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Visiting Fellows Group Offers Help at NIH, Back Home

By Cathy Kristiansen

Visiting fellows who travel far from their home nations to work at NIH will have more networking avenues and help from NIH and its alumni colleagues, both on campus and when they return home, thanks to the formation of a new grassroots group — the NIH visiting fellows committee (NIHVFC), which became official on July 1.

The genesis of NIHVFC came in 2001, when the Fogarty International Center's deputy director, Dr. Sharon Hrynkow, initiated discussions with junior scientists at NIH from countries in the developing world and countries in economic transition to discuss how FIC could help recruit postdoctoral trainees from these countries and help them return home afterwards. These initial discussions came in response to an informal FIC study, which showed that of the 2,500 foreign trainees in the NIH Visiting Program, only 20 were from sub-Saharan Africa; other parts of the world in which the burden of disease is exceptionally high were also poorly represented.

Helping improve quality of life for visiting fellows are (from l) FIC director Dr. Gerald Keusch; Dr. Kamala Tirumalai, NIAID; Dr. Valeria de Mello Coelho, NIA; and FIC deputy director Dr. Sharon Hrynkow.

The immediate result was the launch of the Global Health Research Initiative Program for New Foreign Investigators (GRIP), which supports the return home of young NIH-trained foreign investigators from the developing world by providing $50,000 per year, for 3 to 5 years, in the form of an R01 grant. Since its launch in 2002, GRIP has supported 25 young researchers returning home, providing partial salaries and support for the development of highly qualified scientific research projects. Furthermore, since 2001, visiting fellows and FIC have been working together on grant-writing and mock peer review sessions to help fellows gain as much experience as possible in grant-writing while at NIH.

NIHVFC is a natural extension of the development of GRIP. More than 30 fellows from several countries attended the committee's first official meeting, held recently at Lawton Chiles International House. Invited participants included senior NIH leaders who were asked to serve as advisors to the group.

The NIHVFC will be led in its first phase by Dr. Valeria de Mello Coelho from Brazil and Drs. Devyani Haldar and Kamala Tirumalai from India. Initially, NIHVFC will represent fellows from developing countries only, in particular from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, with a view to expanding membership to all fellows at a later time. ("Developing countries" is an operational term based on gross national product per capita and does not necessarily reflect a country's development status.) "The committee's main goal is to increase networking ability among visiting fellows while they are on campus and to help maintain their connection to the NIH and to each other after they return home," Tirumalai said. "People returning to their home countries often have spent many years away and it can be a struggle to navigate the bureaucracy to establish yourself professionally." But, if fellows maintain links with NIH, "both parties can benefit," she said.

Participants in the visiting fellows meeting gather at the Stone House.

The NIHVFC intends to develop strategies to improve the training experience of visiting fellows while they are at NIH, and to encourage the establishment and maintenance of strong institutional links of fellows with NIH after they complete their training and go back to their home countries. Furthermore, the group wants to strengthen mechanisms to help fellows cope with the many questions that arise during their NIH stay about administrative and career issues. NIHVFC will work closely with the NIH fellows committee and other existing groups as it moves forward.

NIHVFC proposes to establish an alumni database as well as a web site for members. The database, which will be supported by FIC and NIEHS, will be a major tool for NIH-trained scientists and will allow them to access colleagues — past, present and future — as they continue their research careers. NIHVFC proposes that a pilot alumni association focus on four countries: Brazil, India, Mexico and South Africa. "These countries have a critical mass of former visiting fellows and local sponsors willing to provide infrastructure support and to facilitate access to information," Coelho said.

FIC director Dr. Gerald Keusch acknowledged the group's great progress in such a short time and offered to work across NIH to identify funds needed to support key efforts.

"Fogarty has been supporting us all this while," Tirumalai said, offering special thanks to FIC's Hrynkow for her "unflagging" support. She urged all visiting fellows to become involved in the group and help it thrive.

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