Fostering Community and Connection for Postdocs
Next Generation is a BWH Clinical & Research News (CRN) column penned by students, residents, fellows and postdocs. This month, Ashley Ogawa-Wong, PhD, a research fellow in the Department of Medicine, shares her experiences as a postdoc and how participating in the BWH Postdoctoral Leadership Council has allowed her to extend her postdoc training beyond the bench.
I came from a small graduate program at the University of Hawaii, a school that had limited resources due to its physical location. Experiments that used specialized equipment such as RNA-sequencing required coordination with a core facility across the Pacific Ocean. Imagine my first day at the Brigham — talk about a wide-eyed kid at a candy store! I thought to myself: “Same-day DNA sequencing?! I’m going to publish in Nature in no time!” When I came to the Brigham in 2017, I was in awe of the fact that if there was a technique I wanted to learn or a research project I wanted to pursue, more than likely there was an expert on site whom I could contact.
But I soon came to find that being at a large institution can also be strangely isolating. Labs are spread out throughout the Longwood Medical Area, and although there are more than 900 BWH postdocs, I interact with fewer than five postdocs daily. One of them, Jessica Hall, PhD, works with me in the Department of Medicine and our labs are next to each other. She’s also the co-vice president of the BWH Postdoctoral Leadership Council (PLC), the governing body of the Postdoc Association (PDA). From my first day in the lab, she encouraged me to join the PLC. What initially piqued my interest was that she mentioned her involvement with the PLC cultivated some of her closest friendships. Making friends at an age where many people are starting to settle down is difficult, so I welcomed the social aspect. In addition, former PLC members who have transitioned out of their postdoc positions attributed their success to the translational skills they developed during their time with the organization. This struck a chord with me because like most postdocs, I had worked hard to hone my hard skills, but other areas such as leadership and networking were neglected.
I feel lucky that I had Jess, whom I call my “big sister,” to help me transition during the first few months of my postdoctoral fellowship. When I arrived at the Brigham, I was overwhelmed by the information presented to me at orientation. It helped to have someone point out the most useful benefits. Through Jess, I quickly learned the ropes on how to keep up with professional development opportunities and social events. Attending the first few PLC events was less intimidating because she introduced me to other postdocs there.
Being the only postdoc in my lab, it was particularly helpful to have someone like Jess around. Unfortunately, I know that not everyone has this experience. Perhaps like me, you’re the only postdoc in your lab, or maybe your department is in a remote location, or you’re in a large lab but feel like you can’t talk to anyone. With these postdocs in mind, Jess came up with the idea of forming a new PLC committee specializing in communication to help bring postdocs together early last year. I am honored to serve as the current chair.
Our mission is to foster a sense of community and to connect postdocs to the vast array of resources that are available to them to maximize postdoc training. We accomplish this by working with the Brigham Research Institute to communicate with postdocs through our email mailing list, the BWH PDA website, our social media channels and by publishing the postdoc newsletter. Working with the communications committee has allowed me to expand my leadership skills and realize my personal interests. My role requires me to coordinate with different committees and departments throughout the Brigham, and being on a committee has been an opportunity to collaborate. These aspects have been exciting for me.
Overall, my involvement with the committee has allowed my postdoc training to extend beyond the bench. The experience has also been a rewarding one, particularly with the production of our first official newsletter, titled The Post(Doc). Highlights from the most recent issue include an article by the advocacy committee titled “Postdoc salary: Are you compensated appropriately?”, and another by the career development committee, “Professional networking: Break out of your comfort zone,” describing a hands-on initiative aimed at helping postdocs step outside their shell to practice professional networking skills. We have received praise from faculty, alumni and current postdocs stating that this was a much-needed resource.
Without the help of a more senior postdoc, I am sure my transition would not have been as smooth. My hope is to pay forward the guidance I received from Jess by using the communications committee as a platform for postdocs to provide peer-to-peer support.
If there are topics you’d like to see covered in the newsletter, if you are interested in becoming a contributor, or if you are interested in joining the communications committee, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.