VCU to Celebrate National Postdoctoral Appreciation Week
Sathya Achia Abraham
University Public Affairs
Virginia Commonwealth University will celebrate the work and commitment to research of postdoctoral scholars campus-wide during the week of Sept. 17, as part of the Fourth Annual National Postdoctoral Appreciation Week.
In 2010, the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution nationally recognizing National Postdoctoral Appreciation Week in September. Last year, nearly 90 institutions in 30 states and Canada held a variety of events – from professional development workshops and networking opportunities to receptions and picnics – to honor their postdocs. This year’s event at VCU will feature a research poster competition on Sept.19 and opportunities for networking.
Postdoctoral scholars are a critical asset to the research and development enterprise in the U.S. and are an integral part of the labs they work in – overseeing research projects, training and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students in the lab and developing proposals for new grant funding, among other efforts. At VCU, nearly 225 postdoc scholars are working in labs across its campuses at any one time.
“Postdocs bring ideas to the lab that principal investigators may not have had before,” said Gordon Archer, M.D., director of the M.D. /Ph.D. programs in the VCU School of Medicine.
“They may have ways of approaching a problem that you never thought of. (They) do things well and quickly, bring new techniques into the lab,” he said. “They make labs go.”
According to Archer, during this training period, which is typically three to five years long, postdocs are readying themselves for an academic career, honing their skills so that they may emerge as independent scientists – each ready to approach a scientific project, develop the experiment to answer the question at hand and interpret the results and plan for next steps accordingly. Additionally, many will pick up managerial skills and ways to improve on time management – all the qualities that will make them well-rounded and mature so that they can be successful.
“Postdocs are gaining an understanding of the big picture,” said Hamid Akbarali, Ph.D., professor and director of graduate education and postdoctoral training in the VCU Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology.
“They’re learning how to get funded, write grants … a solid foundation and then off they go. It’s important to work hard and develop a strong mentor-postdoc relationship,” he said.
Within his department, Akbarali said many postdocs also are looking for more teaching opportunities. Akbarali and his colleagues are hoping to design courses for postdoctoral scholars to teach within their department. Some postdoctoral scholars work with their mentors in teaching part of an advanced course in their research discipline.
“The postdoc phase is kind of a transition between being a graduate student and becoming faculty,” said Lathika Mohanraj, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in the VCU Department of Pathology and president of VCU’s Postdoctoral Association.
Mohanraj hopes to raise awareness of the work done by postdoctoral scholars and of the misconceptions associated with the role of postdocs through the VCU Postdoctoral Association. For example, she said, postdocs often are perceived as “eternal students,” who may be lacking in some skills yet; or others see postdocs as the ones tasked with running the principal investigator’s experiments.
According to Mohanraj, these misconceptions are fairly common and require a shift in attitude from the outside to help postdocs gain support in their endeavors and make their mark on their career path.
“In my experience, I was given the responsibility, but I was also given the freedom …When you’re a postdoc, you are training your mind,” said Mohanraj, who has been working with mentor Youngman Oh, Ph.D., professor of pathology in the VCU School of Medicine, studying the molecular underpinnings of metabolic syndrome and cancer. “The focus is to learn to think more independently, become better prepared for writing grants and learn how to sell your research appropriately.”
Mohanraj came to VCU in 2005 as a graduate student from India and graduated with her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology in 2008. She later began her postdoctoral training in 2009.
Apart from research, Mohanraj said that a strong postdoc-mentor relationship is important. Her mentor has offered a lot of support and guidance for her to pursue interests in teaching and research and has encouraged professional development – even when opportunities have not directly related to her lab work.
Ultimately, Mohanraj hopes to pursue academics and clinical research that emphasizes cancer and obesity.
The event is sponsored by the VCU Postdoctoral Association and the VCU Office of Research.
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