BEST program benefits doctoral students, postdocs

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Lindsey Hadlock
Svante Myrick and doctoral students
Jason Koski/University Photography
Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick '09, right, meets with doctoral students Jean Cruz-Hernandez, center, and Silvia Zhang April 12 in the Schaffer-Nishimura Lab in the basement of Weill Hall.

The three-year-old Cornell BEST program will examine its progress on May 3-4, 2017, at its annual symposium. BEST, which stands for Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training, is an initiative funded by the National Institutes of Health as part of a 17-institution consortium to invent new ways for biomedical graduate students and postdocs to broaden their professional training.

Recent surveys show that the Cornell BEST program has an 82 percent high satisfaction rate among trainees, and 75 percent of faculty believe BEST is beneficial for their graduate students. With a growing number of Ph.D.-trained scientists, offering them opportunities to explore career options beyond academia and to ease entry into the workforce is becoming important to national committees, funding agencies, institution leaders and politicians.

In this real-life, large-scale experiment, NIH gave participating universities complete freedom to develop their own programs. At Cornell, a core concept was to empower participants to become actors of their own professional development.

“We want trainees to create and own their development plan, and practice the skills they will need for their future career,” says Susi Varvayanis, senior director of the Cornell BEST Program. In the words of one trainee, “opportunities aren’t found, they are made.” Or as another one puts it, “the BEST program is more about doing.

BEST program initiatives have positively affected recruitment of new students, with 38 percent of first- and second -year doctoral students surveyed in 2015 reporting they chose Cornell in part because of the BEST program.

BEST trainees, or BESTies, have created clubs, organized events and established Cornell Advancing Science and Policy (ASAP), a new group of graduate students, postdocs and faculty interested in the intersection of science, policy and society. ASAP created the “bring a politician to work” day, an initiative that brought Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 to tour labs April 12.

BEST facilitates access to hands-on opportunities in industry, entrepreneurship and management; governance, risk and compliance; science communication; and science policy.

BEST also informs trainees about classes outside their fields that can help their career development, such as courses taught by Bruce Lewenstein, professor of science communication; Finding your Scientific Voice, taught by Itai Cohen, associate professor of physics; Business and Management Fundamentals, taught by Robert Karpman, adjunct professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management; and Science Policy Boot Camp, taught by Chris Schaffer, associate professor in the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering.

To make sure BESTies’ research work remain a priority, BEST looks for options compatible with the full-time work of a doctoral student or a postdoc, and engages faculty.

“Faculty want to provide career development to their trainees but often are not aware of the possibilities that may exist. The BEST program can collaborate with faculty and trainees to help them identify those career development opportunities that work for the trainee, and for the faculty,” says Avery August, professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and principal investigator of the BEST grant.

In a 2015 survey of Cornell faculty, 47 percent reported they were aware of the BEST program and of those who knew the program 84 percent of faculty in the life sciences and 67 percent of faculty in the physical sciences reported encouraging students to participate.

The skills participants develop are useful for careers inside and outside academia. In the 2015 and 2016 surveys, BESTies top interests were to increase presentation, writing, leadership and networking skills. “The core of graduate and postdoctoral training is research, and doing excellent research means communicating the results, both written and presenting, leading projects and forming collaborative networks,” says August. “All of these things that the BEST program does benefit the research training of the trainees.”

“We ask for feedback all the time and prune the activities that are less interesting,” says Varvayanis. “We basically let trainees tell us what they need, and we help that happen by bringing speakers, creating connections and supporting access to experiential opportunities, for example.”

Elodie Gazave is a research associate in the Section of Plant Breeding and Genetics in the School of Integrative Plant Science and BEST program marketing and communications manager.


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