More than funding: Career development opportunities abound for Bridge to Independence fellows

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Note: The 2022 Bridge to Independence Award RFA is currently accepting applications. The application submission deadline is February 28, 2022.

As part of its mission to improve the understanding, diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders, the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI) has taken steps to ensure that the next generation of autism researchers thrives. With this in mind, in 2015, SFARI launched its first Bridge to Independence Award request for applications (BTI RFA) to recruit talented early-career scientists interested in autism research and support them with $495,000 over three years upon assumption of a tenure-track professorship in the United States or Canada. In 2021, SFARI further enhanced the program by introducing the BTI Professional Development fund, a $10K designated gift for professional development activities to be spent during the transition year from postdoctoral associate to assistant professor.

To date, SFARI has funded 37 BTI fellows spanning numerous disciplines — from genetics, molecular/cellular biology, circuit/systems, and cognitive domain — and including researchers already focused on autism work and others newly bringing their expertise to bear on an understanding of the condition. With the success of the SFARI BTI program, two other divisions of the Simons Foundation — the Simons Collaboration on the Global Brain (SCGB) and the Simons Collaboration on Plasticity and the Aging Brain (SCPAB) — have also launched their own Transition to Independence Award RFAs this year.

A key part of the BTI program is that it serves as an overall scientific support system to help early-career scientists successfully transition from working in someone else’s lab to running their own independent lab and research program.

“Financial support is crucial, but it is only part of the BTI package,” says Alice Luo Clayton, SFARI senior scientist who oversees the BTI program. “We provide BTI fellows with advice on offer letters and organize a number of opportunities for professional growth and to foster a sense of belonging within our community.”

Fellows are invited to attend annual retreats and SFARI science meetings, where they can be exposed to the latest developments in autism research and network with other fellows as well as senior SFARI Investigators and SFARI staff. They also benefit from training workshops sponsored by the Simons Foundation Flatiron Institute Lodestar program, including sessions on topical skills such as interviewing, giving job talks and negotiating job offers.

Fostering academic growth and independence

Building a sense of community and support network is a key ingredient of the success of the BTI program. Last fall, wrap-around supports for SFARI BTI fellows included (1) a virtual kick-off meeting to welcome the 2021 fellows from both the SFARI and the SCGB Independence programs, (2) several professional development training workshops and (3) a workshop on grant funding strategies for assistant professors.

At the kick-off meeting, BTI fellows had the opportunity to connect with each other and learn about the resources available to them through the foundation. Breakout rooms were led by senior BTI fellows and foundation scientists and organized around scientific topics and career development issues. Conversations on career development included ones on how to stay true to their scientific passions amid external pressures and how to find faculty positions where, as director of SFARI and the Simons Foundation Neuroscience Collaborations Kelsey Martin put it, “fellows will fit and thrive.”

But getting that tenure-track position is just the start of an independent career. How to set up a lab, manage teaching commitments and administrative duties, all while conducting original and cutting-edge research, are some of the key challenges that new investigators must face. Peer mentorship at the kickoff meeting offered important respite and inspiration for junior fellows. One fellow asked, “What do you wish you had done differently in your first year,” leading senior fellows to stress the importance of hiring strong technical staff and waiting for the right person who fits your needs. Quickly publishing one’s own senior author papers was also mentioned.

Funding strategies

A separate Zoom meeting in November 2021 focused on strategies for securing grant funding as junior faculty. Panelists included individuals from several grant organizations: Kara Coleman (Pew Charitable Trusts), Luo Clayton (SFARI), Julia Zehr (National Institute of Mental Health, NIMH), as well as scientists who can provide researcher perspectives: Michael Gandal (University of California, Los Angeles) Kamran Khodakhah (Albert Einstein College of Medicine), Aakanksha Singhvi  (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center) and Anne West (Duke University School of Medicine). (Khodakhah and West had served as reviewers of BTI applications; Singhvi and Gandal were 2016 BTI fellows, who have now established their own successful labs).

Zehr stressed the importance of talking to program officers “early and often” when applying to the National Institutes of Health (NIH); breakout rooms included discussions on how to search the NIH website for RFAs and their associated program officers and pointed fellows to various NIH resources (i.e., NIH RePorter Tool and the Early Career Review Program). Coleman, Luo Clayton and Khodakhah encouraged fellows to know the funding agency’s mission and to ensure that their goals match those of the foundations they are applying to. The most important message was to use all of the human resources available, from program officers and foundation scientists to department Chairs and colleagues. And, as Luo Clayton noted, “current and alumni BTI fellows are some of the best resources that SFARI has to offer.”

Supporting future knowledge

Transitioning from the relative security of a post-doctoral position to running one’s own lab is stressful and takes a lot of work and perseverance. Senior fellows noted that “there are a lot of things out of your control,” and reminded fellows “to go with the flow.” One goal of the BTI support systems is to make that flow from early career scientist to successful principal investigator as smooth as possible, and many fellows agree that the wrap-around support provided with their awards is valuable resource to help ensure their scientific success.

“The process of setting up and running my own lab has been a lot smoother thanks to the support mechanisms that SFARI made available” says BTI fellow Tomasz Nowakowski. “I’ve particularly appreciated the opportunities to talk with colleagues at various career stages about both science and the process of running a lab. It’s reassuring to have this support network of other principal investigators whom I can reach out to with questions about running my lab or career development. I’m also excited about the possibilities this presents for future scientific collaborations.”

The success of the BTI program is also evident in the growing number of fellows who have successfully obtained NIH RO1 grants and NIH Director’s New Innovator Awards, and who have received recognition from numerous prestigious scientific organizations.

“The BTI program was thoughtfully designed with both financial and professional development support to help fellows flourish as principal investigators,” says Martin. “These fellows are doing transformational science that will enhance our understanding of autism and the neurosciences more broadly. I am delighted with the success of this program, and that we are now offering similar support at the Simons Collaboration on the Global Brain and the Simons Collaboration on Plasticity and the Aging Brain. I look forward to the future discoveries from these scientists.”

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