Science in the USA: Postdoc Experience at Rockefeller

This week, Science 's Next Wave, in collaboration with one of Europe's top research organizations, the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), continues the series of articles providing firsthand reports and travel information that will help you successfully plan your research career in an increasingly mobile scientific community.

Patrick Wigge, a young European molecular biologist/biochemist and EMBO fellow, shares with us his experiences of two exciting postdoc years at Rockefeller University, New York City. Patrick gives not only valuable tips for studying in the U.S. but also tells us how he got into the brand-new research discipline neuroethology.

Coming to the U.S. from Europe was the strangest of experiences. After I did my Ph.D. in synaptic cell biology at MRC-LMB, Cambridge. I was quite sure that something different was warranted after 3 years of fairly intensive study--mostly benchwork and writing papers, plus a couple of review articles--but wasn't quite sure just what. I was lucky to have done my doctoral training in a great lab, with a great supervisor. The next direction in my highly uncertain career path was decided by mostly good fortune--my father found an inconspicuous ad in Science for postdocs to join a multidisciplinary research team in the Hudson Valley, New York. It sounded too good to be true; I was astounded when I was invited over for an interview, and an invitation to check out the laboratories "and see if you like it," with all expenses paid! All that was needed was to produce an interesting and plausible research proposal.

One year later, I arrived in New York City in that apprehensive state of mind that might be typical of most green postdocs just starting out. It was like beginning a blank slate. Adventure, yes, but the thoughts and doubts (about whether my project would work out? would I end up writing a paper? where would it lead to? would I be accepted by the lab, fit in to the "American way of life," if there is such a thing?) gave me some trepidation. Even the small matter of hailing a taxicab from JFK airport was confusing; the shouts, crowds, bustles of the milling travelers and taxicab attendants directing you to the right taxi rank; then, into Manhattan, the dazzle of lights and bustle of streets greeting a weary traveler.

Fortunately, the following 2 years would be spent largely in the quieter small-town atmosphere of rural Dutchess County, much more similar to Cambridge. But for molecular biology experiments, I often traveled into Manhattan, the contrast being like going from one country to another, even if it was only a 90-minute drive. These precious experiences allowed me to get a sense of the two very different faces of U.S.: the big city and the rural small town. The laboratory in the city was big. Much bigger than my lab back in Cambridge. It took up an entire floor of an old building at Rockefeller University. (This is fairly typical of American labs.) Yet there were fewer modern instruments or equipment; I had the sense that funding was not as generous as I had lately gotten used to in my Ph.D. years. Personal bench space was less available, less freely given out here, I sensed.

The lab as a whole was far more chaotic than at Cambridge, partly because of its size but also due to the nature of "supervisors" who direct the lab (they are called PIs for short and are always professors). Most labs have some 20, sometimes 30, "lab members"--variously called postdoctoral fellows, postdoctoral associates, graduate students, assistant professors, technicians, administrative secretaries, "assistants for research" or lab helpers. American labs are known for their huge postdoc populations; in some labs, they include three-quarters of the people. I was struck at first by how little direct supervision was given. I had expected freedom, but not this much! It seemed as though my PI (who, after all, probably had dozens of postdoc stints in his lab already) was not overly concerned whether I "sank or swam."

This is another one of the less risky generalizations that one can make about working as a postdoc here: The job is really almost entirely up to you. Your PI has so many people to see, talk to, advise, that he will not have much time for you. And when you do go to see him, you must go out of your way to get his full attention, and be taken seriously!! This may in part explain the lack of organization everywhere in the lab. Well--it seemed to me that way, coming from a small, clean, newly set-up lab where there was "a place for everything, and everything in its place" (except on my bench). Reagents, chemicals, test tubes--other lab members would often not know where these were to be found, or directed you to the one and only one technician, who happened, unfortunately, to be "out of the lab." During many a late-night experiment one would find one's planning to be in vain because of that missing reagent.

The atmosphere of the lab as a whole was not perhaps as close-knit or communal as the one I had left behind. That is probably to be expected because of the number of people bustling in and out, running from one end of the lab to the other (the distance was so far that most people found it more time-saving to talk to each other by intercom), and the lack of any common room apart from the seminar room. The lab was not the kind of place that was congenial to "hanging out" either; a sense of gloominess, a stifling heat in the evenings, a lack of any aesthetics to its design (pictures, or indeed, any form of art were all but missing from the bare walls).

