NIAID Postdoc Appreciation Week 2021

To celebrate National Postdoc Appreciation Week 2021, the NIAID Office of Research Training and Development (ORTD) is featuring NIAID postdocs who make a vital contribution to the NIAID training community through their exceptional mentorship. Thank you for the essential role you play in training the next generation of biomedical research scientists. The following postdocs were nominated by the NIAID training community as outstanding mentors. Read about their contributions and achievements here. 

Ankur Bothra, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Fellow in the Microbial Pathogenesis Section of the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases





Ankur Bothra, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the Microbial Pathogenesis Section of the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases

Ankur Bothra, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the Microbial Pathogenesis Section of the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases

Credit
NIAID

Ankur Bothra, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the Microbial Pathogenesis Section of the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases

Credit:
NIAID

Great Mentorship

Mentorship is a mutual agreement where the mentor-protégé relationship is defined by the quality of their connection. The symbiotic relationship between a postdoc and postbac(s) is an agreement that can benefit the mentor, trainee, and organization, while the informal mentorships developed naturally underpin the importance of teamwork in research. Regardless of the arrangement, mentorship plays a significant role in shaping a scientist’s career. A good mentor helps their mentee develop patience and tenacity to troubleshoot when faced with challenges in the lab. A competent mentor must be a disciplined and dedicated researcher who can train their mentee with perfection and proficiency. As a postdoc, I’m often consulted for career advice, a fresh perspective, or even just for assurance or a morale boost. My first postbac mentee has given me the opportunity to understand their goals and ambitions and a unique opportunity to develop my mentorship skills. I oppose the notion that mentoring can distract postdocs from our projects; instead it can energize and invigorate our work.

My Advice for Postdoctoral Mentors

“Mentorship is a mammoth undertaking, and I can appreciate the time and effort us as postdocs invest in mentoring young professionals such as postbacs. The NIH Postbac Program gave me a unique opportunity to develop my mentorship skills; instead of seeing mentoring [as] a liability, it’s truly an asset!” 

My Research

I seek to understand the metabolic pathways of Bacillus anthracis, to independently develop a novel hypothesis on how environmental factors like CO2 and sugar phosphates control the toxin gene transcription. Separately, I have taken on a key role in our lab’s efforts to develop an antibody-based, PCR-independent assay for COVID RNA detection. My expertise in nucleic acid chemistry has been essential to the excellent progress in this program.

“Ankur stresses that it is not the techniques that make the scientist, but the original scientific thought, and he encourages me to think of experiments and optimizations.” - Elena Wei, Postbac Fellow

Karthigayan Gunalan, Ph.D.

Research Fellow in the Malaria Cell Biology Section of the Laboratory Malaria and Vector Research





Karthigayan Gunalan, Ph.D. Research Fellow in the Malaria Cell Biology Section of the Laboratory Malaria and Vector Research

Karthigayan Gunalan, Ph.D. Research Fellow in the Malaria Cell Biology Section of the Laboratory Malaria and Vector Research

Credit
NIAID

Karthigayan Gunalan, Ph.D. Research Fellow in the Malaria Cell Biology Section of the Laboratory Malaria and Vector Research

Credit:
NIAID

Great Mentorship

I truly enjoy working with young minds. I loved their eagerness to learn more and motivation to address challenging research questions. It is my pleasure to show them how to design an ideal experiment with appropriate controls. I greatly appreciate my principal investigator and NIAID for providing me with the opportunity to mentor young researchers. I deeply value this experience, and it is a valuable experience for my future career.

My Advice for Postdoctoral Mentors

When mentoring young researchers, it’s important to be patient not only demonstrating high IQ but also high EQ. Young researchers should be given a certain level of independence while conducting research. Overall, a mentor and mentee should be open to learn and grow together as a team.

My Research

Our interest is to understand recently emerging Plasmodium vivax infection in Duffy-negative Africans. My primary focus is to identify alternate invasion pathways used by P. vivax in Duffy-negatives and elucidate the biological significance of novel proteins vital for Duffy-negative P. vivax infections. We have studied Duffy-negative P. vivax clinical isolates from Ethiopia, Mali, and Cameroon. We established a suitable monkey model to study Duffy antigen-independent P. vivax infection and identified some key molecular players involved. In addition, we are working on establishing an in vitro culture system for P. vivax using controlled environmental conditions. This will help us gain deep insights on the biology of the P. vivax malaria parasite.  

