This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Postdocs vital to research effort

Young researchers use positions to gain experience, become prolific publishers

Published: February 15, 2007

Reporter Contributor

The more than 35,000 postdoctoral associates working in U.S. universities and other research institutions may be the unsung heroes of science in the U.S., but they are not working in obscurity. In a survey done a few years ago of research articles published in the magazine Science, 43 percent of the first authors were postdocs.


Postdoctoral work offered Gabriela Popescu valuable experience in biophysics and physiology to complement her expertise in protein chemistry.

As noted by a joint committee of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, "As a whole, the postdoctoral population has become indispensable to the science and engineering enterprise, performing a substantial portion of the nation's research in every setting."

To provide support for, and enhance the experience of, its 300 postdocs, UB recently created the Office of Postdoctoral Scholars in the Graduate School under the direction of Marilyn Morris, associate dean for graduate and postgraduate education and professor of pharmaceutical sciences.

Morris says it is important to build a community for postdocs, who can be isolated in their labs. "Postdoctoral scholars enhance the reputation of the university, so it is important to support them," she notes.

She explains that a postdoctoral scholar is a person who recently has been awarded a Ph.D. or an equivalent doctorate or terminal degree and has accepted a position to obtain further education and training working under the mentorship of a faculty member or senior scholar. A postdoctoral fellowship represents a temporary appointment—generally five years or less—that involves full-time research or scholarship, and is regarded as preparatory for an academic or research career in many fields.

When she was asked to serve on the UB postdoctoral education advisory committee that recommended the formation of the new office, Gabriela Popescu, assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry, was eager to participate because "the topic interests me a lot." And she was ideally placed to assess the UB postdoc experience, having been a postdoctoral associate with Anthony Auerbach, professor of physiology and biophysics, from 2000-04.

After earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry at UB working on retinoid metabolism, Popescu wanted to pursue a developing interest in the literal workings of the mind. She needed to learn biophysics and physiology to complement her expertise in protein chemistry. She would have looked for a postdoc position elsewhere—for the variety of experience that she would recommend to her own students—but moving her school-age children was a roadblock.

"I was very fortunate to find the best possible match with Tony Auerbach," she says. "He was well-known and well-funded." She worked in his lab for a year, recording activity in a particular molecule in a neurotransmitter, then went to work on her own interest in NMDA receptors.

Auerbach told her that what she was proposing to investigate would be very difficult and that she should try it for six months and move on if it didn't work out. It did work out. He secured a National Institutes of Health training grant to fund her work, which eventually resulted in publications in Nature Neuroscience and in Nature. Discussing her findings, an article in Trends in Neuroscience said the work "extends our understanding of NMDA kinetic behaviors and emphasizes the potential complexity of their synaptic and extrasynaptic responses."

Indrajit Roy, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of New Delhi, took a postdoc position in the Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics in 2000 and conducted research on nanoparticles as delivery vehicles in medicine. He moved to the Johns Hopkins University to work in the same capacity with a cancer research group to get more experience on the medical side of nanomedicine.

While he was at Johns Hopkins, Roy stayed in contact with his UB mentor, Paris N. Prasad. In 2004, when the National Cancer Institute announced a program of funding for nanotechnology-based platforms for cancer diagnosis and therapy, Roy participated in writing a proposal that brought a $3.46 million grant to UB and Johns Hopkins for research aimed at developing nanotechnologies for earlier diagnosis and more effective treatment of pancreatic cancer. Roy returned to UB to work with Prasad on that grant, as well as on other projects, including nanoparticle-based multi-probe systems for medical imaging.

Roy's publications include a 2005 article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on using nanoparticles as DNA carriers.

"Postdoctoral associates play a critical role here, not only in carrying out institute research, but in helping to determine the direction of that research," says Prasad, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemistry, who directs the institute.

"Postdocs are in a dependent position in which they are mentored and advised by the PI (principal investigator) or group leader. While they grow scientifically, they increasingly contribute intellectually to the ongoing project," according to Thomas Szyperski, professor of chemistry and a world-leading researcher in the field of structure determination of biological macromolecules using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

Szyperski points to the career of a particularly productive postdoc, Hanudatta Atreya, lead author on an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that is considered a seminal paper in the field. Atreya holds a patent with Szyperski for a method for determining the structure of proteins. Szyperski credits the grant-making by the National Science Foundation as a valuable long-term investment in the postdocs who are employed in labs supported by those grants.

This fall, Atreya's research record under Szyperski landed him a tenured position on the faculty of the Indian Institute of Technology in Bangalore, India.

In Zhen Yan's busy lab, five postdocs, two graduate students and two technicians conduct research in the field of molecular and cellular mechanisms for the regulation of ion channels and synaptic transmission in central nervous system neurons. In the six years since she joined the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, Yan has built a productive lab that publishes extensively.

Two of her postdocs, Wenhau Liu and Eunice Y. Yuen, were lead and second authors, respectively, on a paper published in the Nov. 13 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science describing the mechanism of a particular kind of molecular receptor in the prefrontal cortex that may eventually yield a better understanding of certain neuropsychiatric disorders. Nobel Laureate Paul Greengard was a co-author on the paper.