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.


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