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Obligations of the Training Program

3.c.3. The Research Experience.

3.c.3.1. Apprenticeship with the Mentoring Team.. As described above, it is the mentoring team’s responsibility to provide the trainee with an active, engaged research experience. Specifically, mentorees will be incorporated into the ongoing research programs of their mentors, which are described in sections 3.b.3 through 3.b.5. This apprenticeship mode allows early trainees to begin getting their feet wet with research immediately. As they progress through the program, trainees are expected to be given more and more independence, to generate their own ideas, and to begin pursuing projects and publishing papers that stem from those ideas in collaboration with the members of their mentoring team and, as appropriate, other trainees and investigators. Trainees are expected to spend a minimum of 40 hours per week at UAB engaging in their work. Their obligations for classroom activities, journal clubs, meetings, and workshops must first be met, and remaining work time is expected to be spent working on their research projects. It is expected that the number of hours working on the research projects after the first year in the program will exceed 20 hours per week and should not be much less than 20 hours per week even in the first year.

3.c.3.2. Ensuring Clinical and Translational Exposure. Increasingly and appropriately, there is recognition in biomedical research that steps need to be taken to ensure that investigators receive training in translational research and that we must facilitate translational and clinical research. With this in mind, we want all of our trainees to have some exposure to clinical and/or translational research. We accomplish this in several ways. First, many of the mentoring teams have people on them who do clinical and translational research. Members of mentoring teams are regularly reminded that they should give each mentoree some exposure to clinical or translational research. This exposure can be as extensive as spearheading a project in clinical or translational research or can involve more of a light sampling, such as having a minor role as a member of an investigative team for a project, or even joining discussions in a regular lab meeting or discussion group run by one of the program mentors that involves clinical or translational research. Second, attendance at our NORC seminar series is required of all trainees (see section 3.c.7). As can be seen from the detailed listing of seminars in Appendix E, we regularly include sessions from top clinical and translational investigators around the world. Thus, even mentorees who are primarily focusing on basic science will still have some exposure to clinical and translational science. Third, our dispersion requirements for the curriculum (see section 3.c.4) necessitate that all investigators have some exposure to the ideas of clinical and translational research in their didactic training. Finally, Dr. Glasser takes responsibility for checking in with the mentoring teams periodically and is involved in the six-month reviews for each mentoree. In the event that a mentoring team is struggling to provide a mentoree with exposure to clinical and translational research, Dr. Glasser, who specializes in such research, takes responsibility for constructing a plan to provide the mentoree with such exposure.

3.c.4. Didactic Curricula Training. Trainees participating in the proposed program come from different departments across the university. Therefore, the first year of doctoral education is different according to the student’s individual program. To provide a baseline of knowledge pertinent to obesity and HLB disease, the educational training is based on three categories of courses: Required Non-Recurring, Required-Recurring, and Tailored-Dispersion Requirements (as shown in the Curriculum Development figure). Students take the Required Non-Recurring courses within the first two years in the T32 program (second or third year of doctoral program). The Required-Recurring course consists of a seminar, sponsored by the NORC, during the fall and spring semesters while the student is funded by the T32, and the course “Obesity in the 21st Century,” which covers the role of obesity in health, with a strong emphasis on HLB disease. The seminar exposes students to the latest work of nationally and internationally recognized leaders in the field of nutrition and obesity every week. The seminar is available to students for one credit per semester through the course NTR 788 (see section 3.c.7 for more details on seminar). Additionally, as noted in the Progress Report, we have added a new course to the required curriculum, “Energetics: Scientific Foundations of Obesity and Other Health Aspects.” This course focuses more on ecological, evolutionary, metabolic, and public health as opposed to clinical aspects of obesity. A minimum of two Tailored-Dispersion Requirements courses outside of the student’s disciplinary domain is required during the first and second year of the training program (second and third year of doctoral studies). These Tailored-Dispersion Requirements courses have been designed such that all trainees are exposed to the behavioral/social, quantitative, and biological/medical areas of obesity- and cardiovascular-related research. A description of the optional courses follows.

