Balancing Autonomy and Community to Cultivate Tomorrow’s Scientific Leaders
“The independence — that’s what really stuck out to me.”
Brittany Morgan was entering the final year of her graduate studies and had begun interviewing for postdoctoral research positions. While talking to a potential mentor at the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute, she learned about a new postdoc program the university was launching. She also learned that the application deadline was only two weeks away.
“She mentioned that there was this great new program that I should think about applying for,” Morgan says, recalling her conversation with Anna Mapp, Ph.D., research professor at the LSI and associate dean at the U-M Rackham Graduate School. “I was a little nervous about the timeline; but it looked like such a great program, I knew I just needed to go for it.”
The following September, after receiving her Ph.D. from Duke University, Morgan joined Mapp’s lab as a member of the first cohort of Michigan Life Sciences Fellows — and formally began the transition to her independent scientific career.
Supercharging the postdoc experience
The Michigan Life Science Fellows program grew out of a conversation between Roger Cone, Ph.D., and the LSI’s advisory boards about strengthening recruitment to the institute.
It was September 2016, and Cone had recently arrived as the new director of the LSI. He and the board members were eager to explore new approaches for attracting superb scientists — particularly early career-scientists — to the institute. And Cone saw an opportunity for the LSI to take the lead in developing a program that could extend to bioscience labs not just within the institute, but across the university.
“The postdoctoral phase of a scientist’s career is, by design, a period of transition, as researchers gain the experiences needed to move from student researcher to lab leader,” explains Cone, who is also the vice provost and director of the U-M Biosciences Initiative and a professor of molecular and integrative physiology in the Medical School. “What could that transition look like if we intensified both the financial and the mentoring support we provided to a group of innovative scientists?”
Over the next year, leaders from both within the LSI and across U-M developed a university-spanning ‘super postdoc’ program that could attract exceptional postdoctoral researchers to labs in the LSI, the Medical School, the College of Pharmacy, and the College of Literature, Sciences and the Arts.
The program’s benefits were intentionally designed to foster the independence that caught Morgan’s attention. In addition to active mentoring from their primary investigators, fellows annually receive $25,000 to support their own research and a $2,000 travel stipend.
“It creates a level of autonomy that I don’t think you could get any other way,” Morgan says. “If you had a new idea that isn’t covered on a specific grant in your lab, you have the support to pursue that.”
Freedom to Innovate
Now in her second year in the program, Morgan is using that autonomy to fuse her past research experiences into a new program that she can ultimately take forward into her own independent lab.
Morgan’s graduate and postdoctoral research projects both have focused on developing small molecules that can target larger biomolecules that are generally considered “undruggable.”
As a graduate student studying organic and computational chemistry at Duke, she worked primarily with RNA; in the Mapp lab, she has approached her research question by investigating interactions between proteins while learning more about the biological tools she can apply to these interactions.
“Anna is a leader in biochemistry, and I knew I could develop skills in her lab that I could go on to apply to something entirely new and different,” she explains. “And in the past few months I’ve really started to think about what I’m going to use all of these new skills to do.”
Combining these two approaches, Morgan now plans to expand into RNA-protein interactions — an area that the Mapp lab has not historically worked on. Developing new molecules that can perturb these elusive interactions has the potential to open new therapeutic avenues for a wide range of diseases.
“Anna has really given me free reign to apply the resources from the MLSF program to explore these ideas,” Morgan explains. “And the projects I’m developing now are things I can take on to my faculty career.”
Getting a Step Ahead
As a counterbalance to the scientific independence, the program also offers a built-in community for the fellows, enabling them to reach across their disciplines to support and learn from each other.
“Usually when you start a new postdoc position, you’re arriving at a new institution or new lab as the only new person,” Morgan explains. “But being part of this program means that you come in already connected to some of your peers, as part of a cohort of other Michigan Life Sciences Fellows.”
During regular monthly gatherings, the fellows take turns presenting their research to the group and gain experience in discussing their science with scientists from other fields. These meetings also offer a forum for the fellows to connect around their experiences in the program and gain new perspectives from each other.
“We’re not all coming in at the same time, so there’s someone who maybe just went through an issue that you’re dealing with, or someone who has a question about something you just experienced,” Morgan explains. “The community we have is such a rich resource, and it’s just right there. I don’t have to go searching for it.”
Beyond the boosted financial freedom to probe novel research questions, Morgan says she has benefited from the range of programming and mentorship that the Michigan Life Sciences Fellows program offers to support fellows’ transition toward full independence.
In addition to these monthly meetings and peer-mentoring experiences, the fellows also have opportunities to develop skills they will need when running an independent lab, such as grant planning and budgeting, teaching STEM courses and reviewing candidate applications for potential future fellows. Some fellows have even attended faculty candidate chalk talks in other U-M schools and departments, to gain a real-world perspective on the faculty job interview process.
“I’m getting exposure to a lot of things that I’ll definitely have to do in the future, but otherwise wouldn’t experience until I was a new faculty member,” Morgan says. “And that’s what I find so valuable about the program. I feel like I’m going to be a step ahead when I hit the job market, because I’ve already had access to so many of these experiences.”
Brittany Morgan, Ph.D., is a May Walt Fellow at the U-M Life Sciences Institute, supported by a fund established by U-M alumni Michele D. May & David R. Walt to help launch innovative scientists into groundbreaking careers.