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Society of Fellows Turns 50



Society of Fellows Turns 50

By Cindy Brauer

Now celebrating the gold of its 50-year anniversary, the Society of Fellows (SoF) on the California campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) has evolved over the decades to meet the changing needs of the postdoctoral community, while maintaining a commitment to enhancing the fellowship experience in an environment of outstanding research.

The society was founded not long after Frank Dixon and four fellow experimental pathologists—with seven research fellows—arrived at the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation, a forerunner of TSRI, in 1961 to pursue biomedical research in an environment unfettered by many administrative burdens. Dixon envisioned the postdoctoral forum as offering lectures in the spring and fall, featuring scientists known for paradigm-shifting research. The lectures, open to the public, were held in the evening at downtown La Jolla’s Sherwood Hall—but during the day, the guest scientists’ schedules belonged to TSRI’s postdoctoral fellows.

Face Time with Fellows

“Dixon was always adamant that guest scientists would spend the day with the fellows, not their research colleagues and friends,” recalls Michael B.A. Oldstone, who joined the Dixon lab as a postdoctoral fellow in 1966 and today is a professor in TSRI’s the Department of Immunology and Microbial Science.

Oldstone—who served as SoF president in 1967—and other fellows in those early SoF days could spend nearly hour-long sessions of one-on-one face time with their choice of renowned researchers. “It was a terrific experience,” says Oldstone. “These were people at the cutting edge of research, asking questions about your project and offering suggestions. And my impression was that they really enjoyed meeting with young scientists.”

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the SoF continued hosting the interchange between noted scientists and clinicians and the “young Turks” of TSRI’s postdoctoral ranks. Prominent names in biology, chemistry, medicine, microbiology, etc., from distinguished U.S. and international institutions appeared on lectureship programs, names such as Nobel laureates George Wald, Renato Dulbecco, Gobind Khorana and Gerald Edelman, plus acclaimed scientists the caliber of D.A. Henderson, who led the global effort to eradicate smallpox.

Broadening the Mission

In the 1980s and 1990s, SoF broadened its mission. While the lecture program, now often underwritten by corporate sponsors, continued to draw top-notch researchers (including Nobelists Julius Axelrod, Francis Crick, Thomas Cech, David Baltimore and Roger Tsien), SoF began to sponsor social events. The after-hours activities provided downtime relaxation for the growing group of research fellows, which by 1988, numbered more than 300. Friendships among members of different TSRI labs were built over SoF Happy Hours, a movie club, whale-watching trips, picnics, end-of-the summer dances and Halloween parties.

In 1987, the first Spring Research Symposium was held, showcasing postdoctoral and graduate student projects. The same year, the SoF committee amended the group’s charter, opening membership to students, former fellows and staff. In 1992, the SoF travel awards, grants to defray fellows’ costs to attend scientific conferences, were introduced and the Spring Symposium included its first vendor product exhibition. In 1997, a Fall Research Symposium was inaugurated, featuring invited keynote speakers as well as postdoctoral and student presentations.

As the TRSI research fellow population increased, so did SoF committee interest in careers beyond the fellowship. An initial job placement fair in 1993 grew over the next several years into a career development program, offering a widening array of workshops and trainings. In the 2000s, the program began reaching out to local industry leaders for workshops on nonacademic careers. An alternative career workshop in 2001 featured a patent agent and a science writer from the journal Nature. By 2005, the newly formed Office of Postdoctoral Services, managed by Ryan Wheeler, had begun partnering with SoF to expand the group’s career training efforts, which later would include a comprehensive Lab Management course developed with the Salk Institute and the University of California (UC), San Diego.

And, as Scripps Florida put down roots, SoF members helped launch a sister organization, the Scripps Florida Society of Research Fellows, on TSRI’s Jupiter, Florida campus.

‘A Privileged Partner’

Today, as current SoF President Sheena Saayman notes, the society’s principle goal remains—to enhance every postdoctoral fellow and graduate student experiences while at TSRI. The Distinguished Lecturer Series continues, as does the Fall Research Symposium, a wide variety of social events (from ski trips to cruises) and career development activities in coordination with the Office of Career and Postdoctoral Services. The annual spring TSRI Vendor Show, recently drawing more than 90 vendors showcasing the latest products, services and technologies for lab use, is the society’s chief fundraising vehicle to underwrite its activities.

Jack Scatizzi, 2009-2012 SoF president who will soon join biotech start-up investment firm Tech Coast Angels, believes the TSRI group has become a “model postdoctoral association for all other academic institutions.” He credits “overwhelming” institute support and previous SoF leaders who “had the foresight to be dynamic enough to continuously react to the ever-changing postdoctoral environment to keep the organization relevant.”

Other former SoF presidents and active members applaud the organization’s significance in not only scientific-focused activities, but also in interdisciplinary networking, building leadership and professional skills and creating often long-term friendships.

“In some ways, SoF events provided a social glue/network that made the campus more collegial,” recalls Adam Mullick, 2004-2006 president, currently associate director at Isis Pharmaceuticals. His SoF position taught him many lessons that built his confidence as a leader, such as facilitating consensus-building “in a highly opinionated and disparate bunch” and honing soft skills of persuasion.

SoF webmaster in the mid-2000s, Ron Nepomuceno was also president for a short time. He feels the society’s activities helped maintain a work-life balance, which “tends to lead to a more productive postdoc, benefitting all of the TSRI community.” Currently senior research scientist at Ambit Biosciences Corp. in San Diego, he also found SoF experiences enabled him to grow as a scientist and a person, improving his public speaking and organization skills and illustrating the value of networking with colleagues.

Olivier Harismendy, 2007-2008 president and now assistant professor of genome information sciences at the UC San Diego School of Medicine sums up the value of the 50-year-old SoF. While TSRI’s administration and the National Postdoc Associate provide general support, he says, “nothing will replace the benefits of a peer-centered and local organization like the SoF: no one knows and experiences the challenges specific to our postdoc community better than those who are a part of it. For that reason, SoF will remain a privileged partner for the TSRI administration and faculty to ensure the well-being and success of our community.”

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Current Society of Fellows President Sheena Saayman notes the group’s main goal has remained to enhance every postdoctoral fellow and graduate student’s experience at TSRI. (Photo by Cindy Brauer.)




SoF-sponsored activities include a research symposium that showcases postdoctoral and graduate student projects.






Social events organized by the SoF range from picnics to skiing, dances and kayaking.