Continuing a legacy of excellence
By Wendy Bindeman
The Office of Biomedical Research Education and Training is one of the centerpieces of Vanderbilt’s biomedical graduate programs, and it is one of the first points of contact between prospective students and the school. Since its inception, it has been run by Roger Chalkley, former senior associate dean for biomedical research, education, and training and professor of molecular physiology and biophysics. With Chalkley entering a well-deserved retirement this summer and Kathleen Gould, professor of cell and developmental biology, taking up the mantle of senior associate dean for BRET, the BRET Office—and the biomedical graduate training it helps to manage—is entering a period of transition.
The BRET Office was founded in 1998, but it expanded over the years to include an office dedicated to postdoctoral trainees in 1999, an Office of Career Development and an Office of Outcomes Research in 2005, and, in 2011, additional career development programming that has grown into today’s ASPIRE program.
Today, the BRET Office oversees and coordinates many aspects of Vanderbilt’s biomedical graduate school offerings, including the IGP and QCB—that is, the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences and the Quantitative and Chemical Biology umbrella programs—the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity or IMSD, the Vanderbilt Program in Molecular Medicine (recently rebranded as the ASPIRE Path in Molecular Medicine), and the ASPIRE career development program. It also runs the administrative side of graduate training, managing the training grants that provide support for graduate students and postdocs, graduate student payroll, and admissions and recruiting for the IGP and QCB.
Under the training umbrella
Most biomedical graduate students at Vanderbilt begin their training in one of the two “umbrella” programs. Students are initially admitted to a broad, interdisciplinary cohort, and they spend their first year working in different wet or computational labs and completing general coursework. At the end of that year, they join a lab and a corresponding program or department.
Although such programs are common now across the country, Vanderbilt was a pioneer of this graduate training structure in the 1990s, thanks to the work of Chalkley and John Perkins, who was then dean of the UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.
Most biomedical Ph.D. students join Vanderbilt through the IGP, which was founded in 1992 and was, at the time, only the second umbrella program in the United States. All other students matriculate through Vanderbilt’s other umbrella program, the QCB, or, less commonly, directly through several individual departments.
The QCB was started in 2000 by Albert Beth, now emeritus professor of molecular physiology and biophysics, and Dave Piston, then a faculty member in the same department and now a professor of cell biology and physiology at Washington University in St. Louis. Initially called CPB-A (for Chemical and Physical Biology – Admissions), it was renamed “QCB” in 2012. The QCB is targeted toward students with backgrounds in chemistry, physics, computer science, engineering, or mathematics, and its first-year coursework and programming are structured to provide a bridge into the biological and biomedical realm. Currently, Professor of Pharmacology Tina Iverson serves as the director and Professor of Biochemistry Dr. Vito Quaranta serves as associate director.
James Patton, a professor of biological sciences who has been the director of the IGP since 1999, stepped down from the role earlier this year. “It has been a pleasure and a privilege to lead the IGP,” Patton said. He is being succeeded by Associate Professor of Pharmacology Barbara Fingleton, who began her tenure as director in July 2021. Thanks in large part to stellar leadership, both umbrella programs have excellent track records of setting students up for successful completion of their Ph.D. training.
A period of transitions
Vanderbilt’s approach to graduate education constantly evolves to best serve its students. The latest round of curriculum revision for IGP has been in the works since April 2020, and the changes are rolling out beginning with this year’s incoming IGP class.
Previously, IGP students began rotations during which they “tried out” various thesis lab “candidates” within weeks of beginning the program. Each of four rotations lasted eight weeks, spanning the entire first year. Concurrently, students completed their first-year coursework, which comprised a survey course during the first semester and a mix of four-week modules and semester-long courses of the students’ choice during the second semester.
Under the revised curriculum, students who matriculated in August for the 2021–22 academic year will focus exclusively on coursework until October before beginning their rotations. Although the number of rotations will stay the same, each one will only be four weeks long. Additionally, the new curriculum will shift away from didactic lectures to include more primary literature and subsequent discussion, enhanced training in computational techniques, additional sessions in scientific rigor and reproducibility, and general professional development.
According to Gould, these changes make Vanderbilt’s curriculum more competency-based, in line with current best practices for graduate education. The new curriculum is designed to prepare the students with the skills they are likely to need after graduating, such as familiarity with coding and programing.
Additionally, by removing the multitasking stress at the beginning of the year and giving students more time to identify potential rotation labs, these adjustments address some of the recommendations made by the Dean’s Advisory Council for Mental Health and Wellness, which was established in 2020, for reducing student stress and improving overall wellness.
