Starting Your Postdoc Hunt: When and How to Prepare

Posted By: Rohit Thakur, Marie Sklodowska-Curie research fellow, University of Leeds, United Kingdom

“What are your plans after PhD”? – one of the most daunting and stressful questions often asked to graduate students. For many pursuing a career in academia, the obvious next step is a postdoctoral position.

The ideal time to start applying for postdocs is one year away from your graduation. At the beginning of the final year of my PhD, I made a list of institutes to explore. Based on this list, I directly contacted the principal investigators (PIs) whose work I found really exciting. After hearing back from them, I arranged a meeting with them to learn about their research. This provided a wonderful opportunity to network and establish professional relationships with them.

I also found the Conference to Career chat sessions with field experts extremely useful. At one of the sessions, Prof. Fred Winston shared very useful tips on setting criteria for choosing a postdoc lab, such as quality of mentorship, success rate of previous postdocs in academia, and publication rate of the lab. If you start early you are more likely to end up with multiple offers by the time you finish your PhD.

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Mr. Thakur discusses his poster presentation with Martin Lauss, PhD, Lund University, at the 2017 Joint GenoMEL/BioGenoMEL/MELGEN Scientific Meeting (courtesy Mr. Thakur)

Don’t Underestimate Geography

Starting a postdoc hunt can be overwhelming, given the numerous places a graduate student can potentially apply to. It can become easier if you can think about where (geographically) you would like to do a postdoc. After identifying a region, you just have to locate the productive labs that do the science that you find exciting.

Network, Network, Network!

If you are going to a conference, write to PIs beforehand whose work you find interesting. Network with them by inviting them to your poster and follow up with them afterward.

Start Your Application Early

Visit lab websites of PIs who you are interested in working with and pay close attention to the lab’s current interests required skills for postdocs. Use this time to develop a skill that will increase your visibility as a potential candidate. Write PIs an informal query about potential postdoc positions to PIs, including your CV and cover letter, and get your material proofread by your mentor and colleagues.

Get Your PhD Research Paper Ready to Submit

Showcasing your PhD research is a great way to convince future PIs about your skills and your ability to lead a project independently. If you have a paper ready to be submitted to a journal, get its preprint out on bioRxiv and mention it on your CV.

Seek Advice and Feedback

If you are contacting a field expert, openly ask for feedback and advice about your current research project. This is a great way to interact and establish professional relationships with PIs.

Finally, get out of your comfort zone. Aim higher but be realistic. Keep applying until you land an offer from your dream lab. I would also recommend attending the ASHG/JAX Conference to Career Program for honing your networking skills.

Acknowledgments: I am highly thankful to my supervisors Jenny Barrett, PhD; Julia Newton-Bishop, MD, MBChB, FMedSci; Jeremie Nsengimana, PhD; and Göran Jönsson, PhD, for their exceptional mentorship; and European Commission Horizon 2020 program for funding my PhD.

Rohit Thakur, B. Tech, is a PhD Candidate at the University of Leeds. He has been an ASHG member since 2017.

 

Bringing Us Closer to Understanding Health and Disease at an Individual Level

Guest Post: Ed Ramos, PhD, All of Us Research Program

The National Institutes of Health supports groundbreaking research and biomedical studies that seek to enhance and improve health. On May 6, it took a big step in pushing the envelope further by launching the All of Us Research Program.

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Edward Ramos, PhD, All of Us Research Program, NIH (courtesy Dr. Ramos)

Currently, people joining the program will have the choice to answer questions about their demographics, overall health, and lifestyle behaviors. Participants will also be asked, but not required, to authorize access to their electronic health record data, which is a significant source of clinical information about a person’s health history. We have established an expanding network of clinic sites around the country where some participants will be invited to give physical measurements and biospecimens for future assays and research. The program plans to begin genotyping and sequencing participant DNA next year.

