California Pacific Currents 2003
Becoming a Scientist: Navigating This Road Is a Labor of Love
Some PhDs recall their post-doc years nostalgically—a reprieve between the long haul to their doctorate and the heavy responsibilities as the head of a lab. It is a time for new scientists to dedicate themselves wholesale to bench research. The medical advances of the past few decades, however, have accelerated the rigor and pace of scientific inquiry. Science has grown increasingly complex, demanding longer study. According to a 1999 article in Science, biochemistry graduates spend an average of 3.8 years in post-doctoral training, after nearly six years in graduate school. During this same period of time, large numbers of post-docs have entered into graduate study without an equal number of jobs in academia awaiting them at completion of their training. These factors have left many post-docs in a holding pattern between apprenticeship and a position as a funded principal investigator.
Post-doctoral training is the proving ground of a researcher’s worthiness for coveted positions at major research institutions. Not surprisingly, doing high-quality research that is published in prestigious journals weighs heavily in the fierce competition for these prime appointments. Taking the low road with a “safe” research program can yield reliable, but lackluster, experimental results. On the other hand, taking risks in scientific exploration can pay off big—with a major finding and a secure future—or be a bust. The very best scientists possess a skill, an insight, or perhaps even an intuition, that guides them in selecting research areas with promise. Success also relies upon having a good mentor, to pilot a post-doc from apprentice to independent researcher.
Post-doc Training at California Pacific Medical Center
At California Pacific, post-docs work under the guidance of some of the best researchers. Their mentorship has been a driving force for many in the decision to train at California Pacific. One
post-doc explains, “I learned as a graduate student the importance of a good advisor. I changed labs midway through my PhD because of conflicts with my graduate thesis advisor, despite the fear that this defection would compromise my future in science. Confidence in my advisor at California Pacific played a major role in my post-doctoral choice.” A seasoned post-doc of nine years confirms this experience: “Because of a poor post-doc advisor relationship combined with a difficult project at my first lab, I almost quit science! Here at California Pacific, my project is progressing well and my advisor is excellent. I only wish,” she adds, “that I had started out with this advisor after my PhD. I lost precious years.”
The feeling is mutual among faculty. Robert Debs, MD, Senior Scientist, appreciates the quality of post-docs at California Pacific. “As a whole, our post-doc pool is comparable to leading universities.” The more personal environment of California Pacific helps foster post-doc training. “In fact, the most outstanding post-docs with whom I have worked have been here at California Pacific.”
Driven by the pressure to publish laboratory results, Dr. Debs describes the mentoring relationship as a delicate balance. “There is a dynamic tension implicit in mentoring. On the one hand, you need to push the science forward; on the other, you need to invest in the professional development of the post-doc. You have to train members of the lab to scrutinize their experimental rationale, teach grant writing skills, assist in the preparation of presentations, and referee the review of manuscripts. The most difficult to impart, however, is the leap to think in terms of critical analysis. Students of science have to become a scientific Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot to excel at solving experimental problems.”
The post-doc mix at California Pacific breeds its own momentum. Mark Hayes, PhD, a post-doc in physical chemistry, enjoys the collaboration he finds here. “Combining talents with post-docs from diverse areas of study allows us to be innovative in designing new and multidisciplinary therapies, such as gene therapy.” Dr. Hayes explains, “In physical chemistry, for example, we characterize the properties of lipids.” Lipids are fats that naturally form waterproof vesicles and can be used to carry certain types of drugs. “In this case, we work with the developers of the drug application to alter the lipid formulation to suit its intended biological uses.”
The Price of Passion
“The major downside of being a post-doc is that success means little life outside the lab,” shares Sylvia Fong, PhD, who is completing a post-doc in cancer research and gene therapy at California Pacific. Lynn Weir, PhD, another post-doc in cancer research, weighs the pros and cons of life as a post-doc: “Low salary and high constraints on time compound the inevitable stress and frustration when experiments fail. Research simply does not leave much time for family, relaxation, or hobbies. This puts strains on relationships. In my case, my partner is also a post-doc, so we have to make a lot of compromises to support the two careers equally. The long hours, geo-graphical rearrangements, and instability of job options are also not very conducive to raising a family.”
In response, post-docs are now mobilizing in many institutions to improve matters by reviewing employment contracts or opening childcare facilities. While certain considerations, such as the need for geographical relocations and overall pressures in the job market, are beyond the reach of any single institution, California Pacific periodically reviews its benefit structure to do its part. David Fielder, Vice President Research, explains, “California Pacific has both a history and a culture of providing post-docs with many of the benefits of regular employees. Post-docs receive full health benefits, for example, and we ensure that salaries keep pace with national standards.”
The Lure of the Unknown
Despite the demands, aspirants are unwaveringly devoted to their scientific pursuits. The relationship forged with their project becomes personal. With its highs and lows, complexities and perplexities, the work can simultaneously be a bedfellow and an adversary, driving one to constant preoccupation. Take the 3 a.m. bolt upright, an “Ah-hah!” to a research quagmire that interrupts even the soundest sleep.
Dr. Fong explains, “I find it incredibly rewarding to devise ways to explore the unknown. Science is one field that allows me to do that.” Dr. Weir is quick to agree. “Scientific research satisfies a burning curiosity that I have to discover new things and solve mysteries. I also find it gratifying that what my experiments uncover contri-butes one element in finding a cure for cancer.” With each new piece of the puzzle that scientists unravel, there is a ripple effect of new questions to be conquered. Researchers enjoy a constant stream of novelty, stimulation, and challenge.
The carrot for approximately half of the post-docs is the opportunity to vie for a tenured faculty position. Many of the remainder ride the wave of uncertainty, reserving judgment about their own futures. “I do not want the stresses of running an academic lab or time away from the bench to write grants,” shares one post-doc. Industry once presented an alternative with greater security and relief from endless grant writing. Life as an industrial scientist, however, comes with a sacrifice: the loss of the privilege to direct independent research.
“As for the future,” reflects Dr. Fong, “I think that I will follow my heart, whether to become an independent researcher, go into industry, teach full time, or, perhaps, pursue a law degree to practice drug patent law. My ideal would be to do what I enjoy the most—scientific inquiry—but with decent pay, a life after 5 p.m., and no more worries about the future. That would be grand.”