Making connections: Princeton's postdoc community

April 25, 2016 noon

The statement "I am a postdoc" can bring about a baffled response. 

It means "postdoctoral," as in having completed a Ph.D. And for a growing number of postdocs at Princeton it means more than that — it means being part of a community of researchers who contribute to the intellectual life of the University. 

Princeton has some 600 postdocs. They are members of the academic staff whose areas of expertise span the disciplines. They come from universities across the country and around the world.

The Office of the Dean of the Faculty handles all postdoctoral appointments and reappointments. Bi-monthly orientations introduce new postdocs to the University. Most appointments are for one to five years, depending on the field. Postdocs — postdoctoral research associates, postdoctoral research fellows and visiting postdoctoral research associates — join the Princeton community throughout the calendar year and may receive funding from external sources as well as the University. 

Princeton postdocs: Daniel Grimes, Denys Bondar, François Laforge, Anja Metelmann

There are around 600 postdoctoral researchers at Princeton who form a community that contributes in a variety of ways to the intellectual life of the University. The Postdoctoral Council (PDC) organizes events to bring postdocs together, such as its seminar series where researchers present their work. From left, Daniel Grimes, a postdoctoral research associate in molecular biology, speaks about his work at a recent seminar. In the audience are PDC officers, from left, Denys Bondar and François Laforge, both associate research scholars in chemistry, and Anja Metelmann, a postdoctoral research associate in electrical engineering. (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications)

"Postdocs are a very important part of intellectual life on the Princeton campus," said Deborah Prentice, dean of the faculty and the Alexander Stewart 1886 Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs. "They are fully trained scholars, prepared to launch their own teaching and research careers, who have come to Princeton to gain exposure to new fields, new ideas and new methodologies. They are a great source of fresh energy and novel perspectives."

For a population with such variety and flux, creating a sense of place at Princeton is important. Last October, the University officially recognized the Princeton Postdoctoral Council (PDC), establishing an organizational entity to more cohesively bring postdocs together socially and professionally.

Yan Shvartzshnaider, a visiting postdoctoral research associate who has a Ph.D. in software engineering from the University of Sydney, has been a key organizer with the PDC and is one of seven officers who volunteer their time to organize events and share information.

"The council offers an umbrella organization for postdocs," Shvartzshnaider said. "It tells postdocs that there is a community behind you."

Princeton postdocs workshop

Postdocs attend a workshop in the Frick Chemistry Building organized by the PDC on CV and cover letter writing led by John Weeren and Stephanie Whetstone of the Princeton Writes program. (Photo by Danielle Alio, Office of Communications)

Most postdoctoral positions at Princeton are in the natural sciences and engineering, and more than 500 postdocs are in these areas, with nearly 100 in the social sciences and humanities. 

"Postdocs at Princeton are engaged in mentored research for a temporary period," said Lisa Scalice, assistant dean of the faculty whose responsibilities include working with postdocs. "Postdoc positions generally offer preparation for careers in academia and industry and help researchers build a network."  

The PDC invites all postdocs to get to know each other. "I am a huge believer in random interactions," said Shvartzshnaider, who encourages postdocs to make cross-disciplinary connections and "feel more than part of a department." 

Shvartzshnaider and the other officers of the PDC meet monthly to plan events and future initiatives for Princeton's postdocs. There is an "ask a postdoc" listserv that allows postdocs to seek guidance from peers and share information about a range of matters. 

Recurring professional and social events organized through the PDC include:

• seminar talks for postdocs to present their research; 

• career and information sessions;

• workshops on writing CVs and cover letters led by Princeton Writes program in the Office of Human Resources;

• mentorship events with fellow postdocs and graduate students;

• happy hours, lunches and movie nights; and

• mix-and-mingle events, including with graduate students, such as monthly coffee meet-ups.

The PDC also is pursuing ways postdocs can work with the Princeton Writing Center through a pilot writing course and is hoping to deepen connections with Career Services and the Davis International Center. There is also an interest in exploring social activities such as sports — playing and watching — and museum trips. 

"It's important that postdocs mentor graduate students," said Chaevia Clendinen, diversity initiatives specialist in the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School who received her Ph.D. in molecular biology from Princeton and was a postdoc for a brief time. 

