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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Paragons of Productivity

Energetic, driven—and often facing an uncertain
future—postdoctoral fellows are increasingly crucial
to the academic enterprise.

When Johns Hopkins opened its doors in 1876 as the first research university in the U.S., historian Herbert Baxter Adams and philologist Charles Rockwell Lanman were among the young scholars who came to further their research and advance science.

But what exactly was their place in this novel institution? Adams and Lanman taught classes, but they weren't on the faculty. They studied, attended symposia and lectures, and did research. But they weren't really graduate students, either. Their title, "graduate fellow," was a bit of a misnomer. By the time Adams and Lanman arrived here, both had already completed their formal education: Adams held a doctorate from the University of Heidelberg; Lanman studied at Yale and had a PhD from the University of Leipzig.

Adams and Lanman were Hopkins' first postdoctoral fellows—and some would say the first postdoctoral fellows in the nation. In the ensuing decades, thousands of postdocs at Johns Hopkins have followed in the paths that these young scholars blazed. Today, postdoctoral fellows—who spend several years teaching, doing research, and working in labs after receiving their PhDs and before taking their first jobs as faculty members—have become a mainstay of the academic and intellectual community.

"Postdocs are important to any research university," explains Jonathan Bagger, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Physics and Astronomy and vice provost for graduate and postdoctoral programs at Johns Hopkins. "They're young, energetic, and have lots of ideas. If it weren't that so many are worried about the next step in their careers, it would be an idyllic time for them."

Although the 103 postdoctoral fellows working across the disciplines in the School of Arts and Sciences may share the same title, their experiences differ greatly. All postdocs do research. But those in the humanities and social sciences usually teach undergraduate classes while pursuing their individual research interests. Postdocs in the natural sciences work in labs, where they collaborate on the research projects of principal investigators and may help train graduate students and mentor undergraduates.

In the stories that follow you'll meet two postdocs, one in the Humanities Center, the other in the Department of Biology, whose experiences—while admittedly as unique as their individual areas of study—offer a window into the world of the postdoctoral experience today.

“Hyper-Professionalization” in the Humanities

Leonardo Lisi stands in the front of a classroom on a recent Tuesday afternoon and calmly, pointedly, discusses death. It's not a recent death, but it's a tragic one. This passing put an end to a 2,500-year-old cultural tradition that goes back to the ancient Greeks.

It is the first day of his course, Modern Tragedy, and Lisi is explaining to the 20 undergraduates gathered in 160 Mattin that their task over the semester is to examine the argument frequently made since the late 18th century that tragedy is dead—killed by the changed social, historical, and philosophical conditions of modernity. Today, he wants to show them how much they already know.

Leonardo Lisi, a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Hopkins, earned the coveted spot from among 846 applicants. It’s an “ideal situation,” he says.

 

"What happens in the world in the period between 1787 and 1949?" he asks. Students cite various wars, the Great Depression, the atomic bomb, and Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Lisi is encouraging, demanding. "Why is this important?" he presses. He springs over to a dry-erase board to jot down some notes, and then launches another round of questions. "What is tragedy?" he asks. Confident and at ease, he gets the class talking about contemporary examples of tragedy in order to connect with the texts they will be reading. It works. Before long, a lively exchange of ideas touches on Hegel, Homer Simpson, and theories about whether tragedy is, in fact, dead.

"Professor Lisi doesn't really fish for answers," says Kelly Chuang, a junior who has taken three of Lisi's classes. "He respects your responses, but he makes it clear that there usually is a right answer. In doing so, he inspires the need in students to think critically."

Take Lisi's skills as a teacher, add in his PhD from Yale University in comparative literature, his impressive publication record of more than 15 journal articles and a co-edited volume, and you have a portrait of an up-and-coming university humanities professor. He's not. Not yet, anyway. At 30, the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities Center is in training.

Lisi has spent the last two years teaching one class per semester and pursuing his research, which concerns how philosophic questions can be seen to express themselves in literature and how literature provides its own unique answers for philosophy. It has been a productive time for Lisi. He has polished his teaching skills, readied his dissertation for publication, and launched a new research project. Now, with his final semester as a postdoc under way, one major task remains: landing a tenure-track faculty position.

