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UNT Postdoctoral Association promotes collaboration and professional development

UNT Postdoctoral Association (UNT-PDA) was launched by the newly-formed Office of Postdoctoral Affairs in January to enhance the postdoctoral experience at UNT by providing support for the working-life and professional development of postdoctoral scholars.

The organization aims to offer relevant opportunities to postdocs from all research disciplines, from the sciences to liberal arts to music. All postdocs at UNT receive automatic membership in UNT-PDA, which presents a healthy blend of diversity in demographics and research interests. Postdoctoral scholars represent 17 nations and perform their research activities across the university.

“The UNT-PDA provides a place to plug into — a place to belong, like a family,” says Academic Associate Vice Provost of the Toulouse Graduate School Joseph Oppong.

Since the beginning of the year, the UNT-PDA has provided opportunities for postdocs to come together, establishing a sense of community and support by holding monthly social activities. The association also recently held a question and answer session with Nobel Laureate Randy Schekman about his work, life and experiences as a postdoctoral scholar. The unique opportunity was provided during Schekman’s visit to UNT where he presented lectures about his research.

“Dr. Schekman may have brought us together, but the event allowed us to network with other postdocs from across the campus,” says Ashley Cannon, postdoctoral research associate with the Center for Plant Lipid Research in biological sciences and founding president of the UNT-PDA. “Postdocs are one of the most isolated populations on a university campus.”

The long hours worked and pressure to publish are compounded by the fact that most postdoc appointments are accompanied by a geographical relocation. Since postdocs are not tuition-paying students, they don’t always have access to the same resources they may have had as graduate students.

The meeting with Schekman was the first of many opportunities planned by UNT-PDA’s executive board, which is currently conducting a survey among postdocs to identify the most useful areas for professional development. Topics under consideration are teaching, ethics, grant writing, scientific leadership and management skills. Oppong explained that providing this training and mentorship was difficult without an organized group.

“The goal is to provide services for postdocs’ common needs and to communicate to them that we are here to support your success,” explained Oppong. “The PDA is helping them to organize and giving them visibility. Toulouse Graduate School can provide support, a network, a home — when we know who they are and where they are. ”

In addition to workshops and social events, the organization will host outreach activities, including a local “Pint of Science” lecture series and a “3 Minute Research Project” competition.

Pint of Science events are held across the country. They are outreach opportunities where researchers share their work with those in the public. They often meet in local bars where they can share their work informally with anyone interested in science.

The 3-minute research project competition will be open campus-wide to allow postdocs and students to compete while presenting their ideas for research projects. This is similar to a thesis competition for graduate students.

The most notable event planned this year is a research retreat planned for late fall to highlight work by UNT postdocs from across campus and encourage interdepartmental networking. It is being called a retreat because a goal is to provide a chance for the postdocs to take a break from research and collaborate.

“We may have the retreat off campus to give postdocs an opportunity to get away. It will give us a venue to showcase the work of postdocs, and also will include graduate and undergraduate students,” says Cannon. “A major goal of UNT-PDA is to host activities that foster cross-departmental collaboration.”

The UNT-PDA not only will enhance the work-life experience of current and future postdocs, but it will also assist UNT in maintaining a status of Tier One research institution and being more competitive in attracting top scholars to UNT.

The formation of the association was spearheaded by Cannon, Jaime Barros-Rios in biological sciences, Ravi Arvapally in chemisty and Bharat Gwalani in materials science and engineering, and their faculty mentor, Oppong. The executive board now includes two additional members, Trevor Romsdahl and Umesh Yadav, both in biological sciences. During the spring semester a constitution and annual budget were prepared to provide the structure, vision and goals necessary to officially establish the association. Funding is being provided by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation. Most Tier One research institutions have an association for postdoctoral scholars.

“UNT has long been committed to providing support for students. The postdoctoral association is allowing us to formally broaden support to postdocs, a very important and sometimes overlooked part of the research community,” says Narendra Dahotre, interim vice president of research and innovation and a university distinguished research professor with the College of Engineering. “Attracting these bright scholars and preparing them for their future endeavors is an important part of our research mission.”

For more information, contact UNT-PDA President Ashley Cannon, at ashley.cannon@unt.edu.