Research and Mentorship Among Key Postdoc Contributions

September 22, 2020
Each year, the week of September 21-25 is designated as National Postdoc Appreciation Week by the National Postdoctoral Association. Baylor is among many leading research universities celebrating their important contributions as they advance knowledge and discovery through scholarship and research. As Baylor University pursues R1/Tier 1 research status, we recognize the impact postdoctoral scholars have in achieving this goal.

Baylor University’s postdoctoral scholars serve a wide range of disciplines and departments from the sciences to mathematics to the humanities. While their day-to-day roles may look different across departments, their contributions are significant to the work of faculty and students.

For Venkata Kovvuri (pictured above at left), a postdoctoral scholar and research associate in Baylor’s CPRIT Synthesis and Drug-Lead Discovery Laboratory, a typical day involves natural product synthesis research, searching for molecular combinations and developing methodologies that could someday lead to new cancer therapeutics. Julienne Kabre (pictured above at center), a postdoctoral scholar in Mathematics with a focus on partial differential equations, supports her faculty mentor’s work while complementing his focus to glean new insights. Emily Dolive (pictured above at right), a postdoctoral fellow in English, teaches classes and researches British women poets in times of war.

Amidst those differences, their shared contributions embody the impact of postdoctoral scholars across campus: postdoctoral scholars conduct meaningful research and support the professors they work with, providing complementary work to their mentors’ research goals while freeing faculty to focus on other important areas. Postdoctoral scholars also serve as mentors to undergraduate and graduate students alike, providing them with another research professional with a terminal degree from whom to glean advice, insight and expertise.

Research

Daniel Romo, Ph.D., the Schotts Professor of Chemistry and co-director of Baylor’s CPRIT Synthesis and Drug-Lead Discovery Laboratory, says having a postdoctoral scholar in the laboratory is “almost like an extension of me,” which is no faint praise coming from a recognized research leader. Romo’s group focuses on the synthesis of organic molecules to advance potential drug leads, and he has pioneered new synthesis strategies that could advance drug leads for cancer and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

“Postdocs have a terminal degree and bring a whole new set of experiences in terms of reactions they have run and research they’ve been involved with,” Romo said. “It’s like a library on legs. A key thing is that they are able to be independent, and I can go from being a coach to a cheerleader in the work they do.”

Venkata Kovvuri, who served in the Romo Group for over three years before moving to the CPRIT Synthesis and Drug-Lead Discovery Laboratory, worked towards a new methodology to apply to a target synthesis. In that work, he had Romo as a high-level mentor to discuss challenges and insights, but the work was his own. Eventually, his work was successful—the development of a new method for the direct conversions of alkenes cyclic guanidines—and led to a publication in Organic Letters, a leading journal of the American Chemical Society.

“This publication was very big for me, and will lead to more opportunities,” Kovvuri said. “Throughout my work, I always have the complete support of Dr. Romo. He always takes care of the project that I’m working on, so when we need to tackle an issue, he always has input and advice.”

In the math department, Julienne Kabre, works with Qin Sheng, Ph.D. Both focus on partial differential equations (PDE), and Kabre designs schemes to obey the physical realities of the physics challenges they tackle. In Dr. Sheng, Kabre discovered a faculty mentor with similar interests, and chose Baylor for her postdoctoral work. She contributes research in a different manner than a postdoctoral scholar in a laboratory might do so.

“As Dr. Sheng works on an equation, I work on another,” Kabre said. “But, I’m always using the tools I studied in my Ph.D. program to see how to solve my particular problem. Even though we are working on different equations, we have common tools to resolve the challenges. Dr. Sheng is very supportive, sharing with me all he knows, and that helps me make progress in the research I’m doing to support him.”

Mentorship

Baylor’s increased focus on research enhances the University’s long-standing focus on excellence in teaching and mentorship. Through research, students are introduced to cutting-edge, real-world examples that advance knowledge in their field of study and engage critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Postdoctoral scholars play an important role in this area as well, interacting with students, both undergraduate and graduate, in the lab and in the classroom alike.

“Postdocs don’t just come in and facilitate the work of one graduate student,” John Wood, Ph.D., the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Co-Director of the CPRIT Lab, along with Romo. “In general, they spread their expertise throughout our group just by interacting. It’s an educational aspect that goes both ways.”

Some of that mentorship takes place informally, as students can visit with postdoctoral scholars just as they would a professor, asking questions and gleaning insights about the work within their lab. As postdoctoral scholars bring their own experience from different universities, they provide students an additional measure of understanding beyond the borders of campus or their lab. Within lab group settings, that interaction can also take place more formally, in group meetings in which students, professors and postdocs share updates on their work.

“Training students is a part of my job, and I really like the mentorship aspect,” Kovvuri said. “Sometimes they are unfamiliar with aspects of the chemistry they are doing, and will approach me in the lab. Sometimes, we will train them on things like safety precautions. Other times, Dr. Romo would put me in charge of our biweekly meetings. I’ll moderate as we discuss our successes and failures and talk about our daily work.”

For Emily Dolive, a postdoctoral scholar in Baylor’s English department, teaching is a meaningful part of the experience. A 2011 Baylor graduate, she traveled out of state for her Master’s and Ph.D., but returned to Baylor for her postdoctoral work. Her role is a mix of research and teaching. Drawn back to her alma mater by the renowned Armstrong-Browning Library, Dolive’s research focuses on British women poets and their work during wars, with a goal of producing a book and additional publications. In addition to research and other duties within the department, she teaches two sections of British literature.

“It wasn’t too long ago that I was in the same seats as my students,” Dolive said, “and there’s a wonderful connection there. I know the power of the Baylor community, and how special it is to be a part of it. I was always astounded by the generosity, kindness, and knowledge of my own professors and I feel like, in doing this, I’m able to give back. Working with students is something I’ve found to be incredibly special.”

As Baylor University pursues R1/Tier 1 research recognition, the role of postdoctoral scholars, often unsung, is not unnoticed outside of their labs and classrooms. Their contributions have a multiplier effect that benefits the professors they serve, the students they mentor and a university with ambitious goals for research growth and impact.
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