NIH Graduate Partnerships Equal Two-Times the Science

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Spring is an exciting time at the NIH—the main campus in Bethesda blooms with color as the cherry blossoms, daffodils, and tulips start to blossom (despite the occasional late snowfall). For many young researchers, spring is the time to make a decision of how to continue with their education and perhaps whether partnering with a lab in the NIH Intramural Research Program (IRP) for their dissertation research might be the right path for them.

Recruitment at the NIH: GSC co-chairs Kara Fulton and Kimberly Faldetta address prospective GPP students at breakfast about graduate student life at the NIH.

As a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), I have the privilege of helping with recruitment at both my home institution and the NIH. This past spring, the NIH Graduate Partnership Program (GPP) hosted more than 50 prospective graduate students at the NIH for interviews with its institutional partnerships that accept students at the start of their Ph.D. studies. GPP universities include several that are local to the D.C. region such as Georgetown and George Washington University, as well as many located elsewhere around the nation such as Brown and Boston University, and even international universities such as the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and the Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program. Others such as the University of Maryland accept students after they have already matriculated into a Ph.D. program.

For those programs that accept students starting from their first year of graduate school, the two-day recruitment was much like that of any typical graduate program: information sessions, a chance to meet current students at lunch and dinner, poster sessions of current thesis projects, interviews with potential faculty mentors, campus tours, and the official interviews with the program directors.

I chatted with applicants during the poster session and lunch and found myself being asked the same questions I too wondered when I was interviewing with the NIH GPP: What is it like to be a graduate student at two institutions? And what’s it like at the NIH, where postdoctoral fellows and staff scientists far outnumber the student population?

Kara Fulton, co-chair of the NIH Graduate Student Council (GSC), summed up the experience with a simple mathematical expression: Being an NIH GPP student is “>2x everything.” Fulton, along with co-chair Kimberly Faldetta, leads the GSC in complementing the rigorous research training environment of the NIH with fun and enriching activities outside the lab, specifically for graduate students. Fulton and Faldetta described the following activities GPP students can look forward to at the NIH:

  • Volunteering: NIH graduate students often undertake service activities such as volunteering for the Manna Food Bank in Gaithersburg, Maryland, blood drives for the NIH Clinical Center, cooking dinner for the residents of The Children’s Inn at NIH and their families, mentoring high school students, and judging at local science fairs.
  • Social Events: The GSC organizes trips to museums, local farmers markets, teams for marathons, and the widely attended GPP summer retreat. The newly opened graduate student lounge in the Clinical Center also serves as an informal place for students to meet, study, and relax. The lounge is used for the monthly Graduate Student Seminar Series, GSC meetings, study sessions, and meditation classes.
  • Career Counseling: The NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) at the main Bethesda campus offers many resources for graduate students to meet one-on-one with trained counselors to work on professional development, review CVs and resumes, and practice job interviews. Graduate students can also attend events that OITE offers to the greater NIH community, such as the popular Workplace Dynamics Series offered throughout the year with workshops on self-awareness, conflict and feedback, team skills, and diversity. Graduate students can also benefit from attending the annual NIH Career Symposium that hosts information sessions and ‘blitz skills’ workshops on various career paths in academia, technology transfer, sales and marketing, industry, science policy, and science writing.

During my own application to graduate school, I was fortunate to interview with three GPP programs among other schools I applied to. I ultimately found the University of Maryland to be the best fit for my research interests, finding my co-advisors and my dissertation project through various lab rotations I did at both UMD and the NIH IRP. I applied to the GPP in my second year through the UMD-NCI Partnership for Integrative Cancer Research.

Recruitment at my home institution: Arpita Upadhyaya (a GPP mentor) gives a research talk to recruits for the Biophysics and Chemical Physics graduate programs at the University of Maryland. Both programs have students that participate in the UMD-NCI GPP.

My research project bridges the disciplines of physics and biology, and I find the research environment of the NIH IRP to be an incredible complement to the resources and expertise of my home institution. Every week at the NIH, I can easily find lectures, journal clubs, symposia, workshops, and special interest group meetings related to my specific research interests in transcription factors and gene expression regulation. I also benefit greatly not just from the expertise of the principal investigators who serve on my thesis committee, but also the postdoctoral fellows and staff scientists of my branch and the core facility directors of my institute.

Although we made our respective decisions to join different GPPs, I continue to be friends with several students whom I went through the interview process with, and we occasionally meet up for lunch at the NIH or at GSC organized social events. I also see the program directors and principal investigators I interviewed with at various symposia and seminars on campus. To those students going through the graduate application process right now, I wish you the best of luck! Though you ultimately choose one program, every interview is a chance to establish relationships with students and faculty who may continue to be your colleagues as you progress in your career.

Category: Collaboration