Lab meetings were held once a week on the Manhattan campus. These were a completely different affair from the weekly lab seminars I had attended in Cambridge--the speaker being interrupted at least once, usually multiple times, by questions, right in the middle while discussing his results! My lab had an especially critical ethos, but this emphasis on questioning results and maintaining skepticism is very common in the U.S. Something is clearly wrong in a lab seminar if the speaker has managed to go through his talk without any interruptions; something VERY amiss if there are no questions even at the end. The amount of audience participation in the talk is much higher than in English labs. Perhaps there is some "trickle-down" effect of the bustling New York atmosphere ... in any case, keeping quiet in such a lab meeting, not asking questions, can be interpreted in the wrong way--the "English reserve" can be slightly out of place! While the slightly aggressive (confrontational) nature of the meetings was occasionally unnerving (especially when I came to actually give a talk--at interview, my seminar on my Ph.D. went on for fully 2 hours), it was all of course conducted in good spirit. And it often turned up many questions that you would not have thought of--extra controls to carry out to validate your results, profitable lines of inquiry, alternative hypotheses to explain your results.

The attention to detail and experimental rigor helped to remind me that science is a difficult vocation even at the best of times. As well as a strong encouragement to develop yourself as an independent research scientist, and be a kind of entrepreneur, there was also quite a strong spirit of collaboration with other labs ... but not pressure. Overall, the extent of personal freedom was tremendous--the freedom to make up your own schedule, to plan your own experiments, to knock off early one day (as long as you spent a few late nights to compensate!), to play a game of squash now and then. Sports are generally taken more seriously in the U.S., I think, and other campus recreations seen as not competing with your work but being a necessary adjunct.

The university had frequent music recitals in the wonderful domed concert hall, and in the summer, outdoor eating and occasional evening barbecues. Whereas in Cambridge an overemphasis on hobbies, not working as hard as you possibly could, was a little bit frowned upon (jokes were made about Ph.D. students being "chained to the bench"), here at Rockefeller almost everyone, it seemed to me, mixed work and play as one would mix eating and drinking. And generally, everyone was so much more motivated in what they were doing! Interested in science for its own sake--and interested in talking with you about your projects, and how they are progressing. A common question I had asked of me when starting out was "what is your basic [research] question?" though not always put in such blunt terms. In England, I had been the most enthusiastic member of my lab, but coming here, I quickly found that was not the case, and realized, moreover, that my level of self-esteem as a scientist fell too.

The caliber of postdocs generally is very high; while this can be an unwelcome realization, it is a good thing to get used to. All this is not to say that being a postdoc is better in the U.S.; it is just to point out the main differences in postdoc life, perhaps at the risk of exaggerating them. Whilst the lab physical environment was hardly impressive (what biology labs are pretty to look at, after all?), the design of the campus more than made up for it. It was clearly designed by a great architect; situated on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, close to some of the biggest and best attractions of the city (15 minutes walk from Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the East River). And yet, the university was within its own quiet haven. The main building covered in ivy, the path leading to the lab lined with an avenue of trees, and gardens that lit up with beautiful flowers in the springtime. There was even an enclave called the "Philosopher's Garden" where scientists often came to sit for a quiet moment of reflection outside the lab, or to mull over their results--"hmm, wonder why that restriction digest didn't work?"

Many American University campuses are self-sufficient, with their own health services, insurance program, and other services; the bigger ones even resemble small cities. The funding is of course the best in the world, the scale of the whole scientific business is huge. This does have its drawbacks though. "Pottering around" (by which I mean being engaged in several different lines of experimentation, with the hopes that one of them might pan out, for example) is not really a viable option. You are not likely to be funded in the long run if you do not quickly develop a strong, aggressive research plan that is likely to yield results reasonably soon. You need to be highly focused just to compete. Perhaps because science has grown so much recently, it resembles industry more and more, I think: It is nowadays almost always large teams of scientists (working with the help of the necessary high investment in specialized instrumentation), that make the discoveries.

Overall, being a postdoc in the U.S. is so different in many ways to what a typical home-grown newly fledged Ph.D. student might be used to. It is an invaluable experience, an experience to learn a great many new things, to go to exciting places and see exciting things, to have those rare, lucky moments when your perspective of science (the world?) is changed. It is also a lot of fun--whether you continue in the life of research or not.

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