Campus News

Internet mentoring leads to postdoc fellowship

Postdoc Marie Saitou and her faculty mentor, Omer Gokcumen, at Saitou's poster presentation in the Center for the Arts Atrium. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki  

By SUE WUETCHER

Published June 19, 2017

“This kind of collaborative connection often happens later in one’s career, so it is Marie’s enthusiasm and initiative that led to this very nice and healthy scientific connection.”
Omer Gokcumen, assistant professor
Department of Biological Sciences

Marie Saitou was working on her PhD at the University of Toyko last year when she read a paper published by UB biologist Omer Gokcumen’s research group.

An evolutionary anthropologist, Saitou’s research is focused on the complex evolution of metabolizing genes, a topic that she says relates both to human evolution — why we are the way we are — and human disease — why we get allergies.

However, the particular gene region she was working on at the time “was a very difficult one because of technical reasons,” she says, noting that “not all regions of the genome are the same.”

She says she was struggling to analyze her data when she read the paper from Gokcumen’s group, which was “very relevant, both methodologically and conceptually, to my own work.”

So she contacted Gokcumen “and we started a working relationship over the internet.”

Saitou received a fellowship to visit Gokcumen’s UB lab for two months last summer, and “we worked very hard to further the project and come up with new ways to analyze my data.”

After returning to Japan last fall, she continued to work with Gokcumen to finalize her analyses. And based on this work, she defended her thesis at the University of Tokyo and graduated in March.

She says she’s thankful for Gokcumen’s contribution to her work, and also for her advisers at the University of Tokyo — she worked specifically under the supervision of Takafumi Ishida, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences — which allowed “such international collaborations to foster.”

The long-distance research relationship worked so well that Saitou applied for and received a postdoctoral fellowship at UB to continue her research on metabolizing genes. Gokcumen is now officially her faculty mentor.

“Marie is a great researcher and we are lucky to have her here at UB,” Gokcumen says. “This kind of collaborative connection often happens later in one’s career, so it is Marie’s enthusiasm and initiative that led to this very nice and healthy scientific connection.”

And it’s these kinds of mentoring relationships that are at the heart of the postdoc experience, notes Luis Colón, A. Conger Goodyear Professor in the Department of Chemistry and associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral education for the UB Graduate School.

“Attracting Marie Saitou to UB as a postdoctoral scholar also tells of the world-class research by Omer Gokcumen,” Colón points out. “It is fantastic that his work at UB brings postdocs from places like the University of Tokyo, an indication of the excellent training UB can provide to postdocs worldwide.”

Postdocs, who hold a PhD or the terminal degree in their field, are not students, Colón stresses. “They are employees of UB, or of their particular institution, with the main role of advancing research,” he says. The appointments are temporary in nature — typically no more than five years — and are beneficial for both parties, he says.

Postdoctoral training allows a researcher to mature in his or her field under the tutelage of an established researcher, better preparing the postdoc to become an independent researcher. “A postdoctoral experience is basically a ‘must have’ to pursue an academic position in a research-intensive institution,” Colón says, adding that the experience also gives individuals an advantage when pursuing job opportunities outside academia, such as with national laboratories or industry.

Gokcumen notes that Saitou already has made noteworthy contributions to his lab. “She, as a postdoc, has the ability to introduce new intellectual and methodological angles that I would not think about,” he says. “This is essential to diversify and re-imagine the research that we are doing at UB. Postdocs, in that sense, are primary vehicles for intellectual circulation in modern science. They are invaluable.”

Marie Saitou takes part in the three-minute presentation competition at the Postdoc Research Symposium. In this competition — similar to an “elevator pitch” — the postdoc presenters describe their work to an audience in non-expert terms, using only one static slide as a visual aid. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

Saitou presented her research on metabolizing genes at the Ninth Annual Postdoc Research Symposium on June 9. She also was one of the participants in the symposium’s three-minute presentation competition, talking about the genomic evolution of humans and chimpanzees with regards to the variation in metabolizing genes — work conducted in collaboration with Gokcumen.

Colón says the annual research symposium provides a “unique atmosphere to showcase the work of UB’s postdoctoral scholars. For some postdocs, this may be one of the few places — if not the only one — where they can personally present their work,” he says.

Five postdocs were specifically recognized at the symposium.

Winners in the poster competition were:

  • First place: Kimberly Kamper-DeMarco, Research Institute on Addictions, “Peer Victimization and Alcohol Use: How Attributions Influence Adolescent Drinking Behavior.”
  • Second place: Andrew Schwartz, Department of Chemistry, “Design, Simulation and Construction of a Distance-of-Flight Mass Spectrometer.
  • Third place: Guojian Zhang, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, “Genetic engineering of Erythromycin Biosynthetic Modularity Leads to New Versions of Erythromycin Analogues in E. coli.”

Rama Dey-Rao of the Department of Dermatology was awarded first place in the three-minute presentation competition for “VITILIGO: in search of a cure,” while Yingying Xie of the Department of Geography won second place for “When did deciduous forests develop leaves in spring and change leaves color in autumn observed by satellites?”

Also recognized at the symposium were the recipients of the 2017 Distinguished Postdoc Mentor Award. They are Gregory G. Homish, associate professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, School of Public Health and Health Professions, and Wenyao Xu, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The award was established by the Office of Postdoctoral Scholars in the Graduate School in 2009 to recognize UB faculty members who excel in the mentoring of postdoctoral scholars.

Nominees are submitted by postdoctoral scholars from UB, Roswell Park, UB’s Research Institute on Addictions and Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute.