Young Swiss Society for Neuroscience 

How Former ySSN President Jane Yi Landed An Awesome Postdoc

May 17, 2021

Jane Yi’s PhD thesis public defense took place on 14 January 2021 via Zoom along with approximately 75 of her advisors, faculty members, classmates, colleagues, family and friends. She presented an overview of her research which focused on identifying and characterizing the interneurons of the somatosensory area of the mouse thalamus called the ventroposterior nucleus. Until Jane and her colleagues’ pivotal research, little data existed about the interneurons in this area. Having successfully defended her thesis back in October with her faculty committee and then a few months later in the public forum as required by Switzerland academic tradition, she is a newly minted PhD. She can hereafter officially be addressed as Dr. Jane Yi. She recently learned that she would soon be embarking on her next career stage, an estimable postdoctoral research position in an exciting new neuroscience lab at Columbia University in New York City. Before leaving, Jane kindly agreed to an interview so that ySSN could record for posterity how she landed this awesome postdoc and pass on to other PhD candidates any insights she could provide about her experience. She was happy to share her strategy and recommendations.

How did Jane approach the postdoc search? 

Jane approached it just like she does everything: with a combination of “logic and faith.” First of all, as an American with Korean heritage, she was logically inclined to broaden her curriculum vitae as much as possible during her EPFL education. Therefore, about three years into her PhD, Jane applied for the EPFL-Stanford Exchange Program for a short term research exchange which requires that the student first find a lab to sponsor them. Due to her stellar background and networking skills, when she reached out to Stanford University’s Huguenard Lab, she was accepted for the three month program, later extended for an additional two months. So in the late Summer/Fall of 2019 Jane joined the Huguenard Lab, which studies thalamocortical epilepsy and neurodevelopmental disorders, very much complementing her LNMC/EPFL research. Jane’s project there focused on technical aspects of imaging the mouse thalamus in vivo. 

When Jane returned to Lausanne to finish her EPFL doctoral research and thesis, she continued a logical decision process about where to apply for postdocs. She also strengthened her connection by inviting a research fellow from the Huguenard Lab, Christopher Makinson, to participate in the Blue Brain Seminar Series in December 2019 where he gave a talk on “Building and deconstructing epilepsy circuits using mice and human brain organoids.”

How did she seek advice and consult her network?

The Stanford exchange experience had greatly added to her already strong c.v. and her EPFL doctoral degree planned for early 2021 would make her a promising candidate for subsequent postdoc positions in top neuroscience labs across the globe. In order to  optimize her credentials and career goals, Jane consulted her adviser Henry Markram, co-adviser Sean Hill, her EDNE doctoral program mentor, Dimitri Van de Ville, and numerous other EPFL faculty and colleagues for specific suggestions on decision-making criteria. Most made the suggestion that to build upon her ground-breaking work on the thalamic microcircuitry, Jane should target the leading thalamus-oriented labs. 

 

Jane seriously considered a number of other first-class laboratories that study the thalamus, and during the years preceding the completion of her PhD, met with principal investigators or spoke with postdocs from these labs. She attended a plethora of events, talks, workshops and seminars that gave her exposure to these experts so she could gain a feel for the opportunities and challenges presented by these different environments at various institutions. However, since she honed in on the Makinson Lab, she did not actually have to apply anywhere else. She acknowledges that given the competitive environment, postdoc seekers may want to seek other approaches depending on their interests and select a variety of posts to apply to. The key factor, she believes, is knowing yourself and what type of situation suits you best and meets your objectives. 

 

How did Jane actually decide where to apply?

Jane determined that she had two primary directions she could take. One, she could aim for a highly distinguished, well-known lab, which would be, by definition, usually larger in staff, with a built-in reputation, hierarchy and division of labor. Or two, she could seek out a newer lab where she could play a bigger role as a junior member and help with the lab set up, probably working longer hours, but gaining in terms of proportional impact and number of publications with first authorship. She examined her own inclinations and risk appetite and chose the second option, which obviously required that element of “faith.”

 

As mentioned, in the end Jane applied to only one postdoc position thanks to her logical decision-making with a bit of good luck and trust thrown in. Her former Stanford colleague, Makinson, was hired by Columbia University’s Institute for Genomic Medicine, to start his own lab in June 2020 to study the role of ion channels in development and neurological diseases such as epilepsy using rodent and human brain organoid models — especially in the thalamus. He was looking for postdocs to help establish the lab and Jane was already familiar with his research and lab style. Additionally, during summer of 2020 Jane applied for and received a Swiss National Science Foundation grant to fund her postdoc at Columbia. Therefore this postdoc position was a logical fit for Jane since it met all her stated criteria. The only leap of faith she then had to make was to manage the uncertainty of moving to NYC during the pandemic, along with her fiancé, an EPFL-educated mathematician. 