“Karthik has been instrumental in the quality of my training. He suggests courses and grants that I should apply for and follows up on every step of my work in the lab.” - Ghyslaine Bruna Djeunang Dongho, Postdoctoral Fellow

Eva Iniguez, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Fellow in the Vector Molecular Biology Section of the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Biology





Postdoctoral Fellow in the Vector Molecular Biology Section of the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Biology

Eva Iniguez, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the Vector Molecular Biology Section of the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Biology

Credit
NIAID

Eva Iniguez, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the Vector Molecular Biology Section of the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Biology

Credit:
NIAID

Great Mentorship

For me a mentor figure is someone who draws on their own experiences to help guide their mentees to a better self. I have been fortunate to have stumbled on great mentor figures during my scientific career. Since joining NIAID, I have been privileged being mentored by passionate, resilient, and positive role models who have significantly impacted not only my experience as a scientist, but also my personal development. As a postdoctoral fellow, I have had the pleasure to mentor several postbacs and graduate students over the past 3 years, and it has been one of my most gratifying and rewarding experiences so far. Some of the major qualities that I attempt to pass on to my mentees on a day-to-day basis include scientific rigor, critical thinking, the flexibility to value different perspectives, being open to constructive criticism, and collaboration. I aspire to follow the steps of my mentors by influencing and strengthening the career aspirations of my mentees by reinforcing the importance of mental health and a personal-work balance, all while having fun performing top-tier science. It is essential to have the support of postbacs to move our projects forward. Everything works better as a team, and what better experience than to see our own team members evolve and grow toward independence.

My Advice for Postdoctoral Mentors

“I think each individual person has different career and professional needs, as well as different personalities, and that we as mentors need to take that into consideration. Science is fun, and we should pass this along with our scientific knowledge to younger generations.”

My Research

I am interested in vector-host-pathogen interactions focused on anthroponotic visceral leishmaniasis (AVL), a fatal parasitic disease transmitted to humans by the bite of a Leishmania-infected sand fly. AVL, caused by Leishmania donovani, is endemic in the Indian sub-continent where it cycles between vector sand flies and humans. Part of my research focuses on developing human biomarkers of exposure to bites of the sand fly vector using antibodies to immunodominant, species-specific, salivary proteins. These tools are urgently needed to help assess success of vector control measurements in endemic areas. I am also interested in pathogenicity of AVL and in understanding how an immune system compromised by malnutrition responds to L. donovani following a sand fly bite, ultimately with the goal to provide valuable information toward improving AVL treatment and prevention in a natural scenario.

“She has helped me strengthen my research skills more than I could imagine—it is because of her that I no longer view science as an intimidating monster. I have become confident and much more interactive in lab due to her guidance. When I am stressed, she often helps me acknowledge that science is only successful when the individual is not burned out.” — Yvonne Rangel Gonzalez, Postbac Fellow

Jackie Kaiser, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Fellow in the RNA Viruses Section of the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases





Jackie Kaiser Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the RNA Viruses Section of the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases

Jackie Kaiser Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the RNA Viruses Section of the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases

Credit
NIAID

Jackie Kaiser Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the RNA Viruses Section of the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases

Credit:
NIAID

Great Mentorship

While I always found science interesting, it was good mentorship that encouraged me to pursue a career in science. I was very fortunate in that my first laboratory experience was working with an incredible mentor who I still consider a great friend. He showed me the fun of exploring in science, he taught me to brush off mistakes, and he gave me independence and ownership over my work regardless of my position as a novice. I hope to provide similar comfort and freedoms to any mentee who I work with. Being a mentor can be engaging and fun as you see mentees rapidly develop and learn. In my experience, it doesn’t take long until the mentee is strongly independent and branching into his/her own work, making it easy to continue to focus on my own projects while remaining available for any needed guidance. Having the role of a mentor has been inspiring to me and has encouraged me to learn more about teaching skills while I am here at NIH, as I find something special in the enthusiasm and open-mindedness of young scientists.  

My Advice for Postdoctoral Mentors

Being a mentor is a lot like being a friend. Mentorship includes sharing your experiences, providing support, laughing at each other’s mistakes, and cheering for achievements.

My Research

My postdoctoral work involves the study of RNA viruses and how viral proteins interact with one another to promote successful replication. Using fluorescent tags, we are examining how viral proteins behave inside and outside of cells to try to better understand the lifecycle of RNA viruses. One of our goals is to find similarities/differences across related but unique RNA viruses to draw conclusions as to which mechanisms of the lifecycle may be conserved across a genus. 

