Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Postdoc Experience

Geophysical Lab Postdocs, circa 1995; Center is Mike Walter--now GL Director!
            When a student in the field of science gets her/his Ph.D., it is customary for the newly minted Dr. to work for another two to four years as a semi-autonomous to fully independent researcher in another person’s laboratory. The position is comparable in some sense to a medical residency, except that postdocs are not required to work excessive 80-hour weeks. They may choose to work as long and hard as they wish, but that generally depends on how passionate they are about their work, the work environment, and the competition in their specific field for a permanent position.
             A postdoc will either work on a project of her/his choice usually as a fellow, or as part of a grant-funded project in which the basic research will be outlined by a senior researcher. Because postdocs no longer need to take classes or pass exams, they can make swift progress with new research. At the same time, they are expected to mentor junior scientific staff in the lab and write up their dissertation work for publication. With the right relationship, a postdoc can amass a lot of data, that can be published in the early years when they’re getting their own labs established. With the wrong relationship, a postdoc can feel like an indentured servant, possibly told to work overtime without compensation. At the Geophysical Lab, the great majority loved their time as a postdoc.
            One of the best things that the Geophysical Laboratory, in fact the Carnegie Institution as a whole, spends its endowment on is funding postdoctoral fellowships, which attract some of the best young minds from around the world. It was not uncommon for a promising postdoc to be offered a position at the Laboratory when there was an opening. I started my career this way, along with current Geophysical Lab staff members Doug Rumble, Yingwei Fei, Tim Strobel, Alex Goncherov, and Bob Hazen. As a staff scientist at the Lab, I mentored many postdocs, many of whom I’ve written about in the memoir (e.g., Mat Wooller, Diane O’Brien, Dave Baker, Seth Newsome, Dominic Papineau, Sue Ziegler, Carmen Aguilar). Each postdoc has her/his own story—most of which were unique—and many of who went on to highly successful careers in academia, government, and private industry.
            Geophysical Lab postdoctoral applicants wrote 2-3 page proposals describing their ideas for a one or two year research project. Mine wasn’t particular good, and I never carried out the work I proposed. When I arrived at the Lab from a fully equipped biology facility in Texas, I landed in an earth science focused environment without the equipment I really needed. Usually for most Geophysical Lab fellows, this was not the case. The Geophysical Laboratory has mass spectrometers, high-pressure apparatuses, and sophisticated microscopes, all available to any postdoc who might want to use them—for free. Once I obtained some used instrumentation from DTM, I was ready to go. With a clean slate, open doors, and plenty of senior scientists to mentor you, a postdoc at the Geophysical Lab is akin to a kid in a candy store.
Shuhei Ono, Sulfur Isotope line, circa 2006

