Health Care, Higher Education, and Human Resources

Investing in the scientific visionaries of tomorrow

June 29, 2018
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Last week, Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law the Marshall Plan for Talent — a statewide initiative to develop and support the estimated 811,055 career openings that will be created between now and 2024. This is an exciting investment that reflects the efforts of many local leaders, including the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and The Right Place. And, as we’ve watched the expansion and development of the Medical Mile and the biomedical research in Grand Rapids, it is no surprise that one of the key sectors showing great promise for attracting talent to the region is health care and biomedical research.

Specifically, at Van Andel Institute (VAI), we’re working to do our part by developing the next generation of scientific leaders. The institute has programming for K-12 students, as well as a fully accredited graduate school. In addition, VAI employs a number of young Ph.D. scientists, most of whom have been working in labs for five or more years and already have been published in scientific journals. These postdoctoral fellows, or “postdocs” for short, are an integral part of the research enterprise and work closely with senior-level scientists, one or more of the institute’s faculty, to conceptualize and carry out cutting-edge research. At any given time, the institute has 34-45 postdocs working in our labs. Like a medical residency for physicians, this allows these early career scientists a greater degree of independence while also providing valuable mentorship from an experienced investigator. This period of training and development serves as a launch pad and culminates when fellows begin their own independent careers.

A strong postdoctoral fellowship experience is usually a requisite springboard for a successful career as an independent scientist. As such, it’s important research organizations ensure postdocs are appropriately supported and mentored, and they receive myriad opportunities to build their professional skill set. Through VAI’s Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, we offer training on career planning, networking, grant writing and scientific management, among other topics. This office has helped create a culture of positive engagement, enrichment and support, with an unwavering focus directly on the postdoc experience. Our postdoc program is one way the institute invests in talent recruitment and retention, making sure future scientists see the Grand Rapids community as a beacon of biomedical investment and research. In addition to offering this opportunity to scientists at the beginning of their career, VAI also is seeking to lead the way in setting standards for support of postdoctoral training by offering competitive compensation and opportunities.

Currently, there are few universally accepted rules that govern fellowship experiences from organization to organization. This lack of a cohesive framework across the research landscape means that postdoctoral fellows’ experience can vary, for better or worse, depending on where they conduct their fellowship. This reality is hopefully changing. For example, the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) is working to improve the quality of the postdoctoral experience through advocacy, resource development and community building. Since it was founded in 2002, the NPA successfully has lobbied for increases in the entry stipend for National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Research Service Award (NRSA) trainees and serves as an information hub for postdocs where they can speak with a unified voice and advocate for their own benefits.  

In the U.S. alone, there are between 35,000 and 70,000 postdoctoral fellows working in biomedical research, according to the NIH Biomedical Workforce Report. A recent report published by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine outlines many exciting ideas about how Congress, the federal government, academic institutions, research organizations and industry can work together to better support postdocs as they pursue scientific careers. The report suggests the creation of a public-private partnership to address challenges confronting early career scientists, increasing the NIH budget to support pilot projects that seek to accelerate postdocs into independent careers, the expansion of awards for early career scientists and encouraging institutions to better facilitate career guidance for postdocs at the beginning of their careers.

While we celebrate and support that positive strides are being made on a national level, we also recognize the onus of responsibility for providing a positive postdoctoral experience falls largely on individual organizations. Like in any talent recruitment effort, creating a professional space where postdocs feel valued and supported takes effort and resources. Van Andel Institute is happy to be a partner in this effort, both in our industry and in our community.

As our city grows and further develops as a robust epicenter for biomedical research, we need to continue valuing the young scientists who have decided to dedicate their lives to improving human health. Though this is a little-known aspect of the research pipeline, we all must support the critical steps that need to be taken to ensure long-term career success. Scientists are important members of our diverse, multifaceted scientific community, and we remain committed to finding new ways to support them professionally and personally, giving them every opportunity to achieve their goals and advance their careers. They are an asset to West Michigan and our collective hope for a better, healthier world rests firmly with these scientific visionaries of tomorrow.

David Van Andel is chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute.

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