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Teaching Postdocs to Be Professors

CREDIT: Simon.bastien, Wikimedia Commons

Biomedical science has accomplished much in recent years, but one area in which it has made only minimal progress is increasing the diversity of scientists working in its ranks. Women are still dramatically outnumbered (and outranked) on the faculties of universities and academic medical centers, although their numbers have risen steadily. The proportion of biomedical scientists from other underrepresented groups—which the National Institutes of Health defines as including but not limited to African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and native U.S. Pacific Islanders—has increased more slowly. In 2006, underrepresented minorities accounted for fewer than 10% of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) faculty members at research universities in the United States; they make up 28.5% of the general population.

<p>Yvonne Paterson</p>

Yvonne Paterson

Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania

For 14 years, a National Institute of General Medical Services (NIGMS) initiative has worked to increase those numbers. The Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards (IRACDA) program has supported some 550 postdocs from a wide variety of backgrounds, placing most of them in tenure-track faculty jobs. The formula employed by the program's participating consortia—partnering a research-intensive institution with one or more institutions with a large minority enrollment—combines a mentored research experience with structured training in academic career skills, especially teaching. More than two-thirds of IRACDA graduates end up in academic careers, most of them at teaching-focused and minority-serving institutions.

What the program allowed me to do was demonstrate that I could teach an established course and also design my own course and teach it effectively. And it showed that I could balance teaching and research.

—James Muñoz

Research plus pedagogy

The following is a list of all current IRACDA host institutions:

Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University 

Baylor College of Medicine

Emory University School of Medicine

Medical University of South Carolina

Northwestern University 

Stanford University

Stony Brook University

Tufts University

University of Alabama, Birmingham 

University of Arizona

University of California, San Diego

University of California, San Francisco 

University of Kansas, Lawrence

University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey

University of Minnesota, Duluth

University of New Mexico 

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

University of Pennsylvania

Virginia Commonwealth University

A map that includes participating minority-serving institutions can be found here.

IRACDA provides money to the 19 research-intensive "host" institutions, which they use to enlist and train postdocs. After being admitted to the program, postdocs seek out a research adviser at the host institution; an intensive research experience is at the core of the IRACDA program. But, in contrast to most other postdoc programs, IRACDA postdocs spend a significant part of their time taking pedagogy courses, including special instruction in how best to engage minority students. IRACDA postdocs spend the better portion of a year teaching classes at a nearby partner institution; there are 42 such institutions in all. IRACDA postdocs may fill in for a professor at the partner institution who is away on sabbatical, or teach courses that partner-institution faculty members aren't prepared to teach.

IRACDA postdocs also invite their students to participate in research at their host institution's labs, including summer research programs. Professors at the partner institutions may also take part in the research program, strengthening ties between the institutions.

At the University of Pennsylvania's PENN Postdoctoral Opportunities in Research and Teaching (PENN-PORT) program, which just had its 5-year IRACDA grant renewed for a second term, first-year postdocs spend about 85% of their time doing mentored research and about 15% taking pedagogy classes and preparing to teach at one of three minority-serving institutions nearby: Lincoln University, which is recognized as the United States' first historically black university, in unincorporated southern Pennsylvania; Delaware County Community College (DCCC), which is in Pennsylvania; and Rutgers University, Camden, in New Jersey. Postdocs spend most of their time during the second year teaching at their matched institution: first an introductory biology course and then an advanced seminar that they design themselves. In the final year, postdocs devote themselves entirely to research.

At any given time, PENN-PORT is host to between 15 and 20 postdocs, although only 15 are funded by the IRACDA grant; the rest are funded from other sources. Postdocs participating in the program don’t have to be underrepresented minorities, but about three-quarters are. (All of the postdocs Science Careers spoke to are minorities.) "The postdocs who go out into these schools are a real rainbow coalition," says PENN-PORT Director Yvonne Paterson.

Meet (some of) the postdocs:

Michael Wheeler Lipscomb

The opportunity to work at minority-serving colleges, helping train the next generation of scientists, was a major motivation for several of PENN-PORT's former postdocs, including Michael Wheeler Lipscomb, who was recruited by PENN-PORT officials while studying at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was doing a Ph.D. in immunology.

Teaching at Lincoln University afforded Lipscomb, who is now an assistant professor in the biology department at Howard University in Washington, D.C., a cultural opportunity he says he missed as an African American who went to "majority" schools most of his life. "It's pretty important for me because I didn't have the historically black college experience as an undergraduate or graduate … so it was a great opportunity for me to immerse myself in the culture."

Lipscomb continued his immunology research as an IRACDA postdoc, studying the interaction between dendritic cells and T cells in the lab of Janis K. Burkhardt. Now that he's at Howard, he says, he's been able to remain productive despite a heavy teaching load. He regularly recruits undergraduates to work in his lab and uses his research to reinforce his department's curriculum. "There's no doubt in my mind that I want to blend research and teaching," he says.

