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Friday, January 23, 2015

Faculty Panel Gives Advice for Grad Students Seeking Academic Postdocs

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Last week at the University of Michigan, the department's Chemistry Professional Development Organization (CPDO) organized a seminar called "Ascending the Summit: How to Make the Best Postdoc Application and Interview." The goal of the seminar was to prepare current graduate students in chemistry for the process of landing a postdoctoral position after graduation.

Viewed by many as a stepping stone to a faculty position, a postdoctoral fellowship allows a newly-minted doctorate to stretch their legs and apply themselves in a new research lab, sometimes dedicated to drastically different research. Choosing where to do a postdoc, figuring out which research labs to approach, and getting hired are often critical steps for a chemistry graduate looking to continue along an academic career track.

The seminar was composed of a faculty panel of four chemistry professors, ranging in experience from the newly-hired Professor Corinna Schindler ([bio]organic) to Professor Carol Fierke (chemical biology), who has served as chair of the department since 2005. The panel was rounded out by Professors Nicolai Lehnert ([bio]inorganic) and Brandon Ruotolo (analytical/chemical biology). CPDO presented a list of questions compiled from suggestions by seminar registrants. Once the room settled down, it was off to the races.

The following is a summary of the seminar, which was dense with good advice and important information. Use the list below to jump to the question that interests you most, or read the whole post top-to-bottom. And when you finish, feel free to leave a comment! Many of these questions are open-ended, and more voices answering means more perspective for everyone reading.

Q1: When hiring a postdoc for your own lab, what do you look for?
Q2: Do you have a preference as to whether your potential postdoc wants to end up in academia or industry?
Q3: How much involvement do you expect postdocs to have? What role do you typically expect them to play?
Q4: In transitioning from graduate studies to postdoctoral research, how much of a change should you make in terms of entering a new field?
Q5: How involved do you expect postdocs to be in the teaching process?
Q6: How long is too long for a postdoc?
Q7: What should a postdoc do as far as procuring their own funding?
Q8: As a graduate student, how early is too early to start lining up a postdoctoral position?
Q9: How much independence does a postdoc have to pursue new ideas/discoveries (perhaps off the path of the grant)?
Q10: Are there disadvantages inherent to doing a postdoc outside of the USA if your Ph. D research was conducted there, or vice versa?

Q1: When hiring a postdoc for your own lab, what do you look for?
The panel's responses to this question dealt mostly with the way in which a postdoc's application was presented. "Make your email exciting to the PI," said Professor Ruotolo. The panel agreed that the onus was on the potential postdoc to make plain what they were going to add to the PI's lab, regardless of the postdoc's field of origin. These ideas would be fleshed out more in the fourth question.

Other suggestions during this discussion came from Professor Schindler, who suggested sending a paper letter along with an electronic application to the PI of interest. For Schindler, the tangible paper letter makes a postdoc application a little more difficult to forget, increasing the applicant's chances of landing an interview. Professor Fierke also stressed that postdocs would do well to meet their prospective PIs in person at conferences or seminars. Additionally, a letter of reference from the postdoc's previous advisor goes a lot further when both the previous advisor and the prospective advisor are in good contact.
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Q2: Do you have a preference as to whether your potential postdoc wants to end up in academia or industry?
Discussion on this point was very concise, with the panel members agreeing that from the perspective of a PI, the postdoc's future plans were not very relevant. However, Professor Ruotolo stressed the importance of potential postdocs considering how taking on a postdoctoral fellowship will benefit their careers. In some industries, such as pharmaceuticals, having done a postdoc can give you an edge in landing what is sure to be a competitive position. However, in other industries, the experience may carry less weight (or none at all).
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Q3: How much involvement do you expect postdocs to have? What role do you typically expect them to play?
As could be expected, different professors on the panel had different ideas about how to answer this question. Professor Fierke expects postdocs to bring maturity and scientific perspective to her group, but does not expect postdocs to be responsible for directly mentoring graduate students. Professor Ruotolo agreed, noting that he prefers a "flat architecture" for intellectual hierarchy in his lab.

