By Lisa Brown

Helping Postdocs Take Charge of Their Lives

February 1st, 2018 in Featured

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.

What a Government Shutdown Means to BU

January 22nd, 2018 in Featured, Research

The shutdown of the federal government has stretched into a third day after Capitol Hill lawmakers failed to reach agreement on a spending bill over the weekend. Photo By Drew Stephens The shutdown of the federal government has stretched into a third day after Capitol Hill lawmakers failed to reach agreement on a spending bill over the weekend. Photo By Drew Stephens

Investigators should continue working on and submitting proposals to Sponsored Programs

  • Shutdown of federal government enters third day
  • BU investigators should continue working on and submitting proposals to Sponsored Programs as indicated
  • Federal student financial aid should not be impacted by shutdown

With Congress and the White House locked in a failure to agree on a spending bill, the federal government remains shut down for the third day. The shutdown, the first since 2013, affects the lives of Americans in numerous ways, as described in this Washington Post story.

At Boston University and universities across the country, the shutdown’s most immediate effects are likely to impact researchers working with federal grants. In a letter being sent to BU faculty Monday morning, Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer, advises investigators to assume that deadlines for proposal submissions will remain unchanged.

To learn more about what the government shutdown means to the BU community, BU Today spoke with Jennifer Grodsky, the University’s vice president for federal relations.

BU Today: What does the shutdown mean for investigators who are submitting proposals for federally sponsored research?

Grodsky: For now, it means that some of their program managers and contacts at federal agencies may not be available. But even though it is unsettling to hear that agencies are closed, faculty should continue to work on their proposals as if the government were still open. It’s possible some government systems may not be working. For example, the National Science Foundation has announced that FastLane, its web-based grants management system, is closed during the shutdown. But the best thing investigators can do is have their proposals ready so that Sponsored Programs can process them according to the most up-to-date guidelines given by each specific agency.

Will the shutdown delay deadlines for a grant proposal?

We don’t know yet, so it’s really important that investigators continue to prepare and submit their proposals to Sponsored Programs in a timely manner. It’s also really important to remember that regardless of the headlines about the political situation, we need to proceed as if there will be no change in grant submission deadlines.

What about researchers who are currently working under federal contracts grants? Should they continue to work?

Yes, researchers should continue to work on their grants and contracts unless their agency or program officer has advised them otherwise. Faculty should keep in close touch with their Sponsored Programs contacts and check the Research Support website for updates.

Are some federal agencies still operating? Which agencies are open and which are closed?

Essential federal personnel are working, and each agency defines “essential” differently. You can see how every agency operates in a shutdown by looking at the agency contingency plans on the White House Office of Management and Budget website.

What does the shutdown mean for students?

Fortunately, federal financial aid should not be impacted. The US Department of Education has explicitly stated that Pell Grants and student loans will continue as normal. The small number of students enrolled in the BU Study Abroad Washington program who were scheduled to begin internships with federal agencies on Monday may see those internships delayed.

Will the shutdown affect faculty and staff at all?

Faculty and staff who planned to travel to Washington, D.C., for meetings with federal officials should check whether their federal contact will be available to meet. Most federal agency staff will not be working during the shutdown. Similarly, if a faculty or staff member has invited a federal official to visit BU, it’s possible the visit would need to be rescheduled.

How long is the shutdown likely to last?

That is the question everyone in Washington is trying to answer. A bipartisan group of legislators is working to negotiate a deal that would reopen the government for several weeks and give lawmakers more time to find a long-term solution. While a shutdown could last just a few more hours, I’m mindful that the last government shutdown, in 2013, lasted more than two weeks.

This BU Today story was written by Art Jahnke.


CTSI to Test New Approach to Health Care Delivery

December 7th, 2017 in Featured, Research

Investigators at Boston University Clinical and Translational Science Institute (BU-CTSI) and colleagues have been awarded a five-year, $8.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) to develop, test, and disseminate a replicable, high-quality coordination of care approach for vulnerable populations experiencing disparities.

