Reminiscences From the North

A Learning Curve

When Harm Deckers (pictured left) wrote for Next Wave in December 1996, he had just made a major career transition. Only a few months prior, he stunned his postdoc supervisor at Université de Montreal by announcing his decision to trade his fellowship for a job as a patent consultant at a start-up biotech company in Calgary.

Almost 9 years later, Deckers works there as director of intellectual property. Since he began, SemBioSys has become a publicly traded company engaged in the development and commercialization of protein-based products, including pharmaceuticals. Deckers's job has grown to include managing the company’s technology-licensing program and patent portfolio.

Decker believes that leaving the bench was the best decision he could have made. "During my postdoc, it became very clear to me that I might have significant challenges securing any future academic position," he says. Many of his peers were already in their third and fourth postdocs. “I started to think that I spent enough time doing research at the bench and asked myself, What else can I do with the skill set that I have?”

During Deckers's postdoc years, Science's Next Wave was an important resource, providing alternatives to traditional academic careers as well as to traditional mindsets. Reading about researchers moving into industry and participating in online discussion forums led him to consider working with industrial patents, something that had long piqued his interest. It has worked out well. “If you would have asked me back then what I would have hoped for, I think I would have come up with exactly what I am today,” says Deckers.

Staying on Track

Cheryl Wellington (pictured left) was well into her second postdoc, nervously pondering what her future had in store, when she co-authored a national survey of Canadian postdocs. The study, which appeared in Next Wave in August 1996,brought to light issues that are still of concern today, including (as Wellington wrote back then) “low pay, lack of benefits, and lengthening training periods for decreasing job opportunities.”

In 2000, 9 years and three postdocs later, Wellington earned a position as assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, where she studies genes that regulate cholesterol metabolism and examines their role in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Wellington spent a lot of time in postdocs, but the time wasn't wasted. “I think that this enabled me within the first couple of years of my faculty appointment to really get the lab up to speed more quickly than I would have otherwise had I accepted a faculty position right after my Ph.D.,” she says.

Being involved with postdoc issues, and having to seek out career answers for herself, has affected the way she mentors her own students. “I want them to think about things like getting the first grant, recruiting people, and having to shift paradigms,” she explains. Although for her the road to a faculty appointment was long, she would not discourage her students from taking that road: “Having survived all these challenges, and now having funding and my own students, things are incredibly great."

Going With the Flow

After 6 years of thyroid-hormone research at the University of Victoria, associate professor Caren Helbing (pictured left) is exactly where she wants to be. She has her own research program, her own lab, and a team of postdocs and graduate students. But trying to keep a balance between her hectic work schedule and her personal life can be a real challenge “The work can really be engulfing,” she says. “You know this when you’re sleeping and your dreams drift toward experiments or how to write the next grant.”

Back in 1996, when she was doing her own postdoc at the University of Calgary, Helbing co-authored (with Cheryl Wellington, above) a Next Wave article about their postdoc survey results. Learning about what other postdocs were going through helped her map her own career strategies. “It was an exciting time but scary too because you don’t know what the next steps are,” she remembers. Her approach was to keep her options open by gaining a wide range of skills and knowledge that would allow her to move into a variety of positions. “I could easily have slipped into cancer research [or] something more basic like conservation stuff. I had a lot of options in front of me,” she says.

Now that she is a tenured professor, she finds it important to help the next generation of researchers. As a graduate advisor in her department, she makes sure that postdoc and other training-related issues are discussed, and that young researchers know what to expect. Many of today's scientists, she feels, are more sophisticated than the scientists of her generation. “I see a lot of very talented individuals that are very focused. They know where they want to go, and they work very hard,” she says. “But they also want to strike that balance between career and personal time; they want to have that balanced life.”

Following a Dream

For Geula Bernstein (pictured left), <i> Science</i>'s Next Wave was pivotal. In 1999, while working on her Ph.D. in neurobiology at the University of Toronto, she attended a campus career event where a Next Wave editor gave a talk about alternative careers, including science writing. Having a longtime interest in creative writing, on a whim she decided to pitch a story to Next Wave. Her witty commentary about her frustrations and fears of working at the bench soon followed.

Bernstein was becoming disillusioned with career prospects in academia and industry and was looking for options beyond the bench: “For me, years of postdocing and (hopefully) finding a professor position just didn’t feel right.” A search of the pharmaceutical industry yielded few leads, but seeing her article published on Next Wave opened up new possibilities. “I realized that I enjoyed the whole writing process, and this is where I could find a fulfilling career for myself,” Bernstein adds.

In 2002, while still working toward her Ph.D., she completed a 1-year journalism diploma and set out to get freelance writing contracts. She finished her Ph.D. in 2003 and has since commenced a science-writing career, working for Toronto-based Axion, a medical communications company. Now, every day is spent learning new science and tackling the challenges that writing can offer. “I like taking what I learned and putting it into an article and allowing somebody else to learn what I have,” she says.

Andrew Fazekas is the Canadian Correspondent for Next Wave and may be reached at

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