In 1973, more than half of those who earned a PhD in medical research became an academic investigator within six years. Today, that number is only 15 percent. One study shows there are at least six PhDs competing for every tenure-track, academic position available. Several years of survey data collected by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) show that, although the percentage of new PhDs expecting to transition to a tenure-track faculty position stayed above 50 percent from 2010 to 2012, the percentage who transitioned fell from 37 percent to 21 percent.
Young investigators are the future of medical research. To preserve that talent pipeline, we need to close the “expectation gap” between the 50 percent who want to be in academic research and the 21 percent who make it.
One of the many barriers a young faculty researcher faces is obtaining the critical funding to independently pursue his or her ideas. Early career funding can make or break a research career.
BCRF was built on the concept of funding the best and brightest minds in breast cancer research, to foster collaboration among those investigators, and accelerate discoveries that will impact patient lives. In order to continue that intellectual pipeline, BCRF partners with other organizations, like the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) and Conquer Cancer Foundation of ASCO (CCF) to provide critical support to the most talented early career researchers at all stages in their career development.
BCRF has provided more than $4 million in research funding to AACR since 2007 and over $15 million to CCF since 2001. Competitive awards are issued to postdoctoral and clinical fellows to help them establish their independence and strengthen their research with high impact publications. Career development awards are issued to early career faculty, usually within 10 years of their first academic appointment. These awards help newly appointed faculty to establish their labs and research focus and build collaborations, increasing their competitiveness for larger federal grants that will be fundamental to their career success.
BCRF’s Maneesh Kumar, Scientific Program Manager, had an opportunity to meet some of these award winners at a CCF Career Development Retreat, held at the ASCO headquarters in Alexandria, VA. The retreat brought together former and current BCRF awardees to discuss research, as well as career development topics. The research topics were varied, from studying the genetics of breast cancer to understanding how fear plays a role in medical decision-making. But the common theme throughout the retreat from each of the awardees was that the early career funding was critical to their success. For some, it was the simple fact that receiving the award gave them the confidence of knowing they could succeed in academic research and gave them the boost they needed to push harder and succeed. For others, the grant allowed them to continue their early research and find that little bit of data they needed to establish their method and successfully compete for another grant.
Another theme began to emerge from the retreat. It became clear that having a good mentor was also important to their success. It’s not surprising then that in a survey conducted by Nature, mentorship contributed more to respondents’ overall satisfaction with their PhD program than did any other factor. That’s why for each of the career development awards sponsored by BCRF there is a key mentorship component. Since BCRF Investigators are the best and brightest minds in breast cancer research, it’s no surprise that BCRF Investigators like Drs. Ben Park, Christina Curtis, and Daniel Hayes are mentors to some of the CCF early career awardees this year.
Every researcher holds the potential to uncover critical breakthroughs in cancer treatment. Each year, BCRF funding allows promising researchers to pursue important advancements in their field with the hope of making an impact on the lives of those affected by cancer.