 

What advice can Jane provide to other EPFL PhDs in neuroscience? 

Coming from the American academic environment, she was well acquainted with the networking concept, applying for training courses, grants and programs, and finding ways to add to her skillset. Jane encourages PhD candidates to take advantage of the networking opportunities available to through EDNE, EPFL, Brain Mind Institute  and BBP including talks, seminars, workshops and events offered “locally.” Many opportunities exist with any number of international conferences, seminars, and training courses (e.g. FENS, SfN, Cold Spring Harbor training programs, The Allen Institute Summer Workshop, Gordon Research Conferences) and academic department and research institutions have budgets for selected staff participation. One training that was particularly important for Jane early in her doctoral studies was a summer workshop at the Allen Institute in Seattle focused on neuroscientific data analysis including a python bootcamp. Jane emphasized that postdoc fellowships are really important and added, “If you have a fellowship, it’s like a golden ticket to any lab in the world.”

What were the biggest challenges she faced as a woman in neuroscience?

Jane said she has experienced very few obstacles that she could attribute to being a woman in the sciences. However, she has met subtle, micro levels of sexism, usually from the older generation, yet she has found her contemporaries to be generally totally comfortable with the idea that all genders belong in neuroscience. Most often she has heard what might be called unconscious bias, such as when a male scientist might express surprise or doubt about her achievements, brilliant ideas, or excellent research results. “You did that yourself?... You are familiar with XYZ technology or software? Wow, that’s pretty good for a girl!” are the types of comments they might blurt out without thinking. And Jane would always call them out quickly with good humor to make sure they realized their inadvertent slight. Jane believes that the best way to combat lingering sexism is to start teaching children from the earliest years, that everyone who has the interest and determination to learn and contribute belongs — and is needed — in the sciences.

After completing a PhD at the EPFL, Jane Yi took on an exciting postdoc position at Columbia University in the laboratory of Dr. Christopher Makinson. She sat down with the ySSN to tell us how she approached her postdoc search.

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How Former ySSN President Jane Yi Landed An Awesome Postdoc

May 17, 2021

After completing a PhD at the EPFL, Jane Yi took on an exciting postdoc position at Columbia University in the laboratory of Dr. Christopher Makinson. She sat down with the ySSN to tell us how she approached her postdoc search.

Jane Yi’s PhD thesis public defense took place on 14 January 2021 via Zoom along with approximately 75 of her advisors, faculty members, classmates, colleagues, family and friends. She presented an overview of her research which focused on identifying and characterizing the interneurons of the somatosensory area of the mouse thalamus called the ventroposterior nucleus. Until Jane and her colleagues’ pivotal research, little data existed about the interneurons in this area. Having successfully defended her thesis back in October with her faculty committee and then a few months later in the public forum as required by Switzerland academic tradition, she is a newly minted PhD. She can hereafter officially be addressed as Dr. Jane Yi. She recently learned that she would soon be embarking on her next career stage, an estimable postdoctoral research position in an exciting new neuroscience lab at Columbia University in New York City. Before leaving, Jane kindly agreed to an interview so that ySSN could record for posterity how she landed this awesome postdoc and pass on to other PhD candidates any insights she could provide about her experience. She was happy to share her strategy and recommendations.

How did Jane approach the postdoc search? 

Jane approached it just like she does everything: with a combination of “logic and faith.” First of all, as an American with Korean heritage, she was logically inclined to broaden her curriculum vitae as much as possible during her EPFL education. Therefore, about three years into her PhD, Jane applied for the EPFL-Stanford Exchange Program for a short term research exchange which requires that the student first find a lab to sponsor them. Due to her stellar background and networking skills, when she reached out to Stanford University’s Huguenard Lab, she was accepted for the three month program, later extended for an additional two months. So in the late Summer/Fall of 2019 Jane joined the Huguenard Lab, which studies thalamocortical epilepsy and neurodevelopmental disorders, very much complementing her LNMC/EPFL research. Jane’s project there focused on technical aspects of imaging the mouse thalamus in vivo. 

