Public Release: 

ASBMB wins National Science Foundation grant to expand mentorship program

Postdoctoral fellows and early-career science faculty to be partnered with accomplished researchers in their fields through mentorship program aimed at promoting diversity in the scientific workforce

American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

ROCKVILLE, Md., July 23, 2015 -- The National Science Foundation awarded the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology a grant of half a million dollars to support a comprehensive mentoring program for postdoctoral fellows and early-career faculty members. The program focuses on grantsmanship skills and career-development strategies. It also promotes diversity in the scientific workforce by supporting underrepresented minority postdoctoral scientists and new assistant professors in their efforts to secure research funding.

Members of the ASBMB's Minority Affairs Committee started the training program, now called Interactive Mentoring Activities for Grantsmanship Enhancement, IMAGE for short, as an annual workshop in 2013. Since then, 93 percent of mentees reported that participation in the workshop increased their confidence in applying for funding and nearly 56 percent of alumni from the 2013 workshop have obtained funding. Marion Sewer, a professor at the University of California, San Diego and deputy chair of the ASBMB's Minority Affairs Committee, is a principal investigator for IMAGE.

"What makes this program unique from most other grant-writing workshops is that most grant-writing workshops typically have program officers and established principal investigators just presenting information on the components of a strong grant or the missions of a funding agency," said Sewer. "This one enables each participant to actually present his or her research and get real-time feedback."

The NSF grant will support IMAGE for the next three years and not only increase the number of participants able to attend the workshop but will help organizers foster peer-to-peer relationships and long-term professional bonds between mentors and mentees. New investigators will receive one-on-one mentoring in the preparation and submission of NSF grant applications, and postdoctoral mentees will learn effective strategies for obtaining faculty positions.

Takita Sumter, chair of the Minority Affairs Committee and chemistry professor at Winthrop University said that it's been rewarding to work with up-and-coming investigators through the program. She said that the committee hopes their plan to include post-workshop mentoring will have a significant impact on participants' success. "We're going to try to pair them based on research expertise, so we'll hopefully find someone within the society who is in a similar field and able to give project-specific guidance," said Sumter.

The grant also will help organizers publish the best practices taught at IMAGE workshops online to reach a larger audience and build a network of past and present mentees.

Central Michigan University Assistant Professor Benjamin Swarts researches tuberculosis and participated in the program in 2013.

"Inspired by the workshop, I have a 'living' five-year plan document that, in addition to keeping on track with administration, has helped me organize my overarching plans into something that is tangible," said Swarts.

The 2015 workshop was held in June in Washington, D.C., and hosted 31 mentees and 10 mentors. During the workshops, mentees present research proposals and receive constructive feedback from mentors and peers. Then they attend a series of talks about how to start a lab or conduct independent research. Accomplished, federally funded scientists act as mentors, while NSF program directors and National Institutes of Health program officers are on hand to discuss how the grant review process works.

Squire Booker, Pennsylvania State University professor and 2015 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, is also a principal investigator for IMAGE.

"The idea is that participants can learn from the mentors as well as from each other, and it gives them a chance to network with their own peer groups who are going through the process of securing their first federal grant at the same time."

Researchers are chosen for IMAGE based on their research interests. To create a diverse cohort each year, Sewer said IMAGE organizers target recruitment towards underrepresented minorities, selecting assistant professors in the first years of their tenure-track positions and postdoctoral fellows who are interested in pursuing academic careers. She said they also look for participants from a variety of geographic locations, try to create a gender balance and recruit faculty from both primarily undergraduate institutions and minority-serving institutions.

"Many studies have shown that the more diverse a population is, whether it be scientifically or in any other official arena, you get stronger, more creative input that pretty much encompasses a wide variety of perspectives," said Sewer.

Sumter added that when more advanced scientists are diversely represented, burgeoning scientists who are looking at that population will be able to "find people that look like them and who will inspire them to see this is a realistic career goal."

The ASBMB's Minority Affairs Committee expressed confidence that IMAGE, backed by the NSF grant, will enrich the scientific community by helping scientists develop the skills they need for long-term professional success.

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