Working alongside world-renowned scientists and researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine are more than 1,200 postdoctoral fellows who help them uncover groundbreaking research and development discoveries.
What is a postdoc? According to the National Postdoctoral Association, “a postdoc is an individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing.”
There are two types of study postdocs engage in at Johns Hopkins. Basic biomedical research examines the nuts and bolts of a scientific problem, such as the molecular mechanisms in a cell, while clinical research studies more direct health-related scientific questions in patients, for example, how babies’ hormone levels at birth affect their development down the road.
According to the Johns Hopkins Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, the average Johns Hopkins postdoc works for two to three years in their field of study. About 24 percent of his or her fellows obtain positions as assistant professors following their fellowships, while the rest go on to work in clinical practice or industry, or pursue careers away from the bench in areas such as policy, nonprofit work, regulatory affairs or other science-related fields.
Three Johns Hopkins postdocs shared their career aspirations, motivation for their work and what a typical day looks like:
Nicolas Wyhs, who studies cancer genetics, came to Johns Hopkins, where he received his Ph.D. in pharmacology and molecular sciences, after receiving his bachelor of science in chemical engineering from MIT.
Wyhs, a married father of three, says his day starts off with one of his kids sitting on his head shouting, “Get up, Daddy. It’s morning time,” before he heads into the “office” to begin his work at the bench or with a tissue culture. The motivation behind his research is taking an idea or technology and adopting it
to make a difference in another human’s life. As the postdoctoral affairs co-president and chief research fellow, he spends the rest of his day in meetings before he heads home to do the four B’s with his children—bath, brush teeth and hair, books and bed.
Wyhs envisions himself going to a small biotech or industry to help turn his ideas into something useful for patients.
Dionna Williams studies immunology, neuroscience, pharmacology and public health in the Department of Molecular and Comparative PathobioIology. Her personal interest in HIV stems from her desire to want to help the African-American community, a population highly impacted by the disease.
When Williams gets into the lab between 8 and 9 a.m., she preps syringes for donor blood draws, labeling tubes and warming samples—all in preparation for her experiments. After participating in the diversity and leadership activities she’s engaged in, she finishes off the afternoon checking in with the graduate and high school students she mentors.
Williams was recently awarded a grant to support the remainder of her postdoctoral training, which will also provide support during her first years as a faculty member. She is looking forward to doing research in her own lab and securing a position as an assistant professor in the next year.
Research has always been a top priority for Zeyad Sahli, a postdoc in surgery and surgical oncology. “Being fluent in research is essential to becoming a successful academic surgeon, especially with a rapidly changing medical knowledge landscape,” he says. His workload fluctuates between preoperative and postoperative testing and complications regarding thyroid, parathyroid and adrenal surgeries.
Before coming to Johns Hopkins in 2016, Sahli received his medical degree from the American University of Beirut in Lebanon.
When he’s not collecting thyroid tissue for genetic analysis, recruiting patients for clinical studies or running statistical analyses as part of his work, he volunteers for the Global Smile Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to surgical repair for patients in the developing world who suffer from facial deformities.