In praise of postdocs: Celebrating National Postdoc Appreciation Week


Kelsey Campbell was panicking. It was her first week as a Ph.D. student in medical clinical psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB)—a program she had chosen because she was excited about training to rehabilitate patients with traumatic brain injuries. But she was also required to conduct lab research as part of the program, and she now faced the prospect of working in a lab that didn’t excite her.

Then, at a presentation to recruit students, she chatted with postdoc Joanne Lin. Lin talked about her work studying brain inflammation and described how Campbell would fit into the lab’s projects if she joined. Campbell liked the lab’s focus and Lin’s friendliness. Her worries evaporated and she joined the lab in 2014, working directly with Lin.

Lin’s support started on day one, Campbell says. In the beginning, Lin walked her through the basics of the lab’s research, from how the techniques work to analyzing and interpreting the data. Then Lin showed her the ropes of writing grants and manuscripts and looked over her drafts before she sent them to the principal investigator. Later, Lin offered guidance for running a patient study, including recruiting participants and managing the paperwork.

Lin also gave more than technical support, Campbell says. Campbell recalls how stressed she felt writing her thesis proposal. One day, while she battled writer’s block and fretted that her adviser would be frustrated by her slow progress, Lin surprised her with cookies from a local bakery. The small gesture captures Lin’s personality, Campbell says. “She was incredibly empathetic, which was really important in what made her an amazing mentor,” Campbell says.

Campbell didn’t know that all of this was to come when she saw her university’s call for nominations to recognize its postdocs in 2015—but she had worked with Lin for a year by then and knew enough. Seven people from the lab and classes Lin taught joined Campbell to nominate Lin in the congeniality and mentorship categories.

When Lin won the congeniality award, the attention was “really unexpected,” Lin says. “I think we just go through life thinking, ‘Oh, do what I can for whoever I can at the time.’ I just didn’t know it had such a profound effect on so many people.”

The Office of Postdoctoral Education at UAB launched its Postdoc Awards in 2015 to commend its postdocs for their roles as mentors and peers and for “all the good things that they do,” says Jami Armbrester, director of career development, who runs the award program. “The research enterprise can’t survive without postdocs, so we want them to know that and how much we value them.” As this year’s National Postdoc Appreciation Week kicks off today, individuals and institutions across the country will share this message of recognition.

Lin, now starting her fourth year as a postdoc, admits that sometimes when a student working on her project comes to her for help, she feels that she would save time and energy if she just did the work herself. But she’s found that teaching mentees is worth the investment. On a practical level, training students means that she has been able to run multiple projects simultaneously and greatly increase the lab’s productivity, Lin says. But she values most the connections she has forged with her mentees. “Watching them enjoy what they do and understand things that they didn’t understand before—it’s always rewarding,” she says. “You always want to push them to be good, almost better than you can be. You want to help them that way. You want to watch them succeed—that’s kind of the main thing for me.”

Lin’s mentoring of junior lab members also allows her adviser Jarred Younger, associate professor of neuropsychology at UAB, to focus on helping students with what his experience can uniquely offer, he says—which is crucial given that his time is spent juggling meetings, writing and editing papers and grants, and performing departmental functions. For example, when a student’s grant already has the right structure and key elements in place, he can turn his attention to the higher points of grant writing, such as making sure the science flows logically and the text reads smoothly. Without Lin, he wouldn’t be able to have his lab of 25 members and the level of productivity that he has now. “The lab would be unrecognizable,” he says.

Lin is just one of the many postdocs who play a crucial role in helping junior scientists and colleagues get through the daily grind. If you’re grateful for the ones in your life, take the time this week to let them know.

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