Redesigning Early Stage Training Programs at NINDS

Redesigning Early Stage Training Programs at NINDS

By: Steve Korn and Michelle Jones-London, NINDS Office of Training and Workforce Diversity, and Walter Koroshetz, NINDS Director

Fall 2016 marked a number of exciting and innovative changes to flagship training programs supported by NINDS.  By restructuring these key training mechanisms, NINDS hopes to strengthen our commitment to improve training for early-career neuroscientists and bolster their transition to independent research careers.   

While the number of trainees receiving PhDs in neuroscience has skyrocketed over the last decade, these bright young investigators still have to wait too long to achieve research independence.  Despite a decade of efforts by NIH, the age of first R01 remains unchanged at 42.  This challenge has prompted dialogue within the neuroscience community on how to best support the career development of trainees.  NINDS is uniquely positioned to implement improvements in neuroscience training that address the following issues:

Institute of Medicine 2014 workshop on training featured dialogue across neuroscience community
Institute of Medicine 2014 workshop on training featured dialogue across neuroscience community
  • Because of the way NIH grant applications are usually reviewed, it has become practically impossible to obtain an NIH-funded postdoctoral fellowship prior to the collection of preliminary data and possibly even some publications.This was not the case a few decades ago when it was not uncommon to apply for a post doctoral fellowship while still a graduate student. There is concern that the competitive pressure on prospective trainees to submit a tight research plan supported by high quality preliminary data often inhibits young scientists from following their scientific passion,. These two factors force the submission of later (and potentially safer) submissions. This is occurring at a time in the careers of these trainees when they have fresh ideas and data and, research suggests, they are the most innovative.
  • Postdoctoral training must cultivate the broad quantitative and experimental design skills that are necessary for the rigorous conduct of research.
  • As technologies continue to emerge that require greater incorporation of computational modeling, physics, applied mathematics and engineering, neuroscience training for the next generation will increasingly rely on trans-disciplinary, team-based science and a plethora of data.  Deep knowledge of how to avoid the pitfalls in data acquisition and analysis that lead to inaccurate conclusions remains central to the scientific endeavor.
  • The lack of diversity remains an issue across the biomedical research workforce.According to a 2011 survey conducted by the Society for Neuroscience, the percent of neuroscientists from underrepresented backgrounds declines at every rung of the career ladder, and members of U.S. racial and ethnic minorities represent only 5% of tenure-stream faculty members. Whereas the training pipeline starts out equal for women, one recent study suggests that later gender-imbalance in biomedical researchers is driven partially by fewer women applying for R01 grants at NIH. This loss of highly-trained women scientists from the academic science workforce is especially acute for scientists who decide to have children during their training.

In an effort to enhance the value of neuroscience pre- and postdoctoral fellowships and encourage faster development of postdoc independence, we have recently implemented changes to several training grant mechanisms at NINDS.  Our goals with these changes are: 1) to encourage more creative, original and bold projects that have the potential for high scientific impact in the field, at the expense of safer projects that can generate quick preliminary data; 2) to speed development of the trainee’s independent line of research; 3) to enhance training in quantitative reasoning and study design; 4) to distinguish between training and research project and career development, and; 4) to reduce the length of the overall postdoctoral training period.  Our new, integrated approach to research and training is expected to place fellows at the forefront of neuroscience and prepare them to launch independent research careers that will advance the goals of the NINDS mission.  Below are descriptions of these new mechanisms, and links to additional information.


NINDS recently announced a new NINDS postdoctoral fellowship program (F32) that will support outstanding scientific training of highly promising postdoctoral candidates who have exceptional mentors. Unlike the NIH-wide F32, the NINDS F32 discourages the inclusion of preliminary data in the application (study sections will be explicitly instructed on this point during review, and adherence to this instruction will be enforced) and seeks to foster early, goal-directed planning and encourage applications for bold and/or innovative projects that have potential for significant impact.

Trainees are eligible to apply for this post-doctoral award program early, from approximately one year before starting in the postdoctoral lab or research environment to not later than 12 months after starting in the specified lab or research environment. NINDS F32 support is only available for the first three years of research training in a given lab or research environment. These provisions are intended to foster very early, profound discussions between postdoc and mentor and to accelerate a postdoctoral fellow’s engagement with the types of research projects that will advance the field – and their career.  As a reflection of our commitment to these goals, we have discontinued participation in the NIH-wide F32 National Research Service Award (NRSA) for postdoctoral scholars.  Instead - beginning with the December 8, 2016 due date - research training support for postdoctoral fellows under the F32 activity code will be available through NINDS exclusively using this new fellowship program.

In addition to preparing the trainee to be a subject matter and technical expert, fellows in this program will develop the necessary understanding of quantitative principles in experimental design and analysis.  The goal is to expose trainees to novel ways of approaching both scientific and procedural problems as well instill a deep understanding of the statistical foundation supporting the scientific value of the

The fundamental goal of the new NINDS F32 is to encourage trainees to work with their mentor early to develop a research and training plan and apply for funding. Because no preliminary data is wanted, this process will enable postdocs and mentors to develop bold, creative projects that ask innovative questions with the potential for big impact. The earlier application, innovative, impactful project, and rigorous training, will boost talented trainees to successfully move on to the next phase of their careers more quickly.

