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Thirty-Plus Years Enhancing the Postdoc Experience: A Profile of the 2018 DSA Winner Sam Castañeda
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Christopher Smith


Sam Castañeda, Director Visiting Scholar and Postdoc Affairs Program, UC Berkeley.

More than thirty years ago, Sam Castañeda was working in the Graduate Division at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) with then Dean Joseph Cerny, PhD. Back then he didn’t know what a postdoctoral scholar was when asked to provide them assistance and support. Fast forward to today when, as Founder and Director of theVisiting Scholar and Postdoc Affairs Program at UC Berkeley (which currently serves more than 4,000 researchers), Castañeda will be awarded the NPA’s Distinguished Service Award (DSA) at the 2018 Annual Conference in Cleveland.


Julie Fabsik-Swarts, Executive Director of the NPA, said, "Sam Castañeda has been a long-time, hardworking supporter of the NPA mission. He has served on numerous committees, he has taken numerous leadership roles and raised thousands of dollars to support the Annual Conference which furthers the NPA's mission of enhancing the postdoctoral experience. The NPA is pleased to recognize Sam for his many years of service with this year's 2018 Distinguished Service Award." The DSA represents appreciation for an individual or entity that has demonstrated a profound, a sustained, or a leadership contribution to improving the postdoctoral experience. After learning about Castañeda’s many accomplishments and talking with him personally, it is clear he deserves this award.


Castañeda is passionate about improving the experience and professional development of postdoctoral scholars and their families. For more than ten years, he and Christine Des Jarlais, Ed.D., (Assistant Dean for Postdocs and Career Development at UC San Francisco) co-chaired the University of California (UC) System Postdoc Work Group where they led efforts to make all UC postdocs, regardless of employment classification, eligible for the same health insurance benefits as faculty and staff. Furthermore, Castañeda has pushed for improved career and professional development resources not just for postdocs but also their partners.


In the UC System, more than 65 percent of postdocs are international and their partners often arrive unable to work due to their visa status. The postdoctoral office at UC Berkeley provides them with English as a second language courses as well as opportunities to continue developing their own careers with volunteer opportunities that are permitted for J-2 visa-holders. Castañeda’s office also assists postdocs in navigating the school enrollment process for their children.


Castañeda led efforts to identify needs of postdocs at UC Berkeley and has also worked in close collaboration with administrators to share best-practices and enhance the lives of postdocs throughout the entire UC System (10 campuses and more than 6,000 postdocs). At UC Berkeley, Sam has worked closely with the Berkeley Postdoctoral Association to offer a variety of resources to postdocs including the establishment of a Humanities and Social Sciences Association as well as programs to enhance teaching, explore careers beyond academia, build connections with industry, and support entrepreneurship (founded with the help from Peter Fiske, PhD, a longtime friend of the NPA), among others. He is also founder and currently Managing Editor of the UC Postdoc Newsletter which facilitates communication and exchange of ideas across campuses.


While it is impossible to cover all the great things Castañeda has done for postdocs, it should be noted that he was a founding member of the NPA Advisory Council, Chair of the first NPA International Committee, and author of the International Postdoc Survival Guide, which is still in use today. He also contributed to the creation of Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience, funded by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). During a 2001 NAS conference, a conversation between representatives from five postdoctoral associations across the country, including Castañeda, led to the submission of a grant ultimately funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to start the NPA. From those humble beginnings, witnessed first-hand, Castañeda has happily watched the NPA grow in its scope, membership, and mission. Seventeen years ago, the NPA held its first meeting on the UC Berkeley campus. It has long since outgrown that space—the NPA annual conference is now held at venues like the beautiful Fairmont San Francisco Hotel last year and Renaissance Cleveland Hotel this year. Holding such events would not be possible without local organizing and fundraising committees, which Castañeda chaired last year—as he did for the 1st, 5th, and 10th NPA Annual Meetings as well. Over his career, he has raised approximately $180,000 for NPA Annual Meetings.


Despite having worked in the UC System long enough to be eligible for full retirement, Castañeda is not yet finished. He is soon embarking on an ambitious fundraising plan to build housing near the UC Berkeley campus dedicated to newly-arrived postdoctoral scholars, their families, and their pets, where they may stay for up to a year as they settle into their new environment. It can be difficult for international postdocs to find housing without a history of good credit in the U.S. financial system, and this will be especially beneficial as the UC Berkeley area has some of the highest housing prices in the country. Hopefully, more institutions will follow this initiative. In choosing Castañeda to receive this award, the NPA is an acknowledging the vital role administrators in Postdoctoral Offices play in enhancing the lives of postdocs. Castañeda added, “It has been a pleasure working with the generous, kind, diverse, international, and intelligent postdocs that take an active role in postdoctoral organizations at UC Berkeley, the UC System, and NPA to promote the postdoctoral experience. They are the promise for a better tomorrow. We—institutions, faculty, and society—all profit from supporting postdocs.”


Christopher Smith, PhD, is a postdoctoral trainee in the Department of Psychology at Vanderbilt University. He serves as Junior Co-Chair of the Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association.