Postdoc Spotlight—Networking, New Skills, and Next Steps!

Hirdesh Kumar, Ph.D.

Credit: NIAID

In this interview, Hirdesh Kumar, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Host-Pathogen Interactions and Structural Vaccinology Section of the Laboratory of Malaria Immunology and Vaccinology (LMIV) speaks about his postdoctoral experience at NIAID. 

Tell me about your research and how it contributes to the mission of your lab.
I work in the Host-Pathogen Interactions and Structural Vaccinology (HPISV) section of LMIV where I establish functional assays to study malaria antigens. My research projects involve design, expression, purification of malaria antigens and their structural and functional characterization using different biophysical techniques.  The goal is to develop tailored antigens to elicit a strong neutralizing response against the malaria infection. This is in line with the mission of the lab, under the direction of my Principal Investigator, Niraj Harish Tolia, Ph.D., to develop the next generation malaria vaccine candidates.

What attracted you to conduct your postdoctoral research in NIAID?

I did my Ph.D. in computational biology and molecular and cellular parasitology. After my Ph.D., I wanted to translate my theoretical knowledge in structural biology and biochemistry into technical skills. As part of Dr. Tolia’s team at LMIV, NIAID was the perfect platform to enhance my skills in structural biology and to apply my skills in reverse genetics and animal studies to study malaria antigens. Today, I am a proud member of the dynamic and multi-disciplinary LMIV research team, and I appreciate the advancement of our therapeutic agents from their early discovery to pre-clinical and clinical studies.

What has been the highlight of your experience as a postdoc at NIAID, so far?

Being a postdoc at NIAID has introduced me to a platform to connect with scientists at the national and international level and has allowed me the opportunity to discuss new ideas with them. I coordinate the LMIV fellows’ journal club to discuss an assortment of novel and exemplary research papers. I have presented my work at different annual meetings, helping me to build a strong scientific network. As a selected NIH Fellow Editorial Board (FEB) member, a free and confidential scientific document editing service, I contribute by improving other fellows’ manuscripts by editing for grammar, clarity, and flow. I am also a member of the NIAID Fellow Advisory Committee (FAC) and organize and volunteer for various NIAID fellows’ events. Last but not least, I have enhanced my technical and grant writing skills by attending the many workshops offered by NIAID and across the NIH.

What was the most surprising/unique/interesting aspect of doing a postdoc at NIH?

The NIH campus has limitless opportunities for aspirants. Above all, I am most excited by the resources for soft-skill and career development offered by the NIH Office of Intramural Training & Education (OITE). My favorite resources include the NIH FEB and the opportunities to experience new and different work environments through completing a ‘Detail’.

What are your next steps and how has your experience prepared you for the future?

I want to pursue a career in technical writing, where networking and communication are as necessary as my technical skills. I participate in technical and grant-writing courses and workshops to develop my skills in writing. I am proud to be an active editor, writer, reviewer, judge, and organizer in different NIH committees. Recently, I have developed the new habit of seeking out new connections and networking opportunities that align with my career interests, which sometimes results in meeting experts in my field, allowing for opportunities to learn from their experiences.

As a member of the NIAID Fellows Advisory Committee (FAC), how does being involved in your Institute and NIH groups pay off?

During my first FAC meeting in January 2019, I met Dr. Sydella Blatch, the NIAID postdoc and visiting fellow program manager. Dr. Blatch established herself as an excellent source of career information and is always there to help NIAID fellows. Dr. Blatch places emphasis on enhancing your skills and building your network. During our monthly FAC meetings, I’ve developed my organizational skills in coordinating events, decision making, and strategic thinking through meeting other NIAID postdocs and sharing our experiences. For example, I was part of the organizing committee for the NIAID Annual Fellows Workshop in 2019, where I moderated career sessions and facilitated the discussion between the panelists and the audience.  Further, I first heard about the NIH FEB from a fellow member during a FAC meeting.

Do you have any advice for prospective postdoc fellows?

Your postdoc is the time that you must establish your career goals. As a fellow, you must not limit your postdoc to just laboratory experiments, but you should remember the three-word mantra to success, “network, network, and network.” If you are not comfortable networking, your first attempt approaching someone will be painful – but trust me, it improves with each attempt.

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