By Daniel Perez
Jay M. Bhatt was raised in Mumbai, India, the home of the lucrative Bollywood film industry. His dreams started at an early age, but have less to do with the silver screen and more to do with science.
Classically trained in Indian singing and an award-winning table tennis player through his undergraduate years, Bhatt turned down an invitation to attend medical school to make his mark in scientific research. His doctoral dissertation about how proteins move within Golgi, part of the cell’s endomembrane, was based in part on a book he read in eighth grade.
The question he faced after earning his Ph.D. was similar to that faced by many like him: what now?
Those who earn doctoral degrees often must take one more step before they realize their professional goals in academia, government or industry. That step is to become a postdoctoral fellow, or postdoc, and more of them are finding work at The University of Texas at El Paso.
These fellows are hired for one to two years, maybe more, for mostly grant-funded assignments that help them gain additional education and training in research while developing professional skills. These positions are critical to the growth of postdocs as scholars and researchers, and are a major driver for universities to achieve and maintain the status of a national research institution.
According to a 2015 survey sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there were 63,861 postdocs in the health, science and engineering fields at U.S. colleges and universities. Of those, about 40 percent were female, 45 percent were U.S. citizens or permanent residents, and 2.4 percent were Hispanic or Latino.
During the 2016-17 academic year, UTEP employed almost 60 postdoctoral fellows, most of them in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Many perform a combination of tasks – teaching, managing labs and mentoring graduate and undergraduate students – as they establish themselves as scientists and independent investigators.
University leaders want to enhance the experiences of these temporary employees so they will have a competitive edge when they apply for future jobs. To achieve that, UTEP has instituted several professional development programs and organized meetings to allow postdocs to share their needs and concerns.
Charles Ambler, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School, said the University has seen substantial growth in its number of postdocs during the past 10 years due to an expansion of research activity and funding. These fellows, working with faculty, play a pivotal role in growing research and training doctoral, master’s and undergraduate students in research settings. The growth in the number of UTEP postdoctoral fellows also provides the institution with another opportunity to contribute to the greater participation of Hispanics in research and higher education, especially in the STEM fields.
“Increasing the number of underrepresented people in the professoriate, Ph.D. programs and postdocs is an important goal,” Ambler said. “At UTEP, one of the reasons we developed Ph.D. programs is to address that, and we’ve been very successful.”
Major federal funders such as the NIH and NSF are pushing institutions to work together for this purpose. Stephen Aley, Ph.D., associate vice president of research in UTEP’s Office of Research and Sponsored Projects, is part of the faculty leadership who hires postdoctoral fellows for two of those grants at UTEP: the NIH BUILDing SCHOLARS (Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity: Southwest Consortium of Health-Oriented Education Leaders and Research Scholars), and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute-PERSIST (Program to Educate and Retain Students in STEM Tracks).
Aley compared postdocs to apprentices who get to work with top scholars and use “top-notch” equipment. The new hires learn from faculty and more seasoned fellows. In return, these fresh, highly trained fellows share different techniques and independent points of view that enhance the knowledge and capabilities of the other researchers.
“Everyone gains,” Aley said.
One example of University support is the Postdoctoral Development Group, a cohort of fellows who are involved in research on drug addiction and other topics related to neuroscience. Laura O’Dell, Ph.D., and Eddie Castañeda, Ph.D., professors of psychology, lead the group. The goal of this effort, funded by a National Institute on Drug Abuse contract, is to increase diversity in the scientific workforce.
The professors said they started the group to raise the level of postdoctoral preparedness. They meet every few weeks in a Prospect Hall conference room to discuss topics the fellows request. One meeting was about negotiating salaries and start-up packages for academic positions at research-intensive institutions. A future topic will be about developing their philosophy of research statements for job interviews.
“What we’re doing fits in well with becoming a Tier One research institution,” Castañeda said. “If you’re going to have a high-level research program, you’ve got to have postdocs.”
For O’Dell, her program goal is simple: “I want to see them in tenure-track faculty positions.”
Adelle Monteblanco, Ph.D., a postdoctoral teaching and research fellow, is assigned to BUILDing SCHOLARS, a multi-institutional consortium tasked with training the next generation of biomedical researchers. She considers postdocs a vital link to UTEP President Diana Natalicio’s commitment to become a top-tier research university.
“UTEP’s aspiration to become a leader in producing cutting-edge scholarship and doctoral graduates will necessitate a growth in the number of postdocs employed and a stronger integration of postdocs into the UTEP community,” Monteblanco said.
Here are four examples of the caliber of postdoctoral fellows whose passion, intellect, diversity and knowledge benefits the University, and vice versa.
Jay M. Bhatt
Jay M. Bhatt has been interested in science since he was a youngster. That curiosity grew through graduate school, when he also discovered a desire to teach. He has taken those two loves to another level as a UTEP postdoctoral fellow.
Bhatt started at UTEP after he earned his doctorate in neuroscience in 2016 from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His desire to come to El Paso was the result of a stop at the University’s table during a research conference at The University of Texas at Austin. The table promoted UTEP’s Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives (COURI) and its BUILDing SCHOLARS program.
“BUILD represented quality,” Bhatt said during a quiet break in his second-floor office in the Chemistry and Computer Science Building. His lab with an electron microscope is a few minutes away on the ground floor. “UTEP clearly was a leader.”
