Nafisa Jadavji, PHD: Her Career and A Few Lessons Learned
I am a neuroscientist by training; I started working in a university lab letting during the first year of my undergraduate degree in 2002. This year, 2018, I am starting my 6th year of postdoctoral training.
Part of my postdoc training was completed in Berlin, Germany at the Charité Medical University. It was a dream of mine to live in Europe and I enjoyed it a lot. During my time in Germany, I travelled to many other countries and experienced different cultures. I also formed a number of fruitful scientific collaborations. In 2015, I returned home to Canada and continued my scientific training.
My research program focuses on nutritional neuroscience, with a specific focus on folic acid, a B-vitamin, and neurodegeneration. I work in a mouse model. I study vascular cognitive impairment and stroke, as well as Parkinson’s disease. Some of my research tools include behavioral testing, in vivo imaging, using MRI, primary cell cultures and biochemistry assays, such as Western Blot.
When I completed my PhD in 2012, I was very eager to get going on my postdoctoral research and move into an independent position, at the time I did not realize the importance of postdoctoral training. When I defended my doctoral thesis in late 2012, I felt that I was on top of the world and that I could do anything, like run my own lab.
Little did I know that was not the case, there is a significant amount of training required when moving from doctoral work to leading a research group.
While I was completing my first postdoc at the Charité Medical University in Berlin, I had the opportunity to mentor and supervise a 4 MSc. students, develop a course for graduate students, writing grants, and drive my own research project.
At first, I felt daunted by all these tasks, but it was also very exciting and made me work harder. The experience I had was priceless; I learned a lot that I would not have if I had not taken on these additional responsibilities. My time at the Charité helped me transition from a student to supervisor and mentor. This was further extended when I moved back to Canada and into my second postdoc position at Carleton University.
I have been driving my research program since beginning my postdoc in 2013. So far in my training I have mentored and supervised over 33 trainees, including high school, undergraduate, and graduate students. I have published 16 peer reviewed articles since beginning my postdoc training in 2013. These experiences have helped me learn techniques, strategies, and important lessons I think I need to know in order to lead a team of researchers in the future.
I have not taken the traditional road to postdoctoral training. This means that I did not go into someone’s laboratory and do experiments to help move their research program forward.
What I did do was obtain my own funding and drive my own research project. In my last two years of PhD training I did a lot of research to find potential labs and wrote a number of fellowship applications to fund my postdoctoral training. I knew exactly what I wanted to do in terms of research area and so I ran with it. I was successful in obtaining funding for five years from the provincial and federal Canadian government. Along the way I also got some small pots of money to help with meeting travel. I was successful in obtaining operating grant money twice which was a great to help with the costs of running experiments.
I have faced a lot of road blocks and rejection along the way, and I still do. But persistence and a strong will has helped me stay on path for a career in STEM.
I think I have learned a number of important lessons from my scientific training and the two top things I try and pass on are; one take a break from time to time, don’t burn yourself out. Take some time away from work and come back refreshed, you will work better.
Two, rejection is important. You can’t be good at everything. Failing is important, you learn how to pick yourself up and get going again, these lessons have been priceless.
Pursuing my own research program has also been a lonely path; I have been surrounded by people in the lab but there are not very many people in my current surroundings that are experts in my field. Although a challenge, I have embraced it and made a number of collaborations with others in and outside of the field. I have also expanded my research by working with others different areas, it has been a good challenge to embrace.
I think that postdoctoral training is very important for scientists in STEM. It is a difficult time because the future is not certain, job security is scarce. But when done correctly it can give an individual the experience and confidence that they require to run their own laboratory or to go down their own path.
If you love what you do, go for it!