Called TRIP (Translating Research Into Practice), it will focus on African American women with breast cancer and the disparities they face in in time-to-treatment, quality of treatment and delayed follow up to abnormal tests.


In addition to BU-CTSI, investigators include Tufts CTSI, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Catalyst (the Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center), and University of Massachusetts Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS).

David Center, MD

David Center, MD

“This is an important approach to implementing clinical care. Models that work in one institution with selected patient populations must be tested at other institutions to ensure that best practices can be transferred. This program will begin to tell us how to approach diagnosis of breast cancer in women from many different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds, said  David Center, MD, Director of the BU-CTSI. “This is a perfect use of the NCATS Cooperative CTSA Innovation Award network, which funds unique ideas from individual CTSIs that propose to use the resources of multiple CTSA institutions.”

In partnership with the Boston Breast Cancer Equity Coalition, a diverse group of local community stakeholders whose mission is to achieve equity for all women with breast cancer, TRIP researchers found that three evidence-based strategies known to reduce delays in care have failed to make it into practice as a result of persistent patient and health system barriers:

  • A navigator for every vulnerable patient to solve problems and provide support and guidance through the complex health care system;
  • A regional registry to help providers and navigators track their patients; and
  • Resources to help navigators identify social determinants of health (e.g., food and housing insecurity).

TRIP will integrate these strategies into a cohesive package across six hospitals, with the goal of assisting 1,100 women seeking breast cancer care over the next five years. A key aspect of the project is to test the effectiveness of the combined approach.If successful, TRIP can be adapted to the treatment of any disease in other communities impacted by health disparities.

TRIP will be led by principal investigators Tracy Battaglia, MD, MPH of BU-CTSI; Karen Freund, MD, MPH of Tufts CTSI; Jennifer Haas, MD, MPH of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Catalyst; and Stephenie Lemon, PhD of UMass CCTS. The six participating clinical sites are Boston Medical Center, Brigham & Women’s Faulkner Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Tufts Medical Center. Boston Breast Cancer Equity Coalition, Boston Patient Navigator Network, the University of Chicago, and the Institute for Translational Medicine will build a coalition of stakeholders and provide community engagement support.

“The rapid rate of scientific discovery far outpaces the ability of our health care system to integrate evidence into every day practice, especially in cancer care for low income, racial ethnic minority patients who remain less likely to receive timely, quality treatment,” said Battaglia, who also is a BMC internal medicine physician. ”Sustainable solutions require collaboration among all community stakeholders, including patients, providers, public health practitioners, health systems and scientific investigators. Community engaged research conducted in real life settings is necessary to ensure scientific discoveries reach all populations.”

TRIP is in its start-up phase, consisting of stakeholder interviews, implementation planning, and development of the registry and screening tools. Then the academic, clinical and community partners will have four years to implement and test TRIP across the six participating hospitals.

Once completed, this community engaged program will demonstrate the feasibility of community-academic partnerships to provide innovations in information-sharing and systems implementation that will translate into reductions in health disparities for vulnerable patients facing any disease.

“This innovative model of care links multiple clinical systems and community resources to meet the many needs of women with breast cancer in Boston,” said Lemon, professor of medicine in the Division of Preventive and Behavioral Medicine at University of Massachusetts Medical School and co-director of community engagement at the UMass CCTS.  “However, people with different conditions and in different locations experience similar struggles. If we find this model to be effective, it has potential to transform collaborative care delivery for other disease conditions and in places across the country. We have the goal of scaling up the care delivery model once we have completed the initial project in Boston. We have engaged partners from Chicago to be the first to work with us to identify ways to spread our model.”

TRIP is supported by the National Center For Advancing Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number U01TR002070, and by the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research The content of this release is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH.

BUMC Public Safety Officers Recognized for Hard Work, Dedication

October 12th, 2017 in Featured

On Tuesday, Oct. 10, BUMC Public Safety officers were honored for the work they do to ensure the safety of our patients, students, faculty, staff and visitors every day.

Congratulations to the officers who were recognized, and thank you to all members of the Department for your hard work and dedication.

