Letter from the Director

Dr. Keith Wilkinson

Originally published December 1, 2015

Welcome to the GDBBS newsletter! This will be my last Letter from the Director as I have decided to step down after thirteen years and turn the reins over to someone else. As I reflect on my years of service as the Director of the Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences I am most grateful for the respect and cooperation of thousands of students, faculty members, and University administrators. Equally important has been the financial support provided by the Laney Graduate School, research grants from the NIH, and numerous training grants and individual fellowships that our community has obtained. In fact, we top the nation in the number of F31 individual NRSA awards from the NIH, an incredible achievement attributable in large part to the courses in grant writing to which all students now have access.

Many other significant events have come to fruition during my tenure:

  • this newsletter;

  • the establishment of the annual Division Student Advisory Council Graduate Research Symposium;

  • the addition of the Cancer Biology Graduate Program;

  • the move of the Nutrition and Health Sciences program to the School of Public Health;

  • the founding of the Student Career Seminar series to showcase the successes of our graduates and inform our trainees;

  • reorganizing Early Start to fund incoming students to do a summer research rotation;

  • consolidation of the Graduate Program Coordinators into one office providing strong professional support for students and faculty;

  • and a complete redesign and implementation of our GDBBS Database, used to track student progress and outcomes, as well as to prepare the required training tables for NIH T32 grant applications.

Finally, two other developments have enriched the graduate experience for our trainees; the increased emphasis on diversity and the expansion of professionalization and career awareness opportunities. Three years ago we established the STEM Research and Career Symposium, a national meeting that brings over a hundred underrepresented students and their advisors to campus for a two-day research symposium. It is rapidly becoming a premier event for these students and encourages them to consider graduate studies, hopefully at Emory. We also sponsor several of these undergraduates for Summer Undergraduate Research at Emory (SURE) and support 32 underrepresented graduate and undergraduate students with fellowships and scholarships from our NIH-funded Initiative to Maximize Student Development (IMSD). As a consequence of these and other efforts our graduate programs now admit 20% of their incoming students from demographic groups that are underrepresented in the sciences. Once our students arrive at Emory they have many opportunities that go beyond standard research training. Students assess their career directions using electronic resources such as MyIDP, MentorNet and the BioCareer Center. They incorporate career planning with an Individual Development Plan (IDP) that they develop and discuss at each dissertation committee meeting. Finally, thirty to forty students and postdoctoral fellows each year undergo extensive exposure to careers and have an opportunity to do internships in their chosen career area sponsored by our NIH-funded Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program.

It has been exciting times to lead our GDBBS graduate programs, even if it feels like herding cats at times. I will miss it and hope that my successor enjoys the same support, encouragement and satisfaction that I have experienced. Thank you.

Updates from the Laney Graduate School Office of Development and Alumni Relations

Robin Harpak

Originally published November 30, 2015

LGS had a very robust Homecoming with events including the GDBBS Banquet, the Conversation with the Dean, a reception celebrating the new Chemistry building addition, and the Jones Scholar Alumni luncheon. 

The GDBBS Awards Banquet saw Lukas Hoffman receive the Graduate Program in Biology Academic and Professional Achievement Award. The award, established by Drs. Paul Orser and Kent Rhodes celebrates the outstanding faculty, staff, and colleagues in the biology program and celebrates an outstanding student each year who represents the qualities of some of the great alumni and faculty who came before him/her. To make a contribution and help this award reach endowment level and/or to establish an award in your name to honor a loved one or an esteemed member of the faculty or staff, please contact Robin Harpak at rharpak@emory.edu

The main pillars/priorities of the graduate school as outlined by Dean Tedesco are: academic integrity, professional development, internationalization and globalization, diversity and inclusion. To learn more about these priorities, you can read the 2015 Dean's Address using the following url:


The LGS continues the strategy of attending discipline specific conferences as a way to see many alumni in one space. This year we’ve already attended and provided LGS receptions at American Sociological Association and the Society for Neuroscience.  We plan to have receptions at American Academy of Religion/Society for Biblical Literature, American Historical Association, the American Accounting Association, and more.  Likewise, we continue to focus on affinity group gatherings as we host “reunions” for groups like our History alumni, Bobby Jones Scholar Alumni, Biology alumni, etc.

Thank you to Wells Fargo for supporting our efforts!

Celebrating another year of achievement at the 2015 GDBBS Awards Banquet

Hope Robinson

Originally published November 30, 2015

The Annual GDBBS Awards Banquet provides an opportunity to highlight the accomplishments and contributions of students, both current and alumni, and the faculty of the GDBBS.

