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In Praise of Postdoctoral Scientists

In Praise of Postdoctoral Scientists

Sept. 24 is declared the first annual 'National Postdoc Appreciation Day'


The large stone fireplace at the Captain Kidd bar in Woods Hole, Mass., provided a warm haven last March for a group of young scientists gathered after a long day in the lab. They were all postdocs, short for postdoctoral scholar, fellow, or investigator—a little known stage in scientists’ careers. Who are these postdocs and how do they fit into the research enterprise? To find out, I sat in on the impromptu meeting.

“People still don’t understand how a science career works,” said Ernst Galutschek, president of the Postdoctoral Association at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). “All my friends outside of science don’t understand what a postdoc is.”

Postdocs have an official organization, the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), and even a new official day. The NPA declared Sept. 24 the first annual “National Postdoc Appreciation Day” to celebrate and increase awareness of “the significant contribution that postdoctoral scholars make to the U.S. scientific research enterprise.”

The NPA also has an official definition of a postdoc: “an individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing.” But that tells just part of the story.

A brief, intense phase

Postdocs average about two years at the institutions they are visiting, compared to five or six years in graduate school. In the best-case scenarios, the arrangement energizes both the postdocs and their host institutions in a mutually beneficial exchange of skills and ideas.

But the postdoc period has its distinct challenges. In that brief, temporary window of opportunity, postdocs must demonstrate their scientific “street cred,” so they can attain the next step on the career ladder, as Chris Reddy, a former WHOI postdoc turned associate scientist, put it.

Adding to the intensity, postdoctoral positions often come at a time when scientists also have to balance the needs of their young families, and many postdocs come from other countries and must hit the ground running in foreign territory.

Maybe that’s why the group at the bar is small.

“Postdocs are looking for jobs,” said Julie O’Leary, sitting at the round table at the Captain Kidd. “They are thinking of where they are going next. It leads to a feeling of impermanence.” O’Leary, a postdoc in the WHOI Geology and Geophysics Department, investigates how magma forms deep in Earth’s mantle to create volcanoes and new seafloor crust.

“My wife says that there is just one more move [for our family]—that’s it,” said Matt First, a postodc in the WHOI Geology and Geophysics Department, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Georgia. He studies so-called “Trojan horses” in the sea, single-celled animals that harbor disease-causing bacteria inside them.

“With a Ph.D. dissertation you have time to formulate ideas and have some failures and still get three or four publications out,” First said, but postdocs must achieve research results at an “accelerated pace.”  Meanwhile, First has two children. “I have to leave [the lab] by 5:30 pm. If not, I am dead.”

Going abroad

Bibiana Crespo, a postdoctoral scholar in biology from Spain, had to learn a new culture. ‘The first six months here I was trying to understand the country. I had a lot of questions about the way of life here,” she said.

About 60 percent of the postdocs at WHOI come from foreign countries.

“I speculate that there are so many foreign applications because receiving a science or engineering position in other countries is more prestigious than in the U.S.,” said James Yoder, vice president for academic programs at WHOI. “Americans are missing an opportunity here.”

Galutschek, for example, is a physicist from Austria. He has spent his time at WHOI building a new “ion source” instrument that dramatically speeds up the process of dating and identifying carbon isotopes in the National Ocean Sciences Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Facility at WHOI.

Many of WHOI’s foreign postdocs also come with their own funding. Coming to the U.S. can be an important step in receiving a permanent position in a postdoc’s home country.

“It’s sort of a prerequisite to go abroad to another institution,” said Crespo’s fellow countryman, Kais Jacob Mohamed Falcon, a postdoc in the WHOI Geology and Geophysics Department who studies sediments to reconstruct past climate changes. “The U.S. is attractive because it is one of the places where breakthrough science occurs.”

The postdoc experience is not universal

Postdocs arrive via different routes and funding sources, and they are treated differently at different institutions.

“Every institution can establish its own standards,” said Cathee Johnson, executive director of the NPA. “That would make things easier if it was standardized, but it would go against academic freedom.”

“At WHOI, we treat postdocs more like junior faculty, rather than lumping them with students,” said Janet Fields, postdoctoral coordinator for the WHOI Academic Programs Office. WHOI has about 65 to 90 postdocs at a time, she said.

WHOI defines its three types of postdocs by how they are funded. Postdoctoral scholars are funded by internal WHOI funds. This year, 117Ph.D.s applied for seven to eight spots.

Postdoctoral investigators usually receive funding through grants won by WHOI scientists from federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF). Postdoctoral fellows also receive funding from outside of WHOI through special fellowship awards, many from U.S. agencies or, in the case of international fellows, from their own home country’s government.

