Supporting Our Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Fellows With Federal Training Grants

In the first strategic plan for UF Health (2010-2015), called “Forward Together,” the main goals for the education mission were to update the professional curricula in our six health science colleges to emphasize small group and peer-to-peer learning, systems-based approaches to integrated basic and clinical science, simulation in many dimensions, interprofessional education and other innovations. Each college has moved their professional curriculum in this direction, some more than others. Work remains to be done, but all of the colleges are on their way.

In UF Health’s second strategic plan (2015-2020), called “Power of Together,” the No. 1 priority for the education mission shifted to graduate education, with the goal of developing future leaders in science through excellence in research-based graduate and postgraduate training. An overview of our plans for graduate education can be found in the May 27, 2016 edition of OTSP.  This edition of OTSP will describe one strategy to reach this goal, namely the acquisition of training grants for predoctoral and postdoctoral trainees as a means to enhance the quantity and quality of Ph.D. scientists trained at our academic health center.

As part of the development of the Power of Together Strategic Plan for 2015 – 2020, a White Paper on research training programs across all health colleges and research centers and institutes was commissioned by Thomas Pearson, M.D., Ph.D., executive vice president for research and education for UF Health. Dr. Jennifer Elder (College of Nursing) chaired a writing committee with representatives from across the academic health center. While our health profession training programs (e.g., M.D., D.D.S., Pharm.D., D.V.M., R.N., etc.) have a high profile, it is worth noting that 29 Ph.D. programs in the six health colleges provide research training to 591 Ph.D. candidates. Moreover, an additional 259 postdoctoral fellows, mostly with Ph.D. training, also work in our academic health center laboratories. Thus, we have at least 850 future contributors to science who are the beneficiaries of our efforts to strengthen graduate and postgraduate training programs here.

A striking finding of Dr. Elder’s Writing Group in 2014 was that, despite the large size of our programs, UF ranked virtually last among our peer institutions (e.g., large land-grant universities with medical centers) in the number of training grants from the National Institutes of Health, with nine NIH Training Awards supporting 30 graduate students and 22 postdoctoral fellows during that year. This left almost 800 trainees with stipends and tuition to be funded with department/college funds and/or research grants awarded to their mentors. The associate deans for research and the associate deans for education for the six health colleges recognized this as a very high priority for improvement.

Dr. Pearson has been the main force in advancing our portfolio of training grants and contributed significantly to the text below describing progress in this arena. What follows is an overview of the types of training grants we have been pursuing, and our success to date.

Although the NIH plays the major role in the funding of biomedical research at universities such as UF, one can argue that its role in supporting research training is even greater, given the limited numbers of nonfederal sources of training funds. The largest training program is the Ruth L. Kirstein National Research Service Awards Institutional Training Grants, also known as the T32 Program. These training grants, limited to U.S. citizens or permanent residents, can support graduate students, postdoctoral fellows or both. 

In general, a T32 grant will provide up to five years of graduate student support and up to three years of postdoctoral support. T32 grants are usually sponsored by a department or institute, which administers the grant, recruits trainees, prepares progress reports, etc. The principal investigator generally is a senior faculty member with established funding at NIH and with a track record in the mentoring of graduate students and in the administration of training programs.

The numbers of pre- and postdoctoral trainees in each training grant varies depending on the number of laboratories that are involved; in general, these grants fund three to six predoctoral students and two to four postdoctoral trainees. The T32 trainees are provided with a stipend (at a level set by NIH), tuition and fees, travel funds for at least one national meeting per year, and training-related expenses to use for various needs of the trainee’s research program (e.g., biostatistical consultation, laboratory supplies, data sets, etc.). The writing of a T32 grant represents a fair amount of work (as described below) and are difficult to obtain due to the large number of other universities competing for funding. These two barriers perhaps explain the low rate of acquisition of T32 grants at UF prior to 2014.

Given the long list of demands on a faculty member’s time, he or she might ask: “Why write a training grant?” There are a number of reasons. Perhaps the foremost is to address the needs for a highly skilled workforce in your area of science. While a number of scientific fields seem overpopulated with Ph.D.s, others have critical workforce shortages. Second, training grants support graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to work in your research program. Given the limited number of trainees the UF colleges can support with internal funds, this provides the principal investigator the ability to expand his or her laboratory team. Third, training grants typically include mentors from departments across the university, allowing an “academic community” to be organized and made ready for other large center or program grant applications. Fourth, assembly of a training grant often promotes the development of didactic curricula, instructional materials, degree programs and continuing education sessions (e.g., seminars, journal clubs) in a specific field. Lastly, an NIH T Award clearly is a mark of quality and distinction, which enhances recruitment of high-quality trainees, demands diversity in the trainees and provides the trainee with the opportunity to acknowledge this NIH funding on their curriculum vitae.

