Training a New Generation of Scientists

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.

Fish Story

Danielle Murphy, Ph.D., at work in Sara Courtneidge, Ph.D.'s lab

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 body (metastastis).

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 Hudson 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 position."

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 postdoctoral training."

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