The William and Catherine Rice Research Award is an endowment that supports students in the Cancer Biology program of the Laney Graduate School’s Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. This year the award was presented to Scott Wilkinson, who studies cancer metastasis by investigating the effects of LKB1 farnesylation on cell motility.

Lukas Hoffmann was the recipient of the Graduate Program in Biology Academic and Achievement Award. He was recognized for his research on vocal learning in songbirds in addition to his mentorship and grant-writing skills.

The Distinguished Alumnus Award was presented to Dr. Elisabeth Binder who earned her PhD in Neuroscience from Emory in 2000. Her postdoctoral fellowship and psychiatric residency at the Max-Planck Institute of Psychiatry was followed by a return to Emory as an assistant professor where she has maintained her appointment on a part-time basis. Dr. Binder returned to the Max-Planck Institute in 2007 where she was appointed to head the Department for Translational Research in 2013. Her research relating epigenetic mechanisms to mood and anxiety disorders has been widely published in leading journals.  

Each program in the GDBBS selects a Student of the Year

Hailing from locations across the USA from California  to Maryland, this year’s honorees were a diverse and impressive group.   Between them they are supported by ten grants, have published over two dozen manuscripts, hold leadership positions in numerous organizations, and are involved in community outreach programs. As a student, I was inspired and their accomplishments filled me with pride to be part of Emory, the Laney Graduate School, and the GDBBS.

The Graduate Career Award was given to Constance Harrell Shreckengost, NS, MD/PhD, who has published twelve manuscripts (four as first author), been supported by a number of grants and fellowships, and has earned both the GDBBS Neuroscience Scholar and Neuroscience Program Mentorship awards.

GDBBS students are learning to be outstanding teachers as well. The Student Teaching Award was presented to Kameryn Butler, GMB for her work as a student teacher for Introductory Graduate Human Genetics with Dr. Fridovich-Keil. 

Scott Wilkinson, CB, was awarded the Career Teaching Award in recognition of his efforts and many contributions to science education both here at Emory and in community outreach programs. He has provided a Science Day at a local elementary school and developed a Pre-college course about cancer. Additionally, he was awarded an HHMI fellowship and Emory grant to develop and teach an elective course, “The Non-Fiction of Cancer.” Scott has made it a mission to help others understand science in general and the science of cancer specifically.  

Crystal Grant of the GMB program, was this year’s recipient of the Student Leadership Award. She has been involved in the Graduate Student Council, the Emory Science Advocacy Network (EScAN), the Atlanta Science Festival 2015 Curious Corps, and is Treasurer for the Graduate Students in Genetics student group.

The awards for Outreach/Community Service and Student Mentor were both presented to Annie McPherson, GMB. As president of the GMB Outreach for Teaching Science (GOT Science) and in partnership with Graduation Generation, she oversaw nine hands-on science activity sessions for elementary school students, specifically targeting underrepresented and/or disadvantaged students. In addition to these activities, Annie has taken advantage of every opportunity to teach while a graduate student, teaching three undergraduate Biology Laboratory courses and has mentored numerous students in her dissertation lab. Annie is also an advocate of homeless animals, volunteering at events and serving as a foster parent for Georgia Homeless Pets.

The Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences is fortunate to have outstanding faculty members. Each year one of these members is awarded the Faculty Mentor Award. This year’s recipient was Malu Tansey, PhD. Those nominating her spoke about her dedication to science research, but also to the development and long-term well-being of her students, saying she “…never shies away from letting her trainees take the spotlight…” and that “…she cares about mentees’ career, personal life, and accomplishments…” Another said, “I have found her to be brilliant, brave, and engaging, relentlessly enthusiastic, and a fountain of creativity.” By all accounts, Dr. Tansey is one of Emory’s best.

“An Amazing Run”-Honoring Dr. Keith Wilkinson’s Contributions to Emory and GDBBS

Jamie King

Originally published November 23, 2015

Aside from celebrating the awesome student accomplishments for the year, the other highlight of the evening was honoring Dr. Keith Wilkinson as he will be stepping down from his post as Director of GDBSS. Dr. Jerry Boss began remarks about Dr. Wilkinson by describing his career here at Emory and calling his tenure as GDBBS director “an amazing run”. Faculty members Dr. Eddie Morgan and Dr. Anita Corbett described Keith as a fearless advocate, who is never afraid to make enemies as long as he is standing up for what he believes in. Another overarching theme across faculty and students was Keith’s selflessness in regards to student success. Jasmine MillerKleinhenz described Keith’s approach as “behind the scenes” help for students to ensure success by any means necessary. Keith’s investment in student success has extended beyond graduate school as well. As a result of his careful concern and acknowledgment of variable goals of students beyond graduate school, Keith has ensured students in GDBBS have access to resources to explore careers beyond academia. Over the years, Keith has also been a fierce advocate for diversity on all fronts across the faculty and graduate student population. Following remarks from faculty and students, Dean Lisa Tedesco presented Dr. Wilkinson with a beautiful piece of artwork by Peretti to symbolize the imprint he has left on GDBBS and graduate education here at Emory, as well as on the lives of alumni.

