By Carina Storrs
To land the most prestigious and demanding jobs out there, a classroom education alone often does not cut it. Many professionals like physicians and pilots must first complete years of specialized training, clock thousands of hours of practice, and gain experience in other roles. The same goes for many of the top positions in the life sciences. After earning a doctoral degree or PhD, the next step in becoming a professor at a university or scientist in a biotech company is usually to do postdoctoral research, or as it is more commonly called, a postdoc.
A postdoc is typically a period of three to five years that gives researchers the chance to apply the knowledge and critical thinking skills they gained in graduate school to different biological questions. For example, someone might go from studying cancer in their graduate research to embryonic development during their postdoc, or switch to a different aspect of how cancer genes commandeer cells.
Along the way, postdocs (postdoc is also the term used for the person in this position) will ideally flex their independence more than they did in graduate school, independently choosing the scientific questions to ask and experiments to do. They also learn new techniques to expand the types of questions they can propose.
As Jerry Workman, PhD, a Stowers investigator and head of the Stowers postdoc affairs program, puts it, “A postdoc is a chance to prove yourself. If a university is going to hire a new assistant professor, they want to know that the person they hire has a good research plan and is able to carry it out.” Thirty percent of Stowers postdocs score a faculty position, slightly better than the national average of about twenty-five percent according to the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report from the NIH. Another twenty percent or so go on to work as staff scientists in academic labs or at biotech or pharmaceutical companies. Close to forty percent choose to expand their scientific repertoire and do another postdoc.
In some ways, a postdoc at the Stowers Institute is similar to postdocs at other research institutes and universities. Freshly minted PhDs come from all over the country and world to tackle new research projects in a new environment and with newfound independence.
But in other ways, the Institute sets itself apart as a highly coveted postdoc destination. Most importantly, thanks to opportunities for scientific support from core facilities, technology centers, and research advisors, postdoc researchers “can do more and more different types of experiments here than just about anywhere else,” Workman says. This helps satisfy one of the biggest demands on postdocs: to generate ample data and publications. For those aspiring to become a professor and run a lab, data will lay the foundation for their own research. But data and papers can provide a boost to any kind of post-postdoc career.
At the Institute, postdocs have access to support for tissue culture, screening, proteomics, or other techniques. There are no fewer than a dozen expert-led core facilities on campus that many of the Institute’s approximately 100 postdocs collaborate with to speed up experiments and build up stocks of reagents and solutions.
Head of postdoc affairs Jerry Workman, PhD discusses experimental data with postdocs Arnob Dutta, PhD and Fu Huang, PhD.
Carrie Adler, PhD, has been a Stowers postdoc for three years and is exploring how genes control regeneration in the planaria flatworm. “I am benefiting enormously from the expertise of the molecular biology and microscopy cores,” Adler says. The molecular biology core routinely clones and screens hundreds of genes for her in one fell swoop. “The time advantage is on a scale that you can’t imagine,” she says.
Because of their skill, dedication, and streamlined approaches, working with the core center teams can mean not just doing more, but doing better. This capability is on full display at the Laboratory Animal Services Facility (LASF). But in addition, the LASF is particularly adept at making “knockout” mice, in which a gene has been inactivated, to study how the absence of a gene may perturb biological processes. Meanwhile, the Reptiles & Aquatics Facility has developed a novel tank system that vastly improves planaria growth and reproduction, which Adler hopes to set up, perhaps on a smaller scale, when she starts her own lab.
For postdocs seeking expert experimental design, the research advisors at the Institute are standing by. They are in-house consultants specializing in microscope-based assays and mathematical modeling. When Postdoc Juston Weems, PhD, arrived three summers ago, he set out to study how cells halt gene expression after they are exposed to dangerous levels of UV light, a damage control strategy. Weems knew that data from microscopy could provide important insight into which proteins interacted with others in the process, and when. But Weems, with a background in biochemistry, had “zero experience” with microscopy, and the effort to get these experiments off the ground would be time-intensive.
Weems promptly began collaborating with Research Advisors Brian Slaughter, PhD, and Jay Unruh, PhD. The research advisors have gone far beyond teaching Weems how to use the microscopes. They help him figure out how to select the best assays for his questions and set up experiments, and then help analyze the resulting data. “I’m certainly proficient in microscopy now and comfortable directing similar experiments myself when I have my own lab,” Weems says.
