Images of the Greek Goddess Athena

Images of the Greek goddess Athena--history's first mentor, a wise and trusted counselor and teacher--decorate the Web pages of the University of Alabama's Office of Postdoctoral Education (OPE). Athena seemed a fitting image, says Sadis Matalon, associate dean for postdoctoral education at UAB, since the research director plays such an important role in the life of a postdoctoral scientist.

"Plus, I'm Greek!" says Matalon.

UAB is just one of several universities that have established formal offices to serve the needs of postdoctoral fellows, though the Birmingham program is further along in its development than many others.

The OPE Web site was just one of the achievements that Matalon and Sharon Johnston, the OPE program coordinator, accomplished since he assumed his new administrative role in March 2001. Matalon, professor of anesthesiology at UAB since 1987, made the move to the OPE because, as he says, "the thing I have enjoyed most during my career is interacting with young people. I enjoy seeing them develop into young investigators."

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Interacting with postdocs is what Matalon is doing. One of his first steps as the new dean of the OPE was to initiate lunchtime roundtable discussions during which he and Johnston meet weekly with five or six different postdocs and "ask them to tell us what they like and do not like about Birmingham," according to Matalon. "The discussions have been very candid and open," he says, although he discourages public comments about specific PIs. At first, some postdocs are unwilling to talk, but "they open up as they hear other people voicing concerns and problems," Matalon says. So far, they've met with 100 to 130 of UAB's 300 postdocs.

Matalon still maintains a large, active research lab on campus. And although this is his "first truly administrative job," he says that "it feels like I have been training all my life for this." When asked if he's had to learn new skills or how to maneuver through new administrative channels, Matalon says the job has required "no great adjustments, although one of the things I've had to do is sleep less!" But, as he says, "I absolutely love it!"

Matalon's ambition and enthusiasm are only part of the equation. "I have all of these ideas about what we should be doing, but the nuts and bolts take Sharon's talents. I believe strongly that the dean has to be an example. You can't tell postdocs how to get grants if you can't get them yourself. This is extremely important," Matalon says. "The office needs somebody who is well-versed in teaching and research." At the same time, the office also needs somebody who can take care of the human side of the equation, someone with human resources experience, and that somebody is Johnston.

Philip Clifford, director of the new Office of Postdoctoral Education at the Medical College of Milwaukee (MCW), agrees. Clifford describes himself as a "basic scientist" who still maintains an active research lab on campus. He took on the 20% director position when the office opened in July 2001. Like Matalon, Clifford believes that it is very important that there be a scientist--someone who knows what it takes to train a postdoc--in the office. He also believes that it is important for the office to include someone with a human resources background. However, it is not very realistic to expect to have even one, let alone two, fulltime people in the office, Clifford says, especially at smaller schools like MCW, which has about 160 postdocs. Clifford has had to take on the human resources role himself, which has been one of the greatest challenges of his new job: learning what human resources offices do and how they do it.

Even though MCW's Office of Postdoctoral Education only recently opened, there was a long history of discussion and behind-the-scenes effort, says Clifford, in which he was 100% involved. The dean, Clifford, and others had been talking for a couple of years before it was finally decided, in January 2001, that an office would open and Clifford would head it with help from a half-time administrative assistant.

What prompted somebody like Clifford, who had no prior administrative experience, to not only take on an administrative role but also to do the legwork to get the position established in the first place? Having been on both sides of the postdoc-PI relationship, Clifford has seen that PIs "don't always have the skills needed to train fellows to move on to the next level. There should be somebody who can be an advocate for postdoc fellows, someone to take them under their wing."

Right now, MCW's Office of Postdoctoral Education's main goal is to "formalize policy and procedures," says Clifford. He'd like to create a Web site akin to UAB's. And, like Matalon at UAB, Clifford wants the postdocs to "set the agenda and begin to tell me what they think they need." Clifford has established a postdoc advisory committee to help him shape the future of the office.

Although the postdoc advisory committee had not met yet when we spoke, Clifford expects the committee to spend its time planning career training seminars in conjunction with the graduate school, arranging informal meetings for postdocs to network and share trouble-shooting ideas, and developing ESL courses for foreign postdocs.

"I'm very pleased with the way things are going so far," Clifford says, "and the postdocs are excited that the medical school has recognized them, so there's this anticipation. There's a very strong commitment from the administration of the medical college for doing this." Although it's too early to assess the impact of the new office, Clifford says he'll be reviewing the program regularly to monitor how well it is meeting the goals he has set for it.

Clifford will also be reviewing his own research program to make sure he is still doing what he needs to do to keep it going. He says the "jury's still out" on whether his new role will impact his research. Particularly in these early stages, he says, "you would expect it to take more effort to get things going. It's a really busy time." When things do get going, he hopes to be rewarded with the same kind of personal satisfaction that comes from teaching, that feeling you get when "you manage to make clear a really difficult point."

"I expect I'll get that satisfaction, but I won't until we actually accomplish something."