FIRST program marks 20 years of combining postdoc research with hands-on teaching

By Quinn Eastman | Emory Report | March 11, 2020

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Biologist Laramie Lemon teaches at Spelman College as part of her work through the FIRST fellow program, the largest and longest continuously-operating biomedical postdoctoral training program in the country. Emory Photo/Video

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Over the last four decades, the number of biomedical PhDs from underrepresented minority groups has increased about nine-fold. The number of science professors from the same groups? Not so much. 

In late February, more than 100 exceptions to that trend gathered at Emory to celebrate a program credited with both keeping them in science and giving them valuable training to enter the world of academics. 

That program, called FIRST (Fellowships in Research and Science Teaching), started 20 years ago. It’s a collaboration between Emory and Morehouse College, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University and the Morehouse School of Medicine. The fellowship program is designed for scientists who have completed their PhDs and combines research at Emory with structured teaching experience at partner schools.

FIRST is the largest and longest continuously-operating biomedical postdoctoral training program in the country, with almost 200 current and alumni fellows. It has a strong track record of placing African Americans and women in science faculty positions.

“I am certain I would not have my current career without the FIRST program at Emory,” says Suazette Mooring, the first African American woman to reach the rank of associate professor in Georgia State’s chemistry department. Mooring earned her PhD at Georgia State in 2010. After completing her FIRST fellowship, she was hired in 2012 to build the chemistry education program. 

“FIRST opened up a whole new area for me, in terms of chemistry education and evidence-based teaching practices,” Mooring adds.

Building their teaching experience

FIRST fellows begin with teaching workshops, move on to supervised classroom experience and eventually develop their own course. One of the current fellows, biologist Laramie Lemon, revamped a course on cancer and nutrition that was previously created by her teaching mentor, Anna Powolny.

Lemon says she might play the role of a patient in a classroom case study or even dress in costume – all in an effort to make the experience feel complete for her students. 

“I’m very animated when I teach,” Lemon says. “I move around so much that I always reach my daily step goal.” 

Many FIRST fellows later teach at undergraduate-oriented colleges and universities; they often say their training and teaching experience through FIRST helped them stand out from others. 

“What qualifies you as a faculty member may be your experience as a scientist, but this type of training is not something a lot of people get guidance on,” says Tiffany Oliver, who was involved with genetics research at Emory and is now a biology professor at Spelman. “It helped me develop my teaching portfolio.”

Ernest Ricks entered the FIRST program specifically to build on that portfolio. 

When he finished his PhD at Morehouse School of Medicine, he received an offer from Gramling State University in Louisiana, where he had completed his undergraduate degree. While he wanted to make teaching a major part of his career, he hesitated.

“I realized that if I had to go back right then, I wasn’t prepared,” he says.

Instead, he opted for a FIRST fellowship, working with cell biologist David Katz at Emory and teaching at Spelman. He wanted to try out classroom techniques such as clickers – an electronic means of conducting quick anonymous quizzes or polls -- and gamification, or incorporating video game-like experiences into class activities.

“I wanted to know: how do you turn a big classroom into an engaging environment?” he says.

Ricks took a teaching preparation workshop with FIRST co-director Arri Eisen, then was paired with teaching mentor Mark Lee at Spelman. His experience at Spelman culminated in developing a new class focusing on metabolism and obesity, including student-led projects on diet. Ricks now uses a variety of techniques to engage non-traditional students at Georgia Gwinnett College.

Engaging environment sets example 

Fellows also praise the program’s supportive community. The strength of that support showed through hugs and whoops of joy as friends reunited at the Feb. 28 celebration.

Former fellows heard a keynote address from Andrea Morris, who was part of the inaugural FIRST group in 2000. 

“What FIRST allows you to do is to have a team of mentors in place,” says Morris, who went on to a faculty position at Haverford College and is now director of career and professional development at Rockefeller University. 

The event wasn’t simply a reunion, however. Participants dug into panel discussion topics including teaching diverse and non-traditional students; research on vulnerable populations and underrepresented groups; and the changing spectrum of science careers available to biomedical postdocs. 

FIRST served as a model for several similar programs later established around the country, called the Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards. According to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (part of the National Institutes of Health which funds IRACDA), there are at least 20 such partnerships in place.

Some NIH officials were skeptical about the program at the beginning, says physiologist Douglas Eaton, who co-directed FIRST when it began at Emory (originally known as PREP, or Postdoctoral Research and Education Program). NIH officials were concerned that spending time teaching would dilute fellows’ productivity and sabotage their research careers, Eaton says. But FIRST fellows’ record demonstrates otherwise – they have published at a similar rate as those in more traditional postdoc programs.

And although IRACDA programs do not explicitly recruit fellows from minority backgrounds, but the focus on minority-serving institutions tends to draw them. FIRST alums are 45 percent African American and 70 percent women, according to a compilation from Eisen.