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Perspectives on the NIH Independent Research Scholar Program with Dr. Charles Dearolf

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2 years 1 month
02.09.21 By Marie A. Bernard
Dr. Charles Dearolf
Credit: NIH OIR

For this week’s blog post, we are happy to introduce Dr. Charles Dearolf, who is the Director of Program Development and Support at NIH’s Office of Intramural Research (OIR). He has been a member of the OIR senior leadership team since 2008. His primary responsibilities are to facilitate NIH-wide programs and interactions. Dr. Dearolf has been instrumental in developing the intramural NIH Independent Research Scholar (IRS) Program—which supports stellar early-career researchers, with a demonstrated commitment to diversity, transitioning to independent research positions.

We were inspired to highlight this important program because it embodies a fundamental tenet for enhancing diversity in the biomedical research workforce—building and sustaining a diverse pool of early-career researchers. The research at NIH ranges from the study of biomolecular structures at an atomic-level to the study of disease patterns in human populations. It reaches from linear DNA sequences to the complex nature of human behavior. Regardless of where our Investigators land on this spectrum, their motivations are the same—to improve human health. It is our hope this discussion with Dr. Dearolf will embolden junior researchers from both within and outside of NIH to learn about key NIH workforce efforts, and to take advantage of programs like IRS to enhance their career development and join the internal NIH community of researchers.

Becoming a tenure-track investigator in the NIH Intramural Research Program (IRP) is a tremendous opportunity for any early-career scientist – and being a part of the IRS Program can be an important step to develop a successful career as an independent biomedical researcher!

Check out our Q&A with Dr. Dearolf below to learn more about the IRS Program.

Q: What are the goals of the Independent Research Scholar Program?
Launched in 2019, the IRS Program aims to build the workforce diversity of independent research scientists by selecting trainees who have a commitment to improving diversity in the NIH Intramural Research Program (IRP).

In contrast to the NIH Distinguished Scholars Program (DSP), which primarily supports NIH tenure-track investigators, positions supported by the IRS Program target researchers at an earlier career stage and not currently on the tenure track in the NIH IRP (e.g., postdoctoral researchers). The program aims to help trainees build skills, confidence, and gain research experiences to strengthen future applications to tenure-track positions.

Q: Can you describe what a Scholar position is like?
Even though their Intramural Professional Designation (IPD) is “Research Fellow,” Scholars operate as independent principal investigators. They are hired as full-time employees (FTEs) with time-limited appointments. The position is supported for a three-year term, but this can be extended out to five years in exceptional cases.

Scholars cannot be automatically migrated into tenure-track investigator positions within the NIH at the end of their IRS appointment. However, the goal is that Scholars will have progressed through participation in the program so that they are competitive for tenure-track positions, either at the NIH or at outside research institutions.

In addition to providing salary support, Scholars are offered funds for lab personnel (usually two postbacs or other time-limited technical staff positions) and research supplies.

While Scholars are not tenure-track investigators, they are scientifically independent of their previous mentors and are expected to be invited to faculty meetings and other NIH Institute & Center (IC) activities alongside tenure-track and tenured investigators. The IRS Program is aspiring to a cohort model for mentoring and other career development activities for individuals in the same application pool and career position.

Scholars are required to have additional mentors other than their lab mentor. They are expected to meet with their mentors at least quarterly. The mentors’ involvement is thought of as a key component of the IRS Program as it ensures milestones of the Scholar’s research proposal and career development plan are met. In addition, an IC-managed evaluation of the Scholar’s progress every 18 months is also required. This review interval has been extended to 24 months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Q: Who is eligible to apply for the IRS Program?
Applicants for the IRS Program must be U.S. citizens (or U.S. permanent residents) and must have a Ph.D. or M.D. with relevant research experience. Candidates can have no more than four years of postdoctoral research in total (internal NIH candidates cannot have more than three years of postdoctoral research in the NIH Intramural Research Program).

Q: When is the next open application cycle and what do applicants need to do to apply?
Candidates are nominated by NIH Scientific Directors (SDs), so interested parties should identify and contact a SD at an IC in the candidate’s scientific field of interest. Prospective applicants internal to NIH will likely be nominated by their SD. The deadline for applications for the 2021 IRS Program is March 1, 2021. However, some ICs have earlier deadlines for their internal evaluation process.

A list of materials needed for the application can be found on the Nomination Coversheet. The application requires the applicant to provide evidence they are directly involved in mentoring and have a commitment to diversity, as well as a maximum three-page research proposal.

There are three broad factors used to evaluate applications:

  • The candidate’s qualifications and potential
  • The candidate’s commitment to building a diverse workforce
  • The IC’s commitment to the candidate

Q: Is the application process different for applicants who are located outside the NIH?
No, the process is the same for applicants external to NIH at the time of application. Interested parties should still identify and contact a Scientific Director (SD) at an IC in the candidate’s scientific field of interest. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the “regular” channels for SDs and their staff to meet potential IRS applicants, such as scientific conferences and symposia, are limited or structured in a remote fashion. This makes it even more important for scholars located outside of NIH to be as proactive as possible.

Q: How many Scholars are currently in the IRS Program?
The IRS Program started in 2019. In its inaugural year, there were twelve eligible applicants. This pool has had its first alumna, and seven are current Scholars. In the 2020 cycle, there are five current Scholars from a pool of six eligible applicants.

Although applications are encouraged and accepted from extramural researchers, all current Scholars were at the NIH at the time of application. They have applied with postdoctoral experience ranging from one to three years and represent multiple ICs, including the National Cancer Institute (NCI), National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR), and National Library of Medicine (NLM).

Q: Finally, where do the funds for the IRS Program come from?
The IC provides most resources for the Scholar but may request up to $100,000 from the OIR in the first year for startup funds. There are central funds for 7-8 Scholars. The IC provides the remainder of funds, estimated at $225,000 to $250,000 per year, as well as the FTE position and research space.

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