Stepped Care Beneficial After Hurricanes

October 11th, 2017 in Featured

COM SPH man-in-front-of-house-destroyed-by-stormStepped care is more effective than usual care in reducing the prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of hurricanes, according to a new study led by a School of Public Health researcher.

The study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, suggests that the stepped care (SC) approach would have a greater population impact than previously applied interventions for early treatment of individuals with PTSD. The findings are also consistent with previous studies examining stepped care approaches to treating other mental health disorders.

“We expect that our findings will apply to areas hit by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and also man-made disasters, including acts of mass violence,” said lead author Gregory Cohen, statistical analyst in the epidemiology department.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the New York State Office of Mental Health provided crisis counselling and education sessions to an estimated 250,000 individuals between mid-November and late March 2014. A treatment modality called Skills for Psychological Recovery (SPR)—a skills-building intervention to reduce stress and improve coping among survivors—was used in the effort. However, studies have shown that PTSD prevalence in New York state remained high approximately 1 to 1.5 years after the storm. Moreover, more than half of those with perceived need for mental health services did not received such services. Similar patterns were observed following a variety of disasters, such the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

The authors argued that a potential reason for the persistence in mental health conditions, despite provision of usual care such as SPR, could be ascribed to the lack of effective triage to appropriate levels of care. Evidence suggests that a stepped care (SC) approach providing screening and triage is more effective and may provide greater reach for mental health care services. The approach has been recommended in the context of disasters but has not be tested on the field.

The researchers used an agent-based model to simulate the stepped care approach for 2,642,713 agents using the sociodemographic characteristics derived from the American Community Survey estimates for New York City. Using an observational survey of residents of affected areas after Hurricane Sandy, the investigators estimated the initial distribution of the prevalence and exhibited PTSD symptoms to be 4.38 percent. They then simulated treatment scenarios starting four weeks following the landfall of Hurricane Sandy and ending two years later. Under the stepped care approach, individuals identified as PTSD cases were referred to cognitive behavioral therapists and non-cases were referred to SRP, while those receiving usual care were all referred to SRP.

The study found that three to six months after the hurricane, stepped care delivered greater reach, treatment effectiveness, and cost-effectiveness than usual care when it came to hurricane-related PTSD. The authors cautioned that the SC model would still require substantial resources for deployment: $50.94 million to $101.87 million in the simulated scenario after Hurricane Sandy.

In the absence of randomized trials, the authors wrote, the simulation results present the best evidence for establishing stepped care in the treatment of PTSD following large-scale disasters.

“These results provide further proof of concept for the SC approach to treating PTSD after a disaster, and they warrant further study and application in real-world settings,” the authors wrote.

Other SPH authors on the study were: Shailesh Tamrakar, research programmer in epidemiology; Laura Sampson, statistical analyst in epidemiology; Catherine Ettman, director of strategic development; and Sandro Galea, dean and Robert A. Knox Professor. Authors from other institutions included: Sarah Lowe, assistant professor of psychology at Montclair State University; Ben Linas, associate professor of medicine at the School of Medicine, and; Kenneth Ruggiero, professor of nursing and psychiatry at Medical University of South Carolina.

Submitted by Salma Abdalla

GSDM Student Participates in International United Nations Innovation Lab

October 11th, 2017 in Featured

COM GSDM Qari Screen-Shot-2017-09-29-at-11.38.31-AM-489x300

Dr. Alaa Qari, DScD candidate in Dental Public Health at the Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine (GSDM), was selected as one of the 1000 global talents from 129 countries to participate in UNLEASH, a fully-sponsored innovation laboratory that took place in August 2017 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

UNLEASH was an immersive experience designed to have participants co-create innovative, implementable, and scalable solutions to the sustainable development goals (SDGs) of the United Nations. Dr. Qari was one of three dentists invited to attend the program and focused her efforts on designing an innovative solution to address the third UN SDG, which aims to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages.

Over the nine-day challenge, Dr. Qari’s team tackled the mothers and families subtheme –  specifically addressing lack of access to emergency care for women who experience pregnancy complications due to difficulty in reaching proper health facilities in Sub-Saharan Africa. Their solution is to leverage big data to optimize health resource deployment to maximize coverage of pregnant women.