The BRET Office also coordinates and administers the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity, which was founded by Chalkley and Linda Sealy in 1998 with the aim of recruiting and retaining talented biomedical graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds. Like Chalkley, Sealy, who was until her recent retirement an associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion and a research professor of molecular physiology and biophysics, was instrumental in the development of strong training programs at Vanderbilt, especially for students from backgrounds historically underrepresented in biomedical science.
The IMSD began as a post-baccalaureate program for students from diverse races, ethnicities, genders, and socioeconomic statuses, and it quickly expanded into comprehensive support for Ph.D. students. The program provides funding and resources for students during their first year, as well as programming and social activities throughout their graduate careers. It is one of the most successful graduate school diversity programs in the United States, and to date it has led to the graduation of nearly 200 Ph.D. students from backgrounds underrepresented in science.
ASPIRE to a diversity of careers
The BRET Office is also the home of a variety of career development resources for biomedical Ph.D. students and postdocs. Its flagship program is ASPIRE—Augmenting Scholar Preparation and Integration with Research-Related Endeavors—which is directed by Gould and managed by a team of dedicated staff.
Gould joined Vanderbilt in 1991 and became the director of graduate studies for the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology in 2006. In 2012 she joined the BRET Office of Career Development, where she has been instrumental in the creation and expansion of ASPIRE.
Gould describes the decision to create the ASPIRE program as “data driven.” A 2012 report by the National Institutes of Health showed that many Ph.D. graduates took positions either entirely outside of academia, or within academia but outside of the traditional tenure-track path. Vanderbilt recognized the importance of preparing students for those positions, and Gould and the BRET staff began developing a suite of resources to do so.
Along with Kim Petrie, another early staff member in the Office of Career Development and currently the assistant dean for biomedical career development, Gould wrote a grant proposal for the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training program that fully funded the first five years of the ASPIRE program, beginning in 2014.
BEST was an NIH-funded initiative to support enhanced career resources for biomedical graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. A total of 17 institutions were awarded one-time BEST grants, Vanderbilt included. Since its creation, ASPIRE has continued to develop and expand, and it has become a nationally recognized career resource for biomedical research trainees.
The ASPIRE program offers an array of resources for graduate students and postdocs to explore and prepare for their future careers. It focuses on six main areas of career development: career exploration and decision-making; professional development; national career development research and best practices; alumni relations, outcomes, and development; employer relations and workforce development; and campus partnerships and faculty outreach.
Among its offerings are an annual career symposium that focuses on a different field open to biomedical Ph.D.’s each year. This year, for example, focused on “Careers for the Citizen Scientist,” which, according to the Oxford Dictionary, refers to “a scientist whose work is characterized by a sense of responsibility to serve the best interests of the wider community.” The event highlighted careers for students interested in science communication; other symposia have focused on industry positions and academic-track opportunities.
ASPIRE coordinates internal and external internships to help trainees build skills and try out potential future paths, provides CV editing and interview preparation services for trainees, facilitates a variety of mechanisms for trainees to connect with alumni who work in their desired fields, provides an array of professional development seminars and courses, and much more. One popular event series is the “Ph.D. Career Stories,” a monthly seminar that brings in Vanderbilt alumni and other Ph.D.-level professionals to talk with current biomedical trainees about their career paths and current positions.
The newest offering of the ASPIRE program is the “ASPIRE to Innovate” fellowship, which accepted its first fellow, Karrie Dudek, this year. Open to graduating students and postdocs, the program provides an opportunity for interns to collaborate with the BRET Office and the Center for Technology Transfer and Commercialization for two years to commercialize an existing technology developed at Vanderbilt and to receive training in entrepreneurship and commercialization.
Thanks to the breadth of services it offers and its cadre of devoted staff, the BRET Office frequently receives rave reviews from graduate students.
“BRET has been extremely valuable for my career goals in a variety of ways,” said Sam Dooyema, a graduate student in the Microbe-Host Interactions program. “Ph.D. Career Stories and the annual career symposium exposed me to potential jobs I had no idea existed and got me excited to research similar opportunities. However, the most valuable resource of the BRET Office is probably the people. They truly want to see me succeed!”
A recent graduate in pharmacology, Francis Prael, added that the plethora of networking opportunities provided by the office was “essential” for getting a job after graduate school. As the BRET Office and Vanderbilt’s graduate programs evolve, Gould emphasized that a main priority will be to “continue Roger Chalkley’s legacy of innovation and service to students, postdocs, and faculty.”