The economics of training grants are also favorable. T Awards tend to be sizable in their direct costs, with each predoctoral student requiring approximately $40,000 for stipends, tuition, etc., and postdoctoral fellows requiring approximately $60,000 per year. Therefore, a modest-sized training grant with six predoctoral and four postdoctoral fellows requires about $500,000 per year, credited to the sponsoring institution. The T Award provides an 8 percent indirect cost rate for facilities and administration, far below the 50+ percent rate for research grants. Similarly, no support is provided by the training grant for the principal investigator’s salary (usually at least 10 percent effort) or that of a program coordinator (usually 20-30 percent effort). Some faculty consider these to be major disincentives. On the other hand, if predoctoral or postdoctoral trainees are currently supported with departmental or research grant funds, acquisition of T award funding means that these funds can be freed up for other uses (e.g., laboratory supplies, animal care, core service user fees, technician salaries, etc.), thereby expanding the productivity of the research grants that eventually will require a competitive renewal.

On the basis of the thoughtful recommendations of the White Paper on Research Training, Dr. Pearson and members of the research community initiated a number of activities to encourage faculty to prepare and submit applications for T32 Awards. 

  • First, a T Writers’ Workshop has been annually offered since 2014 in the February to March timeframe, providing a three-hour training program for faculty who wish to submit a T32 proposal to the NIH.
  • Second, current principal investigators and coordinators for currently active T32 Awards, identified as the “T Team,” have been convened semiannually to discuss barriers and opportunities in the preparation of applications and the administration of T32 awards. For the past two years, T32 administrators have also convened separately for their own workshop to network between programs and to address problems that arise in the administration of their awards. 
  • Third, a Training Grant Toolkit has been organized on the CTSI website. This provides 18 different resources for the T grant writer, including a list of current T Awards and their principal investigators (for networking); a library of past T32 applications and their NIH reviews (with the PI’s permission); assistance with identification of potential mentors at UF; descriptions of 112 resources at UF, at the academic health center and at the UF CTSI for pasting into the grant’s resource page; a list of academic health center certificate programs; a model plan for instruction in responsible conduct of research (required by all T grants); information on marketing graduate education programs; an up-to-date listing of UF programs that recruit and retain diverse trainees; and sample letters for institutional commitment.
  • Fourth, support is provided for Linda Behar-Horenstein, Ph.D., distinguished professor of education, to assist T grant writers on assembly of their learning objectives and core competencies, curricular design and program evaluation. 
  • Lastly, the Office of Biomedical Research Career Development provides exceptionally high-quality assistance to prepare the eight to 10 data tables required for all T32 grant submissions. We believe this is now state-of-the-art support for training programs as compared with our peer institutions.

These efforts have begun to pay off, with submission of T32 applications increasing. Most applications are not funded the first time, but resubmissions have fared very well. The bottom line is that 17 T32 programs are now active, supporting 66 predoctoral students (up from 30 in 2014) and 26 postdoctoral fellows (up from 22 in 2014). This amounts to a $1.5 million increase in T32 funding in less than three years. We expect to hear soon about additional T32 approvals, with the target of more than 20 by 2019. 

Several of these T programs are unique. The Comprehensive Training Program in Oral Biology (PI: Bob Burne, Ph.D.) in the College of Dentistry is supported by a T90 program from NIDCR, with eight predoctoral students and five postdoctoral fellows. This program supports Ph.D. candidates who are both U.S. and international students. The TL1 Program, directed by Wayne McCormack, Ph.D., as part of the Clinical and Translational Science Award Program, supports 10 predoctoral students (with four additional graduate students supported by the College of Medicine or UF Health Cancer Center). The large number of new students has allowed a “Team Ph.D.” initiative to be developed at UF Health, in which teams of two to three graduate students from different UF colleges apply as a team and are supported for two years to work on a single problem, but with thesis proposals from their respective disciplines. 

This is indeed a Power of Together story: A problem was identified, leadership was engaged, and many faculty and administrators came forward across UF Health to collaborate on training grants that have produced excellent results in relatively short order. The real impact will likely require a longer view, including the tracking of future careers and the contributions of the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who now enjoy support in a T32 Program at UF. In the meantime, we continue to enhance UF’s reputation as a great place to obtain graduate education.

Power of Together,

David S. Guzick, M.D., Ph.D.
Senior Vice President for Health Affairs, UF
President, UF Health