Post-postdoctoral life

“A postdoc can complement the skills in a lab (and) also bring something new,” said Ann Tarrant, assistant scientist in the WHOI Biology Department. “It’s ideal if we both can be learning something from each other.“

During her Ph.D. work, Tarrant studied how the hormone estrogen affected the reproduction of corals. She came to WHOI as a postdoctoral scholar to learn molecular biology techniques to study how estrogen from the environment collects in these animals and disrupts their spawning and growth.

Now she is teaching her postdoc, Adam Reitzel, these techniques so he can apply them in his studies on sea anemones. In turn, “Adam brought experience working with the anemone population and genomics, helping me to take my lab in a new direction,” Tarrant said.

What is life after a postdoc like? Jason Chaytor, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, developed a database listing where WHOI postdocs have ended up since 1993. It showed that about 70 percent of WHOI postdocs continue in academia.

This is higher than the national average. A 2006 report b ythe NSF found that about 49 percent continue in academia, which includes professorships, while the other 41 percent go into other areas such as industry and business.

Hard times and good times

The current economic crisis has affected the number of postdocs at WHOI, which cut its number of postdoctoral scholars from 12 to eight this year.

“I don’t see us going up to 12 anytime soon,” said Yoder.

New government stimulus packages, however, are funneling funds into postdoc positions and providing more grant funds to scientists. The National Institutes of Health, for example, said it will channel $1 billion into supplemental grants for postdocs in NIH labs.

On the other hand, economic difficulties have made permanent positions after the postdoc more competitive. Both state and private universities are canceling jobs because of a lack of funding.

Many WHOI postdocs, however, remain optimistic.

“Even though it looks scary, people I know have all landed places where they are happy,” Reitzel said. “It may take a few years.”

Some of the postdocs could end up at WHOI. About 25 percent of the scientific staff at WHOI were also postdocs here. 

Michael Neubert, an associate scientist in the WHOI Biology Department, looked back on his WHOI postdoc time fondly. “It was the best intellectual experience I had,” he said. “I had all this freedom to do what I wanted to do without the administrative duties that come with a permanent position.”

Learn more by visiting WHOI’s Postdoctoral Programs Web site and the National
Postdoctoral Association

Andrea Hawkes

Andrea Hawkes studies catastrophes. During her Ph.D. work at the University of Pennsylvania, she studied historic earthquakes in the Indian and northern Pacific Oceans, with magnitudes of 8 or more. These mammoth subsea quakes often cause sections of the seafloor to thrust upward and spawn devastating tsunamis. Knowing more about their historical patterns and characteristics could help scientists understand future disaster scenarios. 

Hawkes came to WHOI to work with Associate Scientist Jeff Donnelly and USGS scientist Jeff Williams on examining another type of natural hazard: hurricanes in the Northeast. Written historical accounts over the past 400 years or so and more accurate instrumental records over the past 100 years provide only recent hurricane evidence.

Hawkes and colleagues want to look back over the past 10,000 years in the geologic record to get a detailed understanding of the full range of possible hurricane scenarios. This record spans times when the climate was different than today. It offers potentially important clues to how climate affects the intensity and frequency of hurricanes and what that may mean for hurricane forecasts as Earth’s climate changes in the future.

Plunging long tubes into sediments in marshes and on the bottoms of ponds, Hawkes extracts long and deep cores. These sediment records include telltale layers of fine organic matter from normal sedimentation and coarser materials deposited when powerful hurricane winds and waves pushed them into the marshes or ponds. Hawkes analyzes microfossils of single-celled marine animals called foraminifera in the sediments to reconstruct environmental conditions before, during, and after past hurricanes.

Hawkes is also continuing her work on earthquakes, looking at the 2004 earthquake off the coast of northern Sumatra that spawned the devastating tsunami throughout the Indian Ocean. In particular, she is examining how tsunami waves move sediment and deposits it in layers on land. Understanding where the sediment comes from and the layering pattern can give scientists insights into where and how tsunamis pick up and move sediment, as well as providing a prehistoric record of tsunami inundation.

Hawkes feels right at home traveling from Sumatra to Oregon to the Eastern Seaboard to study natural disasters. She has always liked being outdoors. After taking an undergraduate “rocks for jocks” course, she was hooked and has been studying the natural world ever since.

IMAGE CAPTION: Postdoc Andrea Hawkes examines coastal sediments to reconstruct prehistoric records of tsunamis and hurricanes. (Steve Culver, East Carolina State)

Bibiana Crespo

“There is a lack of information on the initiation of harmful algal blooms in Spain,” said WHOI postdoctoral scholar Bibiana Crespo. So she traveled from Spain to learn from WHOI Senior Scientist Don Anderson, among the world’s leading experts on harmful algal blooms, or HABs. 