Professor Lehnert offered a contrasting opinion. He expects postdocs to take on direct leadership roles, contribute to grants, and develop management skills. His view is that the postdoctoral experience is a critical intermediate step between ending one's career as a graduate student and beginning one's career as an independent principal investigator. Even if a postdoc comes to his lab from a different field and does not know how to do a certain reaction, for example, the postdoc's broader experience as a researcher allows them to learn and troubleshoot the reaction faster than a graduate student.
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Q4: In transitioning from graduate studies to postdoctoral research, how much of a change should you make in terms of entering a new field?
Professor Lehnert jumped on this question. He advised researchers seeking postdocs to primarily look for something that they're really excited about. He acknowledged that getting a position might be harder the further a postdoc moves from their original field of research, but said, "You just have to get the interview. Once you get the interview, everything changes."

The panel also reiterated (as in Q2) that it is critical for postdocs to consider how taking a particular position will set them up for the next step of their career. For postdocs considering branching out, the options are many, so careful decision-making is critical.
Q5: How involved do you expect postdocs to be in the teaching process?
The panel agreed that they prefer postdocs to be uninvolved in teaching. Postdocs are typically hired as researchers, so PIs want to maximize the benefit of their hire by maximizing the time available for research. However, if a postdoc is interested in getting more teaching experience, perhaps in preparation for applying for a job at a primarily undergraduate institution, then that can be made to happen as well. Again, though, the onus is on the postdoc to shape their own experiences in preparation for the professional future they envision for themselves.
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Q6: How long is too long for a postdoc?
"This is probably going to be very discipline-specific," said Professor Ruotolo. His own postdoc was 4 years. At the outset, he had expected it to be shorter, but "there are lots of things that can complicate timelines for postdocs." He stressed that the most important thing is for postdocs to leave having accomplished something. If it takes an honest 4 or 5 years for a promising project to pan out, and if the funding holds up, there is nothing wrong with that.

Professor Schindler noted that postdocs in organic chemistry are significantly shorter. She looks for postdocs with the expectation that they will work for a year with the option to renew their contract after that year, with a two-year average.
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Q7: What should a postdoc do as far as procuring their own funding?
None of the four panel members expected postdocs to be able to arrive at the job with funding. It requires an unrealistic amount of anticipation to think that a postdoctoral researcher will know where they will end up and what they will be working on early enough in advance to secure an appropriate grant. However, all of the panel members voiced expectations that postdocs will contribute to grant applications to help renew or procure new funding for the laboratory.
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Q8: How early is too early to line up a postdoc as a graduate student?
Between six months and a year from the potential postdoc's projected graduation date was acknowledged as the ideal time to look for and lock down a postdoctoral position. Any earlier than that, and it becomes uncertain whether a project will still be funded by the time a postdoc arrives. (Professor Fierke, the most experienced member of the panel, noted that the one year maximum is an unfortunate consequence of recent changes in the funding climate.) Any later, and job applications get jumbled up with thesis requirements, which can make for a hectic, stressful, and ultimately less effective final semester.
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Q9: How much independence does a postdoc have to pursue new ideas/discoveries (perhaps off the path of the grant)?
The panel members had somewhat differing opinions on this subject. Professor Ruotolo jumped at the question, explaining that the postdoctoral phase is one of the best times for researchers to explore "lateral space" in science. In his lab, exploration of new discoveries is met with excitement and encouragement. However, Professor Lehnert pointed out that this kind of creativity is limited by the money, and that he would ask postdocs to find a balance between pursuing new ideas and ensuring that enough progress is made on established projects to keep the funding coming in. At the end of the day, primary investigators have to get their grants renewed to keep the lab running, and postdocs have to be part of that.

