Passionate About Training
I try to create a laboratory environment in which everyone can be as successful as their own skills and efforts allow them to be, in whatever direction their passion takes them. We are a small group: typically 4-6 postdoctoral fellows, whose efforts are supported by three skilled and dedicated professionals who help generate and test reagents, conduct experiments, and maintain efficient lab operations. My expectations are high.
The major requirements of lab members are: enthusiasm for their work, willingness to take risks, ability to work in teams, commitment to learning and self-improvement, a track record of accomplishment.
Mentorship Philosophy and Approach
I believe a postdoctoral position is for training: I do not think of it as a ‘job’.
A postdoc’s time in my laboratory is transitional. We work together to ensure that they are individually as successful as possible at attaining their objectives. I see myself as a coach, whose role is to help with strategy, coordinate laboratory efforts, push my trainees to their optimal performance levels and to help keep them focussed on their objectives.
Importantly, the average training period for postdocs in my lab is 3 years (range 1-5 years; see details in lab alumni) This is short relative to the norm, because I work to ensure that the time spent is limited to that which is absolutely necessary for each individual to successfully transition to the next stage of their career.
For some fellows interested in careers in Biotech/Pharm, or in alternate careers such as teaching, this means a relatively short and focussed training period. For others aiming at an academic career, extra time may be required for them to develop their own projects, tangential to my own interests, to obtain preliminary data necessary to very quickly be competitive for independent funding and to learn to prioritize and plan programs rather than just projects.
Attesting to this approach, several of my fellows, including each of my last six academically-bound graduates, have received independent Senior Fellowships (from Army Breast Cancer, Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Muscular Dystrophy Association) that have allowed them to develop nascent programs to take with them as they started their own labs.
Elements of Training
My lab has weekly group meetings, at which a single postdoc presents their latest findings. Each postdoc presents every 2-3 months. At these meetings we discuss both successes and failures and try to bring out incongruities that might lead to new discoveries. We have a biweekly journal club, in which postdocs bring a paper each that they have read and found interesting. Rather than nit-picking a single paper, we have a free-wheeling and lively discussion of the significance and the overall ramifications of each paper, typically discussing 3-4 papers in a 2 hour afternoon session. Our objective is to look forward from each result presented to the next series of questions and experiments.
I spend an extensive amount of time with new postdocs at the outset of their training. During this time we lay out a specific set of objectives and write fellowship grants so that the first year or two of their project is carefully planned and they are connected to other postdocs or technicians in my lab for training in methods unfamiliar to them. After this initial intense training period, I no longer have regularly scheduled meetings, but rather have an ‘open door’ policy. Postdocs bring their work to me at varying intervals, some weekly, some less frequently. They know that they should see me more frequently when things are not working, than when they are. When projects start to take shape, we sit down to outline papers, so that they can better focus their efforts.
Mentoring for success in an academic career
In addition to a diversity of technical skills and expertise in a given area of research, there are other skills that are prerequisites for running an effective academic research lab. These include effective communication skills (oral and written), grantsmanship (strategic planning, project management, prioritization, justification), personnel management (mentoring, educating others, team building), leadership (motivating self and others) and establishing a external reputation by attending and presenting work at leading scientific meetings (ASCB, Biophysics Society, Gordon Research Conferences, etc.).