All this data will be stripped of obvious identifiers and made available to researchers, who could range from students and citizen scientists to established investigators. They’ll have to apply to access the information and abide by a data use agreement. Also, participants will be able to access their own data and see how researchers are using it. All of Us is building the data resource now and expects it to be open for research in 2019. The resource should grow quickly as data from electronic health records, genetic analyses, wearables, and other sources are added.

The All of Us Research Program recognizes that the information participants are providing is personal and sensitive, and security and privacy are of the highest importance to the program. The program is working hard to establish and maintain a secure infrastructure that supports a participant-focused recruitment and enrollment process. For example, the program has implemented security features that meet rigorous federal standards for protecting and securing data.

So what is my role in all of this? As someone who has spent several years exploring human genetic variation as it relates to disease and drug response, I would love to be on the receiving end of all this data! I play an equally exciting part in All of Us as the program director of The Participant Center, which manages overall operations for All of Us’s “direct volunteer” enrollment across the country. The Participant Center has established a phenomenal set of national partners, such as Walgreens, Blue Cross Blue Shield, WebMd, and Fitbit. These partners are helping expand our national reach for clinic sites, developing national and local marketing and outreach strategies, and exploring data collection through various digital health technologies.

While my research interests align with All of Us’s scientific vision, I always find myself most attracted to this program for personal reasons. I lost my father to pulmonary fibrosis, helped my mother control her diabetes, and have stayed up many nights trying to alleviate my son’s asthma. Perhaps it’s safe to say that many of us, maybe even all of us, have similar stories. I’m honored to be a part of something that could potentially bring us one step closer to better understanding health and disease at an individual level.

Edward Ramos, PhD, is a member of the All of Us Research Program at the National Institutes of Health. He has a PhD in Molecular Biotechnology and was the 2006-2007 ASHG-NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellow.

DNA Day Wins ASAE Power of A Award

Posted By: Mona Miller, ASHG Executive Director

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We are pleased to share that our National DNA Day Essay Contest has received an ASAE Power of A Silver Award. These awards recognize a select number of organizations annually that distinguish themselves with innovative, effective, and broad-reaching programs that positively impact the United States and the world.

ASHG’s DNA Day Essay Contest began in 2005 and is open to students in grades 9-12 around the world. Participants are encouraged to work with their teacher to write a 750-word essay responding to the year’s question. The question is selected with the goal of pushing students to examine, question, and reflect on important concepts in genetics, which are not normally covered in a typical high school biology curriculum. The goal of the question is for students to expand their knowledge of human genetics and to use evidence-based critical thinking in their response.

The contest has grown from around 300 essay submissions in its first years to over a thousand submissions in 2018. This year, ASHG received essays from 43 U.S. states and 23 countries who explored how genetics is informing, shaping, and changing our lives, after which more than 350 ASHG members evaluated the results for accuracy, creativity, and writing.

The contest also engages our members, who act as reviewers and judges for the contest, in an activity that ties them to public outreach and creating the next generation of geneticists. Each year, around 500 members volunteer for this rewarding and worthwhile experience.

The DNA Day Essay Contest has become a signature of ASHG and we are proud of the high number of participants and member volunteers, the satisfaction of our volunteers, and the chance to expand students’ education of human genetics.  We are thrilled to have been recognized for this long-standing program that is an embodiment of ASHG engagement and creativity.

A big thank you to all teachers, students, and member volunteers who have participated over the years!

 

ASHG Affirms Essential Role of International Travel, Global Participation for Scientific Advancement

Posted By: David L. Nelson, 2018 President

In light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the White House’s 2017 Executive Order limiting travel for citizens of select nations, I want to affirm, on behalf of the membership of our Society, that we remain committed to the knowledge that research in the U.S. benefits greatly from the presence and full participation of international researchers in laboratories around the country and world.

