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The 16th Annual Conference - Connecting Over a Unique Scholarly Community
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Simone Otto and Ian Street

Photo courtesy of Simone Otto, PhD. Babb loved Hernandez’s talk on diversity.


The 17th Annual Conference of the NPA which occurred April 6-8, 2018, at the Renaissance Grand Hotel in Cleveland, Ohio was a time to share postdoc stories (#PostdocStory) with other postdocs, PDAs, PDOs, funding agencies, and every other stakeholder involved in improving the postdoctoral experience. The conference was filled with plenary talks, networking breaks, concurrent sessions, participatory workshops, and a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame event.


“The Annual Meeting is one of the few places you can meet in person, learn from, and connect with those who work on anything related to postdoctoral scholars,” said Angela Florentino, a project manager at the Broad Institute. “Postdocs are relatively few in number and conferences like this are a great way to get together to explore the needs of the postdoc community.”


Key themes include Mentoring, Inclusion and Diversity


Photo courtesy of Simone Otto, PhD. Costello gave opening remarks to a packed audience at the 16th Annual Conference

In her opening comments, NPA Board Chair Tracy Costello, PhD, noted that 60 percent of attendees were women and 45 percent were international. Forwarding the needs of these diverse attendees led to an agenda focused on mentoring, inclusion and diversity – major themes throughout the conference. In the well-received keynote address, Intersections of Science, Business, and Diversity, Lydia Villa-Komaroff, PhD, presented data on implicit biases and combating them, including how even a single training workshop can have a positive impact. As a founding member of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), among other things, Villa-Komaroff has been a diversity advocate her entire career. In her talk, she stressed the importance of cultivating a community of diverse mentors in her keynote address, as well as supporting a diversity of mentor-mentee relationships, some of which will provide opportunities for cross-cultural mentoring.


Villa-Komaroff was not a lone voice in talking about the importance of diversity, inclusion and mentoring at the conference. "Marcela Hernandez (also) gave a wonderful talk on Friday morning on the importance of diversity in science and strategies to counteract implicit bias. I really enjoyed the interactive discussion!" said Jessica Babb, co-president of the Boston Children’s Hospital PDA, about the session entitled Diversity 101: Why Should We Care, the Role of Implicit Bias and Privilege, and What are Some of the Solutions.


“It’s exciting to be in an environment where postdocs are the protagonist,”


Lisa Kozlowski, PhD, of Thomas Jefferson University, discussed the mentoring needs of diverse students in her session entitled Multiple Approaches to Mentoring and their Value to Trainees. She included a role-playing “mentoring in motion” demonstration. The attendees learned that one model of mentorship involved getting away from the lab. Kozlowski also introduced the attendees to a group mentorship model used by the Philadelphia chapter of AWIS.


Providing insight and inspiration for PDAs and PDOs

Photo courtesy of Simone Otto, PhD Rodriguez hopes to gain insight on other PDAs or PDOs


Gaining insight from other PDAs was a primary goal of many attendees, including Meg Rodriguez, PHR, SHRM-CP, of Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and Ann-Sophie Bohrer, PhD, representing the Michigan State University (MSU) PDA. Bohrer said she attended the Annual Conference to connect with other PDAs, get an idea of what postdocs at other universities are doing, and gain insight on setting up a new professional development committee. In the workshop Strategies for Increasing Participation in PDA Leadership and Events, Washington University postdocs Francesca Cignarella, PhD, and Francisco Victorino, PhD, and Washington University Director of Curriculum and Graduate Programs, Jessica Hutchins, PhD, provided some of their insights for PDAs.


Founding members of KC RiBS traveled to Cleveland, OH to attend the NPA Annual Conference. From left to right, William Munoz, PhD; Kevin Elliott, PhD; Mary Huff, PhD; and Kaela Varberg, PhD.

Other PDAs were hoping to connect directly with each other to share best practices. “We are excited to come to the NPA Annual Meeting because we’re starting a regional Kansas City PDA (the KC Researchers in Biomedical Science), a multi-institutional PDA, akin to the BPDA,” said postdoc representatives from Kansas City biomedical research institutions who were hoping to connect up with the BPDA to gain insight on founding the KC Researchers in Biomedical Science. The BPDA was formed in part through connections made at past Annual Meetings.


