By Erin Walsh, PhD
In today’s research climate, obtaining a tenure-track research position can seem impossible to many postdocs. A surplus of academic scientists, declines in research funding paylines, and growing competition to publish in high-level journals are just a few of the obstacles that have exploded in magnitude since the previous generation of scientists were on the job market.
Over a discussion about academic careers last fall, Dr. Yvette Pittman, Director of the NICHD Office of Education, brought to my attention a Comment article that had recently been published in Nature. In the article, Dr. Ben A. Barres, former Professor of Neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine and long-standing advocate for equality in science, makes a strong argument in favor of project sharing between principal investigators and postdocs leaving to start their own labs. Though a controversial topic among some investigators, he argued that the practice of project sharing is essential for young scientists to succeed in this competitive research world.
Dr. Barres’ article emphasizes that the “short tenure clock” makes it extremely difficult to succeed if a tenure-track scientist must start research in an entirely different field or projects from scratch. He expressed that preventing project sharing causes young investigators to be pitted against established labs, and harms science just as monopolies harm the economy.
But like us postdocs, PIs are passionate about their science and have their own professional goals. Perhaps they are striving to become the top scientist in their field or envision winning a Nobel Prize. Some PIs are also concerned that they would be harming science if their established lab stopped working on a groundbreaking project. Indeed, new investigators typically start out with far fewer resources compared to what their mentors have right at their fingertips, so projects will likely progress at a slower pace.
Dr. Gisela “Gigi” Storz, an NICHD Distinguished Investigator, was kind enough to meet with me and provide her perspective on this issue. When starting out as an investigator, Dr. Storz was able to take her postdoctoral projects with her to launch her new lab. Since then, she has carried forward a proactive mentoring style with her own trainees.
Dr. Storz agrees with Dr. Barres that preventing project sharing creates additional obstacles, which can drive young researchers out of science entirely. For Dr. Storz, it can be sad to see certain projects leave her lab and perhaps not progress as quickly as she would like. But for her, the pay-off she experiences is the pride that comes with having her former postdocs succeed.
Dr. Storz feels there is often a dichotomy between personal mentoring goals and the objective metrics being used to define a PI’s productivity. Throughout her career, Dr. Storz has prioritized hiring, training, and mentoring individuals who come from backgrounds with little to no prior research experience. Doing so serves the scientific community at large, and yet it can come as a sacrifice to a PI who devotes extra time and resources towards training the less experienced.
I also had the opportunity to discuss project sharing with the NIGMS Director, Dr. Jon Lorsch. Dr. Lorsch supports the practice of project sharing but adds an interesting caveat to the discussion: though project sharing is nearly essential for junior investigators to succeed, this type of scientific culture is limiting the potential for exploration and discovery. Often the metrics used by faculty hiring committees and study sections align with candidates whose projects are within the field of their PIs, because established work makes proposed work seem more feasible. As a result, biomedical research has become a field in which feasibility is valued above novelty and exploration.
Dr. Lorsch’s views on this topic are also discussed in his blog post “Moving Further Afield” (2016), which can be found within the NIGMS Feedback Loop Blog. Interestingly, he points out that within the chemical sciences, junior faculty are expected to develop projects that are independent from their postdoctoral work and therefore usually in a completely new area of study. From this, he asks if movement toward this type of “sociology” would “accelerate the pace of discovery” within biomedical research.
As a current postdoc, I am left wondering how we can find a sense of control over our career trajectories. The reality is that biomedical research exists in a highly competitive state and it’s not practical to expect dramatic changes over night. From Dr. Barres’ article and my discussions with Drs. Storz and Lorsch, I find that the common thread is communication.
In his article, Dr. Barres suggests asking potential mentors outright about their project sharing policies. Indeed, most PIs do have their own policies in place, but postdocs might not at first realize the impact it could have on their careers, or are afraid to ask. Both Drs. Storz and Lorsch discussed with me the value they place on maintaining open communication with their trainees about their career goals. Unfortunately, not every PI is as forthcoming a mentor. As postdocs, we must therefore encourage each other to be our own advocates and to actively discuss our career goals and training needs.
In describing their personal mentoring styles, it was clear to me that both Drs. Storz and Lorsch aim for a balance between project sharing and scientific exploration by encouraging their postdocs to develop their own ideas as their scientific training progresses. Through this mentoring style, junior investigators can further promote scientific discovery.
Within the larger biomedical research community, it seems to me that there needs to be a movement towards rewarding the search for scientific breakthrough while also increasing the merit given to mentoring. In our conversation, Dr. Lorsch informed me of two NIH funding mechanisms designed to promote discovery through higher risk project proposals: The NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (DP2), and Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA). However, both require that applicants are already investigators.
To promote this at the trainee level, Dr. Lorsch suggests that study sections for training awards, like the F32 predoctoral and K99 postdoctoral training grants, should give greater merit to applicants who incorporate novel ideas in their proposals. Combined with Dr. Barres’ suggestion that funding agencies consider an investigator’s training track record, perhaps this is a step in the right direction.
Dr. Barres began his award-winning research program at Stanford University School of Medicine in 1993 and was highly praised for his work on glial cells. Sadly, during the writing of this article, Dr. Barres passed away in December of 2017 after battling pancreatic cancer. He leaves behind a legacy as not only an outstanding scientist, but also an advocate who used his platform to promote equality, especially gender equality, in science.