Investing in Postdoctoral Research: The Frederick Gardner Cottrell Postdoctoral Enhancement Awards


Partnerships between the private sector and public institutions can be critical in helping translate high-quality biomedical research into products for the clinic. One foundation also sees them as a way to improve the postdoctoral experience.

Research Corporation Technologies ( RCT) in Tucson, Arizona, makes it its business to identify and support technology-transfer opportunities at early stages in their development and to help them succeed commercially. In 1999, RCT formed the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Foundation to provide financial support for significant research and education programs at qualified nonprofit organizations. RCT named the foundation in honor of the university professor and inventor who championed the transfer of academic innovation to public use (see sidebar).

Who Is F. G. Cottrell?

In the early 1900s, Frederick Gardner Cottrell was a professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. Cottrell invented the electrostatic precipitator, a technology that both reduced air pollution and recovered valuable materials from smokestack emissions. He believed that many ideas born in academic and other research laboratories were going to waste. In 1912, he founded Research Corporation with assistance from Charles D. Walcott, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and a small group of people from the U.S. industrial and financial communities.

Research Corporation became an important source of support for academic research. In the 1930s, Research Corporation launched a formal technology-transfer program to meet its principal purpose of bringing the products of scientific research to public use. To further expand and improve its technology-transfer program, Research Corporation incorporated Research Corporation Technologies (RCT) in 1987. The privately held RCT designs and implements new technology investment and commercialization programs and has expanded Cottrell's vision worldwide.

Establishing a Rapport With Postdocs

One of the foremost initiatives of the Cottrell Foundation is to provide targeted grants to selected universities for postdoctoral awards. The foundation hopes the grants will enhance the quality of research at those universities by using generous stipends to attract outstanding postdocs. In addition, RCT is also gaining a clearer understanding of the programs, challenges, and issues of postdocs within the biomedical research community. Neither the foundation nor RCT makes any claim to awardee intellectual property, nor do they expect inventions. Indeed, the foundation has no influence on the specific research of the awardees.

As part of its postdoc initiative, the foundation plans to fund an annual retreat for Cottrell-funded postdocs. The foundation envisions the retreat as an opportunity for the postdocs to share research perspectives and for RCT to share views on the interaction of basic biomedical research with the development of clinical applications.

The foundation is rolling out its postdoctoral initiative in the southern United States. In 2001, the foundation made its first award to the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB). This year, the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill, was awarded a grant. For these initial awards, the foundation has worked closely with each university to create and tailor a Cottrell Postdoc Awards program suitable to specific institutional contexts. As a result, the programs at UAB and UNC are unique in their purpose and scope.

UAB: Rewarding Excellence

When looking for a host university at which to launch its postdoctoral initiative, a well-developed postdoctoral program became an important requirement, along with a first-rate biomedical research program. "RCT has a long history of interactions with UAB and has high respect for the research enterprise, administrators, and decision-makers at UAB," says Scott Pyron, RCT's business development director for the southern United States.

The foundation takes seriously the business of developing relationships, and it investigated whether UAB would be a good match for the postdoc initiative. Pyron first approached Richard Marchase, senior associate dean for biomedical research at UAB, for his general response to the proposed postdoc initiative. In turn, Marchase introduced Pyron to the UAB Graduate School's Office of Postdoctoral Education ( OPE) and to Sadis Matalon, associate dean for postdoctoral education.

Sadis Matalon, R. Scott Pyron, and Richard B. Marchase

Together, UAB, Pyron, and the foundation worked out the details of the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Postdoctoral Enhancement Awards program. UAB has since approached the Southern Research Institute and secured matching funds to increase both the number of awards and the duration of the program. Over the next 4 years, the program will select 17 postdoctoral scholars, each of whom will receive a minimum annual stipend of $50,000 plus $3500 for professional development. "The Cottrell fellows will be asked to chair various symposia and workshops sponsored by the OPE and will help recruit postdoctoral fellows," says Matalon. UAB expects that awardees will be very competitive for faculty appointments following their postdoctoral term.

In this first year of the program, UAB has named two awardees, Jode Edwards and Zeev Pancer, both of whom are looking toward careers in academia. Edwards, a statistical geneticist, says, "Without the postdoctoral fellowship award, I might not have been able to pursue my goal of an academic career." For Pancer, the award enabled his return to academic research in the United States after holding a position with a biotech company in Israel. Pancer believes that "the establishment of the foundation by a venture-capital firm will facilitate mutually beneficial collaboration [between] industry and basic science in order to achieve useful applications for human health."

UNC: Promoting Cross-Disciplinary Research

When Pyron contacted UNC, he anticipated a program similar to that at UAB. But because administrators there were of the opinion that postdocs are looking not only for an exciting scientific environment but also professional and career development, UNC created a different kind of award. Instead of focusing primarily on stipend level to attract the best postdocs, the UNC Cottrell Postdoc Award will support postdocs interested in cross-disciplinary research--proteomics, genomics, biocomputing--with a focus on biomedicine.

The UNC Cottrell Postdoc Award will provide a research allowance, opportunities for teaching, and tuition support for awardees pursuing--on or off campus--cross-disciplinary training. In addition, UNC will provide funds to cover moving expenses and to purchase a top-of-the-line laptop computer in the first year. The research allowance is not intended to replace funds normally provided by principal investigators (PIs), rather it will supplement them by allowing fellows to, for example, hire undergraduate research assistants, travel to specialized courses or scientific conferences, and the like.

UNC Cottrell Postdoctoral Fellows will have considerable freedom to direct these funds toward their most critical educational needs. UNC believes that this freedom to spend a pool of (albeit relatively modest) research funds will be an excellent recruiting tool that will help attract postdoctoral fellows with exceptional promise. "We will also encourage postdocs to develop some level of independence by having more than one mentor," says Sharon Milgram, a professor of cell and developmental biology and faculty adviser for the UNC Office of Postdoctoral Services.

Sharon Milgram

With additional support from its School of Medicine, UNC anticipates giving two Cottrell Postdoc Awards per year. Postdocs will receive a stipend of $42,000, plus a $10,000 research allowance. As at UAB, special effort will be made to involve the fellows' PIs, who are critical to the program's success.

Future Plans

Both UAB and UNC are using the Cottrell program to attract outstanding postdocs, recognizing the impact postdocs can have on the larger science community and on the university. Explained Pyron, "They each take a somewhat different tack to get there. It will be interesting to follow each of the programs after a couple of years." One measure of program success for the foundation will be seeing the majority of the awardees pursuing academic careers. At the same time, Pyron emphasized, "If we construct effective mentoring and educational processes, true leaders will emerge, no matter what their career goals."

Depending on the success of its postdoctoral initiative, the Cottrell Foundation may broaden its programs to include different kinds of grants. "The emphasis on postdocs is new," Pyron said, "and it is unpredictable how the program will play out." Whether future awards will include grants for broader career-development programs remains to be seen. Certainly, ongoing interactions with UAB and UNC will contribute to the evolution of the program. Because neither RCT nor the Cottrell Foundation has had prior involvement with postdocs, Pyron believes that the experience has already been educational and stimulating.

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