Even with the extensive scientific support at the Institute, research is not an easy undertaking. But the Institute strives to remove all barriers, big and small, to asking the most ambitious questions and doing the best experiments.
One obstacle removed is the need to secure funding. Due to the Institute’s sizable endowment, Stowers investigators are not dependent on outside grant support. As a result, postdocs’ experiments are not limited to fit within a narrow grant budget.
However this luxury can be a liability for postdocs because hiring committees at universities and institutes sometimes evaluate a candidate based on ability to get funded, says Weems. To counterbalance, Workman and the Stowers Postdoctoral Association have teamed with Stowers Grants Administration to organize workshops on applying for competitive awards. A workshop was held earlier this year that focused on K99 awards, which are NIH grants that allow the funds to travel with postdocs when they complete their work at the Institute and set up their own labs elsewhere. At the workshop, two members of a recent K99 review panel provided tips on writing the application and what makes a good candidate for the K99 Award. Weems says some of the suggestions were eye-opening. Workman plans for similar workshops to be held periodically.
Xu believes that when postdocs worry less about funding and resources, they are more available to help their fellow researcher: case in point, the informal request for reagent (RFR) system. Say you want to try out a reagent to see if it works before buying it. All that is required is a RFR via email that goes to all Stowers scientists. “In very short time, a lot of people will get back to you and, as a result, you will get to know a lot of people,” Xu says.
Numerous other perks give postdocs the chance to meet each other and make life easier all around. In addition to free beverages 24/7, every Tuesday night, postdocs and other researchers who work late can gather in the Stowers Café where dinner is provided courtesy of the Institute. The twenty-four hour fitness facility offers free classes such as yoga and total body conditioning. “It’s those little things that really make it nice to be a postdoc here,” says Adler.
For Weems, it is the ease of working and chatting with scientists in other labs and core centers and the research advisors that he will miss the most. “It is a great atmosphere, and when I leave Stowers, I don’t know if I’ll be at a place with the same collaborative feel,” he says.
While the Institute makes it relatively easy for postdocs to do research, it also has several programs to help prepare them for the transition into more challenging environments. “We want to keep postdocs on their toes and a little more aware of the pressure of the outside world,” Workman says. Indeed, Stowers postdocs have moved on to faculty positions at numerous prestigious and highly competitive institutions including New York University, Rutgers University, Kyoto University, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Arizona State University, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and Yale University School of Medicine.
Sheng Xia, PhD and Masataka Nikaido, PhD, now a research assistant at the University of Hyougo, discuss research projects at the annual Young Investigator Research Days event.
When Workman became head of the postdoctoral affairs program a few years ago, he put in place several opportunities to help postdocs stay on track. While postdocs have always been required to complete an annual evaluation with their advisor to ensure they are working toward their career goals, postdocs can now select a co-mentor or a committee of several investigators to help them navigate their research project and subsequent steps. Having a larger sounding board can reveal new and different options and opportunities.
“As the head of postdoctoral affairs, Jerry has taken the Institute’s postdoc program to the next level,” said Scientific Director Robb Krumlauf, PhD. “Jerry has led and coordinated numerous initiatives that help postdocs stay focused on their research as well as build important skills beyond the bench to advance their careers.”
One of the biggest changes afoot is the new faculty search group. For the second year in a row, postdocs who plan to apply for faculty positions in the fall can compile their application materials (cover letter, CV or resume, and research plan) a few months in advance for Stowers investigators to critique. In addition, a group of professors from other institutions and universities convene at Stowers to give the postdocs feedback on their “job talks” or interview seminars. “It is the feedback from outside scientists that I don’t think exists at many other places,” Adler says, who is participating in this year’s group.
Not that postdocs don’t get ample chances to present their work throughout their tenure to other researchers at Stowers and to outside scientists. Almost since the opening of the Institute, the Crossroads program, run by postdocs and predoctoral researchers, has held Young Investigator Research Days (YIRD). The Crossroads members invite outside scientists to give seminars, and also to hear presentations from predocs and postdocs at the Institute. The Crossroads team has also started organizing Professional Development Days so postdocs can network with scientists outside of academia, from pharmaceutical companies or consulting firms for example.
For Workman, the motivation for creating the mentoring programs to help postdocs move on to the next stage of their career is clear: The postdocs that train here will publish a lot more science as a group than the Stowers investigators that trained them. In addition to the discoveries made here, training the next generation of scientists could be one of this Institute’s biggest contributions to science.”