Photo courtesy of Simone Otto, PhD. Dennis hopes to reach out to a broader range of postdocs.

While many PDOs were interested in better organizing and serving postdocs, others still face the challenge of identifying and reaching out to postdoctoral scholars, who can be classified under different titles depending on discipline, department, and institution. In a concurrent session titled Developing and Implementing an Online Standardized Postdoc Appointment Management System Tammy Dennis of the University of Pittsburgh reflected that, "At the University of Pittsburgh, we only have access to postdocs in the health science schools. This session helped me better understand that we need to find more ways to identify and reach out to postdocs from all disciplines and all the schools at the University of Pittsburgh."


Postdocs as Protagonist


Photo courtesy of Simone Otto, PhD. Martin and Reifler are excited to see postdocs as protaganists.

“It’s exciting to be in an environment where postdocs are the protagonist,” said Natalia Martin, PhD, research associate at MSU, professional development chair for the MSU PDA, and session speaker for Building Stronger Partnerships Between Career Services & Postdoc Associations. “This conference lets me share new ideas and meet new people.”


“As PhDs, we tend to focus on our specialized training, instead of our skill set. If we focus on the skills we have, we’ll realize how much more we are capable of. Don’t be afraid to walk off a cliff,” said Villa-Komaroff, keynote speaker, in her address entitled Intersections of Science, Business, and Diversity.


Aaron Reifler from the University of Michigan Postdoc Office enjoyed the address, saying, “The opening comments really showed how much passion and importance there is in helping to give postdocs a forum and a voice for their issues.”


Photo courtesy of Simone Otto, PhD. Easterling in encouraged to see postdocs and PDOs working together

"My favorite part of this conference is that postdocs and postdoc office faculty and staff can learn together from each other," said Lauren Easterling of The Indiana University School of Medicine. For instance, Friday’s agenda concluded with a myPDO session dedicated to the professional development of those serving in PDOs concurrent with a “musical fairytale” partially theatrical piece about developing an elevator pitch, and the conversations postdocs can have to succeed in their careers.


The conference featured career advice for entrepreneurs as well. "I thought the session on start-ups and entrepreneurship was great. It opened my mind to know there are companies that can assist postdocs in turning ideas into profitable enterprises," said Sam Lukubirn, PhD, vice president of Clemson PDA.


Photo courtesy of Simone Otto, PhD. Lukubira is impressed by entrepreneurial opportunities

“I’m here to encourage more postdocs, more PDAs, and more PDOs to think of entrepreneurship as a career option,” Jun Axup, PhD, from startup accelerator IndieBio said after her session on helping scientists translate research ideas into products and sustainable businesses. Axup’s was one of many sessions on career development.


Postdocs as Keystones of Research, Community and Careers


Rafael E. Luna, PhD, associate dean at Boston College, empowered postdocs with some best practices in their keystone role in the research enterprise. In his plenary session on the role of mentorship and shared governance on the transition from bench to institutional leadership, he said he asks his trainees three questions: “What am I good at?”, “What brings me joy?”, and “What does the world need me to be?” Postdocs are in a great position to ask, answer, and act on these questions. Given the space to be thoughtful, postdocs nucleate communities of shared governance around pressing research issues, policies, and social problems.


Photo courtesy of Simone Otto, PhD, A musical fairytale of how a postdoc “networks” to find the perfect job, led by Josh Henken, career counselor/founder, STEM Career Services, treasurer, Board of Directors, NPA, and Mary Mitchell, president, The Mitchell Organization.

Postdocs can and should be to be trained to design their own career paths. Diverse sessions discussed designing a career through all the opportunities available including getting involved with local PDAs and PDOs, or volunteering for national organizations like the NPA. Ultimately there were too many amazing sessions to review them all. Suffice to say the NPA Annual Conference in 2018 was a great event in assessing, improving, and building a healthy postdoc ecosystem.


Simone Otto, PhD, is editor in chief of The POSTDOCket, and is currently a postdoctoral scholar at the National Institute of Environmental Health Science.


Ian’s Street, PhD is deputy editor of The POSTDOCket, and currently a virtual lab manager at HappiLabs, an editor at BotanyOne, and a science writer on his blog, The Quiet Branches.