SPIRE seeks to boost young scientists' job prospects, minority science education

November 09, 1999

CHAPEL HILL - Postdoctoral scientists are not receiving the broad training they need to succeed in today's complex, competitive science community, says a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill expert who hopes to change that and start a national trend.

Dr. Walter E. Bollenbacher, professor of biology, plans to improve the career prospects for postdoctoral students by offering them more diverse training. A new $4 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences will support the effort.

"There's a national debate on the future of postdoc training and how it needs to be reformed to keep pace with scientific and workplace changes and expectations," Bollenbacher said. "This grant addresses that debate."

He and colleagues at UNC-CH and seven historically minority universities (HMUs) across the state will use the money to fund a new program called Seeding Postdoctoral Innovators in Research and Education, or SPIRE. SPIRE will give postdoctoral students teaching experience while providing cutting-edge biology courses to students at the HMUs.

Bollenbacher said he believed postdoctoral students must have more than the sound knowledge base in science they now receive. While they are highly trained in specific areas, they usually are not exposed to many skills needed to succeed in the professional community.

Pharmaceutical research and development organizations and other high-tech firms agree. Such businesses want employees with a strong science background, but they also need people with good communication and interpersonal skills and the ability to adapt and work in teams.

"We look beyond scientific excellence and achievement in hiring scientists into Glaxo Wellcome Research," said Bob Bell, vice president of research in the company's U.S. division.

"The success of our drug discovery efforts depends on teamwork, communication and adaptability," he said. "We hire people with these skills who are committed to continuous learning and change."

"The scientific workforce right now is absolutely filled with postdoctoral trainees, and estimates are that there are about 35,000 postdocs out there who are or will be looking for jobs," Bollenbacher added. "Surveys have shown that many of these talented scientists are frustrated because they have become so specialized that they don't have many skills or career opportunities. Postdocs are feeling they are being trained for one job -- academic research -- a job that only 25 percent will ever secure."

SPIRE fellows will be selected from a national applicant pool. During the first two-thirds of their program, they will conduct research at UNC-CH. They also will attend workshops and seminars on pedagogy, instructional technology, distance education and business skills development. They will receive research and teaching allowances and will be responsible for leading a campus-wide seminar program.

The final third of each SPIRE participant's training will involve teaching in the historically minority universities to gain experience while bringing their scientific expertise to those campuses. The HMUs will benefit, Bollenbacher said, because they often cannot provide all the cutting-edge courses their students need to compete in graduate and professional programs and in the job market.

While at the schools, young scholars will experience first-hand the life of a professor. They will teach classes, mentor students and conduct research. They will juggle multiple responsibilities and projects, a skill that should help them be successful in their science careers.

SPIRE's benefits will be four-fold, said Dr. Valerie Fleming, a Fayetteville State University biology professor.

"Postdoc will develop people and productivity skills that translate into broader, more diverse marketability," Fleming said. "Carolina will receive added skills and support for its academic research programs. The HMU will bring instruction and research opportunities to its students in specialties not available on its campus, and the science community will get a professional prepared to contribute through a greater variety of career paths."

SPIRE expands on the UNC-CH's Partnership for Minority Advancement in the Biomolecular Sciences, an educational consortium established in 1989 to boost diversity in biomedical science by strengthening science education in secondary and undergraduate education. The partnership includes Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State, Johnson C. Smith, N.C. A&T State, N.C. Central and Shaw universities and UNC-Pembroke.
Note: Bollenbacher can be reached at 919-966-2631
Contact: Sarah Sims, 919-962-2289
News Services Contact: David Williamson, 919-962-8596

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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