            Frequently, postdocs brought innovation to the otherwise quiet Laboratory. They had youthful energy, new ideas, were fearless. They kept the Lab alive and vital. I’ve mentioned Steve Macko’s nitrogen isotope innovations; Shuhei Ono revamped the sulfur isotope methodology to a high level; Francis McCubbin brought petrology into relevance in astrobiology; Sarah Stewart changed the way we do high pressure experiments; Sung Kyun Lee merged Bjorn Mysen’s petrology studies with George Cody’s NMR expertise; Noreen Tuross infused anthropology with medicine; Matt McCarthy kept my “feet” in ocean sciences; Shiv Sharma brought his expertise in Raman spectroscopy. These are just a few examples of the impact postdocs have had on Geophysical Lab’s scientific direction.
            Women started being hired as postdocs and Predoctoral fellows in the 1960s, although there were very few. Once we came, there were relationships, followed by marriages. It was common for single women to find another postdoc whom she was attracted to, particularly if they shared an office or lab space. Paul Koch, now Dean of Science at UC Santa Cruz, was a postdoc with me who came up with the Gerbil Theory. When placed in a small cage (i.e., the postdoc office), gerbils will mate (i.e. people will pair up). I watched it happen many times, as scientists can be socially introverted. Or, great minds think alike. We’ve had some wonderful, enduring pairs over the years.
Paul Koch, circa 1989
            When Paul Koch arrived at the old Geophysical Lab on Upton St. from the University of Michigan, he was young and green. His project was to analyze carbon and oxygen isotopes from bones and teeth from various animals. He was a contemporary of Zach Sharp’s but did not have the lab skills Zach had. He’d never been in the field, didn’t own a car or truck, and seemed puzzled about how to carry out life. His first field trip was with Kay Behrensmeyer from the Smithsonian to go to Kenya to collect plants and bones as part of her work on taphonomy, the study of what happens to animal carcasses after death. My other postdoc David Velinsky and I took him in the lab and packed his luggage with sampling gear that Paul would need. The trip was a success, and he returned with enough samples for a publication. Within a couple of years, Paul got a loan and bought a truck, wrote an NSF grant and got it funded, then published a paper in Science. The postdoc was just the time he needed to figure things out. Dave Velinsky, a talented experimentalist and field person, now leading a department at Drexel University, fine-tuned his professional skills in speaking and writing while a postdoc. It can be a transformative time for many.
Wooller, Koch, McCarthy, Tuross, and former college intern Jake Waldbauer, 2007
            The Lab also hosted postdocs from around the world. The first from communist China and the USSR came to the Lab in the late 1980s. They were often “handled” by older, senior government officials, who made sure they didn’t defect. Postdocs from Europe typically hung out with each other after work, smoking cigarettes, drinking wine, and talking until the early morning hours. Japanese postdocs (e.g. Taki Yagi, Hikaru Yabuta, Shohei Ohara) had to get accustomed to the English language, completely new customs, and a different way of relating to senior scientists. It was common for international postdocs to come in quiet and leave as strong, independent, English speaking forces that turned out to be leaders when they returned to their home countries.
L-R: David Velinsky, Greg Hickmont, Zach Sharp, circa 1989
            Doug Rumble usually had one postdoc at a time—and they were first rate. They often came from Harvard or another distinguished university. [Page Chamberlain has been mentioned earlier.] Zachary Sharp impressed everyone at Carnegie with his early zip and enthusiasm. Zach, a slight curly haired fellow with an intense manner, invented a laser-based system for analyzing oxygen isotopes in rocks when he was a postdoc. Tom Hoering gave him some practical advice; I served as a sounding board for his ideas and results. Sharp fairly flew up and down the stairs, particularly when his new method worked. He remains, even today, a person who loves new techniques and is a master of his lab at the Univ. of New Mexico.
            James Farquhar took a different path. He spent much of his time thinking about what he could do, rather than what he did do. His ideas diverged from the confines of his dissertation research. George Cody and I listened to him talk for hours about subjects far from what he thought he’d be doing at the Carnegie. James went on to a 2nd postdoc at UC San Diego, where he had his big chance to break into new territory. He discovered unusual sulfur isotope patterns in Precambrian rocks, billions of years old that led to the realization that sulfur isotopes could tell us when the Earth’s atmosphere became oxygenated. He’s come full circle, purchasing a large format mass spectrometer identical to the one Doug Rumble has been working on for the past decade.
            Ed Young, another of Doug’s postdocs, has the world’s first large format mass spectrometer at UCLA and is still working with Doug. The two are opposites in many ways—Ed has a fastidious office and laboratory. He is detail oriented, sharply dressed each day, and driven. Doug’s office is cluttered, his lab holds a dozen or more broken pumps, but he somehow manages to produce sound data. It’s very much a father-son type science relationship that goes back and forth like many regular father-son relationships do when the son is fully grown.
            The Geophysical Lab also hired some non-traditional postdocs who kept unusual hours, drove flashy cars, left precipitously, had affairs with the wrong people, or even wrote their own letters of recommendation. That happened rarely, maybe once every 4-5 years, but formed the stuff of lore for the Laboratory. One “enterprising” postdoc did not get along with Director Hat Yoder. It took a couple of weeks for Yoder to notice that he was no longer receiving any mail—it had been forwarded by the enterprising postdoc to a fictitious address!
            James Scott fit the bill of a non-traditional postdoc, but in a good way. He was a towering, heavyset African American from Ken Nealson’s lab at the Univ. of Wisconsin. I had met James during visits to see Ken, and we had discussed his coming to the Lab for a postdoc. During James’ interview, he brought over 100 plastic overhead slides that slipped off the table when he was giving his presentation, falling in a jumble on the floor. It had to be one of the worst talks we’d ever seen. But, he had remarkable conversations with everyone during one on one interviews. We hired him immediately. James continued to impress us, but he followed a different path—a brilliant man but with little practical sense. Everyone loved him.
            James’ first field trip was to Lake Tanganyika in Africa. He needed to obtain a visa from the Tanzanian government in downtown DC. He spent a couple of days sitting in the waiting room for an appointment, but was never called. When he told us this story, we said, “Oh, you need to ask if you could “expedite” your visa with a cash contribution!” He did, and after handing over $20, he had his visa in about 30 minutes. On the way to Lake Tanganyika, he lost his wallet and credit cards—or they were stolen. Penniless, he called collect and begged for cash. I wired him $1,000 to the local telegraph office, which he picked up in small bills that filled a backpack. We called this adventure “James—Out of Africa”. James always lived this way lurching from calamity to personal challenge. Sadly, he passed away from a massive heart attack during his 4th year as an Assistant Professor at Dartmouth.
James Scott and Dartmouth student circa, 2006

            Although postdocs have little primary responsibility for running a lab, they have the heavy burden of finding a permanent position in a short time frame. In the ‘70s and ‘80s when universities were expanding, Geophysical Lab postdocs were snapped up quickly. At that time, hiring women in interdisciplinary fields wasn’t common, so I suffered many rejections. Now, the opposite is true—women are hired very quickly, whereas men need more exposure to get noticed. Senior scientists spend a lot of time going over interview strategies, cover letters, CVs, and practice talks. Most staff members were essentially teachers in a scientific “finishing school”. We remain very proud of our early career scientists. Mentoring them remains one of the most rewarding aspects of my career. Every year at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco, former postdocs join Carnegie staff members in celebrating the gift and privilege of doing discovery-based scientific research.

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