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GEMSSTAR: NIA’s pioneering program for early-career physicians in aging research

Basil Eldadah
Supervisory Medical Officer,
Division of Geriatrics and Clinical Gerontology (DGCG)

What do you get when you cross an early-career physician with aging research? A GEMSSTAR candidate! GEMSSTAR, or Grants for Early Medical/Surgical Specialists’ Transition to Aging Research, is NIA’s signature program supporting physicians who have recently completed clinical training and who are interested in pursuing a career in aging research related to their specialty. Think of a colorectal surgeon studying palliative care in older adults after high-risk surgery. Or an infectious disease specialist testing behavioral therapies for older adults with HIV and chronic pain.

Aging brings its own unique treatment challenges, and GEMSSTAR scholars build on their clinical training to address important aging health issues in their specialty. GEMSSTAR research doesn’t have to be clinical, though. For example, we support a cardiologist studying molecular mechanisms that could lead to new treatment strategies for heart failure in older patients. And given NIA’s strong focus on dementia and cognitive research, GEMSSTAR awardees also include investigators studying neuroscience, like an anesthesiologist researching the risk of cognitive changes for older adults after surgery.

Supporting physicians from across specialties

Since 2011, NIA has awarded nearly 170 GEMSSTAR grants to physicians representing almost every major specialty of medicine or surgery. In fact, physicians from all specialties are eligible to apply — provided other eligibility criteria are met — because it will take physicians from a broad range of disciplines to provide comprehensive care for our older adult population.

We are also seeing an interesting trend among GEMSSTAR applicants, who are beginning to come to the program with formal training in both geriatrics and another specialty. It’s a sign of where health care is headed, and we’re gratified to be a part of training this next generation of physician leaders in aging research.

So how is a GEMSSTAR award different from other NIA grants? GEMSSTAR is open only to physicians (and dentists), so the pool of eligible applicants is smaller. Also, GEMSSTAR applications are reviewed by a special emphasis panel well versed in aging research and career development. Although it’s not strictly a career development award — it uses a research grant (R03) activity code — applicants are strongly encouraged to include a Professional Development Plan that describes how they will get mentorship, training, and experience in aging science.

Along those lines, GEMSSTAR awards also come with a ticket to regular GEMSSTAR scholars conferences coordinated through the NIA Clin-STAR Coordinating Center. These conferences provide great mentoring, networking, and access to aging research resources targeted especially to early-career specialists. GEMSSTAR scholars often tell us this is one of the most valuable aspects of their award.

A path to competitive K apps

We think of GEMSSTAR as a pre-K program, but there’s no connection with preschool here. GEMSSTAR awards are a great way for candidates to collect preliminary data and aging research experience in order to position themselves for a competitive K application, and the K series of research career development awards are an important step on the path to becoming an independent investigator.

On that note, every so often I hear from a physician-investigator recently out of training who tells me their chair or mentor encouraged them to apply for a K award, despite their being an ideal candidate for GEMSSTAR. Some people just aren’t familiar with GEMSSTAR and believe the only way to get early-career development support is through a K award, and that’s not the case.

We hope you agree that the GEMSSTAR program is a unique and attractive career growth opportunity for early-career physician-scientists! The next GEMSSTAR competition is open now through Nov. 2, 2021. Have a look at RFA-AG-22-027 and the NIA GEMSSTAR webpage to apply or get more information. If you still have questions, send us an email at


Submitted by Jon Wanagat on August 04, 2021

Could the NIA offer additional career development support to the GEMSSTAR awardees by inviting them to the Butler-Williams conference at the end or just after their project period?

The Butler-Williams Scholars Program is a great opportunity for early career investigators to get exposed to aging research resources and opportunities!

Program attendees routinely include GEMSSTAR scholars either before their award or after. We highly encourage GEMSSTAR scholars, as well other early career investigators interested in aging research, to apply to the Butler-Williams Scholars Program.

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