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Investing in Early Career Investigators

September 12, 2017
The annual Junior PI retreat provides a forum for early career investigators to gain insight on building a research program, to learn about resources, and to network with colleagues. Photo credit: Michael Marsland

Training initiatives provide opportunities to shape tomorrow’s leaders

It is widely acknowledged that today’s early career investigators face greater obstacles than past generations. An increasing number of researchers are competing for the same or fewer funding dollars. The success rate for National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants is below 20 percent, which means that investigators must spend more of their time applying for funding instead of conducting research. Senior scientists are the recipients of the vast majority of grants—a major shift from 30 years ago—and the average age at which PhD scientists earn their first major grant has been around 42 since 2000.

The time commitment required to prepare competitive grant applications erodes the amount of time investigators can devote to establishing their own labs and formulating their scientific vision. For early career investigators, this is especially burdensome, leaving less room in their schedules to effectively train incoming lab members, connect and contribute to the scientific community both locally and internationally, and design and develop innovative research programs that advance the field.

In light of these challenges, it is critical that we invest in training, mentorship, and other opportunities to help ensure that early career investigators have the necessary tools and resources to navigate them. I’m especially pleased that the annual Junior PI Retreat and monthly junior PI lunches provide unique educational and networking opportunities for our talented young scientists.

Five years ago, Valentina Greco, PhD, sought support from then deputy dean Carolyn W. Slayman, PhD, deputy provost Frances Rosenbluth, PhD, and Scott Strobel, Vice President for West Campus Planning & Program Development (and now also deputy provost for teaching & learning) to help junior investigators navigate the complexities of establishing a research program. Together with colleagues Daniel Colón-Ramos, PhD, and Valerie Horsley, PhD, she organized the first Junior PI Retreat “How to Set Up a Successful Lab: A Guide to Hiring, Managing and Motivating a Team of Successful Scientists,” at which then provost Peter Salovey, PhD, gave the keynote address. The retreat, which is for instructors, assistant professors, and early career associate professors who are involved in basic science or translational research, is now an annual event. Participants from all corners of the university are welcome. There are also monthly lunches for junior PIs that feature a guest and topic relevant to early career investigators, such as the grant review process, time management, promotion, and work-life balance.

This year’s retreat, organized by Charles Dela Cruz, MD, PhD, and Shangqin Guo, PhD, featured presentations on grant opportunities, competitive grant applications, faculty awards, the journal editing process, and the promotion and tenure process. There were also informal breakout sessions and information tables from a number of YSM and University organizations.

I had the pleasure of attending the retreat in May, as well as a lunch in April. On both occasions I was struck by the energy and enthusiasm of this group of talented young scientists. These events highlight the importance of going beyond investing in promising young scientists by providing the resources and support they need to directly support their research. The retreat and lunches provide a platform for them to access information, gain insight and perspective from their colleagues, and learn from the experiences of those who have navigated the hurdles that researchers encounter. These gatherings are especially useful for new investigators, offering an opportunity to connect with their colleagues and identify helpful resources.

Most importantly, the programs help to support a social network of faculty peers with overlapping interests. We have learned that many faculty seek a greater sense of community at Yale, with more collaboration and interactions with fellow faculty members. Programs such as the junior PI lunches and retreat help faculty meet each other and develop relationships that in my experience can last a lifetime.

I’m gratified that with support from Steven Girvin, former deputy provost for research, and YSM, we are continuing the tradition started by Deputy Dean Slayman and President Salovey. Charles and Shangqin recently passed the torch to Jean-Ju Chung, PhD, who will take charge of organizing next year’s events. I believe that it is critical to both recognize the challenges faced by early career investigators and help them meet those challenges. I encourage our junior colleagues to take advantage of these opportunities and to get involved with this motivated group.

Robert J. Alpern, MD
Dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine