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U.S. NIGMS pulls out of F31 predoctoral fellowship program

Chemists worry the move means fewer options for graduate student support

by Andrea Widener
February 7, 2018

The U.S. National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) announced last month that it will no longer fund a predoctoral fellowship program that supported some chemistry students.

NIGMS decided instead to put its full predoctoral funding support toward training grants, which support departments to provide funding and mentorship to large groups of students. “We really committed to funding mentored, supervised, cohort-model training programs,” explains Alison Gammie, director of NIGMS’s training and workforce division. NIGMS funds the most basic chemistry of all institutes at NIH.

The move caused an uproar on Twitter because the fellowship—the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Individual Predoctoral Fellowship, or F31—was one of few grants that chemistry students could apply for once they had already started their graduate research. Most other grants, including NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowships Program, go to students before they start their research.

Marilyn Mackiewicz, now a research assistant professor at Portland State University, says she hadn’t known about the NSF fellowships when she applied to graduate school at Texas A&M University. “It’s kind of sad they are deciding to stop funding the grant,” which she says it helped both her confidence and her future prospects.

Gammie says NIH asked NIGMS to support the F31 predoctoral fellowships for the first time in 2015 as part of a push to improve training. After looking at the data from the years since, NIGMS decided to stop funding them.

Only 10% of NIGMS’s F31 grant applications were being funded, a success rate that meant even top-notch students were being rejected and, likely, discouraged by their experience, Gammie explains. NIGMS funded 85 fellowships since 2015, of which less than 20% went to chemists.

In addition, most students who got the fellowships were in departments that also received training grants, also called T32 grants, Gammie says. Chemistry, chemical engineering, biochemistry, and pharmacology departments are among those that receive the training grants. “We do have a strong commitment to funding chemistry students,” she says.

Chemists who have had the fellowship, whether funded by NIGMS or other institutes, say preparing an NIH application about their own research was invaluable preparation for applying for future fellowships and grants.

“That is an understanding that has benefited me to this day and is the reason I am a medicinal chemist now,” says Robert Craig at Denali Therapeutics. Craig, who got his undergraduate degree from Davidson College, says he applied for but didn’t get other predoctoral fellowships before he started grad school at California Institute of Technology.

“I think it was a huge benefit in my ability to get a postdoc,” Craig says. Making the grant available to fewer chemists “will be a huge loss.”

NIGMS will continue to support at a predoctoral fellowship to promote diversity. And chemists are eligible to apply for the F31 fellowship through other NIH institutes.

CORRECTION: This story was updated on Feb. 14, 2018, to show that the number of fellowships funded is 85 since 2015, not per year. The NSF fellowships mentioned in the story are also available in the early years of graduate school, not just before students enter graduate school.


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