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Lowering the Age of Scientific Independence

Sonnenberg horizontal lab 3 Sept 12Just over five years ago, Greg Sonnenberg, PhD, research associate in the Division of Gastroenterology and the Institute for Immunology, was tossing his mortarboard in the air at his now undergraduate alma mater SUNY Buffalo. This month, he will be starting his first independent research position, all before turning 30, effectively bypassing the ubiquitous postdoctoral phase of a typical career in biomedical research.  

The length of the “training period” and therefore age at which early career researchers establish independent research careers, has been steadily lengthening. According to the NIH Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group, the median age at which biomedical scientists start their first tenure-track position is 37. To address the family- and career-stymieing aspects of this trend, the NIH established the NIH Director's Early Independence Award (EIA) for exceptional early-career scientists to move directly into independent research positions by essentially omitting the traditional post-doctoral training period.

The awardees each receive $250,000 per year for up to five years at a host institution. Science Careers reached out to several of the first year awardees to find out how the experiment is going. Most described a smooth transition. NIH advises against appointing EIA winners to tenure-track positions, but host institutions must provide space, access to equipment, and other resources. 

Sonnenberg is one of 14 early-career scientists supported this year with an EIA, part of the second annual cohort of awardees.  

“There are 24 of us now,” says Sonnenberg. “I was extremely surprised and excited to be selected. The news is finally settling in, and I am even more excited about the future challenges associated with launching an independent research program.”

Sonnenberg defended his PhD at Penn almost a year ago and started right in on the application process, which took almost a full year. It involved first an internal nomination process in the Perelman School of Medicine. Each university is only permitted to submit two applications each year. Sonnenberg is the first from Penn to receive an EIA.

Following a formal review process through the NIH, 24 applicants were selected this year from a pool of roughly 100 for an interview at the NIH with a panel of distinguished scientists. “Eventually 14 finalists were notified in September that their applications would be funded,” he says.

Sonnenberg’s award kicks in this month and he will be moving into his new lab in a week or so. He’s also looking forward to working with a new postdoc joining his lab and plans to hire a laboratory technician as his lab develops.

Last June at the same time as the grueling NIH interview process, Sonnenberg, with PhD mentor David Artis, PhD, associate professor of Microbiology, published a study that identified immune cells, called innate lymphoid cells, resident in the intestinal tissues of healthy humans, mice, and non-human primates, that are critical in limiting the location of commensal bacteria. If the innate lymphoid cells are depleted in mice, commensal bacteria move to peripheral tissues and promote chronic inflammation. The research appeared in a special issue of Science on the human microbiome.

In new studies, Sonnenberg has initiated translational research in the clinic that will be facilitated with the establishment of his laboratory in the Gastroenterology Division. His lab will be routinely obtaining tissue samples from patients with inflammatory bowel disease and comparing the immunological profiles of these patients to what he observes in experimental mouse models of intestinal inflammation. Collectively, the mouse and translational research will direct development of therapies for several chronic human diseases.


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