Helping Postdocs Take Charge of Their Lives

in Featured
February 1st, 2018

CAS alum new director of Professional Development and Postdoctoral Affairs

Sarah Hokanson, the new director of BU’s Professional Development and Postdoctoral Affairs office, wants to help the University’s postdocs launch successful careers. Photo by Dan Aguirre

Sarah Hokanson knows what it’s like to be a perpetually waiting postdoctoral researcher. “When I was a postdoc, I felt like I was always waiting for something to happen—for my experiment to work, for my principal investigator to talk to me, for someone to offer me a job,” she says, of her three-year fellowship in biophysics at Cornell University. “The life sciences can be slow. It took me a year to purify my enzyme.”

A decade after graduating from the College of Arts & Sciences with a bachelor’s in chemistry, Hokanson (CAS’05) returned this spring as program director of the University’s newly expanded campus-wide Professional Development and Postdoctoral Affairs (PDPA) office. Her message for postdocs: “You don’t have to wait.” Science may be slow, she says, but that doesn’t mean you have to hold off on making decisions about your career—or the rest of your life. She wants to help postdocs take charge. Her appointment is part of the University’s increasing efforts to help postdocs in all fields get the most out of their training at BU and launch successful careers.

“Postdocs are in transition,” Hokanson says. “We have a responsibility to make sure that we as an institution are giving them everything they need to be successful. If someone’s really driven in academia, what can we do to make them more competitive? Is it that they don’t have enough publications? How can we help? If someone wants to go into industry or work in science policy or something else, how can we help them transfer their skills somewhere else?”

The University opened PDPA on the Medical Campus four years ago under Linda E. Hyman, School of Medicine associate provost for the Division of Graduate Medical Sciences, with Yolanta Kovalko (MET’04,’08) as administrative manager. Under Hokanson’s direction, PDPA is now expanding to include all postdocs at the University, and she and Kovalko will work closely with Gloria S. Waters, vice president and associate provost for research, as well as with Hyman.

“We are delighted to have Sarah in this critical role for the University,” Waters says. “She brings not only a deep understanding of the issues which postdocs face, but also a sensitivity to the complexity of the issues and the needs of the various stakeholders. She is able to think creatively about the challenges postdocs and their mentors face and she wants to systematize, as well as document and quantify, our success in providing postdocs with the right environment to achieve their goals.”

Hyman says she welcomes Hokanson’s appointment. “It is very gratifying to see the entire University embrace the postdoc community and recognize how important they are to us,” she says. “With the Medical Campus jump-starting the effort four years ago, we hope that we have provided Sarah with the foundation and infrastructure she needs to hit the ground running.”

Compiling data to get a clearer picture

One of Hokanson’s first tasks has been to compile data on postdocs, an effort that is complicated at BU, as elsewhere, because they are connected more closely to individual departments than to the overall institution. She says she hopes to help the University develop a set of policies for postdocs that will provide more consistency.

There are 525 postdocs across the University, with two thirds of them focused on biomedical research. The average salary for postdocs across both campuses is about $47,000 a year, according to preliminary data. While the average length of time a postdoc spends in a training position varies widely by school across BU, Hokanson says, initial data from 2014 puts the institutional average at three and a half years.

She is wrapping up an anonymous survey on how postdocs view their training experience at BU and what skills they want to develop while they’re here. She plans to present the data at a town meeting sometime in the next several months. Meanwhile, she has begun hosting events to bring postdocs together.

“I am very confident of Sarah’s abilities, based on what she has already accomplished in her short tenure,” says Sarah Mazzilli, who has a PhD in cancer pharmacology and experimental therapeutics and began as a postdoc in the pulmonary research lab of Avrum Spira (ENG’02), a MED professor of medicine, pathology and laboratory medicine, and bioinformatics, 18 months ago. “Because of her, I now know more about postdoc data and have met more postdocs from diverse programs in the last month than I had since I arrived.” Mazzilli is the postdoc rep on the Division of Graduate Medical Sciences PhD steering committee.

The postdoc is supposed to be a temporary period of mentored training in advanced research. For many people, though, especially those in the life sciences, the postdoc has become the default next step after earning a PhD.

“Should everyone be a postdoc?” Hokanson asks, echoing a question being asked across the country by senior researchers, university leaders, and postdocs themselves. “I don’t think so. We need to do a better job of directing PhD students and postdocs toward the right path. Not every job needs a postdoc.”

Postdocs are generally paid through a variety of fellowships, trainee grants, and research project grants, with the majority at BU paid by federal research grants awarded to individual principal investigators (PIs). The latter arrangement creates “inherent stress” around a PI’s conflicting responsibilities, as a mentor and as a scientist “whose primary mission is to complete the research, and any time spent training the postdoc is time not spent on research,” the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy concluded in its 2014 report The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited.

“There are tremendous pressures on faculty, too,” Hokanson says. “Their careers are dependent upon the productivity of their postdocs and graduate students. In addition to their own personal growth as scientists, postdocs are here to perform a job that involves doing bench science and generating results. They are the hands of science contributing to the success of the lab. If things are working well, there’s a balance between productivity and mentoring. I now have accountability to train and support postdocs. But I want postdocs to remember that they own a piece of this accountability, too.”

With the number of postdocs, particularly in the life sciences, exceeding the available tenure-track academic research jobs across the country, most will not find jobs in academia, but in industry, government, science policy, law, education, and other fields. Hokanson says she wants to work with faculty to help them become more familiar with these nonacademic career options so they can better guide their postdocs.

Jumping the tracks

Her own path shows that there are many ways to build a career in science. She earned a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biophysics and did a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania and completed a National Institutes of Health Ruth L. Kirschstein Postdoctoral National Research Service Award Fellowship at Cornell from 2010 to 2012.

“I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do,” she says. “I was competitive. A lot of people were saying, ‘You were born to be an academic researcher,’ but it just didn’t feel right for me.”

So she “jumped the tracks,” as she puts it, and went to work at the British Consulate-General in Boston as a senior officer for the Science and Innovation Network. “It was a risk,” she says. “Most people said, ‘Where does it lead? It’s a dead end. She’s not even British, she’s throwing it all away.’”

But Hokanson says the job gave her valuable hands-on training in science policy. She got to work with top research scientists from industry and academia as well as with university administrators and government leaders in Britain and the United States. “The people who I thought had the coolest jobs were the university administrators,” she says.

During her time at the consulate, she was promoted to US deputy director of the Science and Innovation Network. The constant travel eventually became too hard on her family. She and her husband, David, a biochemical scientist, have three-year-old twins, Finn and Erik.

Hokanson arrived at BU 14 years ago as a premed freshman majoring in English. Then she took an introductory course in chemistry to fulfill her premed requirements and became fascinated by molecules. As a sophomore, she became a peer-led team learning teacher for the same introductory chemistry course, and switched her major to chemistry, with a minor in English. She joined the lab of Sean J. Elliott, a CAS professor of chemistry. “Sean changed my life,” she says. “I fell in love with doing research while in his lab. He was the first person who really believed in me as a scientist. He transformed me from an average but extremely interested chemistry student into a credible researcher.”

She connected with the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), which provides funding for faculty-mentored research by undergrad students in the humanities, natural sciences, medicine, arts, and education, and ended up publishing five papers as an undergraduate and winning national and international recognition for her work on how thioredoxin proteins combat oxidative stress in cells.

“Any successes I’ve had so far can be traced back to the support that I had at BU,” Hokanson says, “and I’m excited to build on that success here.”

A version of this article originally appeared on the BU Research site.

This BU Today story was written by Sara Rimer.