Professor Fierke stressed the importance of having a conversation with the PI about how much of the research a potential postdoc will be able to take with them, and having that conversation as early as possible. Particularly if the postdoc wants to seek an independent research position at a high-level institution such as an R1 school, tensions can arise when a postdoc comes across an idea that they might use to found their own lab, but the postdoc's PI wants to hold onto it. The best way to avoid that tension is to communicate clearly, early, and often.
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Q10: Are there disadvantages inherent to doing a postdoc outside of the USA if your Ph. D research was conducted there, or vice versa?
Professor Ruotolo, whose postdoctoral research was conducted at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, was very enthusiastic about recommending that students considering postdocs outside of their country of origin at least try to make it happen. Ruotolo's advisors in the United States were worried that he would have a difficult time getting a job back in the USA if he took a postdoc position at Cambridge due to the lack of a strong network. To remedy that concern, Ruotolo recommended that students seeking postdocs in other countries look at their potential PI's track record for placing researchers in jobs, whether the students are interested in working back in their country of origin or in the foreign country in which they want to do their postdoc. "The advantages of trying far outweigh the disadvantages," he said.

Professor Schindler echoed his sentiments and added some of her own. She recommended that students looking to transition from the USA to elsewhere in the world specifically seek out postdoc advisors with strong ties to the USA. As with any career search, networking plays a big role, and the stronger the network overlap is on either side of the ocean (Atlantic or Pacific), the easier the career search will be.
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The Conversation Continues
The CPDO seminar was very motivating and contained great advice for graduate students starting their postdoc searches or considering whether to postdoc at all. However, this seminar just scratches the surface of the conversation happening now in chemistry on postdoctoral researchers, tenure-track faculty, and the job climate for newly-minted chemistry doctorates in general. As with a new research project, there is a wealth of information out there, and it falls to us as students to find it, process it, and use it to make the best choices we can. Of course, seminars like "Ascending the Summit" are great places for that research to start.

For more perspective on this issue, you might start with this post from Chemistry Blog, this post from Prof-Like Substance, and another post here (and linked posts) from Anna Armitage. Update 2/3: I found another good article at ACS Graduate & Postdoctoral Chemist.

Was this information useful to you? Does it contradict your own advice or experience? The comment section is wide open for further discussion on this important topic!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Chemistry Literature Feature Vol. VII

Have you seen a good paper lately? Written one? Send it in and have it featured here! treetownchem@gmail.com

In 2015's very first Chemistry Literature Feature, we'll take a look at a lot of interesting, technique-based studies for new types of analyses. We'll see mass spectrometers that can track drugs through fingerprints, detection of tiny protein intermediates that might lead to Alzheimer's, real-time tracking of single proteins through cells, and more. But first, a little snapshot of what it's like to be a first-year grad student:

Overheard at Michigan:
"I mean, there's a lot to take in here. This is the first time that I've had to think about what a volt actually is."
Analytical - Mass spectrometry imaging of fingerprint sweat on nanostructured silicon
In mass spectrometry, analytes must be ionized before they can be detected. The energies used in ionizing techniques can be quite high - high enough to destroy the molecule entirely. So-called "soft" ionization techniques such as MALDI have been developed to avoid complete decomposition of analyte molecules, but these are most useful for very large molecules such as proteins. For small molecules such as illicit drugs, extra compounds needed for soft ionization techniques can actually confound analysis. This study ($), recently published in Chemical Communcations (RSC) uses a relatively new ionization technique called DIOS, or desorption ionization on (porous) silicon, to analyze for the presence of drug molecules in human sweat. Using their technique, the authors are able to create 2D maps of the fingerprints of smokers and non-smokers, confirming the presence or absence of nicotine (or nicotine metabolites) and determining its distribution throughout the fingerprint.

Chemical Biology - Single-molecule tracking in live Vibrio cholerae reveals that ToxR recruits the membrane-bound virulence regulator TcpP to the toxT promoter
Cells are immensely complicated. To figure out how they work, scientists of all disciplines have invented scores of techniques in order to grow the toolbox at humanity's disposal for understanding why cells make food or cause diseases. In this paper ($), published in Molecular Microbiology (Wiley), the authors use single-molecule fluorescence microscopy to study the movements of three critical proteins through living cholera cells. Two mutant cell lines lacking one or another of these critical proteins are studied as well. The findings suggest that cholera toxin is only produced through a complex interaction involving these three critical proteins. One membrane-bound protein reaches out and "recruits" a second from the cell's cytoplasm, and the protein dimer then binds to a third membrane-bound protein to form the toxin-producing complex. Interrupting this interaction could lead to new cholera treatment therapies.
-University of Michigan research conducted in Dr. Julie Biteen's group

Chemical Biology readers may also be interested in the Physical chemistry paper.