“With all of the restrictions on her own work, Jackie still made sure my training was a priority. She has always made me feel like an equal collaborator on all of the projects we work on together, even during the very early stages of my training. Jackie is an ideal role model in the lab, since she is a very thorough, methodical, and organized scientist.” - Megan Levy, Postbac Fellow

Zarna Pala, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Fellow in the Molecular Parasitology and Entomology Unit of the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Biology





Zarna Pala, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the Molecular Parasitology and Entomology Unit of the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Biology

Zarna Pala, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the Molecular Parasitology and Entomology Unit of the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Biology

Credit
NIAID

Zarna Pala, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the Molecular Parasitology and Entomology Unit of the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Biology

Credit:
NIAID

Great Mentorship

I think that a mentor can empower students. This necessarily encompasses helping students to learn new things, to support and guide them as they grow through various challenges along the way, and to inculcate the confidence that will be essential to pursue their interests and ambitions. I have been fortunate to have some great mentors throughout my career and these relationships were always mutual, where we both are giving and taking in equal parts. My mentors instilled a critical thinking mindset which can be extrapolated to every academic and nonacademic domain of my life. I strive to teach students the importance of being humble and respecting others. My goal is to combine my passion for science and mentoring to promote a healthy work environment for everyone, which in turn will help each member of the lab reach their goals. I try to create an optimistic and enjoyable environment for my mentees. This strategy makes them feel happy and comfortable as well as more productive. When there is a culture of caring about each other and helping one another, I no longer have to juggle my projects with mentorship, as they go hand in hand—we work together for our individual and shared success. 

My Advice for Postdoctoral Mentors

Be clear about what you expect from your mentee and provide honest feedback to help them grow and reach their professional goals. A mentor must create an environment in which mentees trust them, learn from them, and confide in them while maintaining healthy boundaries. 

My Research

My research is focused on characterizing the role of mosquito saliva in the activation of fibrinolytic system during Plasmodium infection. Malaria parasites undergo two severe bottlenecks during the sexual reproduction in the mosquito midgut and during sporozoite infection of the human, thus making these two stages of the lifecycle excellent targets for the development of new-antimalarials. One of the mechanisms by which Plasmodium overcome these bottlenecks is by co-opting host proteins. Our laboratory has shown that malaria parasites hijack the fibrinolytic system to facilitate infection of both the mosquito vector and the vertebrate host. Studying the interaction among the mosquito saliva, the mammalian fibrinolytic system, and the malaria parasite could lay the foundation for the development of new malaria intervention strategies.   

“Zarna is a fierce leader; she is the first to stand up and speak when she feels that there is an issue. This makes her a role model for all postbacs and trainees in our lab, as she sets a high standard for the integrity and clear communication that is so vital for researchers.” -  Brendan Sweeney, Postbac Fellow

Gaurav Shrivastava, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Fellow in the Molecular Entomology Unit of the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Research





Gaurav Shrivastava, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the Molecular Entomology Unit of the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Research

Gaurav Shrivastava, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the Molecular Entomology Unit of the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Research

Credit
NIAID

Gaurav Shrivastava, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the Molecular Entomology Unit of the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Research

Credit:
NIAID

Great Mentorship

Mentoring relationships are close, individualized relationships that develop over time commonly between a postdoc and postbac. The ultimate goal of a mentor is to establish the trainee as an independent researcher. Mentoring responsibilities include sharing knowledge and skills, overseeing the trainee’s work, helping the trainee make connections with other researchers, assisting with career counseling, as well as pointing the postbac to training opportunities they can use for their next step. As a trainee myself, I faced several challenges to find information and opportunities that I would have benefitted from. I’m trying my best to provide these opportunities to the postbacs in my lab. I understand that mentorship styles differ from person to person and depend on the postbac’s expectations and their career trajectory. Being a mentor helped me to answer some basic scientific questions in a more detailed and accurate way that I never thought of before. Mentoring also brings fresh energy inside me with inherent satisfaction. Being a mentor and handling my own separate projects is a tough job; however, it ultimately helps to excel my skills in multitasking and motivates me to work more efficiently.

My Advice for Postdoctoral Mentors

“As a good mentor, postdocs should be approachable, available, and willing to share their knowledge, experiences, network, and opportunities with mutual respect and understanding.”

My Research

My work is focused on the role of mosquito saliva on the host innate immune response during arbovirus infection. My main objective is to identify proteins of the salivary gland that can facilitate viral transmission and further modulates the host innate immune response. Under the supervision of Eric Calvo, Ph.D., I am currently working with Aedes aegypti mosquito salivary gland extract as well as several female-specific salivary gland protein candidates that may play a crucial role in modulating the host innate immune response due to arboviruses infection.

