It is always tough to enter a new field, especially if that field operates in a completely different language. Department of Immunology alumna Dr. Amanda Moore understands this first hand, as she found herself completely outside of her comfort zone at the start of a postdoctoral fellowship in genomics at the University of San Diego. We caught up with Amanda to discuss her transition into this complex new field, her post-graduate life, and what she has in store for the future.
Amanda Moore graduated in 2013 from Dr. Michele Anderson’s lab, where she completed her doctoral thesis on the molecular and cellular factors that determine the development of thymic dendritic cell subsets. Her extensive work on the identification of novel thymic dendritic cell precursors was the central feature in the inaugural issue of this very magazine, to which she was an active contributor. These scientific accomplishments and dedicated involvement in the student community (which also included two terms as the Immunology Graduate Student Association (IGSA) co-president) earned her the Richard Miller Award in 2013 for leadership within the Department of Immunology. After completing her PhD, Amanda remained in Dr. Anderson’s lab for seven months for a short postdoctoral stint, where she had the opportunity to wrap up her work. The idea of more postdoctoral work appealed to her. “I was very open to pursuing a career in industry, but I wanted to be absolutely sure that academia wasn’t for me and a postdoc allowed me to do that,” Amanda recalls. “I also wanted the opportunity to complement my immunology expertise with learning a new field and a new set of skills.”
Wanting to keep her options open, Amanda decided to look into fields that would keep her at the forefront of research while also teaching her skills appealing to both academia and industry. The initial plan was to find a postdoc on the east coast of the US, where her husband resided, but that hit a snag when an initial offer from Columbia University fell through. In addition, positions typically required being able to secure funding, yet as a Canadian citizen, Amanda was not eligible for most American awards. “One of the biggest priorities [when searching for a postdoc] is finding a lab that is well-funded,” she advises. “You are in a stage of your career where you need to do new and great things in a shorter period of time [compared to your PhD]. You want to guarantee your presence there for the foreseeable future and not have that be dependent on awards.”
She is now settled as a postdoctoral fellow in the distinguished lab of Dr. Cornelis Murre at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where she is studying the genomic compartmentalization of T cells before and after T cell commitment. In her current role, she is learning a whole host of next-generation sequencing techniques, such as Hi-C, ChIP-Seq, and RNA-Seq, to identify global genomic shifts following αβ or γδ T cell selection. The transition into a new field was not an easy process. “I was starting over fresh and learning from scratch,” Amanda says. “All of the next-generation data analysis techniques were new to me. It took six months before I felt confident in what I was doing.” She had to learn a lot of coding, which is something she had not done at all during her graduate degree. To train herself, Amanda would download publicly available data sets and practise reanalyzing published data so that she could become familiar with the techniques before her own data was available. Enrolling in free online courses also sped up the process. “As much as you try to prepare and absorb everything all at once, you’re learning a whole new language. You just won’t be able to pick it up as quickly—you need time to let everything sink in,” Amanda reflects. “At the same time, there is always a pressure in science to do things quickly. It’s hard to reconcile the two.”
As much as you try to prepare and absorb everything all at once, you’re learning a whole new language. You just won’t be able to pick it up as quickly—you need time to let everything sink in.”
The Research Bubble
Despite having big hurdles to climb, Amanda is enjoying her time in sunny California: “UCSD is a great school and a fantastic environment for research—there are scientists everywhere!” She recalls that the very first time she flew out to San Diego, with two suitcases in hand and feeling a bit sad about leaving Toronto, she bumped into two people that she knew on the airplane. “I see at least one person that I know on the flight every single time I travel back and forth from Toronto—I think maybe there was only one time where I didn’t!” She laughs, “But that’s just what happens when you travel between two big research centres.” She describes UCSD as the definitive “research bubble”, with so many scientists that there is always somebody studying the thing in which you’re interested. There are resources available on everything imaginable – expert personnel, protocols, reagents, and machines. Being in a city like San Diego, which is a hub for biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, also makes it easier to network and establish connections. Amanda is hoping to eventually find a job in the Bay Area, where employment prospects are probably the best for both herself and her husband.
