The Atlanta Program

In September 2013, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced awards to strengthen the biomedical research workforce. Emory University, in collaboration with the Georgia Institute of Technology, were among the first 10 recipients of the NIH Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) awards. Later in 2014, the NIH funded an additional seven institutions; there are now 17 BEST awardees that make up the BEST NIH Consortium.  

The Atlanta BEST program will experiment with and implement innovative programmatic alternatives for adapting predoctoral and postdoctoral training to meet 21st-century scientific workforce needs by engaging in a transformation of the culture of training—in both a top-down and bottom-up approach— by creating new opportunities for both the trainees and the training/mentoring faculty. 

Aim 1: Expose trainees to a broad variety of career pathways and career development approaches.

Aim 2: Provide trainees deep immersion in a specific career pathway beyond academic science.

Aim 3: Better equip faculty at Emory and Georgia Tech to support and train graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for the 21st-century workforce.

Emory and Georgia Tech Partnership

The Atlanta BEST Program is yet another exciting collaboration between Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, specifically on the part of the gradate schools and postdoctoral offices on both campuses that serve the biological and biomedical disciplines. The Atlanta BEST Program is designed to reshape the preparation of the biomedical workforce in Georgia’s two top research institutions.

Our approaches here in Atlanta include self-reflection, career exploration, professional development, and leadership training for doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows (collectively called trainees). With Emory and Georgia Tech being the only two universities that are partnering among the 17 BEST Awardees, we are leveraging the strengths of both universities.

Approach

This effort aims to transform the culture of training by creating new opportunities for trainees, training and mentoring faculty, and alumni who are practicing professionals in research-related careers.

Trainees

We admit one cohort of 20 to 30 trainees per year. Each trainee is in the program for two years, although the trainee is  encouraged to be involved throughout his/her training and careers. The individual will go through a series of workshops and experiences that include:

  • Self-assessments to understand one's interests and bring more awareness to  preferred work environments and styles
    • Birkman Method
    • Strong Interest Inventory
    • Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument  
    • MyIDP-Individual Development Plan
    • Hands-on, practical career and professional development workshops
    • Exploration of  career options through speakers, networking, informational interviews, resources, BEST staff and faculty, and part-time internships  
    • Leadership training, which includes training in Communication, Team Building and Peer Mentoring, Emotional Intelligence, and Conflict Management.
    • Commercialization series to learn the basics of patents, business, and technology transfer

Faculty

Faculty activities initially will target the principal investigators/advisers of Atlanta BEST trainees, stakeholders from graduate programs and postdoctoral offices, and a broader set of faculty and staff who are involved in the career development and training of biomedical researchers. Workshops related to lab leadership, trainee career development, and mentoring challenges for faculty will be scheduled throughout the semesters. {See here for upcoming faculty events}

Alumni and Practicing Professionals

Practicing professionals who have PhDs in biomedically related fields are also critical partners in helping the BEST programs have a salutary impact on the career and professional-development approaches that result from these programs. These professionals can engage in a variety of ways. Their role is to inform and assist with implementation of training for the array of professional occupations available to well-trained biomedical-related scientists.

Cohorts of Trainees 

Our Atlanta program primarily serves the broad biomedical communities at Emory and Georgia Tech. We also have dedicated trainees who participate in cohorts through a tailored career exploration and professional-development activities. Atlanta BEST trainees are formally admitted into cohorts through an application process and a formal letter of support from their mentors. They are competitively selected PhD students (third year+ and passed doctoral qualifying exams), as well as established postdoctoral fellows with biomedical backgrounds that include biology, neuroscience, immunology, pharmacology, chemistry, genetics, biostatistics, and engineering.  

The broad foundational knowledge and skills the trainees receive is subdivided in the following way:

Year One consists of small-group activities that facilitate community and team building, exercise of leadership, peer mentoring, and executive functions. Goals of the first year of the BEST program are to

  1. Generate self-awareness that influences career choices;
  2. Develop team-building abilities and leadership skills to facilitate career success;
  3. Connect trainees to formal and informal networking related to their chosen career path;
  4. Provide an accessible, multilevel mentoring program and a cadre of experts in various career paths.

Year Two is more independent in nature and involves immersion in the track of choice, with experiential activities, networking, coursework, and part-time internships as options.

Takeaways so far

We have learned a lot since the launch of the program in March 2013. One of the biggest lessons has been the cohort model. The value of a cohort model is that groups of trainees are building the basis of this culture change through community building and peer mentoring. They are learning together what their interests are, what their career choices are, and what questions to ask. And, at the same time, they are supporting and guiding each other through the sometimes painful process of career and self-exploration.

We are learning that the power of a community—being supported by people who are going through similar experiences—cannot be underestimated. Belonging to a cohort allows for confidence building, accountability, and guidance—three critical aspects  needed during career exploration and development.  The main catalysis in trainee development and confidence in career directions comes from investing time in 

  • self-refection and self-awareness
  • storytelling and communication skills
  • community building and maintenance