(Published in LINKS: Minority Research & Training - Fall 2011 )
Since 1987, the National Institute on Aging’s (NIA) annual Summer Institute on Aging Research has been a unique opportunity for early and mid-career researchers to interact with leaders in the field of aging and learn from them how to design strong projects, put together competitive grant applications, and overcome challenges associated with being a scientist. The Summer Institute provides a truly interactive experience for attendees. They participate in thought-provoking discussions with NIA senior staff, NIA grantees, and their peers; they receive personalized feedback about their project proposals; they get career guidance tailored to their experience and research interests. And, in the end, Summer Institute participants leave with more confidence as investigators and as members of NIA’s scientific community with a new network of friends and colleagues. Three participants from the 2011 Summer Institute were asked to share their thoughts about the experience.
Allison H. Burfield, R.N., M.S.N., Ph.D.
Affiliate Faculty, Gerontology Program, & Assistant Professor, School of Nursing; College of Health and Human Services; University of North Carolina, Charlotte
Did you know 500-year-old clams can provide important insights into aging processes and cardiovascular health, or that getting your manuscript accepted on the first submission is an exception to the rule? Did you know that there are answers to the age-old questions: how do I get funded, how do I even approach a grant, what type of grant should you apply for as an early stage investigator, or what is the role of a program officer? Now I know.
The Summer Institute was an unprecedented opportunity to meet leaders in aging research across disciplines for a week-long conference. Despite initial feelings of intimidation when talking to the best of the best about their research and then talking to them about my own research interests, the atmosphere of camaraderie and willingness to encourage was energizing. Picking out one favorite speaker from all of the wonderful presenters would be next to impossible—how can you choose between an exceptional presentation on animal models, an exacting lecture on statistical methodology, or an effective discussion on managing clinical trials? I feel this conference has given me the foundational skills and knowledge that will help me build my career.
One of the best parts of the week was the time spent with my classmates, hearing about their perspectives on challenges, barriers, or opportunities in their research. I was completely taken aback that my day could start at 6 a.m. and end at 10 p.m., and I remained thrilled to talk until the wee hours of the morning about concepts and ideas of aging. I learned from the other participants a tireless enthusiasm for aging research, humbleness despite all of the blinding brilliance of ideas, and a true sense of kinship. The connections I made with my fellow colleagues will help me build my research team and further the interdisciplinary connections that are so critical in the healthcare field and research.
Ingrained in my mind are the walks down that pebbled dirt road, my colleagues whizzing past me on bikes, and the friendships that I made...lasting professional connections that I hope to maintain for the rest of my career. The bonds we have formed during this extraordinarily hot summer are lasting. In fact, we all are already trying to come up with events to stay in contact, reminiscing about our wonderful memories and a level of gratitude that is hard to repay. Kinship. This is the one “summer camp” I would look forward to attending year after year, but I pass that baton on to next year’s attendees.
Dr. Burfield is an outcome researcher working to improve pain assessment and treatment in long-term care along with developing interdisciplinary education, service and research projects focused on older people.
Massimiliano Cerletti, Ph.D.
Associate Scientist, Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology; Harvard University and Harvard Stem Cell Institute
The NIA Summer Institute on Aging was truly an outstanding training experience, and far exceeded my expectations. Given the exceptional speakers and the impeccable organization, I would definitely recommend the Summer Institute to my peers and anyone who is new to the aging field. I enjoyed the whole process, but the interactive sections, like the mock study session and the videotaped mock press interview, were particularly helpful. Being at the Summer Institute allowed me to learn from and interact with diverse researchers working on aging, including leading physicians, basic scientists, psychologists, and gerontologists. These interactions will set the foundation for future collaborations with my peers in this country and overseas. Lively group discussions that were a central part of the Summer Institute program provided tremendous opportunities for productive cross-fertilization of ideas. The feedback I received will greatly help to steer the direction of my work at this critical juncture of my project and overall career.
Dr. Cerletti currently investigates intrinsic signaling pathways in muscle stem cells that are altered with aging and contribute to age-related decline in muscle regenerative potential.
Cheryl Clark, M.D., Sc.D.
Director, Health Equity Research & Intervention; Center for Community Health and Health Equity; Division of General Medicine & Primary Care; Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School
My experience at NIA’s Summer Institute was phenomenal. I applied to the Institute for the opportunity to be immersed in a diverse, trans-disciplinary environment that could stimulate new ideas for my research. I hoped to meet colleagues with whom I could collaborate and senior scientists in aging research who could offer direction for the next steps in my investigation. I was also curious about how my interests might fit into NIA’s portfolio. As I had hoped, over the week, I met colleagues—potential research partners—with diverse interests, including clinical dementia, stem cell research, neuroscience, environmental science, and the social sciences. The lectures were thought-provoking, and the faculty and speakers were warm and extremely helpful in answering questions about how my research relates to NIA. I found the consultations on statistical approaches to conducting longitudinal analyses particularly helpful, and it was great to get to meet face-to-face with senior scientists with whom I had previously corresponded. The mock review panel at the end of the Summer Institute offered unique insight into how to approach an R01 application.
Overall, my experience was very encouraging. I feel confident that NIA will continue to be a home for my research interests. I highly recommend the Summer Institute to anyone who is considering the next steps in building a career in aging research.
As a physician and social scientist, Dr. Clark studies disparities in healthy aging in diverse populations with a focus on cardiometabolic health. Her research is funded with a K08 grant from NIA.