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Discovering the causes of cancer and the means of prevention

Training the Next Generation of Scientists

December 2012 - Linkage Newsletter

by Victoria A. Fisher, M.P.H., and Jackie Lavigne, Ph.D., M.P.H.

As DCEG Director, Joseph F. Fraumeni, Jr., M.D., recognized that the development of a strong research program requires attracting and training the next generation of scientists. Shortly after NCI established DCEG in 1995, Dr. Fraumeni created the DCEG Office of Education (OE) to oversee training and career development for various levels of scientific staff, coordinate the recruitment of postdoctoral fellows, develop and oversee predoctoral training partnerships with schools of public health, and establish and evaluate practices and policies. DCEG now provides unparalleled training for epidemiologists, biostatisticians, geneticists, clinicians, and laboratory scientists.

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Dr. Fraumeni’s long-time mentor and colleague, Dr. Robert W. Miller, shaped Dr. Fraumeni’s perspective on training and development in epidemiology at an early stage. Dr. Miller became Chief of the Epidemiology Branch at NCI in 1961, one year before Dr. Fraumeni joined NCI as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service.

“Bob was a marvelous mentor to all of us who joined his research program in positions equivalent to postdoctoral fellows,” said Dr. Fraumeni. “I believe I was his first and his longest serving protégé at NCI. He encouraged as much independence as we could handle, and he was generous in providing the guidance needed to pursue and complete our studies.”

In the early 1960s, the Epidemiology Branch was small. “In truth, epidemiologists in the United States devoted to cancer research were few and far between,” said Dr. Fraumeni. “Bob started from scratch to create an epidemiological research program with a strong clinical and interdisciplinary focus. He recruited and trained young physicians and scientists, many of whom have become leaders in the field.” Dr. Fraumeni soon followed in Dr. Miller’s footsteps, becoming a strong advocate for training within the NCI epidemiology research community.

DCEG’s fellowship training program has grown to more than 140 predoctoral and postdoctoral fellows. Predoctoral trainees include doctoral candidates, fellows who have obtained a master’s or baccalaureate degree, and summer students. Fellows comprise about one-third of DCEG’s workforce, and their contributions are vital to the Division’s research mission. DCEG maintains formal partnerships with the Yale University School of Public Health, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. These partnerships have yielded talented scientists who have launched their careers based on the research they completed while at DCEG.

As leaders for training in the Division, Jackie Lavigne, Ph.D., M.P.H., Chief of OE, and Kristin Kiser, M.H.A., M.S., fellowship coordinator, provide personalized support and opportunities for professional growth to fellows and scientific staff. Having an office dedicated to training across the Division enables DCEG to offer its fellows the potential to work with and learn from experts in many aspects of cancer epidemiology and genetics through direct mentorship, workshops, courses, and lecture series. Under the guidance of dedicated, experienced mentors, DCEG fellows gain in-depth experience in designing and executing research studies, analyzing data, and interpreting and publishing the results. Evidence of the success of trainees in the DCEG environment lies in their record of publishing the results of their innovative and high-quality research. Current and recent DCEG fellows are often the lead authors of papers published in the top scientific and medical journals.

DCEG also offers a variety of practical opportunities for fellows to develop a comprehensive set of professional skills, including giving research presentations (at local, national, and international meetings), planning scientific events, mentoring, and writing grant proposals. The Division provides a wide range of supplemental courses in such fields as molecular epidemiology, genetic analysis, radiation epidemiology, and dosimetry. Several DCEG lecture programs are available for fellows and staff, including the Visiting Scholars Program, the Distinguished Lecturer Series, and the weekly DCEG Seminar Series. Fellows have the opportunity to participate in many other activities, such as the Fellows Monthly Colloquia, Career Development Seminars, the annual DCEG Fellows’ Training Symposium, and a variety of Institute and NIH meetings.

In June 2011, the North American Congress of Epidemiology recognized DCEG’s commitment to training by giving the Division the inaugural Alexander D. Langmuir Award for Training Program Excellence and Innovation. The award recognizes outstanding training programs in epidemiology that emphasize research experience and skills development, the application of epidemiology principles and advanced methods, and the importance of collaborative and integrative epidemiologic approaches. Dr. Lavigne accepted the award on behalf of DCEG during a ceremony at the Third North American Congress of Epidemiology in Montreal, Canada.

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NCI has not tracked the number of people who have received training in epidemiology since Dr. Fraumeni arrived at the Institute in 1962. However, since NCI established DCEG in 1995, the Division has trained more than 600 outstanding cancer epidemiologists, many of whom are actively involved in epidemiology research in the United States and various other countries around the world. DCEG trainees are now working in academia, cancer centers and hospitals, federal and state government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector.

DCEG will continue to move forward, supporting and expanding Dr. Fraumeni’s vision of training the next generation of cancer epidemiologists, biostatisticians, geneticists, and others by providing them with experience in evolving interdisciplinary research to meet the scientific challenges that lie ahead.

Back to the December 2012 issue of Linkage