WCER’s Christine Pfund Earns Distinguished Senior Scientist Status

April 30, 2023   |   By WCER Communications

Christine Pfund

Christine Pfund

WCER is pleased to congratulate Christine Pfund for earning the esteemed title of Distinguished Senior Scientist.

Per university policy, an academic staff member awarded the Distinguished prefix is one who typically performs at a level requiring extensive experience and advanced knowledge and skills. Peers recognize the expertise of a Distinguished member, and their reputation extends beyond their work unit to the national level. The status is voted on by a campus committee that reviews detailed documentation.

Pfund’s two decades of work for WCER has focused on developing and studying interventions to optimize research mentoring relationships across science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM).

Robert McGee, assistant dean for faculty recruitment and professional development at Northwestern University’s medical school, says in a recommendation letter that Pfund is seen as a national leader in the push to transform research mentoring “from a haphazard activity that faculty somehow know how to do into a highly refined skill to be taught and learned.”

“Critically, she has done so from the perspective of careful research rather than the more typical promulgation of supposedly ‘best practices,’” McGee says. “Her work has led to policy changes at the national level which are completely reshaping expectations of faculty roles and responsibilities as mentors, while providing evidence-based tools and curricula through which faculty can take on these new roles.”

Christine Sorkness, a Distinguished professor of pharmacy at UW−Madison, has collaborated with Pfund on mentorship initiatives for the biomedical research workforce.

“I can enumerate the many strengths of Dr. Pfund, such as stellar creativity, initiative, problem-solving skills, teaching ability, communication skills, and management expertise,” Sorkness says in her recommendation. “She is one of the most significant, visible, and recognized national contributors to mentorship excellence and impact.”

WCER Director Courtney Bell, summing up in her nomination letter, says Pfund “is a gifted researcher, mentor, and facilitator. Her contributions to the nation, her field, and UW are remarkable.”

Pfund in 2005 co-authored the Entering Mentoring curriculum now used widely in the mentorship field; she also wrote the mentee training curriculum Entering Research. She has led many studies and co-authored many papers—including twelve articles for journals and trade publications in the last two years alone—documenting the effectiveness of this approach and working with more than 100 training programs to do so. Pfund and her partners offer fee-for-service or grant-funded mentorship workshops for students and faculty at academic institutions across the country—including, since 2016, some of the nation’s top underrepresented PhD students in the sciences and their dissertation advisers in the Gilliam Fellowships program at the renowned Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Maryland.

“Chris Pfund is an accomplished scholar, an innovative designer, and an inspirational leader,” says David Asai, HHMI’s senior director of science education, crediting the growth of the Gilliam program and its fellows’ increased persistence in academic science careers to Pfund and her Gilliam program work partner, Angela Byars-Winston.

“Every Gilliam adviser is now expected to complete a year-long course in culturally aware mentorship skills development,” Asai says, citing one of the changes the pair developed. “This course is designed and led by Pfund and a team of expert facilitators.”

At WCER, Pfund is director of the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research (CIMER). Her teams take a train-the-trainer approach to build future capacity at institutions, to date training more than 1,000 facilitators nationwide to implement mentee and mentor training and then evaluating their implementation effectiveness to study the approach. She also works with social scientists, using mixed methods to study what factors in mentoring contribute to student persistence, specifically testing an intervention aimed at making mentors more culturally responsive as a means to improve mentorship relationships.

Pfund also leads Mentorship Initiatives for the UW Institute for Clinical and Translational Research (ICTR) and is the principal investigator of the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) Coordination Center. In other nationally recognized work, she was a member of the National Academies committee that published the influential consensus report, The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM, with an online guide to recommended tools, in 2019.

Jamboor Vishwanatha, vice president of the University of North Texas Health Science Center, has worked with Pfund at the National Research Mentoring Network. In his recommendation, he cited her leadership skills, numerous publications, and ability to engage as a teacher among the reasons she deserved Distinguished status.

“Whether it is NIH, a professional society, or an educational institution, they recognize CIMER as a place to go for mentor training and Chris Pfund as the expert to contact,” he says. At the NRMN coordinating center she heads, he adds, “She has provided leadership to 11 different institutions/groups who are conducting research in the science of mentorship. She has earned the respect of each and every one in that group.”

Erin Dolan, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Georgia, says Pfund’s scientific training has enabled her to make more inroads in mentorship training for STEMM faculty and mentees than a non-scientist professional trainer credibly could.

“She is a trained biologist who understands the challenges and opportunities facing both research mentors and mentees,” Dolan says. “Through her studies of research mentoring, her practical work to improve research mentoring, and her national-level policy work, she has made innovative and sustained, national contributions to science education.”

McGee says one vivid indicator of Pfund’s influence can be seen in the dramatic changes in the expectations and requirements of applicants for NIH training grants. Starting in 2018, most of those grants have required the proposed training faculty to have documented mentorship education and to monitor the effectiveness of the mentoring relationships developed under the grant.

“This is a profound ‘culture change’ in research training almost inconceivable a decade ago,” McGee says. “It has come about through the efforts of many but was only made possible by the focus of Dr. Pfund on rigorously tested, evidence-based mentorship as the lynchpin of the development of future scientists. Through this frameshift, the positive attributes of mentoring in STEM can be actualized while the negative elements are substantially reduced.”

Pfund joined WCER as an assistant researcher in 2003, rising through several levels of responsibility to senior scientist in 2018. She earned her doctorate in cellular and molecular biology in 2000, followed by three years of post-doctoral research in plant pathology, all at UW−Madison. Her undergraduate degree from Luther College was in biology.

About her career to this point in the science and practice of mentorship, Pfund says, “The work has given me a platform to promote the power of effective, culturally aware mentorship as one means toward inclusive excellence in STEMM. It is my responsibility, privilege, and challenge to use this platform to enhance diversity in biomedical science.”