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These Postdocs Appreciate Uncle Sam

Institutions that nurture postdocs' scientific development dominated this year's Best Places for Postdocs survey. Participants ranked five federally funded research facilities among the top 15 institutions, all of which earned high marks for scientific development and resources.US government labs have become fertile greenhouses for some of the country's best and brightest researchers. Because government labs also dole out grants to institutions and scholars, they have become exemplars for other

By | February 16, 2004

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Institutions that nurture postdocs' scientific development dominated this year's Best Places for Postdocs survey. Participants ranked five federally funded research facilities among the top 15 institutions, all of which earned high marks for scientific development and resources.

US government labs have become fertile greenhouses for some of the country's best and brightest researchers. Because government labs also dole out grants to institutions and scholars, they have become exemplars for other centers and are highly sought after. " [Our postdocs] really value the scientific and technical vitality of the institution, and the long-term tradition ... of interdisciplinary research," says Laura Gillian, director of the university relations program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and a postdoc advisory committee member. LLNL, ranked seventh in the United States, and the Naval Research Lab, ranked 13th, both focus on the physical sciences, so their life-sciences postdocs can explore biophysics and related multidisciplinary work. At LLNL, collaboration with the Linac Coherent Light Source Project at Stanford University allows biologists to work with physicists to develop an advanced X-ray light source for imaging large molecular structures and orientations.

The National Institutes of Health, ranked 10th, also boasts a diverse research portfolio, with multiple opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration at its 27 research centers, including the second- and third-ranked National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). "Postdocs get a broader experience than just their lab," says Michael Gottesman, NIH intramural research deputy director. "Interdisciplinary training is one goal of the NIH road map," a translational-basic-science collaborative launched by NIH director Elias Zerhouni.

NCI's Jonathan Wiest, associate director for training and education, says his facility's postdocs can investigate questions in immunology, AIDS research, molecular pharmacology, computational biology, or bioinformatics.

Despite their focus on science, these government agencies recognize that a postdoctoral appointment is not only an important research experience, but also a pivotal transition in a scientist's career. " [T]he government organizations think of the postdoc period as a training period, and support training through institutional programs," Gottesman says. Workshops on drug development, technology transfer, and research ethics help equip researchers for future careers, on and off the bench.

Postdoc associations such as the NIEHS Trainees Assembly frequently offer seminars on grant writing to give these government trainees knowledge they would not get in their labs. While the lack of grant-writing experience is a drawback, the flip side is steady funding. "With the economy over the past few years, one of the advantages is the stability of these institutions," says LLNL's Gillian.

Deborah Swope, director of the NIEHS Fellows' career development office, agrees. "Resources are never a barrier. If you need an enzyme and it's $500, all you have to do is send an E-mail," she says. Maintaining standard salaries and benefits, she continues, fosters collaboration. "You don't have to worry about whether the guy next to you is making more money," she adds. "There's a more cooperative than competitive feeling."

Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, ranked first among US institutions in The Scientist's survey, also received commendations for the value of its scientific training, interdisciplinary development, and networking potential. "Postdocs are the main players in our labs," says Randy Strich, who oversees the postdoc program at Fox Chase. The faculty has no teaching responsibilities, so "postdocs have significant access to the [principal investigators]. It's a much richer situation for the postdoctoral fellows."

- Maria W. Anderson

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