It won't be easy. "The job market is usually bad for comp lit," he says. "But because of the recession, it's really, really bad." It is so terrible, in fact, there was only one strictly comparative literature position at a U.S. university advertised this year—at Johns Hopkins. Lisi, who speaks six languages, applied for that spot as well as a half-dozen faculty jobs in English and German departments and a few postdoctoral fellowships at universities across the country. "The uncertainty about the future is nerve-racking," he says.

It's no longer typical for a humanities student to go straight from a PhD program into a tenure-track position. A disastrous job market (listings for tenure-track faculty positions through the Modern Language Association and other professional academic organizations are down by as much as 50 percent this year) and a growth in the number of new PhDs entering the workforce have made it extraordinarily difficult for even the brightest young humanities scholars to land that elusive first tenure-track university job right out of graduate school. As a result, more and more are seeking postdoctoral fellowships as their next step.

The current trend is relatively new, says David Bell, former dean of faculty and professor of history now at Princeton University. "If you look at the [current senior] humanities and social sciences faculty at Hopkins, 90 to 95 percent of them didn't do postdocs," he says.

There's another factor: what dean of faculty Gabrielle Spiegel calls a "hyper-professionalization" of humanities scholarship. Publishing one's thesis as a book is a critical requirement for tenure-track professors in the humanities and social sciences, and lately scholars are accomplishing this earlier in their careers. "New PhDs look for postdoc positions because they have reduced teaching loads that allow them time to revise their theses for very rapid publication," says Spiegel, the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of History and coordinator of the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship program at Hopkins. "Even people who have gotten job offers want the postdoc as a transition from full-time graduate work to a faculty position."

Although 70 percent of postdocs in the sciences nationally are federally funded, money for postdocs in the humanities is more limited. As a result, only about 4 percent of the 89,000 postdoctoral fellows working in the U.S. today are in humanities fields, according to a 2005 survey of postdocs by Sigma Xi. At Hopkins, only 13 of the current 103 postdoctoral fellows in Arts and Sciences are in humanities and social science fields. As Lisi can attest, competition for these coveted spots is fierce.

At the end of 2007, the semester before Lisi completed his PhD, he applied for a handful of postdocs and two jobs. He was one of 846 applicants for three spots for the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at Hopkins. When he learned he had won the Mellon, he didn't have to think twice. "It was an ideal situation," Lisi says. "The Humanities Center at Hopkins is very interdisciplinary and is filled with a lot of great people whose work I already knew." There were other benefits, namely the Mellon stipend and health insurance. "Economically and academically, it was absolutely perfect," he says.

Humanists, unlike scientists, generally work alone. But Lisi says he hasn't felt isolated because he could connect and exchange ideas with other scholars through departmental seminars and monthly Mellon seminars. "The seminar is sort of the lab of the humanities where you have to test your theories," he explains. "People who are your peers put your work under contingent and empirical pressures, and their comments often force you to look upon your work in an entirely new way. It's been an enormous gain for me that I've been able to exchange ideas with other people in new contexts."

Because the Humanities Center doesn't currently have a professor focusing solely on comparative literature, Lisi helped the department fill that need. But his contributions have extended far beyond his courses and research, according to Humanities Center professor Michael Fried. "Hopkins is small, and the humanities are small, and an enormous amount of the intellectual vitality of the place depends on the willingness and desire of faculty and postdocs and students to take advantage of the seminars and lectures," Fried says. "Leo from the start has taken part in the fullest possible way in what's been going on here, and that has contributed a great deal to the intellectual life of the place. That has been just terrific."

For many fellows, including Lisi, the most challenging part of being a postdoc is the position's temporary nature. The uncertainty he faces about the future is magnified by the fact that his wife just earned her PhD in archaeology and is in the market for a postdoc or faculty position herself.

