Science Talk:
Conversations with Postdocs

I long
To hear the story of your life, which must
Take the ear strangely

———William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Of all the groups here at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) the largest and most diverse by far is that of research fellows (a.k.a. postdocs). There are about 800 postdocs here—scientists who come from universities and laboratories all over the world, and, for a few years, make TSRI and San Diego their home.

News&Views writer Jason Bardi randomly selected 12 postdocs and asked them what brought them here, how they view TSRI and California, and where they plan to go afterwards.

These are their stories.


Stephen Demarest

I was in the Chemistry Department at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. I was pretty independent as a graduate student, but I am a lot more independent here. [As a postdoc], you almost entirely direct your own research, which is pretty cool. I like that.

[Chair of TSRI’s Department of Molecular Biology] Peter Wright has the best NMR facility in the nation, if not the world. The instruments have so much more capability than most standard NMR instruments. [The department] has four 600-MHz machines, three 500MHz machines, a 750, an 800, and soon we’ll have a 900-MHz machine. This group is the largest user by far. I’d say we use 50 to 70 percent. I already knew a little about NMR before I got here. In Peter’s group, I’ve learned a lot more. There are a lot of experts here. So, the opportunity to do cool stuff was the biggest driving factor that brought me here. San Diego’s pretty nice, too.

I’ve thought a lot about going into academics. I like teaching and the freedom of academics, but I don’t like how in academia you have to do everything at once. It’s hard to teach and do research both. I like research, so I think I’ll try to find a job in industry.

Roberto De Guzman

I was a graduate student in the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) under Mike Summers. Before I even graduated, I had an idea that I wanted to be here. Scripps is very well known in the NMR community, and that's the reason I came. Because of Peter Wright, especially. He has a track record of placing people in academic positions all over the U.S.

I drove from Baltimore to San Diego—twice. I left my wife in College Park for six months and then I flew back and picked her up. The first time I did it was in winter, and I passed through Amarillo. That was a horrible experience. There was a winter storm, and they don’t clean the roads. I saw some plows, but they were three inches above the road. I’ll never pass through there in wintertime again.

My goal is to get a faculty position at a research university in NMR spectroscopy. Maybe I’ll apply this coming fall, but if not, next year. It takes about three years in our field for a postdoc to get a position.

My son was born here. He first walked on the beach at La Jolla Shores. I’ll always remember that.


Helen Mitchell

My situation is a little unusual because I actually was with [Chemistry Chair] K.C. [Nicolaou] as a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego. Part of my time was over there and the rest was over here. I finished in March of last year [and stayed on]. Same bench. Different projects.

I could have left immediately after I finished, but my fiancee and I at the time were not ready to decide which side of the country to go to. We decided to wait eight months and interview at the same time and end up in the same city. For the most part, it has worked out. He’s going to Princeton, and I’m going to Merck at West Point, north of Philadelphia. They are about 45 minutes apart.

As a graduate student, I did the total synthesis of everninomicin. I worked on two different projects during my postdoc year. One was a combinatorial chemistry project, very different than what I did as a grad student. What I’m doing now is total synthesis [of another natural product], which has a different chemistry than what I am used to. We’re getting pretty close on that one.



Duncan Clarke

I did my Ph.D. in England, at Cambridge University, Fitzwilliam College, in mammalian somatic genetics. I was looking around for a postdoc, and my graduate supervisor at the time advised me to try to come to the United States, because it would be easier to get a job later on having worked here. I wanted to get a different set of techniques during the postdoc, which was one of the reasons I came here.

I met [Professor] Steve Reed at a cell biology meeting in Edinburgh. There was a poster competition at the meeting and I ended up winning. Steve was one of the judges, and it gave me a reason to write to him. So it worked out—we corresponded a little bit, and I ended up coming here.

I’m one of about four people in this lab who are looking for jobs. I’m interested in a faculty position, and I’ve been looking at the U.K. and at various positions over here. Right now the most likely option is the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis. I’m going out there, actually, next week for a second visit.

I met my fiancée here. Playing basketball, actually. She was a tech in immunology at the time. We’re getting married in October.


Dana Abramovitz

I was in Graduate school at Columbia [University]. I wanted to be an RNA structural biologist. I worked with RNA as a graduate student doing structure–function studies, and I wanted to do a similar thing as a post-doc, but to include proteins. I wanted to work with Jamie Williamson. I met him at an RNA meeting. I liked that Jamie didn’t just study the structure of something or just study the biology of something, but he incorporated both in order to get the real picture.

I was living in Manhattan, in the upper West side. It was in Harlem, actually. 122nd street. Moving here was hard. I didn’t drive before coming here, and then I had to buy a car and get comfortable driving. That was scary.


Nicolas Eric Faucher

I came from Paris 11 University in France to [Professor] Dale Boger’s lab three months ago. I [applied for a postdoctoral fellowship] because of Scripps’ reputation and because the research conduced in this group was pretty nice. I sent many letters around the world, and I got several responses, including from here. So I came here. Nothing more.

What’s next? It depends on the employment in France. Academic? Why not—it’s something I like! But why not an industrial position? It depends. There are no jobs in France, so I will take whatever I get. The government in France has not helped research. No funding. It’s getting better and better now, so maybe in two years it will be nice—I hope.

