By Michelle Jaffee
This summer, the McKnight Brain Institute is launching a new postdoctoral fellowship program, Gator NeuroScholars, featuring a highly competitive stipend, additional funding to support career development and opportunities to work side-by-side with some of the nation’s leading neuroscientists.
“Gator NeuroScholars is our latest innovative program demonstrating the MBI’s focus on building our scientific workforce,” said MBI Director Jennifer Bizon, Ph.D. “This new opportunity augments our community of outstanding postdoctoral scholars and complements our full spectrum of training programs that also includes pathway-to-Ph.D. and numerous graduate programs.”
Program director Gordon Mitchell, Ph.D., said with a stipend of $65,000 for up to three years, Gator NeuroScholars is designed to attract top trainees from across the world.
“First-rate research institutions are driven in the biomedical arena by postdocs,” said Mitchell, deputy director of the MBI. “They bring energy and knowledge. If you’re going to compete for the best, you need to create a strong, vibrant community that contributes to individual research programs and enables new collaborations.”
After an extensive evaluation process, three Gator NeuroScholars will begin in July: Adithya Gopinath, Ph.D., from UF; John Aaron Howell, Ph.D., from the University of Mississippi; and Andrea Merchak, Ph.D., from the University of Virginia. Two more awardees are slated to begin in September and January 2024, respectively: Pedro Trevizan Bau, Ph.D., from the University of Melbourne, and Mehdi Ahmadian, a doctoral student from the University of British Columbia.
Howell, who will work in the lab of Eduardo Candelario-Jalil, Ph.D., said he was drawn by the support system built into the new program.
“I’m a first-generation college student, and so growing up I didn’t really have role models in science — it was something I had to seek out on my own in undergrad and in grad school,” said Howell, whose research focuses on treating secondary inflammatory effects of ischemic strokes. “And it feels to me like the entire McKnight Brain Institute is really rallying around the Gator NeuroScholars and is going to support us and do everything they can to make sure that we’re successful.”
Merchak, who will expand her research into links between the gut microbiome and neurological diseases, said her new lab, that of Malú Gámez Tansey, Ph.D., is directly in line with her interests and will help her realize her goals.
“It’s going to push me scientifically in that way, and I’m going to have a lot of exposure to great science,” Merchak said. “But another aspect of Gator NeuroScholars I really like is they are setting up accountability, giving us deadlines and timelines to help push us to get to our goals a little bit faster. A lot of science is self-driven, and so it can be hard to be on that path alone.”
In their second year of the fellowship, the Gator NeuroScholars will receive $25,000 to collect preliminary data necessary to submit an application for a K award or equivalent grant or fellowship.
Gopinath, who will conduct translational research in Parkinson’s disease and the peripheral immune system in the labs of Michael Okun, M.D., and Habibeh Khoshbouei, Ph.D., Pharm.D., said UF is on the leading edge nationwide amid a push to increase benefits and salaries of postdocs and graduate students.
“We’re one of the first institutions to do this,” said Gopinath, who is also receiving funding from the Karen Toffler Charitable Trust. “The fact that they’re doing so much to focus on the well-being of postdocs at UF in the College of Medicine and in the Gainesville community really goes a long way towards encouraging high-quality postdocs to come here.”
It is a standout opportunity for postdocs to gain research experience and grow professionally, Mitchell said.
“The real point of a postdoc is to build credentials, do good science, publish that good science and get in a competitive position for two things: your first grant, such as a K99, and your first job,” he said.
Gator NeuroScholars provides a guarantee of two years, with a third year if they’ve fulfilled a commitment to submit a fellowship application or K award application by the end of the second year.
“An even more important outcome of recruiting great postdocs,” Mitchell said, “is the discoveries they will make to advance scientific understanding, which leads to improved health and welfare of people.”
This post was published as part of a larger article on Gator NeuroScholars, a new postdoctoral fellowship program. 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.