Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

Curiosity, persistence, and balance are among the traits needed to get your career off to the right start.

Stories about endless postdocs, futile job searches, and an abundance of under- and unemployed recent graduates have life science graduate students questioning their career decisions and not looking forward to graduation. A recent article in GEN, “Job Squeeze Vexes Postdocs”, exposed the problem and presented several nonacademic solutions.

For those scientists who remain committed to securing academic employment, the following three success stories should buoy your spirits as well as provide some guidance on how to attain your goals.

Tiago Branco, M.D., Ph.D., winner of Eppendorf & Science’s 2011 Grand Prize in Neurology, observes that Ph.D.s need a great amount of enthusiasm and passion for what they do, especially if they’re afraid some research won’t work.

“You should only be a scientist if you really want to be a scientist. And you really need to want to be a scientist, and you really need to love what you do. Because it doesn’t pay well,” Dr. Branco told GEN. This month, he is launching his own lab at the U.K. Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology, after finishing last week his postdoctoral research associate post in the laboratory of Michael Hausser at the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research, at University College London.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge, Dr. Branco recalled, was his inability to get a paper published after his 3-1/2 year Ph.D. program, which made it hard for him to transition to the postdoc program let alone get a fellowship. “The way I got around that was because I had previously worked with my current postdoc advisor. We have worked together very well, and he invited me to come because he knew—he had faith in me.”

Dr. Branco says the experience taught him a valuable lesson: “What I learned is to pay more attention to all these timings, and have a very realistic view of what is needed to eventually make the next step; what is going to be required? Think four or five years in advance, and then work backwards from there so that you know where you should be in relation to your goal.”

All About Timing

“This is the main problem people face in sciences: it’s the timing. You need to get all the timings right, and you need to get the papers out at the right time of your career, before you go on to that next step of applying for money from wherever it is,” he added.

In his essay, “The Language of Dendrites,” Dr. Branco concluded that contrary to a seminal paper in 1943 by McCullough and Pitts, synapses are not made onto the cell body or soma, but onto dendrites that filter, transform, and compute thresholds of synaptic input and can, in theory, implement basic arithmetic operations by themselves.

He first became interested in dendrites during his Ph.D. work, when he wanted to learn more about why some synapses are very efficient in releasing neurotransmitters through which neurons communicate with each other, and why others aren’t.

“I found out that a single neuron could have synapses with very varied deficiencies, but there was a rule as to how those deficiencies were distributed. And it was that sinuses that were in the same dendrite have the same efficiency, so that dendrites seem to be dictating the efficiency of the neurotransmitter release,” Dr. Branco said.

Persistence Pays Off

“I think you just have to be persistent. Papers always get rejected, and your grants don’t get funded. You just run into challenges at every step of the way,” Aryn Gittis, Ph.D., of this year’s Eppendorf & Science winners, told GEN. “Everything relates to persistence. There are jobs out there. If you’re good, there are jobs out there. You have to keep working at it until you get that job.”

Dr. Gittis is an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition at Carnegie Mellon University. Her research focuses on the organization and function of neural circuits in the striatum, the largest part of the brain’s basal ganglia. Dysfunction of the basal ganglia is associated with diseases that include movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s and dystonia, psychiatric disorders such as OCD and depression, and various forms of addiction.

Her essay, “Striatal Interneurons: Causes or Cures for Movement Disorders?”, detailed her research on a group of neurons in the striatum region of the brain. She found that deficits in these neurons may cause alterations in the firing rate and patterns of neurons in patients with movement disorders.

“I’ve always been interested in neuroscience, and then kind of during my graduate career, I got interested in motor systems, which is what I study now. And then doing my postdoc kind-of cemented that interest in studies of circuits and Parkinson’s disease,” Dr. Gittis said.

She acknowledges that what allows many Ph.D.s to be persistent is a sense of enjoying their work: “I know a lot of people that also have gotten burned out because they were either didn’t have good balance—like they were just kind-of killing themselves trying to work, and then they weren’t having any fun, and that wasn’t good.”

Dealing with Uncertainties

This year’s Eppendorf & Science 2012 Grand Prize winner, Marlene R. Cohen, Ph.D., says two uncertainties pose a challenge to young scientists: the prospect of flat or reduced research funding from NIH, and even the uncertain nature of scientific research.

“When you’re an undergraduate taking classes, you have a bunch of very small attainable goals: You have to do this homework assignment or you have to pass this test. And when you start doing research, you start doing something that’s never been done before. Of course, that’s very exciting. But you also have no way of knowing how long it’s going to take, or whether it’s going to work at all,” Dr. Cohen said.

Dr. Cohen was set to study math as an undergraduate, until a captivating visiting lecturer from MIT got her thinking instead about doing something else. She followed up soon after with Matthew A. Wilson, Ph.D., Sherman Fairchild Professor of Neuroscience, Picower Scholar, and associate department head for education in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Dr. Wilson hired her for his lab, a three-year stint that led her to switch majors once she entered grad school.

“He [Dr. Wilson] focused on spatial navigation, how we find our way in the world. What I really liked about it, which is still one of the things I really like about my work now, is that it really tied the activity of groups of neurons to behavior, what we do in the world,” said Dr. Cohen, who is now assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience and the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition at the University of Pittsburgh.

“The problem is that spatial navigation was not so much for me because I have the world’s worst sense of direction. So I switched to studying vision,” Dr. Cohen told GEN.

Holding Their Attention

Not to mention switched to neuroscience. After graduate studies with William T. Newsome, Ph.D., at Stanford University, where she earned her Ph.D. in 2007, she did postdoctoral studies with John Maunsell at Harvard Medical School. There, Drs. Cohen and Maunsell focused on how fluctuations in attention affect the ability of animals to notice subtle changes in a visual scene; when minds wander, so, too, do their perceptual abilities.

Using rewards, Dr. Cohen and colleagues trained the animals to detect these changes on a computer screen. When their attention was focused on finding changes, they got 75% correct, but when their attention wandered, that percentage plunged to 10%. Researchers recorded 80 neurons simultaneously, allowing them to track the focus of attention over time.

Curiosity, persistence, and dealing with uncertainties are among the traits of top-level scientists, so it’s no surprise that these qualities also resonate in the Eppendorf & Science winners. Beyond maintaining research budgets and getting published, the winners’ most important challenge over time will be holding onto the qualities that earned them their Ph.D.s.

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