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Postdocs Play Key Role in Summer Training

By Negin Martin
August 2010

Erin Hopper, Ph.D.
Erin Hopper, above, was one of the presenters at the "Diet and Hormones" seminar July 20. Her exercise on measuring fat in potato chips also brought home important lessons about designing experiments. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Mercedes Arana, Ph.D., and two colleagues
Mercedes Arana, above, and her colleagues worked the room during the exercises. Arana, who was a postdoc last summer, assisted Principal Investigator Tom Kunkel, Ph.D., who taught the pilot interactive seminar last year. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Bill Fitzgerald displays water jug.
Bill Fitzgerald brought several items, such as the water jug above, to demonstrate the ubiquity of radiation in the environment. He scanned the jug and a rock with radon with his handheld Geiger counter. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Archana Dhasarathy, Ph.D., and Sophia Bolick, Ph.D.
Archana Dhasarathy and Sophia Bolick demonstrate that at times "team teaching" could be interpreted literally, as they took turns at the podium. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Throughout July, NIEHS Summers of Discovery (SOD) students got a chance to learn about environmental effects on human health in a series of interactive seminars designed and presented by teams of postdoctoral fellows (see story( The series is the result of a collaboration between organizers Diane Klotz, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Office of Fellows Career Development (, and Debbie Wilson, coordinator of the Summers of Discovery ( and Special Programs, who served as facilitator at each of the seminars.

According to Klotz and Wilson, the involvement of trainees in the seminars - a new feature this summer - offers students expanded mentoring opportunities and complements trainees' career development experience at NIEHS. "The postdocs gained experience in the delivery aspect of teaching a course on environmental exposures," Klotz said, "but even more importantly, they gained experience in developing the curriculum, learning how to design course content and evaluate whether or not the students learned from it."

Klotz worked with Principal Investigators David Armstrong, Ph.D., and David Miller, Ph.D., last summer laying the groundwork for the new active learning concept. Last fall, Klotz gathered a group of interested postdocs and gave them full reign, with some guidance and mentoring, to teach the workshops this summer and also to develop the theme and design the entire content.

Each week, a general theme tied together all the presentations and exercises. The presenters - postdocs, predocs, and other lab scientists (see text box) - interspersed the weekly seminars on heavy metals, radiation, and hormones with exercises that emphasized active learning and participation. Students worked in teams at tables in the Institute's Rodbell Auditorium and, for one exercise on solar radiation, even took their learning outside.

According to SOD intern Zach McCaw, the course design was very effective in expanding his understanding of issues in environmental health. "The seminars gave us a glimpse of the diverse perspectives from which the effects of our environment on human health are under investigation," he said. "This introduction to the many pathways that address ambient influences on our wellbeing underscores the numerous opportunities for continued research that needs to be done."

The series concluded July 27 with a seminar on air pollution, followed by the annual poster session and awards ceremony July 29, which will be the subjects of a report in the September issue of the Environmental Factor.

(Negin Martin, Ph.D., is a biologist in the NIEHS Laboratory of Neurobiology Viral Vector Core Facility and a 2009 Science Communication Fellow with Environmental Health Sciences. She recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship with the NIEHS Membrane Signaling Group.)

A Dynamic Team of Instructors

To keep things lively and students attentive, each session involved several scientists from NIEHS labs:

  • Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) Postdoctoral Fellow Amy Abdulovic, Ph.D., of the DNA Replication Fidelity Group
  • Biologist Mercedes Arana, Ph.D., of the DNA Replication Fidelity Group where she also completed her postdoctoral fellowship
  • IRTA Fellow Sophie Bolick, Ph.D., of the Molecular and Genetic Epidemiology Group
  • IRTA Fellow Abee Boyles, Ph.D., of the Reproductive Epidemiology Group
  • Research Fellow Archana Dhasarathy, Ph.D., of the Eukaryotic Transcriptional Regulation Group
  • Radiation Safety Officer Bill Fitzgerald, of the Health and Safety Branch
  • IRTA Fellow Laura Fuhrman, Ph.D., of the Comparative Genomics Group
  • IRTA Fellow Cynthia Holly, Ph.D., of the Macromolecular Structure Group
  • IRTA Fellow Erin Hopper, Ph.D., of the Mass Spectrometry Group
  • Biologist Wendy Jefferson, Ph.D., of the Reproductive Medicine Group
  • IRTA Pre-doctoral Fellow Matthew McElwee, of the Comparative Genomics Group
  • Biologist Michelle Sever, of the Environmental Cardiopulmonary Disease Group
  • IRTA Fellow Jennifer Sims, Ph.D., of the Eukaryotic Transcriptional Regulation Group
  • IRTA Fellow Jana Stone, Ph.D., of the DNA Replication Fidelity Group
  • IRTA Fellow Danielle Watt, Ph.D., of the DNA Replication Fidelity Group

This summer, Arana, Bolick, and Hopper also made presentations at the EHP science teacher workshop titled "Air, Water, and You,"( and Watt spent a Saturday in June working with students in the Durham Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Science and Everyday Experiences program(

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