Behavioral/Social

SOC 788 Social Medicine (Socio-environmental factors in etiology of disease, social movements and health policy, medical ethics and broad ethical issues, place of social science in medical care)

PPSY 720 Human Neuropsychology (Structure and function of human brain, human behavior, cognitive functions and personality functions, brain-behavior relationships following neurological impairment)

Quantitative

BST 611/612. Statistical Analysis I & II (An introduction to basic analysis methods, elementary concepts, statistical models and applications of probability, commonly used sampling distributions, parametric and non-parametric one and two sample tests, confidence intervals, applications of analysis of two-way contingency table data, linear regression, simple analysis of variance, and simple and multiple regression)

EPI610 Principles of Epidemiologic Research (Introduction of the theoretical basis underlying key aspects of the design, analysis, interpretation, and statistical material to conduct epidemiologic studies)

Biological/Medical

NTR 750 Body Composition and Energy Metabolism (Methods of measurement of body composition and energy expenditure and their relationship to health and disease)

EPI612 Nutritional Epidemiology (Core concepts in human nutrition, including nutrient classification, nutrient sources, nutritional deficiencies, nutritional excesses, recommended daily allowances, basic anthropometry, dietary assessment methods in free-living populations, validation of dietary assessment methods, identification of biomarkers of dietary intake, study designs used in nutritional epidemiology, issues in the analysis and presentation of dietary data, diet-disease associations, gene-diet associations, and special topics in nutrition [e.g., folic acid and neural tube defects, fatty acids and the metabolic syndrome, diet and obesity, vitamin A and immune function, vitamins, mother-to-child transmission of HIV, etc.])

GBSC 718: Epigenetics (Introduction to the basic principles of epigenetics and its involvement in many different biological/pathological processes; topics include imprinting, X-inactivation, epigenetic mechanisms of gene regulation, and cancer epigenetics) [This is a new course offering, which replaces the former class that is no longer available.]

Short Courses

Short Course on Mathematical Sciences in Obesity Research
The mathematical sciences including engineering, statistics, computer science, physics, econometrics, psychometrics, epidemiology, and mathematics qua mathematics are increasingly being applied to advance our understanding of the causes, consequences, and alleviation of obesity. These applications do not merely involve routine well-established approaches easily implemented in widely available commercial software. Rather, they increasingly involve computationally demanding tasks, use and in some cases development of novel analytic methods and software, new derivations, computer simulations, and unprecedented inter-digitation of two or more existing techniques. Such advances at the interface of the mathematical sciences and obesity research require bilateral training and exposure for investigators in both disciplines. This course on the mathematical sciences in obesity research features some of the world’s finest scientists working in this domain to fill this unmet need by providing nine topic driven modules designed to bridge the disciplines.

Short Course on Strengthening Causal Inference in Behavioral Obesity Research
The identification of causal relations is fundamental to a science of intervention and prevention. Obesity is a major problem for which much progress in understanding, treatment, and prevention remains to be made. Understanding which social and behavioral factors cause variations in adiposity and which other factors cause variations is vital to producing, evaluating, and selecting among intervention and prevention strategies as well as to understanding obesity’s root causes, requiring input from disciplines including statistics, economics, psychology, epidemiology, mathematics, philosophy, and in some cases behavioral or statistical genetics. The application of these techniques, however, does not involve routine well-known ‘cookbook’ approaches but requires understanding of underlying principles, so the investigator can tailor approaches to specific and varying situations. The nine course modules provide rigorous exposure to the key fundamental principles underlying a broad array of techniques and experience in applying those principles and techniques through guided discussion of real examples in obesity research.

3.c.5. Career Development Workshops. Many aspects of a scientific career are not covered in traditional graduate training. These include such things as balancing work and family life, presenting one’s research in the media, going on a job interview, negotiating in academia, rising up in academic leadership, managing time to ensure productivity, and many other topics. In recognition of this, the NORC co-sponsors a series of workshops each year. These are usually co-sponsored with the School of Public Health, via Dr. Allison’s Associate Dean role. NORC mentorees, e.g., post-doctoral and pre-doctoral trainees, help plan the sessions as well as participate in them. Both UAB-based and national speakers are brought in to help conduct these workshops. Examples of last year’s workshops and those planned for this year are contained in Appendix F. These are largely funded by the NORC and will continue to be (see pledge in letter from Dr. Allison as NORC director included with this application). All mentorees will be required to attend these workshops as long as they do not conflict with scheduled classes. Mentorees report that they find these both valuable and enjoyable.

