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In a Class of Their Own
PRATs Are Tomorrow's Leaders In Pharmacology

By Alisa Zapp Machalek

Photos by Ernie Branson and Alisa Zapp Machalek

Steroid receptor pharmacology. Computer simulation of synaptic transmission. Biochemical basis of learning and memory. These are just a few of the areas under investigation by the new class of PRAT [Pharmacology Research Associate] postdoctoral fellows. The class, comprising six fellows working at five NIH institutes, came on board Oct. 7.

The PRAT program, established in 1965 and sponsored by NIGMS, provides training, career advice and networking opportunities to postdoctoral researchers. It is a 2-year program with the possibility for a third year. The overarching goal of the program is to train leaders in the field of pharmacology, says Dr. Pamela Marino, one of the PRAT co-directors.

Like the field of pharmacology, the PRAT program is cross-disciplinary. Fellows choose a preceptor at any NIH institute or the FDA and may conduct research in a wide range of fields, including molecular pharmacology, signal transduction mechanisms, drug metabolism, immunopharmacology, chemistry and drug design, structural biology, endocrinology, bioinformatics and neuroscience.

Dr. Juanita Sharpe
Take for instance Dr. Daniel Kolker, a first-year PRAT. Before coming to NIH, he studied biological rhythms by investigating whether an animal's ability to learn varies throughout the day. Now, as a fellow in NICHD, he is uncovering the molecular basis for such behaviors by examining the cellular pathways that govern learning and memory.

Many of the fellows consider bumping shoulders with those in other fields to be one of the most valuable aspects of the program. They interact regularly through PRAT-sponsored seminars and events.

"Having peers outside my normal areas of interaction gives me a new and different perspective on my work," says Dr. Juanita Sharpe, a third-year fellow.

A monthly seminar series in which the second-year fellows present their work "allows you to practice talking about science so everyone can understand it — not just those in your field," Sharpe adds. That this skill will be especially useful for job interviews is not lost on the fellows who, as a rule, are clearly focused on their next career transition — into permanent employment.

According to Dr. Kate Prybylowski, a second-year fellow at NIDCD, "The PRAT program lets you see the best of what you'd get in academic research."

Most PRATs are considering jobs in academia, and if the trend continues, most will succeed, says Marino. Of the 340 PRAT program graduates, more than 90 percent have continued in research careers, with more than 60 percent of these in academia or other research institutions.

One goal of the PRAT program is to expose fellows to a wide range of career options. At the monthly seminar series, guests invited by the fellows present diverse career options open to pharmacologists.

Through these seminars, "PRAT confirmed what I want to do professionally," says Dr. Kristi Egland, a second-year fellow. For her, that is doing research and teaching in academia. "We had a seminar by [an] editor of PNAS. Not for a minute did I want to do that job, but knowing what other people do helps you be better at your job," which includes communicating with those in related professions. "People in all these fields interact — people in academia interact with those in industry through clinical trials. And," she adds with the pragmatic twist typical of PRATs, "they might also help pay for your research."

Dr. Benjamin Kagan, a first-year fellow at NIDDK, is excited about the opportunity the PRAT program provides to network with other pharmacology Ph.D.s.

Dr. Erik Snapp, who just graduated from the program, was impressed at how practical the career seminars are. "People from search committees come in and tell us what they're looking for, like how to interview for a job in biotechnology versus at a university, and how to write your CV" so that it is customized for the type of position you're interested in.

He says the careers that have been represented include not only academia and biotechnology, but also patent law, science education and grants administration.

"We've had a number of speakers who were former PRATs who have gone on to be successful in their careers. It's quite inspiring. It held out the hope that we might have a bright future." If history is any measure, this hope is not misplaced.

Applications Due Soon for Next Class of PRATs

The deadline for applications to the NIGMS Pharmacology Research Associate (PRAT) program is Jan. 3, 2003, for positions starting in October 2003. PRAT fellows receive competitive salaries as well as supply and travel funds to support research in their preceptors' laboratories. Candidates apply in conjunction with an identified preceptor, who may be any tenured or tenure-track scientist at NIH or FDA. For more information or application materials, contact the PRAT program assistant at 594-3583 or

A sister program called Clinical Pharmacology PRAT and nicknamed ClinPRAT was launched 4 years ago and is open to individuals with M.D. degrees. It is designed to create a cadre of scientists in the clinical development, evaluation and therapeutic use of small molecule- and biotechnology-based pharmacotherapy. For more information on this program, contact Dr. Art Atkinson at 435-8791 or or visit the ClinPRAT web site at

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