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Visitor Center To Be Transformed
Improvements to Grad Student Life, Training Forecast

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

While NIH decided this past summer not to go forward with establishing a degree-granting graduate school on campus, substantial improvements in the care and, yes, feeding of Ph.D. candidates are nonetheless imminent, reported NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gotttesman at a town meeting for NIH's graduate students Sept. 15 in Masur Auditorium.


Several dozen of the roughly 150 graduate students on campus heard Gottesman report that initiatives are already under way to create and staff an Office of Graduate Studies, renew the mentoring role of senior scientists, focus more strongly on the desires of the students than on the needs of particular laboratories, craft new curricula that take advantage of NIH's unique strengths, create home-grown thesis committees on campus, and, perhaps most suddenly, transform the Nobel Terrace portion of the Visitor Information Center in Bldg. 10 into a social center primarily for graduate students. This center, which could be ready "before the snow flies," said Gottesman, would feature refreshments, café tables on whose whiteboard tops students could scribble theories, book kiosks, and newspapers from around the world. "My actual dream is to have free food at the graduate student café," quipped Gottesman, "and a non-alcoholic happy hour."

The intramural champion of grad student training at NIH for the past several years, Gottesman began the meeting with a review of recent efforts to improve relations with doctoral candidates. "Believe it or not, our motives are altruistic — it's a real pleasure to see our graduate students learn and grow here, and become better scientists." He said that new recruits to NIH's senior scientific staff tend to be much more enthusiastic about attracting and teaching graduate students than many of the old guard, who have resisted the notion of NIH as schoolhouse.

A group of about 20 scientists interested in graduate education, along with Gottesman and NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus, identified two challenges for NIH: How to improve the lot of current graduate students, and how to develop new graduate activities here. "We also plan a series of focus groups with potential (academic) partners to see what would interest them about collaborations with NIH," Gottesman said.

Three suggestions emerged from the group, he reported. First, do a better job of mentoring and supporting research activities. "There was a strong suggestion that we develop our own graduate thesis committees," noted Gottesman. Second, develop some serious grad-level coursework, including seminars and lectures, that would attract not just graduate students but also postdocs. "These courses would complement the curricula already offered by FAES (the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences). We could offer particularly strong classes in translational research — how basic science ends up at the bedside. We have a lot of people who do that extremely well."

The third suggestion addresses concern about the isolation of grad students on campus. "Most of them only know one or two other peers," Gottesman said. "Dr. Varmus is interested in creating a student center, and feels strongly that it be as central as possible to the campus. He has suggested we adapt a portion of the Visitor Information Center to this purpose." Gottesman displayed a poster with architect's drawings of how the current VIC could be modified at minimal time and expense to better suit the needs of grad students. "It might even become a cyber café," he predicted, "with computer terminals at the tables, which is the current mode attractive to many people. It could become a very popular place." Once the new Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center is built, a more specialized grad student space could be crafted, he continued. The Office of Graduate Studies (OGS) could be appended to that social area.

Voicing the concerns of the students was Deanna Buck of NINDS' behavioral and neurosciences unit. She and a committee of peers recommend an orientation package for new students; a grad student coordinator who could help students match their interests with the most appropriate labs; notification about any grant or award opportunities for which grad students could apply; better liaison between NIH and the students' home institutions; a social center somewhat more quiet and intimate than the one envisioned by Gottesman; grad student representation on bodies that make decisions affecting students' lives; an ombudsman (NIH ombudsman Dr. Howard Gadlin was in the audience and assured the students that he and his staff of four are available to them); more sensitive mentorship taking students' intellectual interests into account, not just acceding to what one student referred to as the "dog-race atmosphere" of research pushed by news headlines; temporary low-cost housing; financial aid in the form of tuition reimbursement or deferral of student loans (Buck said that some grad students here take on part-time jobs, "which is unheard of back at our home institutions." Concurred Gottesman, "I don't think students should have outside jobs — your work as grad students is hard enough."); a Web site; and a refreshment fund to entertain guest speakers at seminars and journal clubs.

Gottesman answered each suggestion in turn: there will be an OGS with a respected director, orientation presentations and materials will be first-rate, thesis committees will be composed of people "dedicated to you, not to your supervisor, necessarily," and a Web site and listserv will be no trouble to provide.

He said NIH will look into the possibility of leasing low-cost housing nearby, which he called "a major problem for many of our training programs."

During a brief Q&A session, Gottesman: agreed that grad students should never be transformed into technicians by aggressive lab chiefs; pledged to expand partnerships with more universities, even distant ones; applauded the participation of grad students in FARE, an award competition chiefly among postdocs in which grad students did proportionately better than the postdocs in the past year; and seconded the notion of adding a Grad Student Fair to the annual Research Festival.

The meeting ended with refreshments as the group gave Gottesman a unanimous go-ahead to proceed with plans to transform part of the VIC this fall.

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