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Postdocs Building Community, and Experience

Postdoc Symposium poster session Nov 13According to a recent article in Genetic Engineering and Biotech News, the perennial topic of the overabundance of postdocs and PhDs, is “getting some overdue additional attention” from upcoming studies on the topic.

One such study is by a National Academies’ Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy panel, who is updating the 2000 report Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers. It will be interesting to see their recommendations on how well U.S. postdoc programs meet the needs of scientists and broader research activities, and how the postdoc landscape has changed over the last two decades. For example, a 1997 report from the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, Postdocs and Career Prospects: A Status Report, found that, overall, of those in postdocs in 1993, 13 percent were in tenure-track positions two years later, and for those in their second or third postdocs in the same year, 16 percent were in tenure-track positions by 1995.

Clearly, interest in career issues for postdocs is not new, but ways to expand the postdoc experience to ready for budding careers takes constant creativity and communication.

To that end, the Biomedical Postdoctoral Council (BPC) at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, held its 12th annual Postdoctoral Research Symposium last week. BPC is one of the first grassroots postdoc organizations in the US, and 700 out of its 800 members work in Penn Medicine departments.

The two Penn Medicine postdoc organizations, BPC and the Office of Biomedical Postdoc Programs foster community above all else, says Rohinton Tarapore, PhD, a postdoc in the School of Dental Medicine. Tarapore co-chairs the BPC with Caleph Wilson, PhD, a postdoc in the lab of James Riley, PhD, research associate professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.

The Symposium is the highlight annual event organized by the BPC and attracted about 300 attendees this year, says Adam Walker, PhD, a postdoc in the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research. Walker was the chair of the 2013 BPC Symposium committee, comprised of ten postdoc volunteers who gained first-hand experience in organizing all aspects of the full-day event.

This year the Symposium -- typically a mix of talks, posters, awards, and keynotes by science luminaries -- featured the Kumar Memorial Lecture by postdoc Zach Gerhart-Hines, PhD, on his recent Nature paper with Mitch Lazar, MD, PhD, director of the Institute for Diabetes, Metabolism, and Obesity. The Keynote Address was given by Bruce Alberts, PhD, Chancellor’s Leadership Chair in Biochemistry and Biophysics for Science and Education, at the University of California, San Francisco, to an SRO house.

The symposium also gives postdocs the opportunity to present their work and build networks with a diverse group of peers, while also providing the postdoc committee with experience in scientific event planning - a role normally reserved for more senior scientists.

One of Tarapore’s contributions towards building a financially strong BPC at Penn was to organize vendor fairs. Since March 2011, three vendor shows have brought in about $55,000 to the BPC so far, which helps to fund the Symposium and other events to enhance postdoctoral training. The council, in partnership with CHOP, hosted a series of events in September to celebrate the National Postdoc Appreciation Week.  

In addition, the BPC organizes a regular seminar series, hosts orientation sessions for foreign postdocs, and supports the Postdoc Editors Association, as well as the Diversity, Environmental, Community Service and Career Enhancement & Training committees. The BPC also regularly circulates a newsletter to all BPP postdocs to promote career development and networking opportunities.

All of these activities are the heart of BPC’s mission and all of its volunteers from the School of Medicine, the School of Veterinary Science, the School of Dental Medicine, the School of Nursing, the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, and the Monell Chemical Senses Center.

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