Despite such stressors, he is trying to stay focused on his goal. "I would love to be in a place that allows me to do interdisciplinary work," he says. "The whole Mellon experience at Hopkins has been a microcosm of what I'd like to do."

“Lab Life Is Unending”

Maria Ascano hurries across the Homewood campus toward Mudd Hall, slipping and sliding on the icy path. A weekend blizzard has blanketed Baltimore with two feet of snow and another big storm is on the way. Classes are canceled, so the Homewood campus is deserted this Monday morning. But for Ascano, staying home is not an option.

Ascano, the only postdoc in assistant professor Rejji Kuruvilla's lab, has to maintain her cell line, heat shock E. coli bacteria, so that it takes up DNA; she also must harvest neurons from rat pups born on Friday. Bad weather caused her to miss her Saturday work time in the lab, where she has four experiments in progress. If she misses today, her work from the last 10 days will be lost. "There's always something to do, an experiment to set up. The mice are always breeding and cells are always dividing," says the cell biologist, who works 50 to 60 hours a week in the lab that is dedicated to studying how growth factors affect the way neurons grow. "Lab life is unending."

Ascano

Maria Ascano (right), pictured here with first-year graduate student Melissa Simmonds, is an encouraging presence and a good mentor—the “glue” that holds together the lab of assistant professor Rejji Kuruvilla.

 

Time figures prominently in the life of the 35-year-old scientist. There are the daily and weekly demands of the lab, the graduate students and undergraduates who need training, the experiments to set up, the supplies to be ordered, the regular meetings to attend. But there are bigger deadlines, too. Ascano has five or six years after receiving her PhD to train as a postdoc. During this period she must learn the ins and outs of managing a lab, establish her own area of research, publish in a well-respected journal, and ultimately find grant funding so that she can either continue her work as a postdoc or land a tenure-track faculty position and launch her own lab.

Ascano, who joined the lab as a postdoc in 2005, won't be on the job market for another year. But the pressure to transition to principal investigator is mounting. Much of being a postdoc is "like having your training wheels on," explains Ascano, one of 90 postdocs in the sciences at Arts and Sciences. When those wheels come off, the ride can sometimes be wobbly. "It's like teen-aged angst," she says. "How can I balance what I want to do and still be respectful of the way [my PI] wants to go?"

Science is a team effort, and at a research university like Johns Hopkins, labs can't run without the efforts of postdoctoral fellows. While principal investigators are busy teaching, traveling to conferences, and writing grants, postdocs make a lab run smoothly, keep scientific investigations on course, and launch new research projects of their own. Some 43 percent of first authors of research articles published in Science are postdocs, according to a 1999 study. "Postdocs make a huge difference," says Gregory Ball, dean of research and graduate education and a professor of psychological and brain sciences. "They're the reason grants get renewed. They're the reason people get publications finished. Without postdocs, we'd get a whole lot less done."

The job market isn't as troubled for new scientists as it is for humanists, but the fellowships are necessary for many fresh-minted science PhDs because most need additional experience before landing a faculty position. "In order to run your own lab, modern science requires the ability to marshal a number of different methods and techniques to attack questions of interest," says Ball. "It has gotten so complicated in many fields that your PhD doesn't give you enough time to do that. A postdoc is the time to attain additional skills that will put you in a position to manage and run your own lab."

Ascano spent her years in graduate school researching a protein in the eye called rhodopsin, which she studied outside of the cell using fairly low-tech techniques. She was excited by the prospect of joining the Kuruvilla lab, where the research involved extracting primary neurons from live rats and mice and using live cell imaging to study the transport of proteins inside the neurons. Ascano had no experience with these techniques, but Kuruvilla, who had just joined the faculty and was a new PI, was impressed by Ascano and hired her. She hasn't been disappointed. "A postdoc can really set the tone for the lab," says Kuruvilla. "Maria has done that. Her work ethic and high standards have raised the expectations for everyone who works here. She is the glue that holds my lab together."

