For this edition of Career Corner, we have chosen to interview Dr. Kenneth (Kenny) Gibbs, who currently works as a Program Director within the National Institute for General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) Divisions of Training, Workforce Development and Diversity, Genetics, and Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology. Through this role, Dr. Gibbs manages several programs including the NIGMS Postdoctoral Research Associate Training (PRAT) Program, Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) program, and the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP).
Dr. Gibbs received his B.S. in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology from University of Maryland-Baltimore County in 2005, his Ph.D. in Immunology from Stanford University from 2010, and his M.P.H. from Johns Hopkins University in 2014. After completing his Ph.D., he did a one-year postdoc at Stanford before serving as an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow within the National Science Foundation Directorate for Education and Human Resources from 2011 to 2013. Following the completion of this fellowship, Dr. Gibbs worked as a Cancer Prevention Fellow at the National Cancer Institute before joining the NIH as a Program Analyst. He has previously served as a Director on the National Postdoctoral Association Board (2013-2015) and contributed to the NAtional Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) Report “Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century.”
When did you first decide that you wanted to transition from an academic career to science policy, and what was a major factor that helped with this decision?
I’ve written a bit about this before. I first decided to pursue a career in science after hearing a speaker in high school say:
If you're a medical doctor, you'll likely treat at most 10,000 patients in your lifetime. The guy who discovered penicillin has treated billions of people on every continent for the past 6 decades.
I saw science as a way to make a positive contribution to the lives of others on a national and global scale, and a tool for fighting injustice in the world. The further my scientific training progressed, the further I felt from the reason I went into science in the first place. I could see potential applications of my work in macro, but I wanted to have a more direct and tangible impact than I saw modeled before me. Science policy provided that for me.
What is the NIGMS PRAT program and what are some of the benefits that postdoctoral scholars receive through this program?
The NIGMS PRAT Program is a competitive three-year postdoctoral fellowship program that provides high quality research training in the basic biomedical sciences in NIH intramural research laboratories (i.e., labs on NIH campuses across in Maryland and North Carolina). The program prepares trainees for leadership positions in biomedical careers through mentored laboratory research, networking, and intensive career and leadership development activities. Postdocs benefit from being a part of a supportive cohort and the extended PRAT network, exposure to scientific leaders, and communications training (e.g., three-minute talks or chalk talks).
Learn more here: https://www.nigms.nih.gov/training/pages/prat.aspx
The application deadline is each October. We’re especially interested in recruiting graduate students to the NIH, and ensuring the applicant pool reflects the diversity of the biomedical Ph.D. talent pool so if you’re a Ph.D. student interested in postdoc training at the NIH and/or are from an underrepresented background, please apply.
Recently, the NIH released a notice (NOT-OD-20-031) that expanded upon the definition of individuals from “disadvantaged backgrounds.” Do you believe expanding these criteria will improve the recruitment and retention of underrepresented students? Why or why not?
Diversity in science is important for a lot of reasons. First, and most importantly, it’s the right thing to do. Everyone, no matter your background, should have the ability to pursue scientific training if they so choose. From a policy perspective, we never know from who or where the next scientific advance will come, so it’s really important to invest in a broad and diverse portfolio or research and researchers.
Ideally, the new recently released notice will help those who otherwise wouldn’t think science is for them know that NIH supports them, and to seek opportunities to advance their careers. NIGMS takes a leadership role in enhancing diversity in the biomedical sciences by supporting trainees at many career stages. You can learn more about the programs here: https://www.nigms.nih.gov/training/Pages/Home.aspx
Part of your role at NIGMS involves advocating for an inclusive STEM workforce. In your view, what is one of the major achievements that has occurred during the last decade to improve diversity in STEM?
Building a robust pool of highly skilled Ph.D. scientists from underrepresented backgrounds. Every year, there are nearly 1,000 Ph.Ds. that identify as Black, Latinx, American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander in biomedical disciplines. This is a nearly 10-fold increase over the past 30 years and can put to rest the idea that “there aren’t enough qualified candidates.” I’ve written and spoken about this elsewhere.
Despite this increase, there are still gaps in representation at the faculty and investigator level. NIH is aiming to address this gap through our new Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) K99/R00 Program. The MOSAIC K99/R00 program is designed to facilitate a timely transition of promising postdoctoral researchers from diverse backgrounds from their mentored, postdoctoral research positions to independent, tenure-track or equivalent faculty positions at research-intensive institutions. Like all K99 awards, the MOSAIC program will provide independent NIH research support before and after this transition to help awardees launch successful, independent research careers. Additionally, MOSAIC K99/R00 scholars will be part of organized scientific cohorts and will have access to additional mentoring, networking, and professional development activities coordinated by scientific societies we fund.
