Victor E. Velculescu was working as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University with Kenneth Kinzler in the mid-1990s when he hit a technological roadblock. "We knew there were molecular differences between cancer cells and normal cells," says Velculescu, "but we just didn't have a good way of examining what those differences were, except a few genes at a time."
When Velculescu went to invent a novel approach of his own, he came up with an unbiased gene-expression profiling technique called serial analysis of gene expression (SAGE). "The approach provided a way to look at the expression of thousands of genes at one time, and identifying the most differentially expressed ones in a very comprehensive way," he says. Velculescu published that work in Science on Oct. 20, 1995
Four years later, as a new postdoc, he submitted a 1,000-word essay on the topic for the Amersham Pharmacia Biotech (now GE)/Science Prize for Young Scientists, awarded to PhDs who earned their degree in molecular biology research in the previous calendar year. He won. The newly married Velculescu earned a $25,000 cash award, which he used to pay off his honeymoon in Positano, Italy, as well as an all-expenses-paid trip to Stockholm for the awards ceremony, timed to coincide with the presentation of the Nobel prizes.
Perhaps more importantly than the perks, says Velculescu, now an assistant professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins, the award gave him the confidence "that one can be a productive member of the scientific community, and forge ahead with the sorts of experiments and the perhaps riskier ideas and scientific ambitions that one would have."
Velculescu's award helped him to inspire his team of graduate students and postdocs to try riskier projects. He cites, for instance, postdoc Tian-Li Wang, who developed a DNA-based SAGE variant called digital karyotyping used to look for genetic alterations (such as duplications or deletions) in cancer cells at high resolution.
I would argue the most fertile ground for that sort of encouragement can be found in a young postdoc. Junior investigator awards from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation give new assistant professors the independence to let their creativity flow, but let's face it: It's postdocs who do most of the work. Yet there are precious few of these awards to go around, says Emilia Martins, associate dean of graduate education in the college of arts and sciences, Indiana University.
Recognition at the postdoctoral level can have several effects. Professionally, such awards serve to set winners apart from their peers. Plus, they encourage researchers to break new ground, or to try new fields. "I think awards to graduate students and postdocs are very useful," says David Triggle, former dean of graduate education at the University of Buffalo. They're "a powerful stimulus, especially for younger researchers not yet jaundiced by the cutthroat nature of science." The money, meanwhile, offers the flexibility to be choosier in picking a postdoctoral lab, says Martins. "There's not as much pressure to get a job."
Perhaps that's exactly the sort of motivation that makes for great mentoring and productive protégées. New postdoc Rashu Bhargava Seth of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, who in June won the $8,500 Upstate 2006 Young Cell Signaler Award (for "PhD students and first-time postdoctorates," according to Upstate), says her graduate advisor will become her role model when she starts her own lab. "Three things, I think, that he has taught me," she says: Don't take shortcuts, plan carefully, and, "just believing in myself, believe that you can hit a home run."