Science Recognizes Chilkoti As Top Prof for Postdocs

Duke’s Ashutosh Chilkoti, associate professor of biomedical engineering, was named a Top Principal Investigator in a Science magazine Science Careers survey, published in October. The goal of the survey was to determine what characteristics postdocs value most in the researchers they work for, and to identify the principal investigators who best embody those characteristics.

For Chilkoti, building successful working relationships with postdoctoral fellows is all about ‘learning the individual.’

“There is no one mode of success, but I have found that the first three months of a fellowship are the most critical,” said Chilkoti. “During that time I try to get to know the postdoc and figure out what barriers are standing in the way of that person’s success.”

Such barriers range from lacking specific laboratory skills to struggling with language comprehension and culture shock if the postdoc is from another country. Solving such problems sometimes requires creative approaches. For example, in one instance, Chilkoti paired up a foreign-born postdoc with a particular graduate student who needed to learn the postdocs’ specialized laboratory skills. In exchange, the postdoc gained a guide to help him navigate the cultural complexities of life in the U.S. The result was a win-win situation and a lifelong friendship, Chilkoti said.

Friendship and a strong sense of connection is exactly what Chilkoti says he likes to see. He describes himself as someone who had a wonderful time as a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow. “I had wonderful mentors and I try to replicate my positive experiences in my own lab,” he said. He has mentored 15 postdocs including men and women, and both U.S. and foreign citizens.

Chilkoti’s research focuses on the interface of biology, engineering and materials science. As a result, his research group is highly interdisciplinary. While his graduate students are primarily engineering students, Chilkoti views postdoc appointments as opportunities to bring new, specialized skills to his group. He typically hires postdocs from disciplines very different from engineering, such as pharmaceutical science, or polymer chemistry and molecular and cell biology.

Chilkoti employs postdocs to try out new research methods and tools, and help him explore ideas for new avenues of research. The work tends to encompass high risk, proof of concept projects that wouldn’t be suitable for graduate students who are still learning the ropes of how to conduct research. Fully funded for the duration of their time in Chilkoti’s lab, postdocs are able create a niche of expertise, publish widely, and then move on to their next job after a few years. “By the time the postdoc is ready to leave, he or she is telling me what needs to be done next to advance the research,” said Chilkoti.

Molecular biologist and biochemist Li Liu worked for Chilkoti as a postdoc from 2001 to 2002. She describes him as “very kind and available.”

“We could always contact him to discuss our research, and he was always on top of every project going on in the lab,” Liu said. She said she appreciated his weekly laboratory meetings, and that he helped his students and postdocs prepare for meeting presentations by holding dry runs.

“Working with Tosh was a really valuable experience and is the key to my success right now,” said Liu, who now works at Neose Technologies in Horsham, Pa.

Chilkoti is adamant about encouraging his postdocs and graduate students not to sacrifice family for the sake of their research. “Life is too short to live that way,” he said.

A father of two children himself, Chilkoti is no stranger to balancing work with caring for kids. Some of his postdocs have gone through major life-changing events such as losing a family member or having a child. “They didn’t have to worry about their projects being reassigned,” Chilkoti said. “I tell them to take the time they need and come back when they are ready.”

Like many other research institutions, Duke recognizes the invaluable contributions of postdocs and graduate students. A Dean's Award for Excellence in Mentoring, established this year by Graduate School Dean Lewis Siegel, was awarded to biomedical engineering professor Lori Setton, Salvatore Pizzo of pathology and John Aldrich of political science.

The award is one way Duke recognizes outstanding mentoring in the graduate program and highlights some of the characteristics of good mentoring. In another high impact move to promote mentoring, Duke appointed Ann Brown, M.D., as the associate dean for women in medicine and science at Duke’s medical school in February.

More than 900 present and past postdoctoral fellows took part in the Science Careers survey, conducted in March 2004.