Over the last five years, Ascano has trained dozens of graduate and undergraduate students in the lab—teaching them techniques, discussing the design of research projects, and batting around ideas. She is an encouraging presence and a good mentor, says Dan Bodmer, a fifth-year biology graduate student. "Ninety percent of what I learned in graduate school about how to work in a lab, I learned from Maria."

Sometimes, however, being the only postdoc in the busy nine-person lab has its drawbacks, especially when it comes to finding time to work on her own projects. "At times everything sort of falls to me," says Ascano. "At the same time, I am getting the experience I need to run my own lab."

Since December, Ascano has focused on developing her own research project, which examines how proteins are trafficked inside neuronal axons. Her research is going well, and she hopes to take it with her to start her own lab. In 2008, she presented her work at the Gordon Research Conference on cell biology of the neuron, and last fall she was the lead author on her first paper, published in the Journal of Neuroscience. "It was really heartwarming," she says of the publication, which her lab celebrated with champagne. "You come in every day, and you set up experiments, and you think your project is a good project, but when the paper gets published it's a validation from the field."

Currently, Ascano is working on a grant proposal for a Pathway to Independence Award from the National Institutes of Health. The $1 million grant, which runs over five years, would give her two years of funding as a postdoc and three years of support as a new faculty member, which she could use to start her lab. The awards are competitive. In 2007 the NIH funded only 183 of the roughly 1,000 applications received.

Ascano doesn't mind the long hours and her relatively modest postdoc salary. For her, like Lisi, the hardest part about being a postdoc is not knowing what will happen when the fellowship ends. There are days when the prospect of starting her own lab seems like an impossible dream.

"The target of a postdoc is not to graduate, and it's not to publish a certain amount of papers," Ascano says. "It's to find that job on the other side. There has to be that perfect opening for you at the time you are ready."

Shortly before this issue went to press, Leonardo Lisi accepted a faculty position with the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins, the only strictly comparative literature position in the U.S. advertised for the 2010-2011 academic year. Some 600 candidates applied for the coveted position.
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Maria Blackburn is a frequent contributor to Arts & Sciences Magazine.

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Neither Fish Nor Fowl

When Judith Mitrani-Reiser came to Johns Hopkins as a postdoctoral fellow in February 2007, she had lots of questions that a new university employee might have. Where should she go for her campus ID card? Could she park on campus for a reduced rate? How did she access the library? “The questions seemed silly to ask my advisor,” says Mitrani-Reiser, who recently became an assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at the Whiting School of Engineering.

As the weeks went by, she realized that postdocs across the campus probably shared many of her questions. She also discovered that the fellows—who taught like faculty and did research like graduate students—were getting few of the benefits of being either. For example, many postdocs had student health insurance but couldn’t use the campus gym for free, as students did. “Because we were categorized as neither students nor faculty, we were just being left out,” she says. “We needed to address this population, which had essentially fallen through the cracks.”

So, working with a small group of postdoctoral fellows, Mitrani-Reiser helped found the Homewood Postdoctoral Association. The group, launched in 2007, represents the 200 postdocs at the Homewood schools. The association brings them together for social and career development events, and officers meet monthly with deans in both Arts and Sciences and Engineering to discuss an array of issues. “We’re working to give postdocs the status they deserve as a valued member of the university community so that this business of postdocs being neither fish nor fowl can be addressed,” says Gregory Ball, Arts and Sciences’ dean for research and graduate education, who meets with association officers regularly.

The group is making progress. The title “postdoctoral fellow” has been added to postdocs’ Hopkins ID cards, the fellows are now invited to campus orientation, and they receive daily announcements via e-mail just as faculty, students, and staff do. Currently the association is working with Ball and Edward Scheinerman, associate dean for education at the Whiting School, to standardize the health insurance and benefits that Homewood postdocs receive.

But there is still much work to be done, says Maria Ascano, who is the association’s vice president. For example, principal investigators in a lab are not required to provide their postdocs with health insurance. While many PIs do offer health insurance for their fellows, she says, the lack of a requirement is worrisome. “Postdocs, on average, are in our mid-30s. We’re adults,” she says. “We have families and mortgages. But for a long time the university treated us like older graduate students.”