The Postdoc Problem

Kristen Thomas

Originally published November 23, 2015

Approximately 70% of PhD recipients in the biomedical sciences will pursue a postdoc after graduation. Traditionally, the purpose of a postdoctoral fellowship was to give scientists additional training and independence before pursuing a tenure track faculty position at a research institution. Today, however, the postdoctoral ranks have swelled well beyond the demand for new faculty, causing many to extend their training through multiple labs and beyond five years. The postdoc can often morph into a new position, one that few hopeful young graduate students dream of attaining: the permadoc. How did we get here and what can we do to fix the postdoc problem?

Why so many postdocs? (And why is it bad?)

As shown in a recent Nature Biotechnology article, the gap between the number of PhDs awarded and the number of faculty positions available has widened dramatically since the early 1980s, mostly because the number of faculty openings has remained relatively unchanged while the number of PhDs awarded has steadily increased. New PhDs seek postdocs under the assumption that they will eventually land the coveted faculty position but soon realize that they face stiff competition from their peers.

In the meantime, postdocs receive the pay, benefits, and prestige befitting a temporary trainee: not a doctoral degree recipient in a permanent position. Many eventually stop seeking faculty positions and start looking to industry or government for better prospects. Some leave science altogether, but some stay in postdoc positions hoping that one more experiment and one more prestigious journal article will land them an academic position. Perhaps as a result, about 10% have been postdocs for more than six years. In the meantime, faculty appear to benefit from having a large number of experienced and underpaid postdocs working in their labs.

A Popular Solution

In 2014 Nature asked its readers to choose among possible solutions to the postdoc problem and over 70% of respondents agreed on one solution: create more permanent, better-paid staff scientist positions. While these positions would not receive the salary of tenure track faculty positions, they would offer more people permanent positions conducting academic research. A report released that same year on the state of postdoctoral fellows in the United States agreed that increasing the number of staff scientists would help reduce the number of postdocs.

While current faculty recognize that having permanent, experienced researchers in their labs will benefit the lab’s productivity, many are concerned about the added cost. Labs would need to be smaller in order to have the funds to pay staff scientists. In March, the National Cancer Institute proposed a new grant program to fund “superdocs” or “research specialists” with salaries in the $75-100,000 range for five years. If other funding agencies follow suit, then faculty might not need to worry about the cost of offering these positions in their own labs. In another scenario, funding agencies might demand that universities shoulder the added financial burden themselves.

Alternative Strategies

Other solutions to the postdoc problem have also been proposed. One is to reduce the number of students entering PhD programs. Another is to divert graduates into positions other than postdocs. Others have proposed making postdoc positions more prestigious, harder to obtain, and better paid.

Many PhD students enter postdocs not because they want to train for faculty positions, but because they are unsure what type of career they desire and they are delaying more permanent employment while they decide. The NIH now requires that training grant recipients create Individual Development Plans (IDPs), which help trainees identify careers that match their personal strengths, values, and interests. The programs in the Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences also use a variation of the IDP where students present two or three slides detailing their career plans at each committee meeting.  The NIH Common Fund has also started the BEST, or Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training, Initiative to train graduate students and postdocs for non-traditional careers.

Emory has employed several strategies. The joint Emory Laney Graduate School and Georgia Tech BEST program was among the first round of BEST funding recipients and will soon welcome its third cohort of trainees. Several trainees have left postdoc positions to start positions in industry, and student trainees have avoided postdocs altogether upon learning they were unnecessary for their desired career paths. The length of a postdoc has also been limited to five years within the School of Medicine. After five years, postdocs must either leave, seek an exemption, or be promoted to Instructor, a better paid but still not permanent position.

Looking Forward

While this problem might have no single solution, steps are being taken across the country to reduce the number of postdocs and promote the career advancement of existing postdocs. If you’re currently a struggling postdoc, take heart: at least you aren’t alone, and the NIH and other institutions are aware of the problem.