Clendinen, who as a graduate student served as president of Princeton's Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (GWISE), said, "A large number of graduate students will go on to do postdocs so it is helpful to learn how to navigate that and how to develop networks and connections." The PDC and GWISE recently organized a mentoring program for graduate student women.  

Many postdocs also engage with undergraduate students as teachers and mentors; although their main priority is research, postdocs may teach up to a course a semester. One of the initiatives announced last May as part of the University's efforts to increase the intellectual diversity of the classroom is the piloting of three-year postdoctoral research associate positions in cultural studies, funded by the Provost's Fund for Cultural Studies.

Below are some perspectives from Princeton postdocs.

Princeton postdocs Yan Shvartzshnaider and Vanisha Lakhina

Vanisha Lakhina, left, a postdoctoral research associate in the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, talks to fellow PDC officer Yan Shvartzshnaider, a visiting postdoctoral research associate in electrical engineering. The two have worked diligently to develop social and educational programming for fellow postdocs at Princeton. (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications)

Vanisha Lakhina

Postdoctoral research associate, Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics; Ph.D., neuroscience, University of Pennsylvania; came to Princeton in March 2012

Why did you decide to take a postdoc at Princeton?

I came to Princeton primarily because I got really excited about the research going on in Coleen Murphy's lab; she is a professor of molecular biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics. The Murphy lab uses a tiny nematode worm (called C. elegans) with a simple nervous system of only 302 neurons to address important questions in neuroscience. The lab has extensive expertise in studying age-related decline spanning a variety of health parameters from cognition to reproduction; these studies are instrumental to extending healthy life with age. My previous work focused on understanding how brain circuits are generated in mouse and zebrafish embryos during development. I was keen to use C. elegans to understand how neuronal function changes with age in order to prolong healthy brain activity in older animals, including humans.

What are your main responsibilities as a postdoctoral research associate?

My primary responsibility is conducting my research projects and publishing the results, peer-reviewing papers, publishing literature reviews and writing grants. In addition, I have served as an instructor for the summer undergraduate research course and also mentored students in the lab. I am currently working on three different projects investigating how neuronal function changes during development or aging. I am identifying genes that mediate the age-related decline of long-term memory and the ability of injured neurons to repair themselves. I am also investigating the genetic basis of a dispersal behavior that is specific to a developmental stage in the C. elegans life cycle.

What does this postdoc allow you to do that you most value?

This postdoc has allowed me to greatly expand my skillset. I have started new projects in the lab and learned several novel techniques in the process. I also had the opportunity to grow intellectually by exploring diverse avenues of research.

What does the postdoc community mean to you?

Being a postdoc brings with it some unique challenges because of the stage you are in your career and your life in general. I believe that the postdoc community is a great source of camaraderie and support, especially in "postdoc-specific" situations where only other postdocs can help provide solutions. I also find it very rewarding and fun to meet postdocs from all over the world.

On being a PDC officer:

At the time that I became a PDC officer (2012), there were barely any events for postdocs, and I joined the PDC because I felt it was important to help establish a vibrant postdoctoral community. We are very fortunate that now the dean of the faculty's office fully supports us. My favorite activities are the monthly seminar series because I get to hear about all the amazing research that postdocs are doing right here at Princeton and the happy hours and lunches, which are a nice way to take a break from the lab and hang out with my fellow postdocs.

Princeton postdocs: James Lo, Elham Shirvani, Ricardo Martinez-Garcia, Elizabeth Roberto, sociology, Vanisha Lakhina

Princeton's postdocs often say that they value the opportunity to delve deeply into their research, while also benefiting from the broader academic community. Above, postdocs meet before a seminar talk at Lewis Library (from left): James Lo, politics; Elham Shirvani, molecular biology; Ricardo Martinez-Garcia, ecology and evolutionary biology; Elizabeth Roberto, sociology; and Vanisha Lakhina, Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics. (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications)

James Lo

Postdoctoral research associate, Department of Politics; Ph.D. in political science from the University of California-Los Angeles; came to Princeton in September 2014

Why did you decide to take a postdoc at Princeton?

My research focuses on political methodology — that is, the application of statistics to the study of political science. From my perspective, Princeton is one of the best places to get postdoctoral training in this area. The research group I am part of includes a number of faculty working in this area, as well as multiple postdocs, which is very uncommon in my subfield. In addition, the Program for Quantitative and Analytical Political Science, which my postdoc is affiliated with, features a regular external speaker series, research group and reading group. For someone interested in pursuing an academic career in what I am doing, it is truly difficult to imagine a better place to be.

