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Learning from world-class NIH scientists prepares post-bac trainees for scientific careers

Principal investigator-mentors guide new scientists to their next chapter.

A DNA sequence in the zebrafish genome puzzled Courtney Benoit, a participant in the National Institutes of Health Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training program. Seasoned investigators had already determined that this particular DNA sequence had no significant function, but something about the sequence intrigued Ms. Benoit. She and her colleagues at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), part of NIH, kept digging. They discovered that the DNA sequence likely performs a vital role in transporting vitamin B12, important for the formation of healthy red blood cells and nerve tissues. They published their findings on September 20, 2018, in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.  

Courtney Benoit


“By far, I think the most impactful experience for me during my post-bac was authoring my first publication,” Ms. Benoit said. “I am incredibly grateful to Larry Brody, my mentor and principal investigator at NHGRI, for the level of independence he’s given me and for letting me write and publish the work I’ve performed over the last two years.”

The NIH post-bac training program provides recent college graduates an opportunity to spend one to three years performing full-time research at NIH before they apply to graduate, medical or professional school. Prospective post-bacs apply to the program through the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education. Only U.S. citizens or U.S. nationals are eligible to participate in the program.

Ms. Benoit set her sights on NHGRI’s post-bac training program during her senior year at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. She wanted to continue the research she’d started during a six-month undergraduate training program at NIH.

“The post-bac program prepared me for graduate school and, in all honesty, made me a much more competitive applicant than I would have been if I had applied to grad school straight from undergrad,” said Ms. Benoit who will be pursuing a Ph.D. at Harvard Medical School in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences program next fall. “I am beyond grateful for my time here and am so excited for the next step in my career.”

Like Ms. Benoit, Jorge Rodriguez-Gil made the most of his time in the NHGRI post-bac training program from 2011- 2013. He investigated ways to track the severity and onset of Niemann Pick Type C disease (NPC), a rare lysosomal storage disorder that can cause enlarged livers or spleens and problems with motor coordination. Lysosomes, the cells’ housekeepers, are responsible for destroying foreign bacteria inside white blood cells as well as breakdown cellular metabolites. Mr. Rodriguez-Gil and his colleagues identified biomarkers that predict when patients will develop symptoms of NPC, Gaucher disease and other disorders.

Like Ms. Benoit, Mr. Rodriguez-Gil praised his program mentors.  “My mentor, Bill Pavan, suggested I use my time in the post-bac program to find out what I wanted to do and maybe even apply for M.D.-Ph.D. programs,” said Mr. Rodriguez-Gil. “During my two years as a post-bac, I was able to talk to NHGRI staff scientists and post-docs about my future. I also volunteered as an interpreter for the NIH Clinical Center and interacted with patients.”

After a lot of thinking, he decided to pursue an M.D.-Ph.D. through the NIH-Oxford-Cambridge Scholar Program, yet another NIH training program. Mr. Rodriguez-Gil attended medical school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on gene variants responsible for the clinical differences in NPC patients and new possible treatment targets. He plans to apply for a pediatrics residency next year.

Both trainees relied heavily on the NHGRI training office, which staffed entirely by former training program participants.

“It’s really helpful that we understand the experience from the inside,” said Faith Harrow, Ph.D., NHGRI training program coordinator and outreach specialist, who trained as an NHGRI post-doc 2006-2011. “We know how stressful the post-bac training program can be. The trainees have graduated from college and are perhaps uncertain about where they’ll be next and whether they’ll get into their preferred school. I admire how they form a community.”

In fact, Dr. Harrow’s favorite part of her job is connecting the trainees with each other, with alumni and with training opportunities. She hosts monthly meetings of the Genome Trainee Advisory Committee (GTAC), so trainees can provide feedback on existing programs and help develop new ones. Dr. Harrow seeks to increase diversity in NHGRI’s training program participants. She encourages applications from women, people with disabilities, and people who are disadvantaged, underrepresented or of low socio-economic status. Post-bacs can participate in the NIH Academy, an opportunity to learn about health disparities, enhance their knowledge of gaps in health outcomes, and investigate what is being done to address health disparity issues.

“The NHGRI training office does a great job in the community and participates in many outreach programs, but there’s always room for improvement, said Mr. Rodriguez-Gil.  “Students from underrepresented minorities in science and medicine often don’t have the tools or even know about these training programs. Bringing in a more diverse group of trainees give us new perspectives and ideas that would benefit our research.”

Both post-bacs had advice for post-bac trainees and prospective trainees.

“Be open-minded and explore different projects and fields,” said Mr. Rodriguez-Gil. “Find what drives you and keeps you excited. I still can’t sleep at night when I know I am getting results from a new experiment the next day. Enjoying what you do will make you more successful no matter your profession. Be proactive and ask questions. Find a good mentor!”

Ms. Benoit advised trainees to try to do a full two years in this program, especially considering the intensity of application and interview season. “Two years is the perfect amount of time for you to gain experience while really being able to contribute to the research being done in the lab.’”

Before entering the program, Ms. Benoit and Mr. Rodriguez-Gil were intimidated by the number of world-renowned scientists at NIH and NHGRI and surprised that they were so helpful and willing to share their expertise. “Do your best work, don’t compare yourself to others and learn from the incredible NHGRI scientists,” Ms. Benoit advised.

Last updated: May 21, 2019