The weather is fine compared to Paris, of course. There it’s rainy. Horrible. Sad.

The last thing I remember about Paris was that we had a party, with all my friends, to celebrate my Ph.D. and to celebrate that I solved my structure. The first thing I remember here is that when I first arrived, I had many things in my luggage. My tennis racquet, my roller blades, et cetera. A guy from here, a postdoc, was helping me at the airport, and he said, “What are you going to do with that here?”

I said, "This is California! I can rollerblade, I can play tennis..."

"No," he said. "No, we work every day." And it’s true.

Claudia Averbuj

I have been here for two years. I finished my Ph.D. in Israel at Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology. I wanted to have the experience doing research in one of the most famous places in the world where the research is really [conducted] at a high level.

I came with my husband and two kids. We were at a hotel for seven days while we were trying to find an apartment. I started to work a few days after that. My husband came here and his company in Israel organized a job for him here.

My husband is American, so this job was also an opportunity to be in America and to know a different place. I wanted to see if this could be a country for us. And we like it here, so we’re planning to stay. I am now looking for a job. Biotechnology companies, probably.


Patrick Hildbrand

Before I came here, I was finishing my M.D. in Switzerland, at the University of Berne. During medical school I was always working in a lab, doing all these little things. My mentor back then knew my P.I. I met [Associate Professor] Dan [Salomon] once at a meeting, and we talked a little bit. I was always interested in science, especially in basic science. I think it’s important for an M.D. to have knowledge of basic science.

I’ve been here for two and a half years. I will stay here six more months and then do my internship and residency, then I will go back to academic research.

The last thing I remember about Switzerland is saying goodbye to my family at the airport and all that stuff. Hugs and kisses, see you soon, and take care. Father and mother telling me, "Look out that you eat regularly." But my wife was coming with me, so it was OK.

I like the weather and the beaches and the people here. Open minded. I like the mentality here. Everybody is working hard, but it also has this other side, this relaxed side. It’s really nice.


David A. Ellis

Before I came here, I did a Ph.D. with David Hart at Ohio State in synthetic organic chemistry. I wanted to broaden my scientific background a little bit. I’m really interested in rational drug design—chemistry with a medicinal spin—looking at the functionality of the molecule with regard to its biological activity and trying to understand the relationship between the two. [In other words], how its biological activity is derived through its functionality. Dr. Boger does that in his lab. I’m studying an analogue of an anti-tumor antibiotic.

I’ve been here a little over a year. I packed everything into a U-Haul and drove out here dragging my car behind. It was insane.

My plans are to go into industry. Big Pharma. I would prefer to go to a big pharmaceutical company rather than a start-up.


Thomas Paul Jahn

I came in April of last year. This is my second postdoc. I did one for three and a half years in Denmark. I met [Associate Professor] Jeff [Harper] in Copenhagen when he came to visit. He was the attraction for me, rather than Scripps. Eventually, I will go back to Europe, probably Denmark, to do research and teaching at a university.

The last thing I remember about Denmark is the rain. It was a rainy day. We got our heat shock in Texas-Houston-where we changed planes in the middle of the night.

My impression of the area of science here in the United States: everything is going pretty much into proteomics and high-throughput screening. That has been the most striking difference to me from Europe, where we are still used to working on particular problems on single proteins. Here everything is designed to immediately attack hundreds of proteins.


Felizabel Garcia

I completed my Ph.D. graduate work at Loma Linda University in the Center for Perinatal Biology, which focused on the fetal coronary vasculature. After finishing up a summer project there, I came to The Scripps Research Institute for my postdoctoral fellowship.

Two important factors that influenced my decision to choose Scripps were: 1) TSRI had a vascular biology department with prominent scientists and 2) my family and fiancée are here in San Diego. I looked on the web and saw the different descriptions of the science going on here at Scripps, and I knew I wanted to come here. I was particularly interested in the research in [Associate Professor] Lindsey Miles’ lab, which focused on the regulation of plasminogen, a key component of the fibrinolytic system. I've been at Scripps for 18 months and I enjoy working with my PI and mentor, Dr. Lindsey Miles.

Adrian Huber

I arrived last June. I was finishing my Ph.D. in Zurich at ETH. I was in the biology field as well. Phage display technology. Before that I was at the University of Zurich, where I finished my M.D. My childhood was in the Swiss countryside, in Lucerne.

People are more friendly here than in the bigger towns in Switzerland. Not the countryside—people are friendly there as well. Here people say, "Hello" wherever you go. And they probably don’t even want to know how you are doing, but they ask you at least. I like it very much here. Americans are more prudish than European people, but something like Mardi Gras you would never see in Europe. All the flashing.

The last thing I remember about Switzerland? I was in such a hurry. I should have told my boss my job here started one month earlier. I had to pack everything. We brought everything we didn’t take here to the grandparents. I got married one month before we left. I had to write my thesis and defend it that month. And I baptized my son two weeks before we left.

I wanted to go to a good protein engineering group. I had seen the papers of Dr. [Carlos] Barbas, and they looked pretty good. So I wrote Carlos about a position. There was some interest, and he wrote me back, "Just apply." Everything went very easily and very fast.




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