<p>Michael Wheeler Lipscomb (far right) and his biology class at Howard University.</p>

Michael Wheeler Lipscomb (far right) and his biology class at Howard University.

Courtesy of Michael Wheeler Lipscomb

Behzad Varamini

Behzad Varamini, who did a Ph.D. in nutrition at Cornell University before entering the PENN-PORT program, relished the opportunity to make science click for students who had previously struggled with scientific concepts. His previous teaching experience was limited to being a teaching assistant at Cornell, instructing a predominantly white student body. During his PENN-PORT postdoc, Varamini taught at DCCC, where nearly 75% of his students were minorities. "That demographic presented different challenges [than the Cornell students], some of which I was ready for thanks to the classes I'd taken at Penn, and some of it you can't be prepared for until you're thrown in."

Over time, Varamini says, he learned to relate to his students and to adapt his teaching style to their varied educational and cultural backgrounds. "I saw students who came into my classes with their heads down, texting, and by the end of the semester they were asking me questions [like] 'How does this relate to diabetes?' or 'My grandma has cancer; is this sort of related to cancer?' "

<p>Behzad Varamini</p>

Behzad Varamini

Courtesy of Behzad Varamini

At PENN-PORT, Varamini worked in the research lab of physiology professor Joseph A. Baur, studying the molecular mechanisms of aging in transgenic mice. He produced one first-author paper and co-authored another during his postdoc.

Today, as a faculty member at Biola University in La Mirada, California, Varamini is finding it difficult to keep up his research output. Biola lacks an animal facility, for one, and he's swamped with a teaching load that includes physiology, an introductory biology lab section, and an advanced seminar on biological research methods, all in one semester. One of his colleagues studies aging in nematodes (Caenorhabditis elegans), and he's considering changing his model organism. "I either have to figure out a way to collaborate with someone in the nearby area or [I] have to adapt my models to C. elegans, which I'm ... trying to figure out how to do right now," he says.

James Muñoz

James Muñoz spent the first 2 years of his PENN-PORT postdoc doing research with neuroscientist Philip Haydon, studying how astrocytes affect neuronal function. When Haydon accepted a professorship at Tufts University (another IRACDA host) in Medford, Massachusetts, Muñoz decided not to go with him because his wife was in the middle of a medical residency at the University of Pennsylvania. Neither he nor his wife was eager to uproot their lives. So, Muñoz scrambled to find a new mentor and ended up working with neuroscientist Matthew Dalva.

<p>James Muñoz</p>

James Muñoz

Courtesy of Nova Southeastern University

Teaching general biology at Rutgers University, Camden, and then an advanced biology seminar at Lincoln University, Muñoz found it difficult—yet rewarding—to balance lesson-planning and lab time. "Teaching, just like research, will take every minute you're willing to give it," he says. "It helped me learn to start balancing these things as a postdoc rather than as a new faculty member."

Now an assistant professor in the Division of Math, Science, and Technology at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Muñoz is working to adapt his research to the constraints of a teaching-focused institution. Like Varamini, his institution lacks an animal facility, so he's now working on neurogenesis in fish.

A competitive edge

Despite the challenge of teaching heavy loads while continuing to conduct research, these postdocs are all grateful that they were able to find good jobs in academia. The job market for teaching-focused positions in academia is a bit better than it is for research-based positions, Paterson says, which could be encouraging some postdocs who otherwise would have pursued research-intensive careers to think about teaching.

<p>Shiva Singh</p>

Shiva Singh

Courtesy of NIGMS

That's what happened to Muñoz. He began his doctoral program at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, with the aim of becoming a professor at a research university, but eventually realized he didn't like the idea of devoting his whole career to research. He pursued a PENN-PORT postdoc to make himself more competitive for faculty positions with a greater emphasis on teaching. That experience, he says, helped him land his job. "What the program allowed me to do was demonstrate that I could teach an established course and also design my own course and teach it effectively," he says. "And it showed that I could balance teaching and research."

Varamini had a similar experience. "A lot of the schools I interviewed with expressed to me, 'Hey, you have something that a lot of other folks don't.' And I think that's what got me a few of my interviews and eventually my job."

IRACDA Director Shiva Singh, chief of the Undergraduate and Predoctoral Training Branch in NIGMS's Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity, has tracked the outcomes of the approximately 350 postdocs who have completed the IRACDA program. Of those, 69% took jobs in academia, nearly three-quarters of which were at teaching-focused colleges and minority institutions. Twenty-one percent found work at government agencies, nonprofits, or other educational organizations, and 10% took jobs in industry. Apparently, Singh says, IRACDA postdocs are finding academic jobs at a higher rate than their peers who do traditional postdocs. "Especially in the current jobs climate, I think the more tools we can give to the postdoc, the more skills we can teach them, the more likely they're going to find a job," he says.