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New Office Provides Mentored Training to Postdoctoral Scholars

A new Office for Postdoctoral Affairs has opened in a push to position the university as one of Florida's pre-eminent research institutions. The office is temporarily headed by Karin Scarpinato, Ph.D., associate vice president of the Division of Research, and serves more than 30 postdocs in the sciences.

A postdoctoral scholar - or postdoc - is a researcher who has earned a Ph.D. and is pursuing mentored research and scholarly training for a few years before advancing to an independent career in academia, medicine or industry. A postdoc collaborates on a research project with a faculty adviser, who guides the research and helps the postdoc craft an individual development plan. Postdocs are essential to high-level research being done in labs. "I was a postdoc myself, and it's difficult when you don't have anyone to give you advice and feedback when you're doing research," Scarpinato said.

Itzel Sifuentes-Romero was working on her Ph.D. in molecular biology in Mexico when she met her soon-to-be FAU adviser, Sarah Milton, Ph.D., at a sea turtle symposium. When Sifuentes-Romero heard that Milton works on RNA interference - a novel technique to prevent a gene's expression in order to determine its function - she asked to come to FAU. She aspired to study whether gene interference could be used to identify the role of different genes in determining sea turtles' sex. (Sand temperature dictates the sex of many turtles species.)

While at FAU, Sifuentes-Romero met Jeanette Wyneken, Ph.D., who had been studying the role that moisture plays during sex determination in sea turtles. Wyneken and Milton, both of the College of Science, helped her get a Fulbright scholarship, then designed a research project in which she would utilize next-generation sequencing to determine how moisture influences the functioning of key sex-determining genes. "I have the opportunity to learn with great researchers - not only their science but, most important, how they do science," Sifuentes-Romero said.

Jigar Modi, M.D., Ph.D., received his Ph.D. at FAU, so he knew his adviser before becoming a postdoc. Working with Jang-Yen Wu, Ph.D., professor of biomedical science in the College of Medicine, Modi is studying how a protein called GCSF - which stimulates human bone marrow to make stem cells - can fight Alzheimer's disease. The project won Modi a $100,000 grant from Florida's Department of Health. "I'm using this fellowship to hone my research and develop transferable skills that universities and research institutions are looking for," Modi said.

Alzheimer's is characterized by memory loss due to the degeneration or death of brain cells. Fortunately, the damage may be reversible by using GCSF to stimulate cell regeneration. In model animals, Modi injects the DNA of GCSF into a virus - a technique called gene therapy - then delivers the virus directly to the brain.

Wu's research indicates the technique works for strokes. Modi hopes to show it works with Alzheimer's. If it does, sufferers could enjoy a slowing of the disease and regain some function. "Dr. Modi has excelled in all aspects of research during his graduate study, publishing more than 10 papers. He is a rising star in translational research in medicine," said Wu.

To supplement the core collaboration between postdoc and adviser, the Office for Postdoctoral Affairs offers workshops on grant writing, compliance and research methodology. It's a full package for postdocs seeking academic support and professional development.

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 Last Modified 9/18/18