PDA Corner—2012 Postdoc Retreat

by Asma Hatoum

At a quarter to six on a crisp September morning, eighty-five of us eager Rockefeller postdocs lined up at the main gate to board the buses that would whisk us out for the retreat. Along the way, the rising sun revealed clear blue skies—the forecast held to its promise. By eight-thirty, we had arrived at the Interlaken Inn in the beautiful Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. Scenic landscapes and lush gardens welcomed us and provided the perfect backdrop for the intense scientific and social exchange that would follow over the next two days (September 12-13).

Credit: Nicolas Renier

We gathered under a sun-lit pavilion to attend the symposium, during which we heard a variety of research talks from fourteen fellow postdocs. These ranged from hair cell regeneration to DNA replication, and from RNA interference to Babel fish, and more. The talks were delivered professionally and spoke to the high caliber of research being conducted at Rockefeller. All of the talks were well received and generated plenty of discussion.

The highlight of the first day was the panel discussion, led by our faculty guests. Joining us from Rockefeller, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, along with Mary Beth Hatten and Sohail Tavazoie, sat on the panel with our Keynote speaker, hailing from Harvard, Pamela Silver. The discussion was packed with valuable insight on topics highly relevant to postdocs: open access, the power and perils of peer review, tips on publishing well, and the evaluation of faculty candidates from the perspective of the search committee. A good part of the discussion revolved around postdocs’ concerns with publishing in Science, Nature or Cell, and how our publication record impacts our ability to land a faculty position in today’s job market. We were met with reassurance and some solid advice:

“Committees look beyond headlines,” says President Tessier-Lavigne. “How interesting is the proposal? How interesting is the individual?” According to him, one-third of this year’s Rockefeller job candidates did not have Cell, Nature, or Science publications. Three components are integrated when evaluating a candidate: publications, reference letters, and the research proposal. “The proposal is very important. It needs to be exciting.”

“It’s not the end of the world if you cannot publish in top tier journals,” reassures Tavazoie. He knows many people who did not publish in top tier journals, yet got great jobs. His advice: do the best science you can and then write it well. “We need to be realistic, set a timeline, send it to a journal, and then move on.”

“It’s extremely important to call the editor before sending in the paper, or craft a great letter,” adds Hatten. “Sometimes you have to fight to get your papers into the journal. Stay focused on the work and the joy it gives you. Don’t let any of the comments get you down.”

“We should not be held hostage to any peer review process,” Silver advises. “Remember that the purpose is to communicate science. Period.” She encourages us to think of new models for peer review. “We need to be at the forefront of that change.”

As one alternate model, the new online journal eLife was discussed. eLife is an initiative launched by the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Max Planck Society. It aims to have a fair and transparent review process entirely run by scientists, a quick turnaround time, and an impact factor to be on par with Cell, Nature, and Science. All of the panelists seemed enthusiastic and supportive of eLife.

The afternoon of stimulating discussion was followed by an evening full of festivities: a banquet dinner, a bonfire by the lake with hot cocoa and s’mores, and a dance party! Many of us were on the dance floor till well past midnight.

On the second morning, Pamela Silver delivered her Keynote address titled, “Designing Biological Systems.” One of the founding members of the Harvard Department for Systems Biology, Silver presented a series of vignettes in this relatively new field based on the ongoing research in her own lab. She spoke of designing yeast cells that can remember and report past exposure to DNA damage; engineering non-photosynthetic bacteria that can fix CO2; designing bacteria that can produce hydrogen, a potentially valuable fuel source; and engineering cyanobacteria that can use sunlight to produce large quantities of useful commodities such as sugar and gasoline. “Cells are better chemists than we are,” Silver asserts. One of the aims of Systems Biology is to take advantage of the modularity of biological systems (i.e. genes and operons) to assemble pathways that produce a desired outcome in a cost-effective and reproducible way. Systems Biology applications have enormous potential benefits, and Silver’s research is a testament to that fact.

By the second afternoon, we were all ready for a well-deserved break. The afternoon agenda: rest, relaxation, and recreation! The temperature held in the upper 70s—needless to say, we made full use of the hiking trails and the lake. Our retreat ended with an outdoor barbecue under the setting sun. Although our trip home wore well into the evening, the buses were filled with invigorated postdocs and lively conversations.

November 2012