By Michelle Koidin Jaffee
There’s a critical phase in a budding scientist’s education that comes after finishing their doctorate but before striking out on their own. Under the radar to the general public, yet key to both young scientists-in-training and the universities they serve, this critical phase is called a “postdoc,” or a postdoctoral fellowship.
During this transformative two- to five-year phase, postdoctoral associates transition from taking direction from the head of a laboratory or program to gradually directing undergraduate and graduate students in experiments to advance the science.
At UF’s Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute, postdocs come from across the globe, attracted by access to renowned neuroscientists who serve as mentors and by a wide array of leading scientific programs ranging from cognitive aging and brain tumors to Alzheimer’s disease and breathing changes in neurological disorders.
“We try to make sure that all of our postdocs get exposed to multiple faculty members, have multiple mentors and can actually learn about different career paths available to them,” said MBI Director Todd E. Golde, M.D., Ph.D. He noted that the MBI additionally offers training enhancement opportunities to postdocs who are seeking related experience in fields such as scientific writing or leadership.
Jake Ayers, Ph.D., now an assistant adjunct professor at the University of California San Francisco, had two options going into his postdoc phase in 2011. One was at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, the other in the lab of David Borchelt, Ph.D., at UF’s Center for Translational Research in Neurodegenerative Disease. He chose UF, where for five years he worked alongside some of the leading researchers in neurodegenerative modeling, including Golde, Jada Lewis, Ph.D., Benoit Giasson, Ph.D., and primary mentor Borchelt, all professors of neuroscience in the UF College of Medicine.
“Being aligned with them and their research helped my career and my research immensely,” said Ayers. “Being part of the neuroscience department and the greater UF community, there is an immense amount of resources available that definitely help propel your research. You can find experts in your field no matter your area of study. Through collaborations, I was able to borrow aspects of their research and apply it to my own projects.”
Postdocs drive research at top universities, said Gordon Mitchell, Ph.D., a professor and founding director of UF’s Center for Respiratory Research and Rehabilitation in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions.
Mitchell described postdocs as the “most underserved, yet most important group” at a research university, adding that their importance “far outstrips their visibility to the public and even to the administration of most universities.”
“They’re drivers,” Mitchell said. “They drive the research labs, the larger research labs that are often contributing to advancing our knowledge and developing new therapeutics for devastating diseases.”
Postdocs who have a goal of competing for an independent faculty position work hard in the lab to gain new experiences, develop credentials and produce a notable number of publications in high-impact journals in order to show an ability to procure independent funding for research.
Adrienn Varga, Ph.D., a UF postdoc studying opioid-induced respiratory depression, receives support from the Breathing Research and Therapeutics (BREATHE) NIH-funded training program and from multiple faculty members, including her primary mentor, neuroscientist Erica Levitt, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the UF College of Medicine’s pharmacology and therapeutics department; clinical mentor Richard Berry, M.D., a professor of medicine in the UF College of Medicine’s division of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine; and Linda Hayward, Ph.D., an associate professor of physiological sciences in UF’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
“UF is an incredible place for postdocs,” Varga said. “The scientific environment and technical resources at UF are great, and they provide an excellent background for scientific growth. But it is the interactions and relationships built here that are invaluable to me.”
The relationship between postdocs and a leading research university like UF is a mutually beneficial one.
“I always like to say that science is a lifelong apprenticeship, you never really graduate,” said Golde. “The best postdocs and the best students are those people who come in and challenge the head of a laboratory and say, ‘What about thinking about it this way?’”
This post was published as part of a larger article on postdoctoral researchers. At UF’s McKnight Brain Institute, postdocs come from across the globe, attracted by access to renowned neuroscientists and pioneers in their fields who serve as mentors and by a wide array of leading scientific programs ranging from cognitive aging and brain tumors to Alzheimer’s disease and respiratory physiology.