Program Title: BEST

Key People: Steven Culver, Paul Lendway, Michael Friedlander, Audra Van Wart

Program Summary

VT_BEST_logoVirginia Tech’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) Program was initiated in 2013 through a BEST Award from the National Institutes of Health, in order to help provide pre- and postdoctoral scientists at Virginia Tech with the information, experiences, and mentorship needed to prepare them for pursuing a broad range of academic and non-academic career paths, without extending overall training time. VT-BEST is administered through the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, and operates in collaboration with the Graduate School, Postdoctoral Office, and external partners to deliver activities to PhD and postdoctoral scientists in the biomedical and health sciences across Virginia Tech. The program is further supported by an Advisory Board, which contains representatives from both institutional leadership and the bioscience industry. To date more than 90 students and postdocs have participated in BEST program activities at VT’s medical campus in Roanoke, VA and its main campus in Blacksburg, VA.

VT-BEST activities are open to participation by pre- and postdoctoral scientists at any stage of their training or career search, with some activities required by one or more graduate programs. In the inaugural year of VT-BEST, feedback was obtained through two open faculty forums, faculty and student surveys, regional bioscience industry events (including those offered by the Roanoke Blacksburg Technology Council and Virginia Bio), and Individual Development Planning (IDP) workshops, in order to optimize VT-BEST activities to meet the needs and interests of students, postdocs, and faculty at VT, and comport with opportunities in the region. This feedback highlighted the need for activities that would not significantly impact time spent performing research, but would educate scientists on a broad range of opportunities, allow flexibility for participation, introduce them to critical skills, and direct them toward opportunities for further development based on individual needs and interests.

The program offers three primary activities, the first being a 2-credit Professional Development (PD) course, recommended as a starting point for BEST participants. The PD course focuses on individual self-assessment, setting and obtaining short-term career development goals, identifying mentors, and developing an understanding and appreciation for the functions served by various biomedical professionals and how they interface with academic researchers. This includes instruction on skills topics such as grant and CV writing, incorporating improvisation training to improve science communication, as well as inviting speakers from Intellectual Property, Tech Transfer, Biotech Start-ups, Regulatory, Academia, and beyond to provide both formal instruction and career advice. For students who are beginning to fine tune their career interests, the VT-BEST Mini-internships are short (0.5 – 2 days) experiences that allow participants to experience a “day-on the job” through hands-on activities and case studies offered by bioscience professionals at their place of business or at VT (for example, the Melanoma Research Alliance, National Public Radio, and Nature Publishing Group). A limited number of travel awards are also provided for applicants attending externship/internship or professional development events outside the region. While these activities also aim to connect PhD and postdoctoral scientists to potential mentors, a formal mentorship program is also in development. The IDP is the cornerstone of all of these activities, and half-day IDP workshops are also offered at both campuses for those unable to take the 2-credit course.

The VT-BEST program activities, VT-BEST event calendar and website, and the BEST Newsletter also direct PhD and postdoctoral scientists to other excellent resources at VT that will complement their VT- BEST experiences and help them achieve their IDP goals, such as full semester graduate courses on important skills topics, leadership workshops, certificate programs for specialization in areas such as business or pedagogy, local/national conferences, networking opportunities, and career services resources.

Beginning Strategies

An approach that has received positive feedback is our “mini-internships”, forPhD and postdoctoral scientists beginning to hone in on potential career paths. Experts from a variety of professions use real cases and training activities to give insight into their profession in just an afternoon or a few days, and to direct students to the next steps toward deeper skill building and getting a foot in the door.