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Getting to know your postdoctoral research fellow

Ke Wu Yang is a master at creating new chemical compounds. He perfects his skills while working in relative anonymity as a postdoctoral research associate for bioinorganic chemist Michael Crowder (chemistry and biochemistry).

"Ke Wu is the best synthetic chemist I’ve ever come across. He can synthesize compounds, novel ones, just from a drawing," comments Crowder.

Yang’s expertise in synthetic chemistry is a perfect complement to Crowder’s long-term research goals of developing compounds that will circumvent bacterial antibiotic resistance.

Crowder, recipient of last year’s Distinguished Scholarship Award for a faculty member in the early stages of a scholarly career, says he immediately began looking for a postdoctoral research associate upon receiving funding through a grant from the National Institutes of Health in 1997. Yang, who started working with Crowder in 1998, has been crucial to the success of Crowder’s research team, helping to lay the foundations to ultimately design—from the ground up—specific compounds that will inhibit enzymes that bacteria use in destroying the common antibiotics penicillin, cephalosporin and vancomycin.

Like the other 21 postdoctoral research associates (commonly known as post docs) on campus, Yang’s work is extremely important to Miami’s scientific research community. These postdocs—scientists who have completed their doctoral studies—contribute their expertise to help increase the research productivity of their supervisory faculty by providing new perspectives on research, designing experiments, collecting data and writing manuscripts and grant proposals.

"Postdoctoral associates are an essential part of the research team," agrees Ann Morris Hooke, chair of microbiology, which currently has three extramurally funded postdocs. "They provide an important link between the graduate students and the professors, and they bring…exciting new ideas and up-to-the-minute techniques into the lab. They are also excellent role models for the undergraduate and graduate students in the lab."

Postdocs also collaborate with and mentor students in the lab. Ke Wu Yang works with new graduate students in Crowder’s lab, helping them to learn new techniques and analyze data.
Although not usually the case in other departments, post docs in the department of zoology usually choose to teach a course during their time at Miami. Zoology has four permanent postdoctoral positions—originally funded by an Academic Challenge Grant through the Ohio Board of Regents—plus two positions funded by National Science Foundation grants.

"As a Ph.D.-granting department, our research productivity is judged against departments at larger research universities, where numerous postdocs are usually found," indicates David Francko, chair of botany, which currently has three postdocs funded through extramural grants. The department will have one internally funded postdoc each year with the initiation of the new Center for Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics in January 2001.

Productivity, measured by number of publications, is a significant benefit of postdocs. Ke Wu Yang has authored or contributed to more than half of the 11 publications generated from Crowder’s lab over the past year and a half, an effort "crucial to the tenure process," says Crowder.

The department of chemistry and biochemistry, which has 10 postdocs, estimates that well over 60 percent of publications from the department during the last five years have post-doctoral or graduate student co-authors.

The role of postdocs is generally not well understood outside the scientific research community. Yet these scholars devote two to six or more years in academic research, earning on average $15,000 to $20,000 less than postdocs working in government and industry, according to a nationwide study by the Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy. And their numbers are increasing: From 1981 to 1998, the number of academic postdocs in science and engineering more than doubled, to 39,000 from 18,000, according to the study.

"Postdoctoral research positions provide newly minted Ph.D.s with opportunities to refine and expand the skills they developed while doing their dissertation research in the context of an entirely new intellectual climate," explains Doug Meikle, chair of zoology. This experience is essentially mandatory for those seeking careers in tenure-track assistant professorships in doctorate-granting science departments, adds Meikle.

Date Published: 10/12/2000
Volume: 20   Number: 11

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