The Training Page: OITE Train-the-Trainer


Train-the-Trainer Workshop

During the COVID-19 pandemic, research universities, scientific institutions, and other high-stress organizations have begun to pay closer attention to the mental-health needs of their workers. Many have come to appreciate that prioritizing good mental health and wellness practices can enhance productivity and success rather than diminish it.

At NIH, the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) has always run programs and activities that support trainees and help them as they advance in their careers. In this time of stress and uncertainty, fellows and employees alike are dealing with unique issues that may affect their ability to be productive. One of the ways that OITE is helping fellows to reach their potential is by training the trainers (including PIs, supervisors, mentors, and advisors). In July, OITE offered a virtual, five-day train-the-trainer workshop that was open to people from the NIH as well as from other organizations throughout the country.

Training the trainers is an important step for creating a productive research culture that also supports the wellbeing of everyone in the research community, according to the Wellcome Trust (London), which conducted a survey of more than 4,000 researchers at different stages in their careers. Most supervisors reported that they had not received managerial training, much less guidance on supporting trainees in difficult situations. Concurrently, trainees reported that conversations about their career aspirations and support for their wellbeing overall were lacking.

OITE’s workshop integrated good mental-health strategies and professional development to teach effective techniques for helping trainees succeed. PIs, program administrators, and other career-development professionals attended seminars on career advising, mental health, wellness, and resiliency strategies for helping their biomedical trainees navigate the stresses of life, science, and research. The training outlined the fundamental components needed to develop a wellness program, to recognize substantial personal and cultural changes, and to consider the interplay of stress and executive functioning.

In addition, the current COVID-19 pandemic warranted emphasis on topics of critical importance—responding to trauma; preventing suicide; and discussing how the issues of anti-Black racism and xenophobia affects trainees. In virtual break-out rooms, registrants were separated into groups of three-to-eight people and worked with a facilitator to share their ideas and experiences and to role-play scenarios that might occur with trainees who are experiencing different types of distress.

“My partner and I took turns offering the perspective of the trainee or the training director,” said Jackie Lavigne, chief of the Office of Education in the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics. Having a mental-health counselor offer feedback and support “helped me build confidence in having these difficult and important conversations.”

Other participants expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to discuss difficult topics, the support for PIs and trainees, and the chance to rehearse those hard conversations.

“These are hugely important topics, and I feel like I learned a lot, but also that I have a lot to learn,” said Brian Mitchell, an associate professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine (Chicago). “It was both humbling to think about all the mentoring mistakes I have made but also really exciting to see the effort that NIH is putting into these issues. Just yesterday [a trainee] came into my office needing some career advice, and I feel like I was already able to implement some of what I learned.”

“I found it very supportive and insightful. I especially enjoyed the mental-health break-out group,” said Karin Lawton-Dunn, director of Graduate and Postdoctoral Career Services at Iowa State University (Ames, Iowa), who had a difficult virtual meeting with a trainee later that day. “It was nice to have just revisited this topic in the morning. I had more energy to support [the trainee].”

A growing body of literature and recent events highlight the need to intentionally work toward a healthier and more sustainable work environment, especially within the biomedical-research enterprise. Support for mental well-being and the training of those in managerial, advising, and mentoring positions is essential for success as well as for collaborative and innovative science.

“Thank you for providing a space (on a national level) to discuss racism [and] xenophobia and other topics such as suicide,” said Erika Barr, director of OITE’s Community College Programs, in an email after the workshop.

“Please keep reading. Please keep discussing. Please keep [learning],” one of the participants suggested. “Let’s keep challenging ourselves.”

 Charlesrice Hawkins

Charlesice Hawkins received her M.S. in biology before joining OITE as an Undergraduate Scholarship Program fellow in early 2020. She will continue her career in communications within OITE beyond this year while also exploring her interests in creative writing and other forms of expression.