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STEP Program Celebrates 40th Anniversary
By Rich McManus
Of all the prestigious and named lectureships held annually at NIH, none may be more consistently engaging and provocative to the widest audience than those sponsored by a 40-year-old revolving aggregation of extramural science and administrative staff who go by the prosaic name of STEP, or Staff Training in Extramural Programs.
The acronym might not be sexy, but the topics of its talks are often irresistible. For example, the leadoff lead-off lecture in the 2003-2004 series of eight seminars, which began Oct. 14, was "Simply Irresistible! The Science of Attraction." Later topics in this year's series are taken straight from the headlines Do vaccines occasionally do harm as well as good? What about the role of children in research? Might it be wise, for health's sake, to adopt the mantra, "Don't worry, be happy?"
Not all the lectures work so hard to catch your eye at the checkout counter. This year's roster also includes titillation-free offerings on workplace networking, evaluating NIH programs (hey, this is work, not the Letterman show) and how statistics lead to confident conclusions. Where else but at a STEP lecture, though, are you going to hear a respected visiting scientist lay out an argument that we should all head down to police headquarters and voluntarily give up a sample of our DNA so that the cops will have an easier time identifying us if we are A) involved in some future crime, or B) blown to bits in some coming Armageddon?
STEP is much more than good box office, though. It began in 1963, when Dr. Stuart Sessoms, then NIH deputy director, sent a memo to institute directors and division chiefs establishing "a committee on Professional Staff Training in Extramural Programs" (the initial P was dropped a year later, in order to broaden the program's appeal). Ten people were selected to serve for a year during which they would find ways to "provide opportunities for staff to accelerate professional growth, increase competency and continue development of necessary skills in grants administration and management." STEP founders also directed the personnel office to commit staff to supporting the program, a key factor in entrenching the effort.
Right from its Kennedy administration-era start, STEP emphasized public policy seminars, along with university classes and research, as well as in-house educational opportunities. The early seminars tended to be multi-day affairs, which over the decades were whittled back to more manageable one-day events. So busy was the membership in 1969 that, according to a STEP history, not a single member "could commit the time required for the management of the extramural forums program."
In 1971, the program grew from 10 to 12 members, then leapt to 26 as a formal STEP Program Office was established. When STEP marked its 25th anniversary in 1988, it began a new series of "Science for All" talks designed to be broadly appreciable, even by nonscientists. Typical themes then included "Genes and Chromosomes," and "The Immune System."
Today, STEP membership stands at about 30, said Dr. Chuck Selden, STEP director, with 10 new members recruited each year for rotating 3-year terms. "Selection is based on subjective assessments of three or more references on a handful of criteria," he said, the most important of which is excellence, not just in science but also in such intangibles as creativity, leadership, diplomacy and zeal to do well. Diversity is also important, not only with respect to gender or ethnic origin, but also with respect to organizational role, IC affiliation and experience.
The modern STEP is part of the Office of Extramural Research, and this year is chaired by NICHD's Dr. Deborah Henken, with Dr. Mike Sesma of NIMH as vice chair. They and their colleagues subdivide into committees and come up with training events in five general categories: Science for All, Workplace Strategies, Administrative Strategies, Science in the Public Health and Current Controversies in Medicine.
The centerpiece of yearly planning is a 2-day retreat, usually in late spring, when the group sequesters itself and winnows some 30 finalists out of 100 suggested topics into a syllabus of 8-10 events, said Selden. The initial ideas come from individual NIH extramural staff members at any grade, from all institutes and centers.
"The retreat is where the initial planning for session content is done; the session abstracts are written there," Selden said. "Speakers might be suggested there, but the recruitment process starts after the retreat." Final sign-off for each year's program is by the NIH deputy director for extramural research, in this case, Dr. Belinda Seto, who is acting in that role.
STEP chair Henken, a health scientist administrator in the Developmental Biology, Genetics and Teratology Branch, is in her third year of membership and hopes to complete a fourth year as advisor to the program. "I learned about STEP when I moved to extramural administration and joined the Grants Associates (GA) Program in 1995," she said. "The first offering I attended was 'New Pressures on Biomedical Research: Managed Health Care Meets the Ivory Tower.' I thought it was awesome. As a GA, I had to do a lot of course work more than 400 hours and I remember enjoying the STEP offerings more than most and thinking how timely they were.
Henken observes that, as NIH has grown administratively more sophisticated, extramural staff have been privy to ever-widening modes of training, from the core curriculum of the Orientation to Extramural Activities class overseen by Selden's office (he is extramural staff training officer as well as STEP director), to "very focused" offerings by CIT and the Work/Life Center. "So STEP has taken on the charge of finding and providing training in those areas that are cross-cutting, creative, unique, timely and might just slip through the cracks if we don't provide it," she said. "We look for those training opportunities that might not be brought to light, if not for our activities."
STEP at 40 trains far more people than it did in its youth, too. "With the use of videocast, we are now reaching hundreds of folks," Henken noted. "Last year, the 'Forensic Medicine: Unraveling the Riddles' [at which a company scientist called for Americans to voluntarily hand over their DNA signatures] was seen by over 1,140 NIH staff. This does not include those who accessed the archives after the offering."
Adds Sesma, "The availability of videocast has been very important because with our increased workloads we are often not able to drop in for one talk or even attend events on the main campus...most of the extramural staff are no longer based on the main campus."
Asked whether STEP today is more than just a killer roster of must-see talks, Henken commented, "Absolutely...then , as now, members are nominated from the NIH community and are selected to serve. Folks who participate on STEP are enthusiastic, energetic and knowledgeable, and it's their commitment and hard work that make STEP such a wonderful group. I think that the committee also serves a valuable networking purpose and that long-term collegial relationships and true friendships are initiated, developed and sustained through this unique NIH venue."
Adds Selden, "Because the STEP committee is comprised of a broad sample of really energetic, insightful and creative NIH staff members, the training is always interesting and useful personally, and in more than half the sessions, directly useful and instructive to the work of administering the NIH extramural program."
"STEP is greater than the sum of its parts," says Sesma. "It's a great networking opportunity...you can usually find something useful in the slate of offerings and individual presentations, whether it's contacts in a given field, a list of references and web links from a speaker [or] new ideas about how to do your job." He also thinks STEP has matured with the times: "The committee seems to focus more on cross-cutting scientific and administrative issues that take into account the new emphasis on multidisciplinary approaches, innovative administrative practices and the impact of how the research enterprise is moving science, the public and the NIH mission. STEP is still willing to deal with controversy too."
The best long-term perspective on the program may belong to Patty Austin, who spent more than 20 years at STEP before becoming a training program administrator for NIH's eRA (electronic research administration) Project. "I used to be called the 'STEP mother,'" she jokes, "so now I guess I am a STEP fan." Like Henken and Selden, she emphasizes the pleasure of working closely with bright, creative people. "It was like playing office because there was so much to do and so many fun people to be around. I worked with several hundred committee members and thousands of extramural employees."
When she began her STEP tenure, Austin says the program's mailing list stood at 9,000, and grew to more than 20,000 by the time she left.
"The major change in my 20 years with STEP was technology," she recalls, noting that STEP adapted NIH's old Wylbur computing system for use as email as early as 1981. Two advances she cites are: using a list-serve for email marketing, and broadcasting the STEP events by NIH Videocast.
"STEP today is similar to the past in my opinion," she concludes. "It's NIH staff within all job categories trying to reach out and train other NIH employees with valuable information, be it for extramural job requirements, job enrichment, retreats or networking purposes."
To learn more about STEP at 40, call the program office at 435-8685.
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