Since 2001, more than 200 individuals pursuing PhDs in biomedical research have taken advantage of the unique opportunities provided by the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program (OxCam). This program offers access to mentors and resources from our three collaborating institutions: the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the University of Oxford, and the University of Cambridge. The requirement of having at least two mentors from two of these institutions has allowed our students to develop the skills needed to build virtual research teams and leverage collaborative technologies in the pursuit of bold new ideas and solutions. Efforts to differentiate from traditional biomedical training programs has allowed the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars to enjoy intellectual freedom and flexibility, which has led to increased innovation and collaboration.
NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholarship Program History
The intramural program of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest biomedical research complex in the world, had no organized training program for doctoral students until, in 1999, two men, Dr. Harold Varmus, former Director of the National Institutes of Health, and Dr. Michael Gottesman, Deputy Director for Intramural Research, made a decision to change that. Their efforts opened up research opportunities in over 1200 laboratories encompassing nearly every area of biomedical research.
In 2000, the concept of NIH-U.K. partnerships was developed to address some of the observed limitations of the American graduate education in biomedical sciences:
- Excessive time to completion of a PhD (7.8 years per National Research Council studies)
- Limitation of programs to a single university, department or discipline
- Inadequate preparation for the global nature of contemporary science
- Limited experience in collaborative research
Chief among these problems is the length of time to complete the program, which, even at the best universities, has resulted in young scientists emerging to begin their independent research careers at the age of 35 or even later.
The awareness of these limitations inspired the vision to develop a more efficient training experience, which incorporated global collaboration and interdisciplinary biomedical research. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge were a clear choice for partners, due to their long academic traditions, which include outstanding biomedical science and clinical schools, and previous success working with American students. With their participation, the vision evolved into a doctoral program that enables students to pursue collaborative thesis research with minimal course work and rotations and a completed PhD in an average of 4 years. Each thesis project is co-mentored by at least two faculty members, one at Oxford or Cambridge and the other at the NIH, and involves laboratory research at both institutions.
Fourteen years has only enhanced the scope of this partnership. Over 200 scholars in approximately 50 different areas of biomedical research are currently pursuing their doctoral degree. In addition to the U.K., our scholars have had opportunities to carry out portions of their research in China, Germany, Australia, Thailand, South Korea, Mali, and Kenya. The Rhodes Trust, Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission, Churchill, Gates and Fulbright Scholarship programs have contributed to individuals seeking their PhDs in biomedical research through this program. The development of an annual Scholars-Mentors Workshop has been instituted to provide further opportunity for an exchange of ideas across continents and disciplines. In 2006 the program also established a platform for students to pursue a combined MD/PhD and extend the reach of these scholars.
The establishment of the International Biomedical Research Alliance (The Alliance) in 2005 instituted a unique, public-private partnership that has had a positive impact on the NIH OxCam program. The Alliance is comprised of a group of dedicated private citizens with the shared aim of training a new generation of top biomedical researchers who are better equipped to investigate human diseases and develop new preventions, treatments, and cures. This group of individuals has been a source of ideas and support for the scholars to complement their bench research with unique educational experiences. The Alliance organizes and funds several of the major and minor events for the program each year, specifically those designed to bring the scholars and mentors together to interact and exchange ideas. The annual Scholar-Mentors Colloquium and the Scholars Induction Dinner are among the events that would not be possible without the support of The Alliance.
There are many opportunities for growth and development to further enhance the experiences of the scholars within the NIH OxCam program:
- Exposure to scientific experts and professionals beyond the walls of the NIH, Oxford, and Cambridge
- Establishing a more centralized funding system to offer students more support
- Encourage familiarity to leaders/mentors from other disciplines (e.g. law, policy, ethics, etc.) to aid in further development
- Enhance and develop the engagement of past students and celebrate their continued achievements
As the program continues to grow, it is important to look back on all that has been accomplished and applaud the successes and achievements of the past, but this is an on-going project and will continue to evolve. We must enjoy the changes and recognize that this is a venture that will require imagination, collaboration and support in pursuit of its limitless potential.