The BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship rewards outstanding postdoctoral researchers with valuable financial support and mentorship to help pursue their professional goals.

By: Brittany Uhlorn, BIO5 Institute

Success in academia, particularly as a budding independent researcher, is greatly influenced by one’s ability to generate awards, manuscripts and grants. But the Matthew effect – the idea that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” – is highly prevalent in academia, especially in the sciences, disadvantaging bright minds who are unable to obtain awards from the onset of their careers.

After graduate school, newly minted PhDs who desire careers in academia assume positions as postdoctoral fellows. Though not yet entirely autonomous researchers, they put in long hours collecting data for manuscripts and grant applications so that they can one day launch their own careers as independent principal investigators. But in accordance with the Matthew effect, those with the most manuscripts, grants and awards are often the most successful.

To invest in the success of University of Arizona postdoctoral fellows, Dr. Michael Johnson, assistant professor in the Department of Immunobiology and member of the BIO5 Institute, established the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2019. The program annually provides exceptional fellows with monetary awards and professional development opportunities to jump start their careers and make them competitive candidates for future awards and grants.

Johnson identified the need for this type of program when he was a postdoctoral fellow himself, and later saw a successful model at the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute. Johnson brainstormed how he could leverage something similar at UArizona, and presented his ideas to BIO5 leadership.

Johnson was shocked when Dr. Jennifer Barton, Director of BIO5, informed him he could have $40K to begin his fellowship program.

“My mouth just dropped to the floor,” Johnson said.

With these funds, Johnson created the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship for outstanding postdoctoral trainees engaging in cross-disciplinary projects aligned with the BIO5 mission. The grants support and enhance their independent research goals and presentation skills, and facilitate a “forward-thinking” mindset by requiring each fellow to form a three-member mentoring committee that assists them with grant applications, career advice and job talk preparations.

Applicants for the fellowship are judged on a narrative of their research, career goals and mentoring plan. Their proposals must be written for a general audience, and applicants must also include a biosketch, a letter of support and a detailed budget.

With the help of funding from BIO5 and its generous supporters, Johnson has since been able to award two cohorts of eight fellows with $5,000 each.

The Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF) that helped launch BIO5 nearly 20 years ago continues to  be a catalyst in enabling effective, cross-disciplinary bioscience research, innovation and impact at the university, and in supporting the next generation of scientists through training opportunities like the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship.

“The fellowship provides institutional support for postdoctoral fellows in a way they wouldn’t have access to at many other institutions,” Johnson said.

Fellows can use their awards to purchase research supplies, travel to a conference, engage in professional development opportunities, or work with other universities to learn a new research technique. In addition to the monetary award, fellows enhance their communication skills by presenting a poster and/or talk at the annual BIO5 Research Symposium. Three-person mentoring committees are intended to intellectually and technically support their research projects and provide professional mentorship.

In addition to financially and professionally giving the fellows a leg up, the awards also serve as a UArizona recruiting tool.

“The awards give us not only an advantage in recruiting them,” Johnson said, “but also an advantage in making Arizona look awesome.”

Success stories

Dr. Chandrasekaran (Arun) Sambamurthy, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Anita Koshy, studies Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that infects and persists within the central nervous system of many warm-blooded hosts, including birds and humans.

Prior to receiving the fellowship, Sambamurthy’s research was conducted in mouse neurons. He desired to translate his findings to human neurons, but needed to derive the neurons from human stem cells, an area in which he didn’t have the necessary expertise.

The fellowship provided an opportunity to propose this far-reaching project – an entirely new direction in the lab – and to create a mentoring team to guide him along the way. Sambamurthy was successful in his application to the inaugural round of the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship.

“One of the best parts of this fellowship was getting funding for a new, exciting thing. I was really privileged to get it on the first try,” said Sambamurthy.

Sambamurthy used his award to purchase research supplies. He also enlisted the expertise of UArizona researchers, Drs. Jared Churko and Andrew Capaldi, to establish and characterize the neuronal model. Churko, assistant professor and director of the Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Core, provided his knowledge of stem cell differentiation, while Capaldi, director of the Functional Genomics Core, assisted Sambamurthy in screening the cells.

The postdoctoral fellowship also enabled Sambamurthy to establish a collaboration with a lab in Phoenix. He learned techniques that were critical to deriving neurons from the human stem cells through this collaboration, something that may have otherwise not been possible.

Dr. Grace Niemiro, a postdoctoral fellow at the UArizona Cancer Center and 2020 award recipient, saw the fellowship not only as an opportunity to refine her writing skills, but a chance to develop the networking skills she wished she would have cultivated during graduate school.

“I didn’t really feel there were many opportunities to understand how to network in grad school,” Niemiro said. “I felt this was a great opportunity to improve my networking, especially as an early career researcher just starting my academic journey.”

Niemiro studies ways to improve stem cell transplantation using the immune-boosting benefits of exercise. She planned to use the award money to  meet with leaders in the fields of exercise and neuroimmunology this May, but the conferences she was planning on attending were canceled due to COVID-19. However, Niemiro plans to use the funds for alternative professional development opportunities in the near future.

Her mentoring committee is spearheaded by her co-advisors Dr. Richard Simpson, associate professor of nutritional sciences and pediatrics, and Dr. Emmanuel Katsanis, director of the Blood and Bone Marrow Transplant Program at the College of Medicine – Tucson. Simpson provides Niermiro with his expertise in exercise immunology, while Katsanis gives her “open and honest” feedback from a clinical perspective on the high, translational potential of her research. To get a fresh, outside perspective on her research, she selected Dr. Ronald Lynchphysiology professor, as her third committee member.

“Dr. Lynch is so knowledgeable and has great opinions and viewpoints on different research ideas, so we felt that his perspective would provide a very diverse, out-of-the-box perspective on my experiments and professional development,” Niemiro said.

Johnson also aimed to create a community of postdoctoral fellows who could support one another as peers of the same career level through this award. Niemiro and Sambamurthy have both enjoyed getting to meet other fellows, share experiences and discuss their unique research projects.

Extending support to BIPOC undergraduate students

Using the organizational experience of creating the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship program to his advantage, Johnson has quickly stepped up to help address the need of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) undergraduate students affected by the loss of an internship due to COVID-19 shutting down laboratories across the country.

Many campuses have been entirely closed or have placed severe restrictions on personnel due to the pandemic. These changes, though necessary to mitigate the spread of disease, prohibit undergraduate students from engaging in summer research opportunities that can be critical to advancing their academic, personal and professional goals – and the impact is especially great for BIPOC students.

To provide BIPOC undergraduate students with a remote summer research experience, Johnson, along with Dr. David Baltrus, BIO5 member and associate professor in the School of Plant Sciences, and Dr. Jennifer Gardy, Deputy Director, Surveillance, Data, & Epidemiology at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Health Division, initiated the National Summer Undergraduate Research Project (NSURP).

This program will pair undergraduate students with microbiology laboratory mentors from across the country who will supervise a remote summer research project. Students will also be provided with access to BIPOC seminar speakers and online professional development lectures, and have the opportunity to present their research virtually.