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Preparing the next generation: announcing the Butler-Williams Scholars Program

Dr. Marie Bernard
Marie A. BERNARD [Former NIA Staff],
Deputy Director,
Office of the Director (OD)

Why a summer program?

Since 1986, the NIA has hosted a training institute every summer. Applying is a competitive process, and not everyone can attend. But once they get here, the informal, yet serious, environment—allowing new researchers to spend some time away from stresses of their pressure-packed academic homes—provides a special place for these top notch “new” scientists to explore the path to a successful research career.

The week-long program includes lectures, seminars, and small-group informal discussions. Conversations focus on the design of studies related to aging research across the spectrum—from basic biology to neuroscience, behavioral and social science, and clinical geriatrics and gerontology. The program is sponsored by the NIA Office of Special Populations.

The 2013 Butler-Williams Scholars and N I A staff Photo: 2013 Scholars and NIA staff at the NIH last week.

The NIA summer training program builds the pipeline for the future biomedical research workforce. It provides early to mid-career scientists with a unique opportunity to interact with leaders in the field of aging and learn from them how to design strong projects and put together competitive grant applications. Yes, the focus is on the science, but the training does a lot more. It also gives participants a chance to talk about some of the challenges associated with being a professional scientist, for example, sharing tips for finding work-life balance.

The NIA Summer Institute on Aging was truly an outstanding training experience… I enjoyed the whole process, but the interactive sections, like the mock study session… were particularly helpful... The feedback I received will greatly help to steer the direction of my work at this critical juncture of my project and overall career.

— Massimiliano Cerletti

Researchers with an interest in health disparities research often attend, as well as those from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, people with disabilities, women, and other groups underrepresented in biomedical research. Listen to attendees and NIA staff (including me!) describe the program in the Summer Institute overview video. We usually bring 30 to 35 attendees from a range of backgrounds to the NIH for the program.

Why are we renaming the program?

Starting this year, the Summer Institute has a new name, the Butler-Williams Scholars Program.

Drs. Robert Butler and T. Franklin Williams were the first two NIA directors. Dr. Butler’s visionary leadership enabled all the programs that are now in place. Dr. Williams established the Summer Institute, recognizing the importance of cultivating scientists and ideas. Both cared passionately about the future pipeline of researchers in aging, and were devoted to assuring a diverse scientific workforce.

Both of these pioneers recently passed away, and we felt it fitting to rename the Summer Institute in their honor. The new title—the Butler-Williams Scholars Program—conveys our expectation that graduates of the program will follow in the footsteps of Drs. Butler and Williams. We hope that participants will follow these giants of the field, becoming leaders in aging research and advocates for the promise and opportunities that a long and well-lived life can bring.

The summer training is just the beginning of attendees’ ongoing engagement with the NIA and the NIH, and the new name, we hope, will help reinforce that relationship.  For example, last year’s participants remain in contact, and we envision the Butler-Williams Scholars will do the same, informally and at NIA-sponsored symposia at aging research meetings.

Butler-Williams Scholars Program successes

The Summer Institute was an unprecedented opportunity to meet leaders in aging research… 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.

— Allison Burfield

Working with summer Scholars is one of the favorite parts of my job. I really enjoy teaching and mentoring these bright, engaged—and engaging!—scientists, who have very promising careers ahead of them. The amount of money the NIA spends on this program is small compared to its benefit. You can see the enthusiasm for yourself in videos of the participants.

In a recent review of the Summer Institute, we found that scientists who participate in the NIA summer program go on to successful careers in research on aging, obtaining independent NIH funding at a higher rate than the average for NIH applicants. Many also go on to significant leadership roles—for example, one of the current NIA Advisory Council members is a summer program graduate; another is the recent head of the Indian Health Service.

How can you or your trainees attend?

Applications are accepted starting in March, for attendance later that calendar year. Application guidelines for 2014 have not been released, but you can read the application guidelines from 2013. Requirements for 2014 are likely to be similar. (Editor's Note, 11/18/2013: The 2014 application is now available.)

Have you attended the NIA summer training institute? If so, what did you think of it? Or, do you have other questions about the Scholars Program? Let me know by submitting a comment below.

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