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Looking to the future of graduate biomedical education

Kenneth Gibbs, Jr., is using his graduate degree in immunology to improve graduate education nationally — he shares more in this Q&A.

After Kenneth Gibbs, Jr. earned his PhD in immunology from Stanford in 2010, he wanted to help as many people as possible. "I believed I could make a difference in the culture of science, and saw policy/government as a way to do that," he said in an alumni feature story.

Now, as a program director at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, he knows that graduate students have many career options beyond university laboratories and he's working to help education programs do a better job of preparing students.

I spoke with him recently to learn more about his work.

Why is it important to have scientists working in policy?

I think about this like a biologist who has studied signaling between cells. A lot of what happens 'downstream' at individual Ph.D. programs and research groups is driven by the 'upstream' signals sent by funding agencies and institutions. I view working in policy as a manner to drive positive change at a broad scale, and that’s why I got into science in the first place.

Could you tell me more about a National Academies of Sciences report on the future of graduate education for the sciences, engineering and medicine? What was the report's goal?

 Across all STEM fields, 60 percent of today’s PhD graduate students are pursuing careers outside of academia. Despite the fact that science and the career landscape for early career scientists has changed, in many ways, graduate education remains the same as it did when a career in academic research was considered the default. While there have been some bold experiments in career diversification, especially the National Institutes of Health's BEST program, there remains a need to broaden career development during graduate training.

How can changes be made?

Primarily, this is done by aligning the incentives of advisors and research institutions with the needs of their trainees.

First, we need to make graduate education more student-centered. This means emphasizing mentoring and focusing on the talents, research interests, and career aspirations of individual trainees. We also need to think about career and professional development, not as something that takes away from one’s time in the lab, but rather as something that supplements your ability to be a professional.

Second, graduate education needs to be inclusive. This means, at a minimum, being able to cultivate talent from all backgrounds and supporting students pursuing a variety of scientific careers.

This means that diversity directly plays a role in the quality of training?

Yes. In a Scientific American blog, I wrote that diversity is a 'foundational prerequisite for program excellence.' Through diversity, we gain a broader variety of perspectives to address complex scientific problems, more robust learning environments, improved global competitiveness, and enhanced public trust.

We will only be able to advance as a society if we are able to harness everyone’s contributions. Therefore, graduate education needs to cultivate talent and support students from all backgrounds and inclusive of race/ethnicity, gender, age, culture, and international groups. 

Could you explain how your agency is using a new funding opportunity for graduate programs to promote change?

Changes in the T32 funding announcement are intended to encourage biomedical graduate training to keep pace with the rapid evolution of the research enterprise, which is increasingly complex, quantitative, interdisciplinary, and collaborative.

In the announcement, we ask that programs ensure that trainees develop the technical, operational and professional skills that allow them to transition into careers in the biomedical research workforce. Also, the funding announcement is intended to support outstanding research training environments that pay particular attention to groups underrepresented in the biomedical sciences.

Photo by Ben McDavid/The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine

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