Toxic HABs have had devastating impacts on the mussel industry along the northwest coast of Spain. In her Ph.D. work at the Marine Research Institute of Vigo for the Research Council of Spain, Crespo examined the relationship between oceanographic processes and the development of HABs in the region.

Crespo came to WHOI to learn about the life cycle of algae and biomolecular techniques to study microscopic marine plants such as algae. This summer, she worked on a study at Nauset Marsh off Cape Cod, monitoring a bloom of the alga, Alexandrium fundyense.

Every week, Crespo and colleagues collected water samples to study how the alga was distributed in the marsh. They isolated algal cells, cultured them, and extracted DNA to examine genetic variability of A. fundyense populations in the marsh. The previous autumn, they collected sediment samples to study the distribution of A. fundyense cysts, a dormant stage in the alga’s life cycle that is reanimated when conditions are right to form new blooms.

Not only is Crespo building skills to study HABs in Spain, but she is also increasing her prospects of getting a job back home.

“To go back and compete for a position, we need to leave at some point,” she said. “Coming here [to WHOI] is amazing. It’s the biggest place you could be.”

Crespo’s vocation stems from her early years, “when I was a child and I went to the beach,” she said. “I always was looking for different kind of animals and algae at the little ponds in the rocks. I think the sea is amazing and mysterious.”

IMAGE CAPTION: Bibiana Crespo studies the life cycles of algae that produce toxins that have harmful impacts on fisheries.  (Bruce A. Keafer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Mar Nieto-Cid

Mar Nieto-Cid is studying an essential but mysterious substance in the ocean called dissolved organic matter. It’s the residue, mostly from decomposed plants and animals, that dissolves into the ocean and is later recycled.

Dissolved organic matter creates sort of a “soup” of carbohydrates, amino acids, and other basic organic materials that microbes, algae, and other marine life rely on for food. But it’s hard to track the sources of the material and hard to measure because it’s so diluted in seawater.

For her Ph.D. at the University of Vigo in Spain, Nieto-Cid measured dissolved organic carbon in the waters off the northwest coast in an area called the “Rías Baixas,” which is known for its mussel fishery. Irregular wind patterns sporadically cause nutrient rich deep oceanic waters to upwell to the “Rías” from April to October. These nutrients fuel marine life, such as mussels, increasing the concentration of the dissolved organic matter.

Nieto-Cid came to WHOI to work with Senior Scientist Dan Repeta in the Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry Department and learn a specific technique that concentrates dissolved organic matter and makes it easier to study. The technique also separates samples by molecular weight and allows the study of the constituent parts, such as carbohydrates and amino acids, so she can better identify what dissolved organic matter is made of and where it comes from. 

“We need to go abroad to look for something that will be new for our research,” Nieto-Cid said. “I need to come back to Vigo bringing new technology.”

Growing up by the sea, Nieto-Cid always wanted to learn more about the ocean.

“I also loved the connection with popular science, helping to understand why the Rías are one of the best places of the world to farm mussels, [and] why and when the seafood is dangerous because of a red tide,” she said.

IMAGE CAPTION: Mar Nieto-Cid investigates dissolved organic matter in the ocean, a poorly understood substance that is essential to the marine food web. (Photo courtesy of Mar Nieto-Cid, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Adam Reitzel

Adam Reitzel had already spent a lot of time with the “critter,” as he refers to it: the sea anemone, Nematostella vectensis. His Ph.D. project at Boston University examined the critter’s genetic diversity and evidence for how it adapted to various habitats. It has long lived in East Coast estuaries from Nova Scotia to Georgia, but more recently it has shown up in England and West Coast sites from San Francisco Bay to Washington State.

Reitzel and colleagues looked at genetic markers that can have a slight variation depending on which population the sea anemone is collected from. The scientists compared these sequences in East and West Coast populations and reviewed historical records. They determined that the East Coast anemone invaded the West Coast and England, probably within the last century.

To take the next step, Reitzel wanted to investigate how the sea anemone’s genes respond to different environments that the critters find themselves in. He came to WHOI as a postdoc to learn methods to study how and when genes in the sea anemone get “turned on” (or “expressed”) to produce proteins and enzymes.

Working with WHOI biologists Ann Tarrant and Mark Hahn, he is learning tools such as the quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR). With qPCR and a variety of protein expression approaches, Reitzel can analyze what biochemical functions the genes perform and which genes get turned on or off in the face of environmental stresses, such as pollution or different water temperatures.