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ASHG noted in our March 2017 statement opposing the ban that nearly one-third of  members reside outside the U.S., and that cross-pollination of ideas across borders is essential for sparking new avenues of inquiry and establishing partnerships. The diversity of experience, perspective, and expertise that comes from a globally connected research community moves science forward, and that benefits all of us. As 2017 ASHG president Nancy Cox noted so eloquently at the time, as geneticists, “we are all students of human variation and we value – indeed, celebrate – the diversity that has contributed to our survival as a species.”

We affirm our commitment to serve and support the international human genetics community and continue to welcome participation of scientists from all nations in the Society’s work and events.

David L. Nelson, PhD, is 2018 President of ASHG. He is a Cullen Foundation Professor of Molecular and Human Genetics at the Baylor College of Medicine, Associate Director of the BCM Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center, and Director of the BCM Integrative Molecular and Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program.

Inside AJHG: A Chat with Garry Cutting

Posted By: Sara Cullinan, PhD, Deputy Editor, AJHG

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Garry R. Cutting, MD (courtesy Dr. Cutting)

Each month, the editors of The American Journal of Human Genetics interview an author of a recently published paper. This month we check in with Garry Cutting, to discuss ‘Functional Assays Are Essential for Interpretation of Missense Variants Associated with Variable Expressivity.’

AJHG: What prompted you to start working on this project?

Garry: This project is part of an ongoing effort to interpret the molecular consequences of all variants in the CFTR gene. The variants selected for this study are associated with a wide-range of disease severity, allowing us to determine the utility of functional assays for variants that associate with moderate to mild forms of disease.

AJHG: What about this paper project most excites you?

Garry: We were surprised to find that a number of the putative disease-causing missense variants had minimal effect on protein function and that predictive algorithms have difficulty interpreting these “minimal effect” variants. Conversely, it was reassuring to find that incorporation of functional data improves annotation using expert and ACMG/AMP criteria.

AJHG: Thinking about the bigger picture, what implications do you see from this work for the large human genetics community?

Garry: Missense variants are challenging to interpret and many are labeled as variants of unknown significance. Our study indicates that classifying missense variants, especially those associated with intermediate severity of disease, will require functional testing in the appropriate context. Our work also shows that current predictive algorithms should be used with caution as they tend to overcall missense variants as deleterious.

AJHG: What advice do you have for trainees/young scientists?

Garry: The explosion of DNA variant information provides a wonderful opportunity to investigate their effect upon RNA transcription, RNA splicing, protein stability, and protein function. Individuals who become facile with these techniques will be highly valued as we move from DNA sequencing to variant annotation and elucidation of disease mechanism.

AJHG: Tell us something about your life outside the lab.

Garry: I really enjoy working with my hands to repair something broken or build something new. Unlike the long time frames that we experience in science, fixing something can produce results in a much shorter time frame. Sometimes things go wrong, but you always seem to learn something new when you undertake projects that are out of your established area of expertise. Consequently, I fully agree that circuit breakers and water supply values should be turned off before undertaking home projects.

Garry Cutting, MD, is an Aetna/U.S. Healthcare Professor of Medical Genetics at John Hopkins. He has been a member of ASHG since 1997. 

Welcome HHMI-ASHG Fellow, Sarah Abdallah

Posted By: Ann Klinck, ASHG Communications and Marketing Assistant

ASHG is excited to be partnering with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) for the HHMI-ASHG Medical Research Fellowship. We’re happy to welcome third-year Yale medical student, Sarah Abdallah, to the position.

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Sarah Abdallah, HHMI-ASHG Medical Research Fellow (Courtesy Ms. Abdallah)

This program allows medical, dental, and veterinary students to take a year off from training and perform mentored laboratory research with support of a grant. “Our hope is that the experience will ignite students’ passion for research and encourage them to pursue careers as physician-scientists,” says David Asai, HHMI’s senior director for science education in a press release.

Sarah was interested in the fellowship because “it seemed to provide access to a community of scientists and to enriching experiences on top of my research, like attending conferences and meetings.”