3.c.6. A “Walking” Journal Club Tailored to This Program. We have many existing journal clubs in which our mentorees may participate. These include a hypertension journal club led by Dr. Suzanne Oparil, a statistical genetics journal club in the Section on Statistical Genetics, and a journal club on physiology and metabolism conducted in the DNS. Mentorees may choose to participate in any of those journal clubs at their discretion. However, to promote a sense of camaraderie among the mentorees and mentors in this program and also to enhance the interdisciplinarity, we have developed a journal club tailored specifically for this program, which we call the “Walking” journal club, because its location, topic, and/or host rotate around the campus. The journal club is offered on the third Friday of each month (excluding summer), in a breakfast setting that starts at 7:30 a.m. Dr. Fernández serves as the organizer of this journal club in which assigned mentors lead the discussion of a journal article of their choice, providing an opportunity to expose mentorees to a diversity of topics that relate to HLB disease. Participation is required of all mentorees.

Text Box 2. Expectations of Trainees
  • Attend courses outlined above
  • Complete relevant course work where applicable
  • Attend monthly “walking” journal club designed for this program (see section 3.c.6)
  • *Optional* Attend additional seminars and journal clubs (e.g., Hypertension Seminar Series; Center for Free Radical Biology with Cardiovascular Relevance)
  • Submit presentation to one relevant National Meeting related to HLB research per year after first year in program
  • Participate in grant application submission
  • Participate in mentor’s research program as part of training and as launching pad for independent development
  • Participate in Graduate Student Research Day
  • Demonstrate productivity through the submission of manuscripts for publication

3.c.7. Seminars. As described in section 3.c.4, all mentorees are expected to attend the weekly NORC seminar series. This takes place from the beginning of September through the end of April in each academic year, with special seminars throughout the year. A truly outstanding cast of internationally recognized speakers provides state-of-the-art lectures on topics related to obesity and other aspects of nutrition from virtually every perspective. We have had speakers discuss research with yeast, c. elegens, drosophila, zebra fish, mice, rats, monkeys, and humans. We have had lectures on topics ranging from molecular genetics, mathematical models, and clinical trials to public policy and developmental aspects. The list of our seminars in the last two years is included in Appendix E. Our seminars are videotaped and placed on our website (http://www.norc.uab.edu/courses/seminars) for free viewing by anybody at any time. In this manner, mentorees who need to miss a lecture or did not catch something in a lecture can go back at their convenience and review the lecture via video. There are many other seminars given throughout the university on closely related topics such as hypertension, CVD, epidemiology, and diabetes, and mentorees may participate in these at their respective mentors’ discretion.

3.c.8. Other Academic Activities. Many other activities, seminars, journal clubs, grant writing clubs, and so on are available in which mentorees may participate at their discretion. In particular, the graduate school organizes regular workshops and seminars covering many aspects of scientific careers, including grant writing and job interviewing, specifically geared toward graduate students.

3.c.9. Training in Scientific Presentations. All trainees are expected to make at least one presentation per year. In their first year of training, this may be as informal as participating in a journal club presentation in collaboration with their mentors. Thereafter, they will be expected to make one formal presentation per year, and UAB provides many such opportunities. Each year, all students have the opportunity to present their findings at “Graduate Student Research Day” and may also win awards. The annual retreat of the DNS, School of Public Health research day, Dr. Oparil’s hypertension program retreat, the Comprehensive Center for Healthy Aging annual meeting, the Department of Medicine Research Trainee Symposium, and the Comprehensive Cancer Center’s annual meeting all provide additional venues for students to present posters or talks at UAB and to compete in awards programs. Finally, after their first year of training in the program, each mentoree will be expected to attend a national scientific conference at least once per year and make a presentation. Examples of conferences include, but are not limited, to the American Heart Association, The Obesity Society, Experimental Biology, and the Society for Clinical Research.

