Unsung Heroes

Postdocs are ‘the most underserved yet most important group’ at a research university

Dr. Todd Golde lab

Drs. Todd Golde and Cara Croft collaborate with trainees in the lab.

Unsung heros

Postdocs are ‘the most underserved yet most important group’ at a research university

By Michelle 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 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?’”

Dr. Arash Tadjalli

Dr. Arash Tadjalli

Lab of Gordon S. Mitchell, Ph.D.
College/Department: UF College of Public Health and Health Professions, physical therapy
Age: 37
Hometown: Toronto, Ontario
Research focus: Understanding the mechanisms of glia-neuron interactions within the spinal cord in giving rise to spinal respiratory motor plasticity during health, as well as in disease states characterized by neuroinflammation.

What drives me: I’m motivated by helping others and a desire to make a difference in the lives of others for a better future of the world.
“A postdoctoral fellowship itself is not a career. As a postdoctoral fellow, you are ultimately the chief architect of your future career. UF is an excellent institution that will provide you with all the necessary resources so that you can carve out your ideal career path.”

Dr. Lorena de Mena Alvarez

Dr. Lorena de Mena Alvarez

Lab of Diego Rincon-Limas, Ph.D.
College/Department: UF College of Medicine, neurology
Age: 36
Hometown: Gijon, Spain

Research focus: Development and implementation of optogenic systems (tools that allow manipulation of gene expression in a light-dependent manner) in fruit fly models to better understand the biomolecular mechanisms involved in Alzheimer’s disease and ALS. What drives me: The pursuit of knowledge. To know that every hour we spend in the lab, every experiment we do, every result we get, takes us a step closer to a new discovery that could potentially improve the lives of many people.

“One thing that is really important is to have a community of people who understand what you are going through — that creates a sense of belonging. The work is hard and frustrating sometimes. Someone who says, ‘I get you, I understand you,’ that’s priceless, and UF promotes that. I’m grateful for that.”

Dr. Cara Croft

Dr. Cara Croft

Lab of Todd Golde, M.D., Ph.D.
College/Department: UF College of Medicine, neuroscience
Age: 29
Hometown: Manchester, England

Research focus: Understanding mechanisms in Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease to seek potential drug targets.

What drives me: The fact that research can have a massive impact on people’s health and lives.

“At UF, we have a lot of sharing of resources. Everyone is always willing to help you, and it’s highly collaborative.”

Dr. Matt Hamm

Dr. Matt Hamm

Lab of José Abisambra, Ph.D.
College/Department: UF College of Medicine, neuroscience
Age: 30
Hometown: Atlanta

Research focus: Understanding the biochemical fallout following one or more mild traumatic brain injuries and associated neurodegeneration in order to inform the design of potential therapeutics to improve quality of life.

What drives me: I find research into neurodegeneration and traumatic brain injury to be compelling because there still remain so many unanswered questions about the human brain, and answering those questions could have transformative effects on the lives of many, many people.

“Postdocs are important pillars for many labs. They are capable of conducting a good deal of work on their own, without continuous input from the PI (principal investigator), and usually contribute to project and experimental design, as well as mentorship of less experienced trainees. Working as a postdoc is an important time to grow one’s self-sufficiency as a researcher, hopefully polishing strengths and mitigating weaknesses along the way.”

Dr. Adrienn Varga

Dr. Adrienn Varga

Lab of Erica Levitt, Ph.D.
College/Department: UF College of Medicine, pharmacology & therapeutics
Age: 31
Hometown: Budapest, Hungary

Research focus: The role of opioid-sensitive respiratory neurons in the brain in both normal breathing and under the influence of opioids. We are also looking for potential therapeutic targets to combat respiratory depression in opioid overdoses.

What drives me: My goal is to find a specific target that we can use to reverse the respiratory effects of opioids without causing any pain or discomfort.
“This is a chapter for learning to become completely independent, learning everything about how to be a productive scientist, a good team leader and a supportive mentor. I am lucky to have great mentors who are my role models and are always here to help.”