 “The critter is fairly tolerant of extreme environments,” Reitzel said. “Discovering the genetic mechanisms that give it its toughness” and its ability to adapt to various environmental situations could help scientists understand why other marine animals, such as endangered corals, are more sensitive to changes in the ocean.

Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, Reitzel became interested in biology and evolution during an advanced biology class his senior year.

“Teaching [evolution] in a small town in Illinois, my teacher stuck his neck out a bit,” Reitzel said. “The course got me interested in evolutionary biology.”

Reitzel spent his first two years at WHOI as the Beacon Institute postdoctoral scholar, jointly sponsored by WHOI and The Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries, an environmental research organization based in upstate New York. This summer he was awarded a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellowship to study the molecular mechanisms of gamete differentiation in Nematostella.

Of his WHOI postdoc, he said, “This is a great opportunity to develop your own path. You have the money, time, and resources to do what you want.”

IMAGE CAPTION: Adam Reitzel collects the “starlet sea anemone,” Nematostella vectensis, at Great Sippewissett Marsh in Falmouth. He is investigating how this little cnidarian’s genes respond to stresses in environment such as pollutants. (Photo by Lars Behrendt, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

James Kinsey

“My big-picture interest is how we can continue using ocean robotics to transform ocean science,” said postdoctoral scholar James Kinsey. He and colleagues at WHOI and other institutions are using ocean robotics to go where few others have gone before—the deepest parts of the sea.

Kinsey has participated in the development of a new robotic submersiblenamed Nereus. In May of 2009, Nereus was successfully deployed 10,209 meters (6.8 miles) deep in the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean. Nereus was only the third submersible ever to reach these depths.

His primary postdoctoral research project—in collaboration with WHOI scientists Dana Yoerger and Maurice Tivey—focuses on using autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs, to obtain gravity measurements of the oceanic crust. Differences in the crustal density produce small changes in gravity. Measuring these gravity anomalies enables scientists to better understand the structure of the ocean crust and processes occurring within it.

To acquire gravity measurements now, scientists must set submersibles on the seafloor—a time-consuming and expensive process. “My research is investigating how we can obtain these measurements from a moving AUV,” Kinsey said, to get more measurements at less cost.

Coming to WHOI as a postdoc was in a way a homecoming for Kinsey. He worked in the WHOI Applied Ocean Physics & Engineering Department as a summer student in 1997 and 1998 while studying mechanical engineering at State University of New York at Stony Brook. 

Kinsey said his experience at WHOI led him to get his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in mechanical engineering at The Johns Hopkins University, where he developed improved navigation techniques for oceanographic submersibles.

It looks as if Kinsey is here to stay. In December 2009, he will join the AOP&E Department as an assistant scientist.  Fo him, WHOI allows him to merge his interest in the ocean and engineering.

“I have always been interested in the sea and in tinkering with mechanical things,” said Kinsey. “At WHOI, I get to do both for a living.”

IMAGE CAPTION: James Kinsey is exploring how to use autonomous underwater vehicles, such as Sentry (above), to obtain gravity measurements that can help reveal structures and processes within seafloor crust. (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Michelle Portman

At first glance, Michelle Portman’s bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees in political economy, urban and regional planning, and public policy hardly seemed to have much to do with the natural world. But her overarching motivation is finding ways to protect the environment by understanding the human forces that shape it.

Portman chose to pursue a postdoctoral position at the WHOI Marine Policy Center, a small group of social scientists working on issues concerning the coastal ocean.

“I am interested in bridging the gap of what natural scientists are doing and policy that will ultimately impact the lives of people in a tangible way through laws and regulatory programs,” Portman said.

For Portman, working in academia is a type of community service to teach and publish research that will be referenced for policy change.

At WHOI, Portman keeps busy with three projects that straddle both natural science and policy. First, she is tracking how changes in fisheries and fisheries management regulations have affected land use in the New Bedford-Fairhaven harbor waterfront. In particular, she is examining the development, economic, and political pressures to convert waterfront property that has long been maintained to support maritime industries.

To apply already learned lessons, Portman is also analyzing how European countries regulate projects similar to the Cape Wind proposal to build 130 energy-generating turbines in Nantucket Sound off Cape Cod, the first major offshore wind farm proposal in the United States.

Her third project involves reviewing how decisions are made to address coastal erosion caused by sea level rise. Portman and colleagues at the WHOI MPC are working with WHOI geologists who are examining potential sea level rise in an effort to create wise coastal management policies.

Her work stems from a passion for nature and its conservation.

“I felt the best way to have a chance to influence things and contribute to environmental protection was through policy,” she said.

IMAGE CAPTION: Michelle Portman works to apply science to guide wise environmental policies. (Photo courtesy of Michelle Portman, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)