After designing the intervention and fine-tuning the product with Deloitte facilitators, the prototype was tested in the community, and then pitched to fellow competitors and potential investors. UNLEASH is preparing a project catalog for distribution to investors, companies, mentors, and others in UNLEASH’s network who are interested in helping competitors move their solutions forward.

A video interview with Dr. Qari at UNLEASH can be seen here:

BU Medical Campus Pride Welcomes Students at Networking Event

August 29th, 2017 in Featured

Students from the three schools on the Medical Campus join BUSM faculty Ann Zumwalt, Associate Professor of Anatomy; Thea James, Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine; and Rafael Ortega, Associate Dean of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, at a reception held nearby in the South End.

Students from the three schools on the Medical Campus join BUSM faculty Ann Zumwalt, Associate Professor of Anatomy; Thea James, Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine; and Rafael Ortega, Associate Dean of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, at a reception held nearby in the South End.

BU Medical Campus Pride, an organization dedicated to providing a safe and supportive environment for LGBTQIA+ students, faculty and staff, held a networking reception Aug. 27.

Sponsored by the BUSM Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, more than 70 students from BUSM, BUSPH and BUGSDM attended the event and enjoyed good conversation, food and drinks. Ann Zumwalt serves as the faculty advisor of BU Medical Campus Pride. For more information contact

Rev. Julian A. Cook Visits Medical Campus

July 5th, 2017 in Featured


Rafael Ortega, MD, left, with Rev. Julian Cook.

On Monday, July 3, Rev. Julian A. Cook, assistant director for the Thurman Center at Boston University, toured the Medical Campus. The Thurman Center is dedicated to providing programs, events and experiences to students designed to encourage the creative exchange of ideas, thoughts, beliefs and opinions. Rev. Cook met with BUSM Associate Dean, Diversity and Multicultural Affairs Rafael Ortega, MD, to continue exploring areas of potential collaboration between the Thurman Center and the Medical Campus. Rev. Cook also serves as Senior Pastor at Roxbury’s historic St. Mark Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, the oldest black congregational church in Boston.

Hundreds Enjoy Diversity Networking BBQ

May 30th, 2017 in Featured

Diversity BBQ 3

More than 200 students, residents and faculty with diversity-related interests from across the Boston University Medical Campus, including Boston Medical Center, gathered for a networking mixer on Tuesday, May 23, on Talbot Green. Diversity BBQ 2Sponsored by offices invested in diversity and inclusion from across the Medical Campus, attendees included BUMC Provost and BUSM Dean Karen Antman, MD; BMC Senior Vice President of Medical Affairs and Chief Medical Officer Ravin Davidoff, MBBCh; Assistant Deans of Diversity Samantha Kaplan, MD (BUSM) and Yvette Cozier, PhD (BUSPH); BUSM Associate Dean Academic Affairs Doug Hughes, MD; GSDM Director of Diversity Larry Dunham, DDS; GSDM Assistant Dean of Students Joseph Calabrese, DMD; and Jeff Schneider, MD, BMC Office of Graduate Medical Education Designated Institutional Official.

Diversity BBQ 1

The evening featured a lively performance by the BUMC Band, an ensemble of students and faculty, along with friends from the Berklee College of Music, all of whom enjoy a broad variety of music. The relaxed atmosphere provided an opportunity for individuals to get to know one another better, while enjoying the good weather, live music and food.

The Medical Campus is dedicated to educating, recruiting and retaining a multicultural constituency and believes that diversity is essential to the development of future leaders in healthcare and research to serve our community, our nation and the world.

Cataldo Leone Elected Faculty Council Vice Chair

May 10th, 2017 in Featured

COM Cataldo LeoneCataldo Leone, DMD, DMSc, GSDM Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor, Periodontology and Molecular & Cell Biology, has been appointed as the Vice Chair of the Boston University Faculty Council, effective at the start of the 2017-2018 academic year.