He splits most of his time between researching how mutations in certain proteins lead to neuromuscular defects in humans, and teaching research techniques to undergraduate students. The dual research-teaching responsibility is the main reason he chose UTEP, which was among a dozen or so institutions that provide this opportunity, he said.
“This kind of experience opens an entire job market for me,” said Bhatt, who earned his bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from the University of Mumbai in 2008 and his master’s in pharmaceutical science from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, two years later. “It exemplifies UTEP’s mission.”
He takes his postdoc responsibilities seriously, especially when it comes to his students. He is passionate about research and likes to see others who share his enthusiasm.
“I didn’t choose research,” he said. “Research chose me.”
Bhatt said his UTEP experience will make him a more competitive candidate when he moves on to a tenure-track position in academia.
Lynnsay Marsan grew up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where academic success was rewarded with reading materials, especially books and magazines about science. Raised to be inquisitive, she left her Caribbean country at age 18 to follow her dreams of medical school in Miami, Florida.
While attending Miami Dade College, Marsan decided her true interest was research. Barry University in Miami accepted her application for a minority academic research training scholarship. After earning her bachelor’s in biology, she took a position with the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Baltimore, Maryland, which confirmed her love for neuroscience research.
“Science literacy is the greatest economic equalizer,” said Marsan, who received her doctorate in neuroscience from Penn State University in 2014. “It’s about using critical thinking to have a voice and a seat at the table.”
She was excited about the prospect of a postdoctoral position with UTEP’s BUILDing SCHOLARS program because its goal was to increase the number of future scientists from underrepresented communities.
“It spoke to me,” said Marsan, who recalled the many times she was the only student of color in summer science workshops. “That’s not acceptable.”
She arrived at UTEP in January 2015 and divides most of her time between her lab and her classroom, where she teaches about lab research foundations with an emphasis on science education. Her work helped her earn a University teaching and learning grant, and her science education research was published in 2016 in the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education. Her time at UTEP spurred her to switch her research focus from neuroscience to science education.
“I am proud of my work here,” she said. “I think I’ve made a difference.”
Marsan said she plans to pursue a tenure-track job, or a position with a federal agency where she can promote STEM education.
The University of Texas at El Paso was the perfect fit for Adelle Monteblanco, a multiracial first-generation college student looking for a postdoctoral fellowship that would give her the necessary training to support the country’s changing demographics.
Monteblanco, who is half Latina, earned her doctorate in sociology in 2016 from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She learned about the UTEP postdoctoral openings through a sociologist group and was intrigued by the University’s access and excellence model that served a predominantly Hispanic student population.
“Many institutions of higher education are ill-prepared to support these populations,” Monteblanco said. “I would like the experience and tools to help Hispanic, first-generation, and/or low-income students to thrive.”
UTEP hired her in June 2016 to assist in the departments of Social Work, and Sociology and Anthropology, and to work with the BUILDing SCHOLARS program. She co-teaches, mentors and collaborates with her mentors on her research on out-of-hospital midwives as disaster responders, and effective teaching and student learning. She called it a pleasure to serve as a role model for UTEP students in this bi-national community.
Away from the classroom, she sought opportunities to learn about higher education. She said one faculty member taught her how to develop inter-professional collaborations with the likes of politicians, business executives, health providers, community advocates and academics outside of their disciplines. The native of Portland, Oregon, also serves on a campus committee and recently was a panelist who discussed how to co-teach an interdisciplinary course.
Monteblanco, who earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Regis University in Denver, said her UTEP experience has made her a more competitive candidate for future tenure-track positions. She wants a job where she can continue to teach and do research in the areas of sociology, public health, environmental studies or a related interdisciplinary program.
Sundeep Inti was a successful project engineer in his native India working on multimillion-dollar highway and airport projects, but he saw glitches in the project management process. His engineering mentors strongly suggested one place to find the answers: The University of Texas at El Paso.
The native of Hyderabad, India earned his Ph.D. in civil engineering at UTEP with a focus on sustainable pavements in 2016. The Texas Department of Transportation awarded UTEP a grant during his doctoral studies to research the durability of materials for low-volume “farm” roads. When it came time to graduate, Inti accepted the offer to stay as a postdoctoral fellow to build his skills and finish the project with his team of five undergraduates.
He talked about his postdoctoral experience during a tour of his cavernous lab in the engineering complex, where he uses state-of-the-art equipment to do large-scale testing of natural pavement materials used with geosynthetic reinforcement.
Inti said he was fortunate to side-step into his postdoctoral assignment. The additional time at UTEP allowed him to enhance his research, mentorship and academic understanding, as well as his abilities to write proposals and handle projects.
The married father of a young daughter lauded UTEP faculty members within and outside his college for their patience and willingness to help when he faced academic and professional challenges.
“I’ve loved my time at UTEP,” he said as he walked around a maze of black 55-gallon drums and stacks of orange five-gallon buckets filled with test materials from the Texas cities of Dallas, Paris, El Paso and San Antonio. “It gave me the freedom to explore and the opportunity to learn with a mature mind.”
Inti, who volunteers with community groups that feed the homeless, said he looks forward to becoming a faculty researcher of sustainable highway materials at a four-year university.