From Postdocs to Principal Investigators

By Corey Moran

Armed with nothing but an Expo marker, white board, and quick wits, Postdoctoral candidates wishing to effloresce into full-fledged scientists, have only 20 minutes in front of a panel of distinguished faculty to showcase their scientific acumen and outline an entire career’s worth of research goals. Infamously known by the colloquial name “Chalk Talk”, this informal yet demanding presentation requires the distillation of complex scientific research, effective and engaging communication, as well approachability and flexibility; all without the convenience or assistance of technology. What may seem like a daunting task is actually a very typical and crucial aspect of the interviewing process for aspiring scientists. Mastery over this 20 minute scientific gauntlet becomes a pivotal step in the career path of a Postdoc, progressing from novice trainee to adept scientist.

The jump from Postdoctoral Research Fellow to a tenured professorship, is a notoriously arduous transition. Due to an abundance of post Ph.D. trainees (Postdocs), dwindling university tenure availability and the current, competitive academic climate, this transition is certainly one of the most formidable obstacles facing those that aspire to one day become a Principal Investigator (PI). Despite the difficulty, determined researchers stave off discouragement to pursue the exceptional opportunity to one day lead their own lab and conduct their own research.

To achieve this monumental goal, Postdocs must first complete a rigorous interviewing process consisting of: a formal, typically hour long, well-attended lecture centered around their research projects, rife with data, charts and scientific figures; the informal and intimate “Chalk Talk” given to a small panel of research faculty; as well as personal interviews with several scientists in the department. Developing the skills necessary to command each of the three unique interview types, is essential in order to quickly become a standout candidate. Training and conferring those critical skills to its Postdocs, MPFI’s recently formed Postdoctoral Association, is helping them conquer and excel in all facets of the interview process.

Assisting Postdocs in attaining their career goals is something that Dr. Paul Evans, Post-Doctoral Fellow and President of the MPFI Postdoc Association, considers to be a critically important role of the organization. He comments that since its inception, “The association has developed unique programs that are in place to foster a community among MPFI Postdocs and help acquire professional development skills that will prepare them for the next steps in a career in science.” Vital Initiatives like practice “Chalk Talks”, monthly journal clubs, and scientific presentation/ writing workshops are extremely advantageous opportunities for Postdocs to gain familiarity and practice with interviewing. Two talented, former Postdocs at MPFI noted in particular, that active participation in the Postdoc association enabled them to become successful in the interview process.

Drs. Won Chan Oh and Gordon Smith have recently traversed the transition between trainee and independent scientist, joining the faculty of distinguished universities and paving the way for future MPFI Postdocs. Dr. Oh, a former Postdoc in the Kwon Lab, joined the University of Colorado Denver, Department of Neuroscience as an assistant professor. In his new lab, Oh will build upon his previous work at MPFI in the Kwon lab, studying the role of neurotransmitters and neuromodulators in developing neuronal circuitry using highly advanced imaging. Dr. Smith, a former Postdoc in the Fitzpatrick Lab, is now an assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Minnesota. Like Dr. Oh, Dr. Smith will incorporate the cutting-edge imaging techniques he learned and refined at MPFI to take a deeper look into the functional networks of the visual system in order to better elucidate how the brain processes vision.

Actualizing their dreams of becoming PIs, Drs. Oh and Smith demonstrate that though difficult, even the dreaded “Chalk Talk” portion of the scientific interview is unmistakably conquerable with the right amount of practice, preparation and dedication. MPFI’s Postdoc Association is doing just that, helping to facilitate the future success of its members.


Above picture: From left to right: Dr. Won Chan Oh, and Dr. Hyungabe Kwon