For new faculty members at Northern Arizona University, finding a developed mentorship support team to assist them in their first few years can make all the difference in establishing a successful career, creating effective research and giving back as a mentor to new faculty and students in the future.
To mentor early-stage NAU investigators, the Southwest Health Equity Research Collaborative (SHERC), a grant-funded initiative of the Center for Health Equity Research (CHER), created the Investigator Development Core with a mission of enhancing junior investigators’ careers in specialized areas— such as disease effects, public health conditions and access to health care— that impact health equity in diverse populations.
The IDC has mentored more than 20 young NAU investigators, investing more than $1 million in direct costs for their work through its Pilot Project Program (PPP).
The PPP provides support and mentoring to early-stage investigators and underrepresented faculty in health equity research. Through effective guidance, the mentored investigators develop their research plans and increase their publications and other work to build their competitiveness for NIH and other external health and health equity-related research funding.
NAU faculty from departments throughout the NAU campus have received IDC funding, including the schools of Forestry, Nursing, Informatics, Computing and Cyber Security, and the departments of Health Sciences, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Biological Sciences, and Anthropology.
The IDC also assists early-career faculty with applying for grants, provides opportunities to meet with a grant-writing expert to assist them with proposal preparation, and offers them access to one-on-one mentorship with SHERC IDC’s experienced faculty.
In addition to the PPP, the IDC will now include an Individualized Mentoring Program to increase the number of early-stage investigators and underrepresented faculty who receive training in health equity-related research with a focus on team science and translational research.
Through the program, investigators who apply for PPP funding receive individualized support throughout the proposal process, help to select mentor teams, and formal mentorship and research support by the SHERC cores.
The IDC is led by Hendrik de Heer, professor, Department of Health Sciences, along with co-leads Nicolette Teufel-Shone, associate director of CHER and professor in the Department of Health Sciences and Heidi Wayment, interim dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences; Taylor Lane, research scientist, and Christine Smith, project manager.
“I believe mentorship is essential for everyone’s development. Building a network of people who can provide guidance, access to resources and perspective on career development greatly enhances their chances of success,” de Heer said. “Maybe in its simplest form, we can all think of key people along the way who helped us professionally by connecting us with opportunities, providing a recommendation, facilitating a career transition or simply being a supporter and a listening ear.”
De Heer, who has been part of the SHERC-affiliated faculty for the past five years and received PPP funding during its first cycle, was appointed as IDC co-lead six months ago. He now serves as the lead of IDC and a mentor and encourages early-stage faculty to dedicate their work to make a difference in their specialized fields.
“The PPP program and all of SHERC’s resources, faculty and opportunities have greatly helped my career,” de Heer said. “Rather than one single thing, I think the success lies in the combination of all these things such as pilot funding, workshops, administrative support, proposal feedback and mentorship. These resources facilitated by SHERC have helped me immensely in my development from a junior faculty member to an independent investigator and PI on a large NIH grant.”
Breaking down barriers through mentorship
Two years ago Amanda Hunter, CHER postdoctoral scholar, received PPP funding to continue a project on “Native Spirit: Development, Implementation, and Evaluation of a Culturally Grounded After-school Program” that she had begun in graduate school.
Since then, Hunter has expanded her work, and recently received a prestigious National Institutes of Health Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) K99-R00 award, called a Pathway to Independence Award, which will assist her in expanding and supporting Native Spirit.
She is the first postdoctoral scholar at Northern Arizona University to receive a K99-R00 Pathway to Independence Award for her work titled, “Native Spirit: Culturally-grounded Substance Use Prevention for Indigenous Adolescents.”
“SHERC PPP funding and training from the IDC was integral to writing and submitting my MOSAIC K99-R00 application to NIDA,” Hunter said. “As an early career scientist, I did not know just how much work went into submitting a five-year grant proposal. The SHERC PPP and IDC leadership helped me break down my application into manageable pieces; I always felt supported and comfortable asking questions about the process.”
The IDC now has a call for PPP proposals, which will support up to three NAU faculty teams per year with two-year grants. The Letter of Intent is due on December 1. For the Letter of Intent Guidelines and Submission Instructions or to find out more, visit the PPP webpage.
SHERC is supported by an NIMHD center grant to the Southwest Health Equity Research Collaborative at Northern Arizona University (U54MD012388).