Learn more here: https://www.nigms.nih.gov/training/careerdev/Pages/MOSAIC.aspx
Through your role at NIGMS and in the public sphere, you have been very adamant that “there are no alternative careers” for STEM PhD recipients. What is one thing you would recommend that academic training programs do to promote the idea that academic and non-academic careers are both valid?
My most circulated tweet was me repeating “there are no alternative careers.” It’s funny we still have to say this. The fact is, over 80% of biomedical Ph.Ds. are in careers outside of tenure track academe, so it’s not tenable to call these “alternative” careers. All careers where scientists are using their skills, pursuing work aligned with their values, and making positive societal contributions are good careers.
It is now the expectation that all NIGMS institutional undergraduate, masters, postbac and graduate programs will ensure students have the “knowledge, professional skills and experiences required to identify and transition into careers in the biomedical research workforce.” While it may seem like a technical detail, we were intentional to define “careers in the biomedical research workforce”as “the breadth of careers that sustain biomedical research in areas that are relevant to the NIH mission.” There are lots of ways that people contribute to and sustain biomedical research. We usually think of being a professor at a research-intensive university or working in industry at the bench as the main ways, but teaching, policy, and science communication are also vitally important to sustaining the biomedical sciences.
You have also expressed criticism about the phrase “leaky pipeline,” which has been used to describe the poor retention of women and/or URM scientists in the academic research path. Why is this term inaccurate and what metaphor would you suggest instead?
Yes “leaky pipeline” is my least favorite metaphor for describing what’s happening in science as it relates to the recruitment, retention and advancement of those of us from underrepresented groups in science. In brief, it reinforces the notion of a strict, linear sequence for becoming a scientist where none exists, and the idea that the main way of increasing the representation of scientists from underrepresented groups in the research workforce is by “starting earlier.” I’m all for supporting science engagement programs for kids (I have three kids myself and aim to engage them in science as much as possible) and undergraduate research experiences (I participated in many). That said, nearly 60% of biomedical Ph.Ds. are women (from all racial/ethnic backgrounds) or underrepresented men. Yet these groups are less than 40% of assistant professor hires. There are issues at institutions and in our system that we need to acknowledge and fix so that scientists from all backgrounds are and feel supported, and can contribute.
Plus, the “leak” phraseology makes it sound as though folks from underrepresented groups have no agency in our career decisions. It sounds too passive. I actively chose to bring my talents to a type of work that I felt better aligned with my values and interests. I’ve never heard one of my white male colleagues who’s also working in a career outside of academia called a “leak,” but I have been, and that makes no sense. Either we all “leaked,” or we all used our agency to make choices that made sense for us (I obviously prefer the latter interpretation).
What organizations are you affiliated with and what causes/issues do you support? Why?
I’m the father of a five-, three- and one-year-old, and my wife works full time so there’s not a lot of time for extra activities. That said, outside of work, my energies go into my church (where I’m part of the leadership) and my oldest kids’ school. I also aim to be involved in my community by going to community association meetings and supporting the local small businesses. So often, policy work is about fixing “big problems” so I think it’s also important to structure my life around attending to the people and places that are right in front of me.
What is the best career advice you have received?
From mom, “Don’t self-eliminate.” She always told me and my sisters not to count ourselves out. To always apply for opportunities we were interested in, even if we didn’t meet all of the “qualifications” and make other people tell you “no,” instead of saying no to ourselves.
From dad, “Don’t believe your own hype.” That is, don’t get too high when people are saying positive things about you, because then you’ll get too low when people don’t like what you have to say. Helps me stay level when things are or aren’t going the way I’d like.
Where do you envision your career in 10 years?
Ultimately, I want to be doing work that I feel makes a positive contribution to issues I think are important, and that allows me to live the type of balanced life that I think is important (i.e., I can be the kind of husband to my wife and father to my kids that I think is important). What that looks like, who knows? I like the work I do and the people I work with so I could imagine myself doing this well into the future. I also recognize that I don’t know what opportunities will present themselves over the next decade.
Every job I’ve had since leaving graduate school, I didn’t know existed 3-5 years before. AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship. Cancer Prevention Fellowship. Working as an “analyst” and now program officer in the government – I had no idea these were jobs that people had. So we’ll see!