Research Communications

OHIO postdocs make key contributions to research 

Sept. 19, 2011
By Andrea Gibson

They’re known as the “silent force” behind university research.

After earning a doctoral degree, many aspiring faculty members pursue a postdoctoral fellowship in a university lab to bolster their research credentials. In some disciplines, it’s an absolute necessity for landing an academic job.

Ohio University faculty members employ a few dozen postdoctoral fellows at any given time to advance their research. Smaller in numbers, and existing in the transition area between graduate school and the tenure track, postdocs can be under the radar at universities.

That’s why the National Postdoctoral Association sponsors an annual National Postdoc Appreciation Week, this year held Sept. 19 to 23, to create awareness of and recognize the contributions that postdocs make to the U.S. research enterprise.

“Postdocs are essential for having a top-notch research program. Their contributions are invaluable,” said Felicia Nowak, an associate professor of biomedical sciences in the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Nowak hired Yuriy Slyvka to assist with a four-year National Institutes of Health study on the impact of an antioxidant diet on diabetes and obesity. Slyvka, who previously had worked as a faculty member in the Ukraine, was instrumental in running experiments and collecting and analyzing biomedical data. Slyvka, Nowak and colleagues have published two papers, with two more pending.

“The project wouldn’t have happened without the help of someone like Yuriy,” Nowak said.

Morgan Vis, a professor of environmental and plant biology, said she couldn’t have pursued an ambitious National Science Foundation-funded project called the “Tree of Life” without support for a postdoctoral fellow. Vis hired Daryl Lam, a graduate of the University of Alabama, for a three-year postdoctoral position last year. The team is mapping the DNA sequences of 80 algae species to learn more about the evolutionary history of red algae.

A NASA-funded study on jets that emerge from supermassive black holes also wouldn’t be feasible without the aid of a postdoctoral fellow, said Markus Boettcher, an associate professor of physics and astronomy. Boettcher recruited Omar Jamil, who had earned astrophysics degrees in England, to advance the research.

These positions offer the postdoctoral fellows a chance to apply the research knowledge and experience gained in graduate school, as well as to produce academic articles in their fields.

“A postdoctoral fellowship is nice because it’s a small time in your life when you can focus purely on research – there is no teaching, no meetings, no thesis to write,” Jamil said. “However, there is pressure for you to publish, compared to when you were a student.”

Lam anticipates that his work on the “Tree of Life” project will position him for an academic job at a major research institution.

“My biggest goal is to get as many publications out as possible, in the hopes of getting an assistant professor position,” he said.

Postdocs also can gain experience writing grant proposals and managing grant-funded projects, said Dan Wang, a postdoctoral fellow working with Gerardine Botte, Russ Professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. Wang’s research on advanced energy is supported by the U.S. Department of Defense.

Though postdocs traditionally don’t teach, they do play a key role in mentoring graduate students and undergraduate student researchers who work in their labs. Vis noted that postdocs can help manage students while faculty members are busy with teaching and other responsibilities.

“Students can be more at ease with someone in a postdoctoral role vs. a professor,” she said.

Postdocs also noted this special dynamic with graduate students.

“You’re kind of a ‘big sister’ instead of a ‘mom or dad’ figure, and so the graduate students feel more comfortable coming to you with research questions and to bounce ideas off you,” said Kerin Claeson, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biomedical Sciences in the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Faculty members also can provide crucial mentoring and support to postdocs. Stephane Montuelle said he’s inspired by the professors he works with in the Department of Biomedical Sciences.

“I’m impressed by their level of commitment – it pushes you. It’s good to see how successful people work,” he said.

Susan Williams, an associate professor of biomedical sciences, recruited Montuelle from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France, to help her and fellow scientists capture 3D movements of animals in an effort to learn more about their methods of locomotion and feeding.

“We talk about careers a lot,” Montuelle said. “Susan is very supportive and understanding of the issues.”

Although postdocs traditionally focus on one research area with a dedicated faculty member, some of the Ohio University postdocs assist with multiple research programs, as well as teaching.
Montuelle works with several biologists at the university’s Hebbardsville research facility, which has helped refine his multitasking skills. “This will pay off when it’s time to manage my own lab,” he said.

Claeson pursues independent research on the morphology of fossil fishes, but also lends her expertise to the work of Patrick O’Connor, Nancy Stevens and Joseph Eastman in the Department of Biomedical Sciences. She’s published four papers in the past year and also is picking up more experience with teaching. “The role I have right now – I couldn’t have designed it better,” she said.

Teaching is a significant component of the postdoctoral positions in the Department of English as well. The department currently has three postdoctoral fellows who teach two courses per quarter, engage in research and scholarship and participate in a monthly brownbag colloquium, according to Marsha Dutton, department chair.

Postdocs across the university noted that the primary downside to the position is the uncertainty of how long it might last before they’re back on the job hunt. Some positions last three or more years, but others may be renewed only annually, contingent on further funding.

They wouldn’t trade the experience, however, because it’s a significant and often necessary experience for their CVs.

Ohio University benefits as well. Jamil and Claeson noted that postdocs can help enhance the institution’s reputation in the academic community when they represent the university at national and international research conferences.

“When I describe our department,” Claeson said, “people are blown away by how active it is.”