ASPIRE Program Update: 2.5 years and growing.

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By Courtney Bricker-Anthony, graduate student

Confronting the results of its 2012 workforce study highlighting that 80% or more of biomedical PhDs are employed in careers outside of conventional faculty positions, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) embarked on an ambitious mission to develop “bold and innovative approaches to broaden graduate and postdoctoral training.” This groundbreaking program, called BEST (Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training) was created to help train U.S. scientists for today’s diverse array of employment opportunities.

At Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, the workforce challenges faced by biomedical PhDs had been recognized early and steps to expand the activities of the Career Development Office, within the office of Biomedical Research Education and Training (BRET), had already taken place. This positioned the office to take advantage of the BEST opportunity and they applied for and received one of 10 BEST grants awarded in 2013. Roger Chalkley, D Phil, senior associate dean in the BRET office, Kathleen Gould, PhD, associate dean for biomedical sciences and director of Graduate Student Support, and Kim Petrie, PhD, director of Career Development, serve as the principle investigators on the grant.  Currently, the BEST program supports a consortium of 17 institutions and VU serves as the coordinating center, which is managed by D’Anne Duncan, PhD. The formation of the BEST consortium marked a national sea change in the attitude towards or importance placed on career training for biomedical scientists.

“This is the first time, at the national level, that there has been such a concerted effort to broadening the biomedical training experience to provide insight to careers outside of running research labs and holding faculty positions,” said Ashley Brady, PhD, assistant professor of Medical Education and Administration and manager of VU’s BEST-funded program, ASPIRE (Augmenting Scholar Preparation and Integration with Research-Related Endeavors). The ASPIRE program at VU seeks to accomplish the goals set forth by the BEST program by offering trainees career-oriented seminars, workshops, training modules and internships/externships.

Within just two and half years, VU’s ASPIRE program is already churning out success stories. Lindsey Morris, PhD, procured a senior data scientist position at axialHealthcare after her postdoc at VU. She credits the ASPIRE program with her post-graduate success: “I took full advantage of what the ASPIRE program and BRET office had to offer. I don’t think I could be in this position without their support.”

Lindsey embraced the ASPIRE programming and regularly attended the ASPIRE Postdoctoral Café, a bi-monthly career session for postdocs with topics like writing better cover letters and informational interviewing. She met her current boss from axialHealthcare at PhD Career Connections, a monthly seminar series that seeks to expose trainees to different scientific career options. Another opportunity Lindsey took advantage of was ASPIRE to Connect, a half-day workshop focused on improving networking skills.

Overall, Lindsey was very impressed by everything BEST and ASPIRE had to offer her. “I think they’re doing an excellent job of addressing the needs of trainees, both nationally and locally. They really tapped into what trainees need in terms of their career development that you just don’t get sitting in a classroom,” said Lindsey. “The BRET office is designing programming that really prepares you to enter the job market. Now, I’m in a job that I always envisioned myself doing. I think that’s a really powerful statement about the effectiveness of the BRET office and ASPIRE.”

Back at VU, the ASPIRE program is flourishing and people are starting to take notice. Beyond the Lab, a series of 34 VU alumni interviews showcasing a variety of career paths, has even been embedded in the professional development section of Neuronline, a Society for Neuroscience website, and the videos have been viewed more than 6000 times.

The ASPIRE training modules, which cover business/entrepreneurship, communication, clinical research and teaching, attracted nearly 300 individual trainees over the past two years. These modules provide trainees with invaluable experience in their fields of interest.

In the past two years, the Biomedical Research and the Media module has instructed 12 trainees on writing for print journalism, media training and effective use of social media. These trainees pitched, wrote and published over 20 articles published in the VUMC Reporter, one of which became the sixth most-read article in the Reporter in 2015. Dikshya Bastakoty, a recent PhD from VU, spoke highly of her experience in the module: “I learned how to communicate science effectively to a general audience. It improved my writing skills and added to my portfolio of work. My new job involves significant writing and my skills and experience from this module were key in helping me get the job.”

The ASPIRE program is also boosting trainee success with the NIH Clinical Center’s annual course, Introduction to the Principals and Practice of Clinical Research (IPPCR). In 2015, 70 trainees learned about statistical methods, study design and ethical and regulatory matters pertaining to clinical studies. Over 30 trainees completed and passed the optional NIH exam. Kim Riley, PhD, went on to a clinical research coordinator position at Duke University after IPPCR. “Due to IPPCR, I realized that clinical trial management was a viable career option for me. After I graduated from VU, I was offered a position at Duke, which I know was heavily due to the fact that I took the IPPCR course,” said Kim. “I’m very thankful to everyone who helped develop the ASPIRE program.”

Another thriving facet of ASPIRE is the internship/externship program. The ASPIRE program is currently fostering relationships with local businesses and universities such as Insight Genetics, Fisk University, Tennessee Brew Works and axialHealthcare to provide trainees with hands-on training in their desired fields. Thus far, 26 trainees have participated in externships, or job shadowing experiences, in areas such science policy and clinical research.  In addition, a total of eighteen internship positions have been offered since August in a variety of career areas including science policy, college teaching, healthcare data analytics and craft beer brewing.  Rubin Baskir, a graduate student, recently completed a policy internship with Life Science Tennessee, the local life sciences industry organization.  According to Baskir, “The work I have done so far with the BRET office's help has shown me how valuable a science background is in crafting policy and has allowed me to make connections in this arena.”

"ASPIRE is off to a soaring start. One key to our early successes is the enthusiasm and participation of faculty and staff from across our institution. Local business leaders have also given generously of their time and expertise. I fully expect that ASPIRE's success will attract new partnerships between our institution and local industry as well as serving as an example of how to develop effective PhD career training opportunities," says Gould.