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.
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 Ihope 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.
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 video-taped 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 withaging and contribute to age-related decline in muscle regenerative potential.
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 the NIA.
Diversity is a priority for the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—diversity among employees, research participants, and grantees. Results of an NIH-commissioned study, also funded by the National Science Foundation, and reported in the August 19, 2011 issue of the journal Science, were "troubling and unacceptable," NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., said in a statement.
The study looked at NIH’s record with the grantees, specifically exploring whether researchers of different races and ethnicities with similar research records and affiliations had a similar likelihood of being awarded a prized new NIH research project grant, a Type 1 R01.
“NIH commissioned this study because we want to learn more about the challenges facing the scientific community and address them head on. The results of this study are disturbing and disheartening, and we are committed to taking action,” Dr. Collins said.
He added, “The strength of the U.S. scientific enterprise depends upon our ability to recruit and retain the brightest minds, regardless of race and ethnicity. This study shows that we still have a long way to go. It is imperative that NIH and its partners in the biomedical research community take decisive steps to identify causes and implement remedies. NIH is already moving forward with a framework for action.”
NIH Principal Deputy Director, Lawrence A. Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D., presented study findings and NIH’s framework for action at NIA’s September National Advisory Council on Aging meeting. He reported that black applicants from 2000 through 2006 were 10 percentage points less likely than white applicants to be awarded a new R01 from NIH. This finding persisted after controlling for factors that typically may influence the chance of a grant award. Factors included education, previous NIH training, employer (i.e., institution’s reputation, success at receiving NIH funding), and previous NIH grant and/or NIH review experience.
Tabak indicated that Asian and Hispanic applicants also had lower success at receiving a new R01 grant. However, unlike the analysis of black R01 applicants, researchers did find factors that contributed to this disparity. Eliminating from the cohort those applicants who were not U.S. citizens when they received their Ph.D. effectively reduced the disparity between Asian and white applicant success, such that it was no longer statistically significant. In addition, controlling for the researcher’s employer, his or her previous NIH grant or review experience, and the Institute that received the application, mitigated the difference in Hispanic success. Finally, Tabak noted that of the 40,069 applicants looked at in this study, 1.5 percent self-identified as black or African American, 3.3 percent as Hispanic, 13.5 percent as Asian, and 71 percent as white. Race and ethnicity are not factors revealed to grant reviewers.
NIH has begun to implement action steps to rectify the problems identified in the analysis, including the development of a special working group focused on diversity in biomedical research. NIH has four goals:
For more about this study and NIH’s response: www.nih.gov/about/director/08182011_statement_diversity.htm ; citation: Ginther, et al., Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards, Science, 333, 1015 (2011).
NIA supports a variety of training opportunities for researchers from diverse backgrounds. The Summer Institute on Aging Research is one example. Another is NIA’s participation in the NIH-wide Diversity Supplement Program. Through this initiative, principal investigators can apply for supplemental funding to existing grants to recruit early career scientists (high school through junior faculty) underrepresented in biomedical research and health-related sciences. This program was established by NIH in 1989 in response to concerns about the low representation of racial and ethnic minorities in scientific research. In 2005, its scope was expanded to include investigators with physical disabilities and people from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.
Anecdotal information, such as success stories, from former supplement recipients support the merit of NIA’s participation in the program; however, more formal assessment helps track the impact of NIA’s efforts. This year, the Institute conducted an analysis of its 115 former diversity supplement recipients from 2002 through 2009, looking at their research careers since each received the supplement. The analysis identified three components that characterize a productive researcher career: grant application success rates, publication history, and current institutional placement.
The results of this analysis suggest the program’s value, notes Robin Barr, D.Phil., Director of NIA’s Division of Extramural Activities. “This analysis and a similar one that we conducted 7 years ago both point to a key role for this program in advancing diversity in aging research,” he says.
According to the analysis:
Barr says the analysis has some limitations—a small sample size, lack of qualitative data, and variables that make it difficult to demonstrate a direct link between the diversity supplement and future research productivity. Nevertheless, the data shows that supplement recipients have had success as researchers. “Though analyses alone cannot prove a particular award advanced a research career, these data, along with the many personal affirmations that we have heard, help to sustain our interest in the supplement and advocate its continuing use,” shares Barr.
For more information about the Diversity Supplement Program: www.nia.nih.gov/research/dea/nih-programs-diversify-research-workforce .
This October, NIA launched Go4Life ®, an exercise and physical activity campaign designed for older people. The public-private initiative led by NIA features a lively, interactive website with a variety of free resources, including an award-winning exercise and physical activity book, an exercise video, posters, and more than 40 tip sheets; many resources are available in Spanish. Visit: www.nia.nih.gov/Go4Life 
Available in bulk quantities, NIA’s new bookmark has a nature theme on front and a watermark feather on back with information about how to order NIA’s free materials. Order online: www.nia.nih.gov/health 
NIA’s tip sheet, Finding Your Way—Resources for Early Career Researchers , provides basic information about funding (awards) and training opportunities offered by NIA and other Federal agencies that support research on aging. Read, download, or order: www.nia.nih.gov/research/publication/finding-your-way-resources-early-career-researchers 
You can now apply to participate in the National Institute on Aging (NIA) 2012 Summer Institute on Aging Research . This 7-day workshop for investigators new to aging research is focused on current issues, research methodologies, and funding opportunities. The Summer Institute on Aging Research is one of the premier short-term training opportunities for new investigators in aging research. The 2012 Summer Institute will be held July 6 – 13 in Maryland. Support is available for travel and living expenses. Applications  are due March 9, 2012. Minority investigators are strongly encouraged to apply. Applicants must be U.S. citizens, non-citizen nationals, or permanent residents. For additional information and an application form, contact Andrea Griffin-Mann at 301-496-0762 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
We are always interested in hearing from minority program faculty, alumni, and students. Please contact us and let us know where you are and what you are doing.
Work Group on Minority Aging and Health Disparities
National Institute on Aging Building 31, Room 5C35
Bethesda, MD 20892-2292
Work Group on Minority Aging and Health Disparities
Office of the Director
National Institutes of Health
National Institute on Aging
Building 31, Room 5C35
Bethesda, MD 20892-2292