Campus News

CRIA, SPHHP celebrate longevity of UB’s “postdoc-centered” training grant

Four of the T32 postdocs in UB’s Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions: Nichole M. Sell, PhD; Michelle J. Zaso, PhD; Liana S.E. Hone, PhD; and Mauricio Suárez, PhD.

From left, four of the T32 postdocs in UB’s Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions: Nichole M. Sell, Michelle J. Zaso, Liana S.E. Hone and Mauricio Suárez. Photo: Douglas Levere

By DAVID J. HILL

Published October 31, 2019

“I think it really is a jewel, not just for CRIA and the School of Public Health and Health Professions, but for UB as a whole. Twenty years of continuous funding for a training grant is a huge accomplishment.”
R. Lorraine Collins, associate dean for research
School of Public Health and Health Professions

Over the past two decades, scientists from UB’s Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions (CRIA) have trained more than 30 postdoctoral fellows who’ve predominantly gone on to obtain research positions at universities from UB to Alaska.

It’s all thanks to what is believed to be the longest running T32 training grant at UB. CRIA first received the funding from the National Institutes of Health in 2000.

The grant funding has enabled a multidisciplinary team of CRIA scientists affiliated with the School of Public Health and Health Professions and other schools at UB to train up-and-coming researchers.

“I think it really is a jewel, not just for CRIA and the School of Public Health and Health Professions, but for UB as a whole,” says R. Lorraine Collins, SPHHP’s associate dean for research.

“Twenty years of continuous funding for a training grant is a huge accomplishment,” adds Collins, who served as co-director of the training grant until August.

That’s when co-leadership of the grant transitioned to Gregory Homish, interim chair of SPHHP’s Department of Community Health and Health Behavior. Homish will co-lead the training program with CRIA Director Kenneth Leonard, who has served as co-lead since 2012.

Homish thanked Collins for her years of leadership on the training program. He said he’s excited to assume a leadership role with the program, which he has been involved with since 2014.

The grant funds a cohort of up to six postdoctoral fellows who are here for two to three years before moving on to the next step in their career, typically a position within academia. Many have accepted positions with major universities, like Vivian M. Gonzalez, who is now an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alaska. Others, like Amy Hequembourg, associate professor in the School of Nursing, remain at UB.

CRIA has trained 33 postdoctoral fellows since 2000.

Fellows select two mentors to supervise them, and oftentimes those mentors are the reason the postdocs chose UB. “They’re attracted to the program, but they’re attracted to it because they want to come and work with a specific scientist,” says Leonard. “We’re at a point now where people are referring their best students to us.”

Another selling point of the program is its focus on professional development. Review committees critique the postdocs’ teaching and research statements, as well as their job talk and academic chalk talk. Mentors also assist postdoctoral fellows with writing grant applications and submitting research papers to peer-reviewed journals.

“Our program is very postdoc-centered,” says Collins. “The philosophy of our T32 program has always been that we are here to help and mentor researchers to achieve their own goals.”

Adds Leonard: “We spend a lot of time helping them refine what it is that they want to do.”

That was the case for Gonzalez, the University of Alaska professor. She credits her career in academia to her CRIA postdoctoral training, and the mentorship she received from Collins and Clara Bradizza, a professor in the School of Social Work, who is also an affiliated faculty member with CRIA.

“I applied to CRIA’s postdoc program because I wanted a postdoctoral experience that would bolster my research training, including gaining publications, doing independent research and gaining grant-writing skills,” Gonzalez says. “My aim was to be a successful academic with a strong research focus in the area of alcohol use disorder etiology and treatment. CRIA and my research mentors helped me to achieve this aim.”

Mark A. Prince had a similar experience. He is now an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Colorado State University. The CRIA postdoc program helped him obtain a tenure-track position.

“It taught me how to refine my research skills,” Prince says, adding that he was also afforded time and support to build his research program in order to become a more independent scientist, and a more competitive applicant.

“I considered a number of T32s when applying for postdoctoral training. The T32 at UB is unique in its breadth and in its application. I was treated as an equal and provided with the resources and support I needed to be successful,” he adds.

While there’s much that the postdoctoral fellows themselves gain from the training program, the UB scientists who work with them also reap rewards.

“The interest and dedication of the mentors also reflects a shared responsibility that we feel to train the next generation of researchers,” says Gerard Connors, former CRIA director who secured the initial T32 funding at UB. Connors is now professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology, College of Arts and Sciences.

“One of the interesting things that happens is that as you work with the postdocs around their projects, you learn about a whole new area, and that enriches whatever research you are doing,” Leonard says. “They bring a breath of fresh air and new ideas. I continue to collaborate with many of the postdocs that have come through the program.”