Career development is something that Amanda is actively involved with as the Chair of the PostDoc Association at UCSD. She likens this role to her duties as IGSA co-president back at U of T, except that instead of planning social outings, they plan networking events. There is a more diverse range of people from industry available in San Diego compared to Toronto, and being the Chair allows her to interact more and build stronger connections with the invitees. Furthermore, Amanda sees her involvement in the community as being part of a more enriched postdoctoral experience: “I have always enjoyed being a part of an association; sometimes research can be very solitary. I love working in groups and interacting with people. It is always nice to have something to look forward to when the science isn’t going well.”
Take a step back and think of all the great things that you have done and are doing. It takes an insane amount of energy, effort, and intellectual capacity to get where you are.”
After two and a half years into her postdoc, Amanda is once again thinking about her next steps. Her attention has turned towards research and development, perhaps an entry level scientist position because at the moment, she is not quite ready to leave the bench behind. She is still interested in pursuing genomics, but admits that she is a biologist—not a bioinformatician—by training and hopes to continue that work in the realm of immunology. “Genomics is a field that has a lot more to offer,” she adds. “We’re still not good at understanding big data sets yet.”
Looking back, Amanda remembers her time at U of T fondly, appreciating specifically the quality of the Easton seminar series from which she received an education in wide-ranging topics in immunology. The tight-knit group of faculty and students in the department made it a welcoming and fun environment to do a PhD, as well. She also has some advice for the Department and the University: “The PhD is really hard and isolating on people in varying stages of their degree. It is now becoming more well-known that there are a lot of mental health issues experienced by graduate students, and both the school and the department need to recognize this and provide resources to help their students through it.”
Asked if she would have done anything differently during her PhD, she concedes that the importance of developmental immunology is sometimes difficult to convey to employers and regrets not complementing her developmental research with something more applied, like a disease model for example. Having gone through it all herself, she has this advice for current and prospective graduate students: “Take a step back and think of all the great things that you have done and are doing. It takes an insane amount of energy, effort, and intellectual capacity to get where you are. We forget this because of the environment that we are in. It is not easy to discover something new.”
What’s Up, Postdoc?
Complementing her positivity towards research is Amanda’s optimism about the future of postdoctoral work in the US. The minimum postdoctoral salary set by the NIH in 2015 was $43,692 USD/year, which increases as one becomes more experienced. However, the US Department of Labor recently mandated that postdoctoral fellows making less than $47,476 USD/year are eligible for overtime pay if they work over 40 hours/week. This change was introduced to increase postdoc salaries, as most American universities and institutions are expected to raise the minimum pay rather than try to track overtime in a field that typically has long, irregular hours. New wages will be phased in over the next three years so that labs have time to adjust their budgets.
Amanda does not see this as a way of incentivizing graduates to pursue postdoctoral research (an entry job in industry will pay way more than a postdoc salary) so much as a way of giving postdocs an opportunity to actually plan a future. “The pay is low because [as a postdoc] you’re still in a training period,” Amanda says, “but the postdoc is becoming longer and longer—it’s like a second PhD now! It’s not fair to these individuals because the current pay does not allow you to save up and prepare for your future very much.” While she sees that this salary hike may be difficult for some labs, particularly the new ones, she thinks that three years is enough transition time for investigators to budget for new employees: “There will always be different perspectives on this issue depending on whether you’re the postdoc or the investigator. We are both trying to survive in a different way.”
Meanwhile in Canada, the 2016 Canadian Institutes of Health Research Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships are set at $70,000 CDN over two years, while the University of Toronto School of Graduate Studies has its minimum at $31,000 CDN/year as of January 2016. As more postdoctoral unions start to form at universities across the country, efforts are underway to petition for similar changes to those happening south of the border.
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