A Different Kind of Postdoc Experience

Although industrial biomedicine was a “black box” to her, Zainab Jagani was always intrigued by drug discovery.

So she took a postdoc at the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She worked with industrial scientists while collaborating with academics. “It’s like getting the best of both worlds,” she says.

Like Jagani, many postdocs want something a little different. Some have a yen to explore industry or teach. Others want to design their own projects.

Jaguni planned to spend just a few years in industry. NIBR is careful to put postdocs on publishable projects so they keep up an academics-friendly résumé. But Jagani liked NIBR so much that she decided to stay. In August 2010, she joined the staff as an investigator in cell biology and oncology.

Of approximately 120 postdocs at NIBR at any given time, about a third join Novartis, while a quarter or more go on to other positions in industry, says program head Leslie Pond. Some 15 percent return to academia; others take nonresearch positions.

During her Ph.D., Jennifer Uno and a friend led their own course on molecular mechanisms of disease for advanced undergraduates. She enjoyed teaching so much that she went after a postdoc that mixed teaching and lab work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It was right up my alley,” she says.

The Seeding Postdoctoral Innovators in Research & Education program, or SPIRE, is one of a dozen or so similar fellowships nationwide (tease future postdoc story). Uno and her peers spent a year teaching at nearby colleges that have significant minority populations, plus two years in the lab. “All of us are still really excited about our science,” she says.

Over the past 12 years, SPIRE has trained 52 fellows. Of the alumni, 85 percent are working in academia—nearly double the national rate, says program head Linda Dykstra.

The National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) in Durham, North Carolina, supports postdocs willing to work independently. One of NSF’s three synthesis institutes, NESCent hires postdocs who analyze their own data or use the Center’s in new ways.

The 13 postdocs at NESCent tackle risky projects with high potential impact, says Craig McClain, assistant director of science. Although they’re independent, fellows regularly consult with other scientists and mentors. All the alumni that McClain knows have gone on to faculty jobs or second postdocs in high-profile labs, he says.

These programs frequently offer a bonus: NIBR, SPIRE, and NESCent build in training on topics from presentation skills to the hiring process. It certainly paid off for Uno. She applied for one job after SPIRE and got it. She is now a faculty member at Elon University in North Carolina, teaching physiology and doing research on gastrointestinal disease with the model system Caenorhabditis elegans.

-- Amber Dance
HHMI Bulletin, May 2011

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