A tale of two postdocs
A postdoctoral fellowship is a crucial transitional step on the road to an independent research position, especially a faculty appointment. A key element to consider is the lab culture. Is it one where you can develop your own project, or are you part of a well-oiled research machine? It turned out that I benefitted from both experiences.
After I graduated with my Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of British Columbia in 1978, I was lucky enough to win a two-year Medical Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellowship to join the laboratory of Guido Guidotti at Harvard University, where the focus was on studies of membrane proteins.
Guidotti was a unique scientist. He expected everyone in his lab to develop their own projects, and he didn’t put his name on papers unless he did some of the bench work himself. I decided to work on the oligomeric structure of the Band 3 anion transport protein of human red blood cells, which resulted in a single-author paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Guidotti also encouraged collaboration within his large group, and I benefited from joint projects with Lewis Cantley, now a professor of cell biology at the Dana Farber Cancer Institutes, and Anjana Rao, a professor at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. We combined our complementary expertise to publish three more papers on Band 3.
The opportunity to develop a new project from concept to publication was certainly challenging, but with the support of a mentor like Guidotti, I developed the very skills I needed to start an independent research program. I also learned the power of teamwork and collaboration, a theme I continued to use throughout my career.
I decided to return to Canada to build my network and find a research position. I turned down a job in a government lab and chose to do a second postdoc with David MacLennan, a leading expert in proteins of the sarcoplasmic reticulum, at the University of Toronto. MacLennan had a carefully laid-out plan for his research and had assembled a team of outstanding postdocs to work on various projects. He made it very clear that all projects would remain under his direction. We decided I would work on the biosynthesis of SR proteins, which introduced me to emerging techniques like cell-free translation. MacLennan gave me the opportunity to supervise a couple of terrific technicians, which provided me with lab management skills.
After two years, MacLennan encouraged me to seek an independent faculty position. With his support, I landed a job in the biochemistry department at the University of Alberta, home to the Medical Research Council Group in Protein Structure and Function. I knew I couldn’t compete with the MacLennan lab, so I proposed that we continue to collaborate, which we did for many years. For my independent project, I went back to Band 3 and received an MRC research grant on the subject of my first postdoc. I had experience with the system and papers to demonstrate my success in the field. The MRC Group proved the expertise and resources I needed to work on the structure of the Band 3 protein in my own lab.
When I work with postdocs, I encourage them to develop their own lines of inquiry so they can take their projects with them, especially if they decide to pursue an academic career path. I act more as a mentor than a supervisor and am open to helping trainees explore various career options.
If you are looking for a faculty position, make sure that you find a postdoc where you can demonstrate independence and develop not only your technical skills but your people skills, including teamwork. Before you decide on a postdoc position, research the lab projects and expertise, read the papers, interview the supervisor and reach out to current and former members of the lab to get a sense of the lab culture and if it is a good fit for you.
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