Penn Represented at the 2015 National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) Meeting
By Liisa Hantsoo, Ph.D.
“Remain positive, remain relentless; the future is in your hands.” It was with these words that Dr. E. Albert Reece welcomed nearly four hundred attendees to the 13th Annual Meeting of the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA). The NPA, established in 2003, aims to advocate for postdocs, develop resources to support postdoctoral training, and to build community. The NPA works with federal agencies, such as the NIH and NSF, to enhance postdoctoral training, and has laid out Recommended Practices (1) that have been adopted by dozens of institutions nationwide. The annual meeting, that took place in Baltimore from March 13-15, served as a platform for discussing policies relevant to postdoctoral fellows. It was also a “celebration of community,” emphasized Belinda Huang, Ph.D., Executive Director of the NPA. The University of Pennsylvania was represented at the conference by five Penn and one CHOP biomedical postdocs, plus Mary Anne Timmins and Morgan Hiles from the Biomedical Postdoctoral Programs (BPP) office, David Taylor from Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at CHOP, technology licensing officer Carole Burns, Ph.D., and our BPP Associate Dean, Susan Weiss, Ph.D.. The Penn team attended a plethora of workshops and panels, and presented posters on postdoctoral initiatives at Penn.
The 2015 meeting kicked off with a Keynote Address by Rosina Bierbaum, Ph.D. Her speech, titled “From the Lab to the White House and Back: Bridging the Science – Policy Gap,” focused on the difficult dance between scientists and policymakers. She encouraged researchers to be “civic scientists” and emphasized that “science that is not shared is not used.” She also reflected on the need for scientists to communicate their ideas effectively, stating that in terms of policy, “if the science can’t be understood, it’s not really there.”
On the workshop level, there was significant focus on improving the postdoc experience for minorities and women in science. One workshop discussed efforts that have been made at a number of institutions to create a structured support system and mentoring for minority postdocs. They encouraged “proactive, purposeful” mentoring. Another workshop addressed challenges facing women as postdocs, including family formation and the “leaky pipeline,” isolation, appropriate professional development, and finding adequate mentoring and support. Workshop members broke into small groups to discuss these issues and offer insight on how they might be improved. Other workshops offered practical career skills for postdocs. For instance, one workshop walked postdocs through the process of salary negotiations, giving them practical tips and simulated practice. Postdoc and Penn Center For Innovation (PCI) Fellow, Vladimir Popov, and PCI Licensing Officer, Carole Burns, presented an interactive workshop on careers in technology commercialization, with emphasis on tech transfer and intellectual property.
“Innovation in Action” sessions focused on distilling the chatter into usable bits, using an interactive format and solution sharing. The “Future of Research” session encouraged postdocs to brainstorm solutions for problems in training, transparency, connectivity, funding mechanisms, and competitiveness. Breaking into four groups, postdocs thought, talked, and littered the conference room walls with colorful Post-It notes scribbled with their ideas on how postdocs might tackle these challenges.
A poster session allowed postdoctoral programs from across the U.S. to highlight the work that they do to improve the postdoctoral experience on their own campuses. From Penn, Terry Cathopoulis, Ph.D. and Amita Bansal, Ph.D. presented “Researchers Hosting Vendors: A Mutually Beneficial Arrangement,” that described Penn BPC’s fundraising via vendor shows, and Adam Walker, Ph.D. and Liisa Hantsoo, Ph.D. presented “The Biomedical Postdoctoral Research Symposium – A Template for Collaborative Organization of a Scientific Meeting for and by University Postdocs,” focusing on Penn’s annual BPC symposium featuring postdoctoral research. From CHOP, Paulette McRae, Ph.D., presented “Fostering Careers Beyond the Bench: The Evolution of the CHOP Administration Fellowship.” The posters were well received, and sparked conversations with representatives of other postdoctoral associations across the country who were interested in modeling Penn’s experiences to build events at their own institutions.
The annual meeting closed with a Town Hall, in which findings of the 2014 NPA Institutional Policy Report (2) and the National Academy of Sciences’ “The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited” (3) were discussed. Topics included postdoctoral compensation, benefits, length of postdoctoral training, and career trajectories, among others. While the findings showed some progress in recent years, much more is needed.
Terry Cathopoulis, Ph.D., BPC Fundraising Committee Co-Chair and one of Penn’s poster presenters, said of his experience, “’Postdocs and postdoctoral office administrators alike were genuinely interested in adopting [Penn BPC’s] vendor show fund-raising model. It was rewarding to be able to share this to the benefit of other postdoctoral bodies and contribute to a greater sense of inter-institutional community. I’m already receiving emails from people I met at the poster session that are looking to enact vendor show on their own campuses.” Adam Walker, Ph.D., BPC Co-Chair, described the NPA meeting was “an invigorating experience – in complete contrast to the sometimes stressful environment of a scientific conference, the NPA meeting presented opportunities to swap ideas openly, discuss and brainstorm ways to improve the postdoc experience.” He added that he would recommend this meeting to “postdocs who appreciate that the postdoctoral experience is more than just about working in the lab, and who are seeking additional ways to extend their professional training.” Penn’s attendees agreed that the workshops devoted to advancing individual professional skill sets were also useful.
Following the NPA meeting, the BPC representatives plan on using the knowledge gained to instigate new programs at Penn in conjunction with the Biomedical Postdoctoral Program office. These include further investigating ways to advocate for improved postdoc conditions, formulating a directed mentoring program, and other career development training opportunities.
The NPA meeting is held each spring; next year’s will be in Michigan. Registration will open in early 2016 at http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/meetings-and-events-4/annual-meeting. If you are interested in representing Penn at future NPA Meetings, please contact the Biomedical Postdoctoral Council (BPC). In addition, as the University of Pennsylvania is a sustaining member of the NPA, BPP-represented postdocs are eligible for free NPA affiliate membership. Members gain access to numerous career development resources and can help shape future policy development. Affiliate membership is available at http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/membership-6/member-categories/affiliate-member.