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Fixing the pipeline: Shirley Tilghman on the future of biomedical training

We spend a lot of time here at PLOS ECR discussing the trials and triumphs of being an early career researcher. One could argue that Dr. Shirley Tilghman has made that discussion her life’s work.

For those that follow me on Twitter or know me personally, it is no secret that I am a huge Shirley Tilghman fangirl. She’s done incredible science over the course of her career, including being part of the team that cloned the first mammalian gene. She was the first female president of Princeton University, and the first biologist to be president as well. I was fortunate to attend Princeton while she was president, and always felt she was a warm, genuine leader with the students’ best interest at heart.

This week my graduate institution, Weill Cornell, hosted Tilghman as the keynote speaker for the Tri-Institutional Career Symposium with our neighbors Rockefeller University and Memorial Sloan Kettering. She spoke about the changes needed to overcome the challenges that today’s young scientists face, and thoughtfully engaged with the audience afterward. The ideas and resources she shared were just too fascinating to languish in my notebook—so here’s a quick summary for our ECR community.

A quick note that much of her talk was specific to trainees in the United States, however, many of the resources she mentioned are worth exploring no matter where you are based.


The Problem: A Bulging Pipeline

Back in 2014, Tilghman was part of a group of scientists which laid out what is broken in modern academic science in a widely shared article in PNAS titled, “Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws.” Widely shared may be the understatement of the year; the Altmetrics for this article are kind of insane. The article spurred many responses and the development of a number of resources, which Tilghman shared in her talk. Rescuing Biomedical Research, an organization formed by Tilghman and her co-authors, curates the most up-to-date articles and research on this topic. I highly recommend browsing the site for getting a complete picture of the work being done in this area. She also mentioned The Future of Research, an organization started by two postdocs to provide resources to young scientists.

The quick version of the problem is something ECRs learn the hard way; due in part to the stagnation of the NIH budget in the United States, there just aren’t enough tenure-track faculty positions available for the number of PhD trainees. Tilghman used the metaphor of a well-functioning pipeline during her training, and a pipeline with a bulge for ours.

Shirley Tilghman speaking at the Tri-I Career Symposium. Photo by author.

Proposed Solution: A shift from linear pipeline to a network

Tilghman outlined four key changes institutions can take that she feels would help ECRs navigate training:

  1. Transparency

Undergraduate and graduate programs need to be transparent with their students about the job market in academia, providing accurate career outcomes. To this end, she shared information about the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science, which facilitates data collection from universities to meet that goal. My own institution is part of the Coalition, but I had never heard of it or browsed the data. Check if yours is on the list—it’s all free and public.

  1. Diversification in training

Tilghman urges graduate programs to educate students for the diversity of jobs available to them. She stressed the importance of the individual development plan (IDP), the ability to try an internship during graduate training, and another resource called Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) from the NIH to help students in this arena. She also cited Dr. Keith Yamamoto’s fantastic iBiology video on this subject, which argues that a postdoc should no longer be the default after a biomedical PhD. Rather than the linear pipeline of PhD>postdoc>assistant professor>tenure that many of us believed was still the norm, he elegantly outlines the network that now exists, and how many options are available with a PhD that deserve equal consideration to the academic track.

  1. Address the ‘Malthusian dilemma’

Tilghman framed science in terms of a ‘Malthusian dilemma,’ meaning that growth of the population (ECRs) is outpacing the available resources (tenured faculty positions). One way to help PhDs who want to stay in academia find positions is to create more positions. But given that funding more PIs can be out of reach, and that not everyone wants to run their own lab anyway, a creative solution is to expand the numbers of permanent staff scientists in academic labs while reducing the number of student/postdoc trainees. Tilghman referenced the development of the R50 award to meet this need. She also lauded the rise of institutes such as the Broad Institute, which provide new models of doing science in profoundly collaborative ways. She commented that these institutes are often able to pay their scientists better, and discussed how generally, postdoc pay increases can help keep labs from hiring more than they can effectively support and train.

  1. Encourage independence of postdoctoral fellows sooner

The last suggestion Tilghman shared was the idea of helping postdocs achieve independence faster. She acknowledged that current postdocs are faced with highly unpredictable lengths of their fellowship…or sometimes fellowships. And that allocating funds to launch early investigators from their postdocs to independence is an importance piece of a well-functioning system. She mentioned the 21st Century Cures Act, which designates funds for this purpose, and the K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award.


What’s next?

Tilghman’s talk, and a recent publication on this topic, clearly define concrete steps that institutions can take to help trainees. But as audience questions indicated, there is concern amongst students and postdocs about these recommendations being taken seriously by institutions and PIs. While there is clearly important data already in existence which should make PIs acknowledge the realities of modern science, many continue to value the traditional path above all others. I left Tilghman’s talk feeling reassured that while not every PI engages with these issues, there are thankfully some powerful ones who are paying attention. Hopefully, their influence and the changes already implemented will start to turn the bulging pipeline into a well-oiled machine.



Featured Image: ‘pipes’ by atomicity. CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 license




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