Inorganic - Calculation of Ionization Energy, Electron Affinity, and Hydride Affinity Trends in Pincer-Ligated d8-Ir(tBu4PXCXP) Complexes: Implications for the Thermodynamics of H2 Addition
Hydrogenation chemistry and its reverse, dehydrogenation, are big business in the chemical industry. Catalysts that can reliably and selectively rearrange carbon feedstocks into long-chain hydrocarbons suitable for use as fuel are constantly under development. An important part of the operation of these catalysts is their ability to bind and release a molecule of hydrogen. In a recent study ($) published in Inorganic Chemistry (ACS), the authors seek to understand how a specific class of iridium catalysts binds hydrogen. This can be extremely difficult to determine experimentally, so the authors turned to computer modeling, which is commonly used to understand phenomena that are too small, too fast, or too expensive for experimentalists to see. Their findings reveal that the addition reaction can be understood relatively simply as a sequential addition of a hydride (H-) and a proton (H+), and physical insight into the activity of these complexes is offered.

Materials - Water in Ionic Liquids at Electrified Interfaces: The Anatomy of Electrosorption
Ionic liquids, or salts that are liquid around room temperature, have received a great deal of attention in chemistry recently. They are under study for everything from solvents for chemical reactions to liquid media for ion batteries. However, because ionic liquids are so highly charged, they tend to absorb water very quickly from the air and hang on to that water rather tenaciously. According to the abstract of this paper ($) published in ACS Nano, "[c]omplete removal of water from [...] ionic liquids is nearly impossible." Instead, the authors turn to molecular dynamics calculations to understand how water behaves within an ionic liquid, particularly near the surface of an electrode experiencing an applied voltage. Their findings suggest that water migrates quickly to the charged surfaces, particularly positively charged ones. This observation may inform future observations as ionic liquids are used for wider and wider applications.

Organic - Thiophosphoramides as cooperative catalysts for copper-catalyzed arylation of carboxylates with diaryliodonium salts
In organic chemistry, which is concerned with building highly specialized small molecules step-by-step, an arylation reaction is one in which a benzene ring (or modified benzene ring) is attached to the substrate of interest. The authors of this study ($), recently published in Chemical Communications (RSC), observed that the yield of copper-catalyzed arylation reactions was increased in the presence of a strong hydrogen bond donor. Their findings demonstrate that a thiophosphoramide reagent, which contains an N-P=S central group, works together with the traditional copper catalyst to provide the highest yields of the final arylated product. They demonstrate this  method and explore functional group tolerance for a few small molecules and also for larger steroids.
-University of Michigan research conducted in Dr. Pavel Nagorny's group

Physical - Intermediates caught in the act: tracing insulin amyloid fibril formation in time by combined optical spectroscopy, light scattering, mass spectrometry and microscopy
Large, fiber-like clusters of proteins called amyloid fibrils have been associated with Alzheimer's, Alzheimer's and a number of other neurodegenerative diseases. However, recent thinking in the field suggests that it is not these large fibrils themselves, but their smaller precursors that are the culprits in these diseases. The catch: the large fibrils are very easy to detect. The smaller clumps of only a few proteins ("oligomers") that lead to the formation of the fibrils are not. With so little known about this subject, the authors of this study ($) in Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics (RSC) studied insulin, which forms fibrils under certain conditions in vitro. Using a wide range of characterization techniques, the authors are able to describe the oligomerization process using insulin as a model and suggest that these smaller intermediates are directly connected to the formation of larger fibrils. Their methodology lays the groundwork for future studies on proteins whose fibrils are connected with disease states.

Physical chemistry readers may also like the Inorganic chemistry paper.

Remember, if you come across an article that you think should be featured here, send it in! treetownchem@gmail.com

ACS - American Chemical Society
RSC - Royal Society of Chemistry

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