“He has contributed to my growth as a scientist and has allowed me to get out of my comfort zone while enjoying the journey. Specifically, he has taught me how to think like a scientist and to ask important questions regarding research. He has pushed me past my limits (in a good way) and makes me believe that I too can become a great scientist.” - Karina Sewell, Postbac Fellow

Paola Carolina Valenzuela Leon, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Fellow in the Molecular Entomology Unit of the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Research





Paola Carolina Valenzuela Leon, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the Molecular Entomology Unit of the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Research

Paola Carolina Valenzuela Leon, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the Molecular Entomology Unit of the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Research

Credit
NIAID

Paola Carolina Valenzuela Leon, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the Molecular Entomology Unit of the Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Research

Credit:
NIAID

Great Mentorship

I believe the purpose of advising is to help students discover what they need to advance in their careers. As a mentor, it is important to identify your student’s weaknesses and strengths. A good mentor should recognize the different learning styles, knowledge, skills, and behaviors that the students have and take this knowledge to understand how they learn and develop their strengths. This information helps the mentor guide the students into the fields that will challenge them. For me, a mentor is someone you trust and feel free to share your ideas and questions that appear during your learning process. When I reflected on the mentors in my life, I realized that I learned more from the ones who gave me the confidence to exchange ideas, helped me overcome doubts, and challenged me to keep learning. In summary, I can say that a mentor has the responsibility to share knowledge, encourage, and inspire students to pursue their future careers.

My Advice for Postdoctoral Mentors

My advice for the new mentors is to be a good listener, which is always helpful to build a mutual understanding with the students and helps to solve the constant issues that happen in a laboratory. 

My Research

Mosquitoes are vectors of pathogens, including arboviruses. These viruses infect millions of people annually, becoming a global concern. However, the role of mosquitoes in arbovirus transmission have been poorly studied. My research is focused on the role of mosquito saliva on pathogen transmission and infection, specifically arbovirus. My main aim is to identify proteins of the salivary gland that can facilitate or inhibit viral infection. This research helps us understand how these interactions between the vector salivary proteins affect Zika and Dengue transmission.

“From day one she has been very patient with me and has provided a very safe space for me to ask questions. Even though at times I get discouraged when experiments don't work out, she always manages to remain positive and uplifting.” - Karina Sewell, Postbac Fellow

Idalia Yabe, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Fellow in the Genetic Immunotherapy Section in the Laboratory of Clinical Immunology and Microbiology





Idalia Yabe, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the Genetic Immunotherapy Section in the Laboratory of Clinical Immunology and Microbiology

Idalia Yabe, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the Genetic Immunotherapy Section in the Laboratory of Clinical Immunology and Microbiology

Credit
NIAID

Idalia Yabe, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow in the Genetic Immunotherapy Section in the Laboratory of Clinical Immunology and Microbiology

Credit:
NIAID

Great Mentorship

Mentors can have a tremendous impact on a postbac’s experience by the type of environment they create. As a postdoc, I do my best to manifest positive energy and stimulation to encourage motivation and creativity, particularly among the trainees in the lab. Last year I enrolled in a course, “Scientists Teaching Science,” in which the principles I learned have become the foundation for my philosophy on teaching/mentoring. One memorable takeaway was a quote from Roshini Ramachandran, Ph.D., University of California Los Angeles: “I think of [my students] as flowers – different flowers with different needs.” I interpreted that as students will bloom but not necessarily all at the same time.  All trainees will have taken their own journey before arriving in the lab, each with different life and academic experiences and levels of knowledge, and as a mentor, my responsibility is to identify the individual needs of the trainee and to positively impact them in some way, shape, or form during their training.  My personal career aspiration is to contribute excellence in science in either a government or academic setting. In terms of juggling being a good mentor and focusing on my projects, I see both as important aspects of being a scientist—I prioritize between both and try to work as efficiently as possible.

My Advice for Postdoctoral Mentors

Being a good mentor will require an investment of one’s time and energy, openness, transparency, empathy, and patience. I highly recommend taking OITE lectures, specifically the course “Scientists Teaching Science,” as its principles can be applied to mentoring roles.

My Research

My postdoctoral work focuses on a JAK3, a critical gene for normal lymphoid development and immune function. Loss-of-function mutations of human JAK3 are associated with SCID accounting for 7 to 14% of cases. JAK3-deficient patients suffer from the lack of T-cell and NK-cell development; B cells develop but are poorly functional. Gene therapy studies have shown that RV-JAK3 vectors can restore JAK3 protein expression to physiological levels in JAK3-/- deficient mice. We propose to improve this gene therapy approach by using a lentiviral vector already approved in clinical trials and incorporate additional safety features such as tissue specificity, regulatory sequences, and enhancer elements unique to JAK3.  

“Idalia uses her experience to give helpful advice about the importance of being happy with what you do and where you are, as well as staying dedicated and focused on your scientific interests. Her bubbly attitude and excitement for her work is infectious and makes me excited to be a part of this institution.” - Karissa Bever, Postbac Fellow

 

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