Todd M. Wilson, DO, has three words for medical students and DOs who are interested in working for the NIH but intimidated by the sprawling research complex: “Don’t be afraid.”
“If you have the drive and the ambition and more importantly, the real interest in research, be it basic or clinical, you’ll be fine,” says Dr. Wilson, who works at the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). “This is a unique setting and a unique place. If you are qualified, you can find a place at NIH, absolutely.”
Young researchers with a desire to train at the NIH can learn from those who have already been there. The DO asked some of the NIH’s osteopathic physicians about the best opportunities there and for their advice on beginning a career in research.
Break out your lab coat: It’s never too early to start participating in research, Dr. Wilson says.
“There are a number of programs that can get you involved early to help you get a feel for research, so you know what you’re getting yourself into when you pursue it,” he says. The programs include the Medical Research Scholars Program, the Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award and the Clinical Electives Program.
Micah J. Hill, DO, also recommends a head start in order to gain a competitive edge.
“Try to identify ways you can get involved in research at the earliest stage, even if it’s not necessarily the specific field you’re interested in,” says Dr. Hill, who is a reproductive endocrinology and infertility fellow at the NIH. “It’s important to learn how to do research, how to ask a question, design a study and get the answer, and how to write that up in a way that clearly expresses what you found. It’s getting more and more competitive to get residency and fellowship slots, and the earlier you start doing research, the more helpful it is for that.”
If you didn’t start early, don’t panic. Julie E. Ledgerwood, DO, notes that the NIH’s Office of Intramural Training & Education lists opportunities for interested researchers at all levels of education. The office can advise potential researchers and help guide them to the right opportunity, says Dr. Ledgerwood, who works with the NIAID’s Vaccine Research Center.
The NIH’s intramural programs are those housed on or near its campus; its Office of Extramural Research lists off-campus opportunities at labs and universities across the country.
Find a mentor
John K. Lynch, DO, MPH, says young physicians need to find a good mentor to help guide their research career.
“I’ve always told students to identify someone more at the midlevel,” says Dr. Lynch, a staff clinician with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Someone who’s too junior tends to be focused more on his or her own career, someone who’s too senior won’t have much time, so find someone who’s more midlevel who can really help to shape and guide their career. There are individuals within the osteopathic profession who can provide that type of mentoring, but I would suggest that students broaden their scope.”
Dr. Lynch also notes that the NIH’s fourth-year clinical clerkship is a unique opportunity for medical students.
“Students can meet people in the field and identify researchers that they may want to work with during their residency or fellowship,” he says.
Dr. Hill says students interested in obstetrics-gynecology research or reproductive biology can rotate with his department.
“Every month we’ll have one or two students rotating with us,” he says. “Occasionally it’s clinical rotations, but usually it’s a research rotation, and most people come out of the rotation with one or two publications and training in research.”
And for residency and fellowship, students should be aware of the NIH Loan Repayment Program, Dr. Lynch says, which gives researchers $35,000 toward their loans for each year of service.
“You have to be a fellow with NIH, usually after residency,” he says. “And you have to commit to a certain number of years. But after that period of time you can renew the loan repayment for as many years as you’re here at NIH. It’s a great program.”