What are you working on?

I'm working with Professor of Politics Kosuke Imai, who is a leader in the field of quantitative social science. I primarily get to work on new research projects with him, and the main project I worked on at Princeton develops techniques to estimate "latent trait" models with Big Data. Originally this type of model was developed for estimating test-taking ability from tests like the SAT, but it turns out these models are also widely used to study a range of political phenomena, such as voting in Congress. In addition to research, I've had the opportunity to teach my own class through the Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI), a summer program for incoming Princeton students. I also offer statistical consulting services to students for a few hours each week, which helps me stay connected to what other students on campus are doing. Lots of people at Princeton are doing really interesting work!

What does this postdoc allow you to do that you most value?

The postdoc gives me two equally important things. First, it gives me a period of time when I can really just focus on research with relatively few distractions. Time becomes increasingly scarce as you climb the academic ladder. Other than on academic sabbaticals, it's difficult to imagine any other period of time in my career that I could focus on research with this level of intensity. Second, I am surrounded by a terrific academic community. I have learned so much not only from my adviser, but also from the other postdocs and grad students who are part of my research group. Academic community really matters a lot.

What does the postdoc community mean to you? 

The postdoc community in my department in particular has been very important to me — I am lucky to have a few postdocs in my research group. We've not only learned a lot academically from each other, but it's been really great to have other people to talk to who understand the unique challenges that postdocs face. For me, this was particularly true when I went on the academic job market. I was lucky to have a lot of support from people, and without that support the process would have been far more difficult than it otherwise was. I'll be an assistant professor at the University of Southern California this fall. 

Have you attended events hosted by PDC? If so, what?

I've attended a few of the monthly postdoc happy hours. They were a lot of fun and I had a great time at them. One issue with being a postdoc (not just at Princeton) is that you can sometimes feel quite isolated. You're not a student in classes with other students, so there are fewer opportunities to meet people. The monthly happy hours are a great opportunity to meet people and feel like you are a part of something bigger. 

Princeton postdocs: Vanisha Lakhina, Ricardo Martinez-Garcia, Elizabeth Roberto

Lakhina, Martinez-Garcia and Roberto regularly attend PDC events, and Roberto will be giving a seminar talk on her work next month. (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications)

Ricardo Martinez-Garcia

Postdoctoral research associate, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Ph.D. in physics from the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Physics and Complex Systems, a joint center of the University of the Balearic Islands and the Spanish National Research Council, Mallorca, Spain; came to Princeton in August 2014

Why did you decide to take a postdoc at Princeton?

Before coming here I had developed my career in small institutions. For my postdoc I wanted to experience being part of a big community in order to broaden my horizons and learn about different topics. In addition, working at Princeton allows you to carry out cutting-edge research in your field. 

What are you working on?

I am interested in understanding how individual interactions within biological systems can lead to the emergence of complex structures. My research at Princeton focuses on the development of a mathematical framework to understand how multicellular life evolved on Earth from single-cellular organisms. I work with Corina Tarnita, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

What does this postdoc allow you to do that you most value?

The Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton is a world-leading center in the study of biological problems from a mathematical point of view. This postdoc is allowing me to acquire additional training in biology exploring new ideas and research lines. I also value highly the possibility of establishing collaborations with experimental groups.

What does the postdoc community mean to you?

Having a lively and international postdoc community is very helpful to settle in the town and meet new people in your same circumstances and with similar interests. 

Have you attended events hosted by PDC? If so, what?

Yes, I have attended some PDC seminars. It is a great opportunity to get an overall impression of what are people doing in other departments.

Princeton postdocs: Alecia McGregor, fifth from left

Postdoctoral research associate Alecia McGregor, fifth from left, decided to take a postdoc at Princeton because of its interdisciplinary approach to studying global health. Above, she visited the University of São Paulo Faculty of Public Health last June with undergraduate and graduate students who were the 2015 Princeton Brazil Global Fellows. At fourth from left is Helena Ribeiro, a faculty member at USP. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Environmental Health, University of São Paulo Faculty of Public Health)

Alecia McGregor

Postdoctoral research associate, Woodrow Wilson School and the Program in Global Health and Health Policy; Ph.D. in health policy from Harvard University; came to Princeton in September 2014

Why did you decide to take a postdoc at Princeton?

