The Fine Young Fellows

The Fine Young Fellows

Postdoctoral fellows trade long hours and hard work for mentoring and career momentum

If The Wistar Institute was an independent company, it would dwarf many of the biotech start-ups in the area, with one notable difference: junior researchers like Wistar’s postdoctoral fellows — or postdocs, as they’re more commonly called — don’t bring home stock options or high salaries. Instead, they get paid in a different coin of the realm — the chance to build their own research programs while working alongside world-renowned senior scientists.

David Friedmann, Ph.D.On a day-to-day basis, a given laboratory does run a bit like a company, with a principal investigator (PI) acting as president and the postdocs as research directors who oversee other members of the lab. “The specific projects and the day-to-day bench work are the province of postdocs,” said Harold Riethman, Ph.D., associate professor in Wistar’s Gene Expression and Regulation Program and associate director of training.

Postdocs, Riethman says, are a crucial part of Wistar’s success. “Besides bench work, postdocs train and supervise junior lab members, help write grants and papers, and give talks.”

“Accepting a postdoc into the laboratory today involves more than bringing on a highly skilled technician,” said Riethman. “Taking on a postdoc involves a significant mentoring investment. Mentoring does not just involve overseeing the individual, but committing to the promotion and success of the protégé’s career.”

Currently, more than 100 Ph.D.-level scientists are engaged in biomedical research at the Institute. So what is it that draws freshly minted Ph.D.s to Wistar for their postdocs?

“The breadth and quality of research going on at Wistar was one of the things that attracted me to the Institute,” said Lisa Chang, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Ellen Puré, Ph.D.

“My background is in developmental biology, studying the regulatory pathways involved in early development, how fetal cells of the mesoderm transform into muscle, skeleton, organs, and the like,” Chang said. “But I knew that in continuing my research I wanted to become more involved in cancer biology.”

Chang, now in her second year of postdoctoral work, expanded upon her Ph.D. research after joining the Puré lab, and is now investigating the way in which fibroblast activation protein expressed on the surface of certain “normal” cells within the tumor microenvironment contributes to the metastasis of breast and lung cancer.

One part researcher, one part entrepreneur

Increasingly, as federal funding for biomedical research becomes more competitive, postdocs have had to work harder to obtain the funding necessary to get their own research projects off the ground. Obtaining support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example is a long-term process, with researchers often spending months or years doing experiments and gathering preliminary research data to put together research-program proposals.

Chang was fortunate to have earned an NIH F32 postdoctoral fellowship grant this year, an award which provides up to three years of support for promising postdocs who have the potential to become productive, independent investigators within the broad scope of biomedical, behavioral, or clinical research — great news in this often bleak funding climate.

After a dramatic expansion between 1998 and 2003, the budget for the entire NIH has been essentially flat for nearly a decade. Grant proposals from young researchers, often inexperienced at grant writing, are ranked against seasoned and successful senior researchers. In this competitive environment, many well-trained, talented young researchers fail to secure grants. This lack of grant funding keeps many postdocs from making the jump to running their own labs.

Life in and out of the lab

Biomedical research today, compared with a decade ago, requires more work-hours, giving postdoctoral work a reputation for being difficult and time-consuming, as each fellow tries to distinguish him – or herself among their peers.

“Postdocs set their own hours,” Chang said, “but it isn’t unusual to work 12-hour days and four or five hours over a weekend, if that’s what’s called for by a particular project.”

Most postdoctoral fellows are in their 30s by the time they begin working toward obtaining a tenure-track faculty appointment. Not coincidentally this is also when the greatest number of female postdocs tend to drop out of science or move into either the private sector or a government agency.

“I’ve heard this a lot, people wondering how postdocs can reconcile family life with a scientific career, but a lot depends on your relationship with your PI,” explained Chang. “The hours may be long, but for the most part they’re flexible, which can make starting a family as a postdoc easier.”
Lisa Chang, Ph.D.Finding the right balance of career and family can be a challenge in a culture where scientists face a limited amount of time to prove themselves worthy of tenure.

There is also the pressure of the job market to contend with. In recent years tenure-track jobs have been harder to come by, noted David Friedmann, Ph.D., a third-year postdoc in the lab of Ronen Marmorstein, Ph.D.

As part of Marmorstein’s crystallography laboratory, Friedmann’s work focuses on the molecular structure of acetyltransferase, an enzyme capable of transferring acetyl groups from one compound to another, adding a chemical modification to other proteins. This alteration helps to regulate the transformation of countless biological molecules. “It used to be, if you went through these formulaic steps of getting your Ph.D. and completing postdoctoral training with a well-known PI, then your ticket was written. But these days you can work at a world-renowned lab and still not get the job of your choice,” Friedmann said.

Mentoring in a new era

Recognizing the need for expanded postdoctoral training outside of the lab, Wistar President and CEO Russel Kaufman, M.D., and Wistar’s training committee took action. Wistar postdocs are now able to take part in the University of Pennsylvania’s Biomedical Postdoctoral Programs (BPP). Through the BPP program, postdocs participate in workshops on career and personal development.

“Mentorship can take any number of forms, and postdocs need to take responsibility for their non-bench education,” Friedmann said. “I’ve learned to keep a conversation going with my peers and other PIs. It’s a great way to get some insight on your research, and Wistar’s size and location help make these collaborative relationships easier to facilitate.”

Friedmann also serves as the postdoc representative on Wistar’s training committee and was instrumental in forming the partnership between the BPP and Wistar. Wistar hopes to further expand upon its postdoctoral training program.
“It is my goal to enhance what is already an extremely strong postdoctoral program here at The Wistar Institute,” said Maureen Murphy, Ph.D., professor and program leader of Wistar’s Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program and associate director of
faculty development and education.

Before coming to Wistar in December of 2011, Murphy helped build a postdoctoral training program at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. “We already have world-class postdocs here at Wistar, now we just have to design a world-class program around them. In the near future, we foresee offering things like in-house grant writing courses, workshops on mastering imaging techniques and seminars designed to expose postdocs to alternative career paths,” Murphy said.

“A lot goes into training a postdoc, and a good training program should give postdocs ‘lines,’ on their résumé,” Murphy said. By “lines,” Murphy means fellowship awards, prizes for recognition of research, and opportunities to attend workshops and other training venues. “Ideally we will be able to maximize productivity and equip postdocs to make informed career choices upon completing their training at Wistar.”

The postdoctoral experience varies from person to person, and pushing the frontiers of science can be a rather nebulous job description, but these postdocs know that there are no worthwhile rewards without hard work.