provide extra tutoring for anyone who needs it and to make sure that all CBI students are well aware of what is being made available.

An identity for CBI programs

Each CBI program needs to develop a distinct identity on campus. CBI programs tend to be led by chemistry departments. Among the directors, only 20 percent are not from chemistry departments. Compared to when the CBI program began, directors noted that interdisciplinary training is now a more mainstream idea. Inclusion of students from both chemistry and biology backgrounds is considered essential to promoting cross training, especially in having the students learn each others' language.

Several directors said that the size of CBI programs—which tend to be smaller than other NIGMS training grant programs—can make maintaining a vibrant program challenging. The difficulty of maintaining a critical mass given the low numbers of slots awarded to each program was a widespread concern.

Weekly seminars attended by CBI students throughout their time in graduate school can help unite the students. A director noted that accepting students into the CBI program as they enter graduate school, even if they are not yet funded by the program, can help give them a CBI identity.

To evaluate the success of individual programs, CBI directors suggested gathering feedback from students and tracking graduates. Directors noted that it may not be straightforward to measure important effects of CBI programs, such as their effect on the culture of chemistry departments and of universities. CBI programs can add new courses to a university, prompt chemistry departments to add rotations, and foster collaborations among faculty. One measure of collaboration would be any changes in the rate of publications involving two or more CBI faculty before and after the launch of a training program.


The above summary describes the shared vision and the common practices in CBI training programs. In general, the discussion above implies and the directors agreed that it's best to refrain from imposing firm, restrictive guidelines on the structure and operation of CBI programs. Different approaches appear to work in different programs. Imposing too many requirements on students could extend their time to graduation. The group's consensus, therefore, was to keep program design flexible. Programs can evolve as they receive feedback from students and faculty.

Note: Information on all of NIGMS research training and career development awards is available through the following site: /Training/. Information on Chemistry Biology Interface training grants, including a program description and a list of current training awards can be found at


The student career session, held concurrently with the program directors' session, consisted of four parts: 1) An overview of the NIH; 2) a career options roundtable; 3) an intramural science poster session, and 4) a postdoctoral research roundtable. The goal of the session was two-fold: 1) to educate the visiting students about the NIH and its opportunities and 2) to present and discuss career opportunities available to students with their unique training in the field of chemical biology.

The opening overview of NIH covered its early history, the role of NIH in addressing the evolving challenges of public health, and NIH's funding of extramural science, with an emphasis on the contribution of NIGMS. In the question-and-answer session that followed, much of the discussion focused on the funding process and the path of a grant application.

The career options roundtable brought together a diverse group of scientists for a panel discussion about the variety of career options and paths available to students with a background in chemical biology. The panel primarily consisted of scientists with experience in academic, biotechnology, government, or pharmaceutical research. Panelists also included those whose experience was teaching at the undergraduate level. The panelists furthest from the laboratory bench, a patent attorney and a scientific writer, raised much interest from the CBI students. After brief introductions from the panelists, questions were solicited from the students. Many of the questions and much of the discussion concerned choices and the timing of those choices along their career path. Many of the students were also interested in how the panelists dealt with family concerns along their career path. A good amount of discussion focused on the fact that many of the panelists had made significant changes along their career path. Feedback from the students clearly marked this roundtable discussion as the highlight of the day's activities.

An intramural science poster presentation accompanied lunch for the CBI students. Scientific posters representing some of the chemical biology research at NIH were presented by intramural scientists from various NIH institutes, including NCI, NIDDK, NHGRI, NIAID, and NIDA. A number of the posters were also presented by fellows from the Pharmacology Research Associate (PRAT) Program sponsored by NIGMS. CBI program directors and students participated in informal discussions with the poster presenters with a new scientific collaboration reported evolving from the process.

The last program of the day for the CBI students was a roundtable discussion with NIGMS program staff on the postdoctoral experience emphasizing the NRSA (F32) postdoctoral fellowship and grantsmanship. Though the grant process dominated much of the discussion, a significant portion was also given to choosing a mentor and a research project appropriate for the student's career goals. Many of the potential pitfalls and opportunities that challenge a postdoctoral fellow were also discussed in detail.

Evaluation forms filled out by the CBI students indicated that for the most part the student session had exceeded their expectations. Overall, they found the career roundtable the most beneficial, but most would like more time designated for the roundtable, even though it was over two hours long. The students also suggested adding time to meet individually with the roundtable panelists. Clearly, these types of comments demonstrate an appreciation for career mentoring when entering the chemical biology field.