I chose to take a postdoc in global health and health policy at Princeton because of my desire to grow in a broad, rich intellectual environment that values interdisciplinary training. I hoped to learn from scholars in the social sciences and the humanities about the historical and institutional factors driving health inequalities, across race, class and geography. In my view, public policy research has a lot to gain from history and I hoped to add this dimension to my own research.  

What are your main responsibilities? 

I am mainly responsible for teaching, program development and mentoring within the Program in Global Health and Health Policy. I also design and conduct health policy research locally and in Brazil. I am teaching the undergraduate course "Mortality at the Margins: Race, Inequality and Health Policy in the United States" this semester, which has been a truly rewarding experience.

What does this postdoc allow you to do that you most value?

This postdoc allows me to investigate health policy issues using tools from many social science fields. I also value the opportunity to work with students from a wide variety of disciplines, such as ecology and evolutionary biology, economics and comparative literature. They offer fresh perspectives on health and public policy and broaden class discussion in unimaginable ways. 

What does the postdoc community mean to you?

The postdoc community provides a collegial and vibrant space for sharing work-in-progress, brainstorming ideas, and offering support in the job search. I deeply value the colleagues and friends that I have made during my time here.  

Elizabeth Roberto

Postdoctoral research associate, Department of Sociology; Ph.D. in sociology, Yale University; came to Princeton in July 2015

Why did you decide to take a postdoc at Princeton?

I received a James S. McDonnell Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship Award in Studying Complex Systems. The fellowship provides funding for a two-year postdoctoral position, and it allowed me to identify a university where I wanted to take the fellowship. When I visited the sociology department at Princeton, I found it to be a stimulating intellectual community. It seemed like a great place to come for my postdoc. Since starting in July, I have absolutely found that to be true.

What are you working on?

The postdoc allows me to advance my research on the spatial dynamics of social inequality. My research examines spatial boundaries, such as rivers, highways and train tracks, and how they structure patterns of residential segregation in U.S. cities. For example, in St. Louis there is a north-south racial divide along Delmar Boulevard, which separates white and black residents. Boundaries can create both physical and social distance between residents, as exemplified by the common metaphor, "the other side of the tracks." I'm using my time as a postdoc to better understand how a city's topography and regional context shape the spatial dynamics of social inequality, including residential and school segregation, as well as differences in residents' exposure to crime and violence.

What does the postdoc community mean to you?

When I arrived at Princeton last summer, I was glad to find that there was an active community of postdocs on campus. I'm fortunate to have amazing colleagues who are postdocs in sociology and other social science departments at Princeton. We get together regularly to offer feedback on each others' papers and share ideas.

The PDC has a been a great resource for tips about the University and the local area. I'm looking forward to presenting my research in the monthly Postdoc Seminar Series on May 19.

Yan Shvartzshnaider

Visiting postdoctoral research associate, Department of Electrical Engineering; Ph.D. in software engineering from the University of Sydney; came to Princeton in January 2015

Why did you decide to take a postdoc at Princeton?

Princeton offers a unique opportunity to work alongside some of the leading researchers in my field.

What are you working on?

In a nutshell, I am working on building privacy-preserving information systems. My research is part of an ongoing Princeton/New York University collaboration project that looks at capturing users' privacy expectations and verifying that they are consistent with what's enforced by the underlying system's privacy policies. 

What does the postdoc community mean to you?

Friendship: A postdoc community to me is an opportunity to meet, learn, share ideas and ultimately become good friends with great people from all around the country and the world. 

Support: As postdocs we are faced with many similar issues. It is important to have a community on which you can rely for advice and a source for learning from experiences of others. 

Innovation: Great things happen when people from different disciplines and backgrounds have an opportunity to meet and discuss their work. A lot of the great innovations come from multidisciplinary collaborations and interactions. A community that comes together to share ideas can serve as a catalyst for great advances in the world.

Networking: Princeton attracts some of the greatest minds in the world. Many people will move on to take top industry and academic positions. This makes the postdoc community a great place to foster strong professional relationships, which can help with career moves in the future.

Why are you so interested in building up the PDC?

I believe PDC has an important role to play in improving postdocs' tenure at Princeton. This is a unique opportunity to make a lasting difference by building a welcoming and supportive environment for postdocs across all departments and disciplines.