3.c.10. Training in Grant Writing. As described above, mentorees get some exposure to grant writing techniques through workshops held by the Graduate School and by our program in particular. Additionally, each mentoree is expected to have some involvement in grant writing during their time at UAB. Because of differences in career progression, talents, and interests, we do not demand that each mentoree submit a full NIH grant proposal. Many do (e.g., F31s or F32s), though, and we highly encourage that. However, working with one’s mentor to help prepare a grant application on which the mentor is the PI is considered an acceptable apprenticeship at this level, as is submitting a small grant specifically for graduate students to an academic society such as The Obesity Society or Sigma Xi. This need not be done annually, but only once during their graduate training.

3.c.11. Written Materials. A series of materials is distributed to both mentors and mentorees regarding appropriate practices for mentoring in research and success. These materials, presented in Appendix D of this application, have been selected to educate both mentors and mentorees about effective strategies in developing a better relationship, to educate about appropriate and ethical conduct in science, to impart values about diversity of research and research populations, and to reinforce a successful training experience conducive to developing successful and responsible scientists. These materials are also important in training young collaborating mentors to become effective and successful mentors. Funding for these materials is pledged by the NORC in the event that insufficient funds are available through this T32 (see letter from Dr. Allison included in this application).

3.d. Evaluation of Performance of Trainees, Mentors, and Overall Program.
Our plan consists of an immediate evaluation by trainees, faculty, and advisors and an assessment of long-term success by evaluating the extent to which trainees go on to be productive independent scientists.

3.d.1. Short-Term Evaluation. The program directors, primary mentor, and co-mentors are responsible for monitoring and evaluating trainee performance. Several evaluation tools are used to monitor students, mentors, and the program in general. Based on the expectations in Text Box 2 (section 3.e.1), formal evaluation of specific trainees is done by mentors and program directors, whereas the IAB and the program directors evaluate the trainees overall. Mentors are formally evaluated by students using the mentorship evaluation form from the NHLBI (http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/funding/policies/t32/t32evalform.pdf). Additionally, mentors are evaluated by the program directors based on the expectations in Text Box 2. The evaluation tools are shown in Appendix G. Results of the most recent mentor evaluation are in the progress report section.

The three program directors (Allison, Fernández, Locher) meet with each mentoree and their complete mentoring team privately every six months. At that time, the mentorees present a report of their activities in the program in general and the past six months in particular. They present responses to a series of questions that are provided in advance and probe for such things as their progress in publications, grant writing, participating in didactic activities, and meeting all other objectives of the program. This strategy has proven very effective with both our post-doctoral and pre-doctoral trainees. After the trainee has presented his or her progress report, the program directors may ask additional questions of both the mentoree and the mentors. The mentors and program directors then provide specific feedback to the mentoree. If there are areas in which progress seems to be less than ideal, the program directors will provide specific feedback to the mentors and mentoree for remediation. If major problems exist, the remediation approach described in section 3.e.4 will be used. Mentorees are also asked if they have any constructive suggestions for us to improve the program.

3.d.2. Long-Term Evaluation. We will evaluate the long-term success of the program by evaluating the extent to which trainees continue to be productive in obesity research. We will maintain a list of trainees. For each annual progress report, we will contact past trainees and ask them to describe their current work and non-NIH funding. We will also conduct a PubMed search and a search of the NIH Reporter database to evaluate which individuals have gone on to receive funding to conduct work in obesity. Tables of the results will be prepared, which will allow us to determine to what extent trainees go on to be productive in the field. Ultimately, these concrete indicators of success will be our “litmus test.” For this renewal application, it is premature to conduct such a long-term evaluation because our trainees have not yet matriculated from the training program (which is just now entering its fourth year). This is not unexpected; according to the National Science Foundation, for the year 2012, the median years it took to complete a doctorate once one began a program was 7.7 years (http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/sed/2012/data_table.cfm).