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NSF Director Discusses Graduate Education, Partnerships on UCSF Visit

By Jyoti Madhusoodanan

National Science Foundation Director France Córdova and UCSF Vice Chancellor for Science Policy and Strategy Keith Yamamoto share a laugh during a lunchtime discussion with graduate students on Dec. 16. Photo by Elisabeth Fall

Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) France A. Córdova visited UC San Francisco on Dec. 16 to speak with leaders and students about how to improve graduate education to train the next generation of scientists.

During her daylong visit, Córdova also held meetings with researchers about initiatives in precision medicine, integrating biology and engineering, and expanding partnerships between UCSF and the NSF. She met with Elizabeth Watkins, PhD, vice chancellor of Student Academic Affairs and dean of the Graduate Division, and 10 NSF Graduate Research Fellows over lunch to discuss training needs for early-career researchers and ways to work with the NSF beyond graduate school.  

UCSF graduate students told France Córdova their ideas for how to improve training for the next generation of scientists. Photo by Elisabeth Fall

Training for the next generation of scientists is one of the big questions on her mind, Córdova said. In 2014, a PNAS article authored by several senior researchers reported that biomedical research training in the U.S. is on an unsustainable path, making even the most promising trainees pessimistic about their career prospects.

“The world after graduate school is changing rapidly, and we want to make sure our students receive the training they want and need,” said Córdova. “It’s a national-level discussion, but we want to hear from students about their experiences.”

During the discussion, several students expressed their desire for more structured training on skills like balancing budgets or managing research labs, which are rarely included in formal graduate training. “We often hear about alternate career paths, but are not always told enough about how to succeed in academia,” said Hanna Starobinets, a graduate student in biomedical sciences.

Córdova recommended that students begin planning for an academic career early.

Some of her tips included asking advisors for opportunities to help with grant writing, making oral presentations at scientific meetings, and reaching out to connect with mentors in the same field for research or career advice.

“It’s important to get out of your space – meet new people, see new things, and don’t be afraid to talk to someone simply because they’re famous or a senior scientist,” she said. “Never hesitate to get involved.”