The Sallie Rosen Kaplan (SRK) Postdoctoral Fellowship for Women Scientists in Cancer Research
Dr. Khadijah A. Mitchell, an endowed scholar of health and life sciences and Assistant Professor of Biology at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, advises her science students to be architects of their own success: to be clear about their goals and to not get distracted by the negative “noise” around them.
As a first-generation college graduate, a woman scientist, and a person of color, Dr. Mitchell speaks from her own experience of facing challenges on her journey to become a researcher who studies health disparities in lung and kidney cancers.
In partnership with NIH, we fund and administer training programs that provide opportunities to students of science from high schoolers to post-doctoral scholars. Annually, the Medical Research Scholars Program enrolls 50 medical, dental, and veterinary students in a year-long research training and mentorship program, including lectures, clinical teaching rounds, and a research symposium. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke Summer Internship provides STEM exposure to students from underrepresented (primarily Native American) populations. The Amgen Scholars program offers summer training for undergraduates to participate in cutting-edge research. The Pew Latin American Fellows Program provides postdoc training to students from Latin America.
She attributes her success to strong female mentors as well as to the skills she learned a decade ago as a Sallie Rosen Kaplan Fellow at NIH’s National Cancer Institute.
Dr. Sakshi Tomar, another recipient of the Sallie Rosen Kaplan Fellowship, immigrated to the United States from India to pursue a doctorate in biology and, after 10–15 years of doing basic research, transitioned to a fulfilling career as a pharmacology/toxicology reviewer at the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. She also credits her experience as a fellow for helping her to define her ideal career and obtain the skills, self-knowledge, and support she needed to successfully navigate a new pathway.
Two decades ago, the family of Sallie Rosen Kaplan partnered with the FNIH to establish the Sallie Rosen Kaplan (SRK) Postdoctoral Fellowship for Women Scientists in Cancer Research in memory of a woman who was deeply committed to the education of others, especially women.
Born in the early 1900s, Sallie Rosen Kaplan graduated from high school in New Jersey and was accepted to attend the University of Michigan. As the youngest of three children and the only daughter, however, she put her education on hold to care for her parents while her older brothers pursued law school and careers as attorneys. She subsequently married and never returned to higher education herself, yet she remained strongly supportive of the education and careers of family members.
Dr. Jeffrey Rosen, Mrs. Kaplan’s nephew and the CC Bell Distinguished Professor and Co-leader of the Breast Cancer Program at Baylor College of Medicine, recalls that his aunt always took an interest in his cancer research studies when he visited her after attending NIH review committee meetings. After her death, Dr. Rosen discovered that he was the executor of her estate and had to determine what to do with her investment assets. He and his wife decided that supporting promising female researchers at the National Cancer Institute would be the most fitting legacy for his aunt. The then-director of the NIH, Dr. Harold Varmus, suggested that Dr. Rosen work with the newly formed FNIH to set up the fellowship and manage the funds.
I have always felt that giving money to trainees is the best investment. Our future in biomedical research will be dependent on supporting a pipeline of well-trained postdocs,” says Dr. Rosen
The SRK Fellowship was initially conceived as a one-time stipend inducement to supplement the typically low compensation for postdoctoral trainees and to recruit female researchers to NCI. In 2011, Erika Ginsburg joined NCI’s Center for Cancer Training, which oversees the SRK Fellowship. Drawing on her own experience of mentoring postdocs in a lab setting, Ms. Ginsburg proposed re-envisioning the fellowship in response to studies showing that women are significantly more likely than men to leave the science field earlier, especially at the transition from training to independence as a researcher.
Now in its tenth year, the revised SRK Fellowship is a highly competitive, unpaid, one-year program that provides life coaching, career mentoring, networking, seminars, and workshops to help prepare NCI’s female postdoctoral fellows to compete in a tough job market and to transition to independent careers in science. Instead of a single recipient, 10-12 applicants from NCI are accepted each year and organized into cohorts to allow the fellows to network with each other and share experiences.
“The fellows are all already highly accomplished individuals when they are selected for the program,” says Ms. Ginsburg, “but their participation as an SRK Fellow adds increased empowerment, the ability to speak up in a safe environment, and the confidence to explore and strive for career options they may not have considered.”
Dr. Mitchell applied for the SRK Fellowship shortly after the program was re-organized as a cohort model. At the time, she had already completed extensive training at NIH and had acquired the skills to pursue an academic career. The fellowship experience, however, provided her with a supportive professional community of other female scientists, whom she would not have met outside the program, and the rigorous assignments helped her refine her career vision to teach at a non-medical school. She also had the opportunity to develop a course demonstrating her research, teaching, and service before seeking a position.
“The growth mindset is pervasive in the program,” says Dr. Mitchell. “You are encouraged to take your skills to the next level.”
Dr. Tomar applied for SRK Fellowship while studying cancer therapies at NCI. She was at a stage where she wanted to transition away from basic research, but she didn’t know where to begin or how to find alternative careers that would still leverage her scientific expertise.
“As a woman and an immigrant, you can really doubt your abilities,” says Dr. Tomar. “I learned strategies to overcome doubts. The program gave me self-confidence, life skills, and a tight-knit network to share experiences while I was discerning my next career move.”
A unique component of the program is that each fellow is matched with a “second mentor” in addition to her principal investigator in the lab. These mentors are senior female scientists from academia, government, or industry who have volunteered to regularly meet with the fellow and discuss any personal or professional concerns outside of the set curriculum. Dr. Tomar’s mentor, a woman in a leadership role at AstraZeneca, was invaluable in helping her to integrate her professional life with her role as a new mother.
“The skills I learned—including how to prioritize, manage my time, speak up for myself, and ask for what I need—became applicable to areas of my life beyond work,” says Dr. Tomar. Her advice for other women is to follow your passion, find support regardless of barriers, and don’t work in a silo.
Both women acknowledge that female scientists still face significant barriers in the field. Along with a lack of support for family responsibilities, women may encounter unconscious bias in peer reviews of their research or grant applications, lack of representation at conferences and panels, exclusion from key discussions, and the expectation that they must act like a man to be successful.
“The benefit of being able to turn those challenges into triumphs is that I learned how capable and resilient I am,” says Dr. Mitchell. “I can now pay it forward by helping those behind me.”
Dr. Rosen hopes the SRK Fellowship continues to build a training infrastructure for the future: “It becomes an iterative process: our fellows then influence the next generation. We have many new, younger women who are taking a leadership role. You have to give them these leadership opportunities and have a support system for them as well.”