The goal is to expose trainees to novel ways of approaching both scientific and procedural problems as well instill a deep understanding of the statistical foundation supporting the scientific value of the

Importantly, this FOA also features new language for postdoctoral fellows who have children during their fellowship.  In addition to the standard eight week paid parental leave for fellows who give birth to or adopt children, a fellow who has a child, either through childbirth or adoption, while supported by the NINDS F32, and is the primary caregiver, is encouraged to request a paid six-month extension of their fellowship.  This extension will ensure that fellows who must balance research with new parental responsibilities at home will maintain financial support and resources for an additional six months when they return to the lab so that research and training can be completed.  The intent of this extension is to improve support for postdoctoral trainees in their transition to independent research careers.  NINDS considers this six month extension a pilot program, and pending evaluation of its benefit to trainees, will consider expansion to other training funding opportunities.

New NINDS Postdoctoral K01 Award

Trainees seeking support that focuses on advanced postdoctoral career development are encouraged to apply for a new NINDS postdoctoral K01 (NOT-NS-16-013).  This new K01 mechanism is designed to support the ability of outstanding, mentored postdoctoral researchers to develop a potentially impactful research project that is intended to form the basis of a future independent research program. Successful applicants will have a strong prior research record, promising preliminary data supporting a potentially impactful project and be working with an outstanding mentor. The goal is that, by the end of the proposed K01 award period, the candidate will be poised to begin an independent research career with a well-developed, impactful research project and the expertise required to become a leader in the field.  

Candidates are eligible to apply in years two through four of their cumulative postdoctoral research experience, and may be supported by this award within the first six years of cumulative postdoctoral research experience.  This award will support projects that, as demonstrated through strong preliminary data collected by the applicant, hold promise to result in highly significant results and future discoveries.  The K01 candidate will continue to be guided by a postdoctoral mentor, but will be primarily responsible for oversight and conduct of the research project.  The goal of the K01 is for postdoctoral fellows to develop an outstanding project they can then take on to a faculty position.  This K01 FOA is expected to be published in Winter 2016, with a first estimated application due date in Winter 2017.

The existing NINDS Diversity K01 for Junior Faculty remains active and supports a different career stage.

New NIH Blueprint Predoctoral/Postdoctoral Award (F99/K00)

How can we facilitate the participation of women and underrepresented groups in small businesses in NIH Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs?  The NIH is currently seeking public input through a Request for Information (NOT-OD-17-008) to inform its consideration to develop a new diversity supplement program specific to SBIR/STTR mechanisms.  Responses to this RFI are due by December 16, 2016.

Neuroscience departments continue to find it difficult to recruit and retain faculty that represent the diverse make-up of our country.   A variety of NIH programs are in place to help.  Last week, the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research released a Request for Applications for the Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience (D-SPAN) Award for individuals from underrepresented groups (RFA-NS-17-099).  The purpose of the D-SPAN (F99/K00) is to enhance the pool of well-trained diverse neuroscientists who will pursue academic/research careers. Populations that are nationally underrepresented for the purposes of NIH diversity programs are identified in the NIH Notice of Interest in Diversity

The D-SPAN F99/K00 award is intended for individuals who have demonstrated an interest and proficiency in a neuroscience research career in NIH Blueprint mission-relevant areas and/or BRAIN Initiative research areas.  At the time of award, applicants are expected to require 1-2 years to complete their PhD dissertation research training (F99 phase) before transitioning to mentored postdoctoral research training (K00 phase).  The F99/K00 will provide support for up to six years in two phases. The initial (F99) phase will provide support for the final one-two years of dissertation research in a neuroscience related field and the selection of a postdoctoral mentor. The second (K00) phase will provide up to four years of mentored postdoctoral research career development support.  A key component of the program is enhanced mentorship, and D-SPAN requires the involvement of a vetted mentor or mentor team in both the graduate (F99) and postdoctoral phase (K00).  D-SPAN empowers diverse trainees to find postdoctoral environments that match their skills and scientific interests with minimal financial constraints by providing continuous support throughout the critical postgraduate stage.

The two-phase F99/K00 award will facilitate completion of the doctoral dissertation and transition of talented graduate students to strong neuroscience research postdoctoral positions, and will provide career development opportunities relevant to their long-term goal of becoming independent neuroscience researchers. The D-SPAN initiative is designed to enhance the ability of predoctorates from underrepresented backgrounds to progress by providing support at a critical juncture in their career decision-making pathway.

To learn more about putting together an application for the NIH Blueprint D-SPAN Award, an informational webinar was held on January 18, 2017 from 1-3pm EST. 

For more information and to discover more about NINDS diversity resources, please visit the previous blog on opportunities across career stages.

NINDS Diversity Scientific Training And Career Opportunities graphic

Coming soon: NINDS’ New Mentor Award

Outstanding mentorship, with respect to the conduct of science as well as career guidance, is absolutely critical for the next generation of trainees.  By establishing a mentor award, NINDS’ goal is to reward outstanding mentorship of both pre- and postdoctoral scholars as well as incentivize good mentorship throughout the neuroscience community.  This award will reflect the value NINDS places on good mentorship, and be highly visible to investigators, Chairs, and Deans.  Our goal is to provide additional support for excellent mentors doing outstanding science so that they will be able to train additional trainees.  Keep your eyes open - more on this is yet to come.

Conclusion: At NINDS, we believe it takes the full participation of the entire research community – the funding institution, the research institution, the mentor, the research faculty, the neuroscience societies, and the trainees themselves – to ensure we are setting a new cadre of exceptional neuroscientists on a path to success. We need an innovative, rigorous, diverse and dedicated workforce conducting high-quality scientific research to discover how the brain and nervous system work and to find new ways to reduce the burden of neurological disorders for all Americans. NINDS enthusiastically appreciates feedback on its training programs, seeks data to evaluate their success, and is dedicated to a process of iterative improvement.

Friday, November 11, 2016