Open today's paper and, chances are, you will read about a significant
scientific breakthrough. The article will describe what was discovered;
who conducted the research; the significance of the finding and what
comes next. But you won't get the back story. A team of researchers spent
long days and nights in the lab. They tested many hypotheses - some
accurate, some not - for years. Slowly, they gathered data, submitted
their findings to a peer-reviewed journal and, after several revisions,
published the scientific article.
But the back story goes deeper than that. The scientists who collaborate
on these discoveries have varying degrees of education and experience.
In addition to the principal investigators, who lead the projects, there
are postdoctoral fellows and Ph.D. candidates, who conduct the majority of
the hands-on science. In return for their labor, these young scientists
learn by doing and receive critical insights from senior investigators.
The experience they acquire will guide their future research.
Danielle Murphy, Ph.D., at work in Sara
Courtneidge, Ph.D.'s lab.
Danielle Murphy, Ph.D., has come full circle. A postdoctoral fellow in
Sara Courtneidge, Ph.D.
's lab, Murphy briefly visited San Diego during high
school to learn about marine biology at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.
As it turns out, she learned that she wasn't very interested in marine
biology. Fast forward a few years and, having completed her Ph.D. at the
University of Pennsylvania, Murphy is conducting basic biological research
at Sanford-Burnham - on fish. The zebra fish the lab uses are primitive
vertebrates and excellent models to study how cancer spreads through the
Courtneidge notes that cancer cells don't invent anything new; they
just steal the traits they need from other cells. The lab is particularly
interested in how certain cancer calls mimic processes generally seen in
utero. As our bodies develop and different cells are created, they must
migrate to their appropriate places in the body. But once this migration
is complete, bone, nerve and other cells lose their ability to move about.
Murphy is studying how cancer cells reacquire this early ability to
migrate through the body.
"Tumor cells do things they were only supposed to do in development,"
says Murphy. "Somehow, that mechanism gets turned around again."
Murphy's work has impressed many people, both in and outside of
Sanford-Burnham. She recently received a 3 year grant from the American
Cancer Society (ACS) to continue her work in the Courtneidge lab. The
highly competitive ACS grant is unique because the grantees are selected by
both scientists and the donors who fund it.
"It's exciting that people in the community helped select my proposal,"
says Murphy. "It provides me steady funding, but it also gives me
a track record. It shows that I can get funding for my work."
Bridging the Gap
Murphy has been eager to study cell migration and metastasis, and Courtneidge's lab is an ideal place to do that. However, she is
experiencing the same long-term problem faced by many postdocs: What
will I do after my fellowship? While the postdoc period provides a
wonderful opportunity to be mentored by leading scientists, it's only
temporary. Fellows must figure out what role they want to play in the
science world, while making sure they acquire the skills—both scientific
and administrative—that will help them when they leave Sanford-Burnham.
"Only 12 to 15 percent of postdocs will go on to become professors," says
Huong Huynh, Ph.D., program coordinator for the Office of Postdoctorial
and Graduate Training. "The rest go into consulting, corporate research
and development, scientific writing or other areas. We try to give them
a good understanding of what jobs are available."
Principal Investigator Hudson Freeze, Ph.D. confers
with Lars Bode, Ph.D.
But for postdocs who wish to remain in the lab, this can be an awkward
transition. Faculty spots are highly competitive and their are few
intermediate options. "Moving from postdoc to independence can be
very challenging," says Lars Bode, Ph.D., a researcher in
Freeze, Ph.D.'s lab. Bode studies glycans, complex sugar chains that are
abundant in human breast milk but not in infant formula. How are they
synthesized and what they actually do is somewhat mysterious. Bode
hopes to resolve some of the mystery and help us understand why breastfed
infants are protected from certain diseases.
Bode's work could enhance our understanding of how babies benefit from
breastfeeding. The research has been recognized by the National Institutes
of Health, which has awarded him a new type of grant (called a K99/R00
Pathway to Independence Award) designed to help young researchers transition
from postdoc to independent investigator.
"This new funding mechanism is fantastic and was desperately needed to help
scientists in their early careers find a path to independence," says Bode
of the five-year grant. "The K99 will help me continue my work at Burnham for
the short-term and give me more leverage as I look for permanent faculty
Unfortunately, these transitional grants are few and far between, so postdocs
must work diligently to make the jump to independence. Still, it's important
for postdocs to "be in the moment" and gather up all the scientific knowledge
they possibly can during their training period.
"As a postdoc you want to get training in a very wide spectrum of scientific
backgrounds and methods," says Bode. "For that, Sanford-Burnham is ideal. The core
facility system provides support and training in so many tools and techniques.
You name it, it's here. Sanford-Burnham provides an excellent environment for