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The Hillock Newsletter - Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy Perspectives From a Post-Graduate Fellowship Beyond-the-Bench

Victoria Spruance, PhD, Drexel University College of Medicine, 2017

Extramural Programs at the National Institutes of Health

By Victoria Spruance, PhD, Drexel University College of Medicine, 2017

Dr. Spruance received her PhD from the department in 2017. She did her dissertation work in the laboratory of Dr. Michael Lane, where she worked on transplantation of neural progenitor cells to improve respiratory function after cervical spinal cord injury. Dr. Spruance is currently a presidential management fellow at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK, NIH).

Over the course of my graduate education at Drexel University, my scientific passions became more focused. I grew increasingly interested in science policy, education, networking and the "big-picture" view of my field. I also realized that these interests didn’t necessarily translate to a traditional academic career at the bench. However, it required a little more time and effort to identify careers that would allow me to engage more fully in these aspects of science that I loved.

Luckily, during both my graduate and undergraduate training, I worked with mentors who understood the importance of professional networking and imparted this value to their students. Dr. Michael Lane and Dr. Paul Reier supported my travels to multiple conferences each year and facilitated my interactions with leaders in the field. I was able to speak with professionals in all walks of scientific life – from academic institutions; small, medium and large biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies; science communications; nonprofit and government funding agencies; and policy and advocacy groups.

This large, diverse network became my key to identifying which nonacademic careers would be best suited for me. During this process, I came to know Dr. Lyn Jakeman, an accomplished neuroscientist (and fellow "Reiercyte") who had made the professional leap from principal investigator at an academic institution to a program director at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She eventually became another mentor to me, as she always found time to check-in with me at meetings and offered honesty and candor while discussing different career paths. Through these conversations, I started to identify a program director position as a great fit for me and I became determined to find a way to get my foot in the door at NIH.

Shortly before my dissertation defense, I applied for the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF). This two-year leadership development program is intended to launch recent, advanced-degree graduates into successful, public service careers in the federal government. I was selected as a PMF finalist and accepted a placement offer at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in the Extramural Programs Division of Kidney, Urologic and Hematologic Diseases (KUH).

Dr. Spruance receives the NIDDK Innovation Award from Institute Director Dr. Griffin Rodgers.

Dr. Spruance receives the NIDDK Innovation Award from Institute Director Dr. Griffin Rodgers.

Luckily for me, it has been the perfect match and has allowed me to learn the ins and outs of the program director job description. My main responsibility at KUH is to oversee a small portfolio of grants. This means that I often spend time talking with our grantees to learn about their work, and doing what I can to help them through the grant application and review processes. The portfolios in our division span all different areas of science – from basic science consortia to fully fledged clinical trials to start-up biotechnology companies. As such, we regularly engage with various populations: patients, physicians, PIs, science trainees, industry professionals and other program staff at different Institutes at NIH.

The other half of the program director job stems from the birds-eye-view of the field that these portfolios provide. Having the "big picture" allows us to identify gaps in the research and propose new funding strategies or policies to help move the science forward. We can convene workshops to highlight a previously understudied area and bring together key stakeholders to generate new ideas. We often write review or perspective papers and participate in NIH-wide program endeavors (such as the Common Fund Initiative for Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions).

As you might imagine, no two days in our office are the same, and every day brings something new. However, perhaps my favorite part of this experience at NIDDK has been the opportunity to see leadership at its absolute best. The support and encouragement provided by our institute and division directors is unparalleled, and constitute a big part of why NIH is such a joyful place to be.

All in all, the PMF has proven to be the perfect next step for me as a fresh PhD graduate. By the end of my two-year fellowship, I will have completed over 160 hours of leadership development training and a 5-month detail assignment as a policy analyst at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in the Office of Science and Data Policy. Commonly thought of as the policy "think tank" for the HHS Secretary, this office handles high priority policy issues related to health, science and data (such as the opioid epidemic, combating antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and health data privacy). These detail assignments are required as part of the PMF program to provide diverse experiences in government, training, and networking opportunities.

At the end of these two years of fellowship, I can confidently say I will be ready to convert to a full-time position at NIDDK and continue my career in public service – beyond the bench.

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