Sarah’s research is focused around obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Specifically, it involves looking for post-zygotic variants in whole-exome sequencing data from individuals with OCD and their parents. These variants arise spontaneously and are not inherited from parents. By identifying the post-zygotic variants, it may be possible to understand the contribution of such variation to OCD development, identify risk genes, and eventually find new treatments.

“I am hoping this project will contribute to the collective understanding of the genetic basis of OCD. Many people with OCD do well, but I have seen firsthand how it can present as a very disabling, persistent disorder, and current pharmacologic treatments are not completely effective for all patients,” Sarah said.

ASHG member and Sarah’s primary mentor, Thomas Fernandez, MD, is an assistant professor in the Child Study Center and of Psychiatry at Yale. Another ASHG member and her co-mentor, James Noonan, PhD, is an associate professor of genetics at Yale.

During her fellowship, Sarah is hoping to gain more experience in computational genomics and is seeking guidance on how to combine her clinical and research interests into a career. She trusts that people like Dr. Fernandez will be able help her find the right path. She is considering a career in child psychiatry and pediatrics, but “either way, I hope to keep contributing to research on the genomics of neurodevelopmental disorders along with my clinical practice,” she said.

Launched 29 years ago, the HHMI Medical Research Fellows Program supports each Fellow through a year-long research project with a mentor of the Fellow’s choosing, and facilitates peer networking among Fellows and alumni as well as seminars with senior investigators. For more information, see the Program website.

 

Genetics Outreach and Donations at Calvin Coolidge Senior High School

Posted By: Kanika Pulliam, Senior Manager, Education and Career Development Programs

On the overcast and rainy morning of May 10, the ASHG Education Team (Kelly Ventura, Senior Director of Education and Membership; Karen Hanson, Senior Manager, Education Programs; Evelyn Mantegani, Education Coordinator; and myself) headed to Calvin Coolidge Senior High School, a public school in northwest Washington, DC. The school houses an Academy of Health Sciences, which prepares students for college and careers in health-related professions.

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The ASHG Education Team talked genetics and related careers with students at Calvin Coolidge Senior High School in Washington, DC. (courtesy Kelly Ventura)

As ASHG was preparing to move our main offices to a new building, we discovered a lot of new and gently used lab equipment and supplies in our storage room. There were things like a PCR machine, water bath, and DNA gel electrophoresis items. The supplies were previously purchased to facilitate experiments with educators who developed lesson plans for high school students. With no future plans for the supplies, we decided to donate them to a local high school, and identified Coolidge High School with the help of former ASHG Genetics Education and & Engagement Fellow Teresa Ramirez.

The day of the visit, Kelly and Karen graciously drove in their monster cars for us to load up and transport the many boxes to the school. We were greeted by Zakiya Edens, Coordinator of the Career Academy. She led us to the Academy of Health Sciences room, where we discussed the science program and its strategy to motivate students to come to class and maintain good grades. Students in this special academy participate in additional classes and programs on top of their regular curriculum to prepare for college.

We then met with some academy students, followed by a biology class that was discussing basic genetic concepts and the structure of DNA. Karen and I talked about our roles at ASHG to give the students an idea of career options in the sciences beyond traditional professions like scientist or medical doctor. I shared how they can use their background and love for research to educate scientists and clinicians interested in human genetics. Karen connected to the students by discussing her role as a genetic counselor for the past 25 years and showed them how genetic counselors work with a team of medical professionals to offer the best advice to patients.

We enjoyed the experience of chatting with teachers, administrators, and students. We are now working with Coolidge High School to organize a visit from an ASHG Genetics Education Outreach Network (GEON) volunteer member, to help the teachers go through the donated items and plan experiments for the new school year. GEON is a network of ASHG members who volunteer their time to assist science teachers in building understanding of human genetics among students and the general public.

Kanika Pulliam, PhD, is Senior Manager of Education and Career Development Programs at ASHG. For more on ASHG’s programs for science students, visit our K-12 education website.