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Pioneering Postdoc Support: The Icahn Postdoc Executive Committee
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Lining Zhu


The NPA presents the IMSSS PEC with the Distinguished Service Award. (Left to right): Delaine Ceholski, PhD, co-chair of PEC; Kate Sleeth, PhD, chair of NPA Board of Directors; Allison Sanders, PhD, co-chair of PEC; and Catarina Saiote, PhD, co-chair of PEC.

This year, the 2017 NPA Distinguished Service Award went to the Postdoc Executive Committee (PEC) from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS). Delaine Ceholski, PhD, and Alison Sanders, PhD, postdoctoral fellows at ISMMS and outgoing co-chairs of the PEC accepted the award on behalf of the committee. Ceholski studies mechanisms of inherited dilated cardiomyopathy using induced pluripotent stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes, funded by an American Heart Association Fellowship. She was the co-chair of the PEC from April 2016 to March 2017. Sanders specializes in maternal and children's environmental health, molecular epidemiology, and epigenetics. Besides serving as a co-chair of the PEC, she directs a science communication and teaching program funded by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and is a founding member of the New York City Postdoc Coalition (NYCPC). Lining Zhu, PhD, caught up with Ceholski and Sanders to learn more about the impressive work the PEC has done for their postdoctoral scholar community and the group’s future plans. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


How did the PEC get started?


The PEC was established by two postdocs at Mount Sinai in 2008. The co-founders and the original five committee members aimed to address the unmet need for open and transparent postdoc policies and creating resources for professional development and community activities. Over the years, the PEC has created a plethora of leadership and professional development opportunities for postdocs through the committee structure and programming initiatives.


What were the challenges along the way?


The primary challenge is to acquire data to better understand what postdocs’ unmet needs are and what resources are lacking. To achieve that, the PEC established a survey committee to design, distribute, and analyze the survey. Since its inception, the response rate has doubled from 35 percent (2012) to 70 percent (2016).


One other challenge is ensuring continual leadership of the PEC, due to the temporary appointment of postdocs. We have improved the documentation and data collection of our initiatives and have a training period for leadership roles to ensure a smooth transition. We also created a tiered structure to ensure our goals are accomplished, which has the added benefit of leadership opportunities and position titles to recognize efforts (e.g., social chair, survey leader). 


How does the PEC develop and execute the short-courses in leadership and conflict resolution, teaching and science communication, and project management?


The aim of the short courses is to fill the career gaps, as indicated by postdoc responses to our annual survey. We started the leadership and conflict resolution course in 2013, the Teaching and Science Communication course in 2015, and the Project Management course in 2016. The courses were spearheaded by former co-chairs, who tailored the curricula for each course in collaboration with invited local experts. Collaborating with local experts has been mutually beneficial in that postdocs learn a valuable skill set through practice. On the other hand, invited professionals develop a better understanding of the postdoc community. Therefore, the course series created “by postdocs, for postdocs” has become one of the strongest facets of our program. We also record video and audio for some of the courses and make them available on our internal website. We are interested in making the recorded courses nationally available in the future.


What’s the secret recipe of keeping the momentum of your organization?


Growing from five to now 35 committee members, the PEC is driven by the continual leadership of ISMMS postdocs. We have two co-chairs with a rotating election every six months, ensuring that there is enough overlapped time for training. Our organization is structured into three groups led by a set of co-directors: advocacy, community, and professional development. Under the leadership of the co-chairs, co-directors set yearly goals to ensure we are continually striding forward to improve things for postdocs at ISMMS.


Every September, the PEC holds an Annual Postdoc Symposium where we send out open invitations to other institutes in NYC. This allows us to broaden our network in NYC and recruit new internal members to the PEC. Last September, our “Industry: Beyond the Bench” symposium attracted about 350 postdocs, and we recruited 15 new members. It was a great opportunity to showcase what we do to the ISMMS and NYC postdoc communities.


What have you accomplished for your community of postdocs?


One of our recent accomplishments is the establishment of a five-year postdoc term as institutional policy. This means that any postdoc that remains at ISMMS after five years must be promoted or terminated. To facilitate this, the postdoc office at ISMMS reminds mentors to set up a meeting with their postdocs at the three-year mark to discuss opportunities for promotion or a career transition.


We successfully advocated for $50,000 postdoc salary minimum as institutional policy. To do this, the PEC co-chairs were appointed to the Graduate School Steering Committee where we were given the opportunity to discuss the Fair Labor Standards Act salary minimum of $47,450. Based on the high cost of living in NYC and the National Academies of Sciences recommended $50,000 salary minimum for postdocs, the Graduate School Steering Committee and ISMMS leadership implemented the $50K salary minimum in December 2016.


In 2016, we formed the Trainee Mistreatment Resource Panel (TMRP) in collaboration with the postdoc office, ombuds office, and graduate school. This was developed in response to the limited resources available to postdocs seeking help for any issues they may be dealing with at work. Trainees can anonymously seek advice on concerns from the TMRP in a friendly, safe, and anonymous environment.


The PEC is one of the founding members of the NYCPC, which consists of postdoc representatives from seven major research institutes: Rockefeller University, Weill Cornell Medical College, [New York University] (NYU), Columbia University, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and ISMMS. The NYCPC had its start at the NPA meeting in 2016, and its mission is to enhance the postdoctoral experience of NYC postdocs by providing a platform for citywide partnership and grassroots advocacy with the goal of fostering a thriving and diverse postdoctoral community in NYC. Each institute has two to seven representatives participating in the monthly meeting, and the committee recently developed rules for its structure and voting. Last year, the NYCPC had quarterly socials with the goal of creating a broader sense of community for postdocs in NYC. In the future, the NYCPC hopes to share more resources and information to improve postdoctoral training in NYC institutions.


Since the ISMMS has no undergraduate program, postdocs have very limited teaching opportunities. Also, 70-80 percent of the ISMMS postdocs are foreign nationals. Recently, the PEC worked with the dean of our International Personnel Office to establish an international teaching policy that allows foreign national postdocs to obtain paid teaching positions outside of ISMMS.


What’s the next goal of the PEC?


One of our overarching goals has been to improve mentorship for postdocs. We are advocating for mentorship training for faculty and the formation of a committee of advisors for postdocs emphasizing career guidance. In addition, we have created a secondary mentorship portal, which matches postdocs who have non-academic career goals with ISMMS faculty or alumni with experience in technology transfer, science communication, industry, etc.


Lastly, we want a better system to track postdoc alumni. We are working with the ISMMS Alumni Association to apply the existing methods that are used for tracking graduate students, medical students, and medical residents to track postdocs as well.

Lining Zhu, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at the City of Hope, focusing on developing antibody-based bioassays and anti-fungal chimera antigen receptor (CAR) therapy. She is also the vice president of communications at the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) Los Angeles/Ventura County Chapter and a Toastmasters addict.