When Jane returned to Lausanne to finish her EPFL doctoral research and thesis, she continued a logical decision process about where to apply for postdocs. She also strengthened her connection by inviting a research fellow from the Huguenard Lab, Christopher Makinson, to participate in the Blue Brain Seminar Series in December 2019 where he gave a talk on “Building and deconstructing epilepsy circuits using mice and human brain organoids.”

How did she seek advice and consult her network?

The Stanford exchange experience had greatly added to her already strong c.v. and her EPFL doctoral degree planned for early 2021 would make her a promising candidate for subsequent postdoc positions in top neuroscience labs across the globe. In order to  optimize her credentials and career goals, Jane consulted her adviser Henry Markram, co-adviser Sean Hill, her EDNE doctoral program mentor, Dimitri Van de Ville, and numerous other EPFL faculty and colleagues for specific suggestions on decision-making criteria. Most made the suggestion that to build upon her ground-breaking work on the thalamic microcircuitry, Jane should target the leading thalamus-oriented labs. 

 

Jane seriously considered a number of other first-class laboratories that study the thalamus, and during the years preceding the completion of her PhD, met with principal investigators or spoke with postdocs from these labs. She attended a plethora of events, talks, workshops and seminars that gave her exposure to these experts so she could gain a feel for the opportunities and challenges presented by these different environments at various institutions. However, since she honed in on the Makinson Lab, she did not actually have to apply anywhere else. She acknowledges that given the competitive environment, postdoc seekers may want to seek other approaches depending on their interests and select a variety of posts to apply to. The key factor, she believes, is knowing yourself and what type of situation suits you best and meets your objectives. 

 

How did Jane actually decide where to apply?

Jane determined that she had two primary directions she could take. One, she could aim for a highly distinguished, well-known lab, which would be, by definition, usually larger in staff, with a built-in reputation, hierarchy and division of labor. Or two, she could seek out a newer lab where she could play a bigger role as a junior member and help with the lab set up, probably working longer hours, but gaining in terms of proportional impact and number of publications with first authorship. She examined her own inclinations and risk appetite and chose the second option, which obviously required that element of “faith.”

 

As mentioned, in the end Jane applied to only one postdoc position thanks to her logical decision-making with a bit of good luck and trust thrown in. Her former Stanford colleague, Makinson, was hired by Columbia University’s Institute for Genomic Medicine, to start his own lab in June 2020 to study the role of ion channels in development and neurological diseases such as epilepsy using rodent and human brain organoid models — especially in the thalamus. He was looking for postdocs to help establish the lab and Jane was already familiar with his research and lab style. Additionally, during summer of 2020 Jane applied for and received a Swiss National Science Foundation grant to fund her postdoc at Columbia. Therefore this postdoc position was a logical fit for Jane since it met all her stated criteria. The only leap of faith she then had to make was to manage the uncertainty of moving to NYC during the pandemic, along with her fiancé, an EPFL-educated mathematician. 

 

What advice can Jane provide to other EPFL PhDs in neuroscience? 

Coming from the American academic environment, she was well acquainted with the networking concept, applying for training courses, grants and programs, and finding ways to add to her skillset. Jane encourages PhD candidates to take advantage of the networking opportunities available to through EDNE, EPFL, Brain Mind Institute  and BBP including talks, seminars, workshops and events offered “locally.” Many opportunities exist with any number of international conferences, seminars, and training courses (e.g. FENS, SFN, Cold Spring Harbor training programs, The Allen Institute Summer Workshop, Gordon Research Conferences) and academic department and research institutions have budgets for selected staff participation. One training that was particularly important for Jane early in her doctoral studies was a summer workshop at the Allen Institute in Seattle focused on neuroscientific data analysis including a python bootcamp. Jane emphasized that postdoc fellowships are really important and added, “If you have a fellowship, it’s like a golden ticket to any lab in the world.”

What were the biggest challenges she faced as a woman in neuroscience?

Jane said she has experienced very few obstacles that she could attribute to being a woman in the sciences. However, she has met subtle, micro levels of sexism, usually from the older generation, yet she has found her contemporaries to be generally totally comfortable with the idea that all genders belong in neuroscience. Most often she has heard what might be called unconscious bias, such as when a male scientist might express surprise or doubt about her achievements, brilliant ideas, or excellent research results. “You did that yourself?... You are familiar with XYZ technology or software? Wow, that’s pretty good for a girl!” are the types of comments they might blurt out without thinking. And Jane would always call them out quickly with good humor to make sure they realized their inadvertent slight. Jane believes that the best way to combat lingering sexism is to start teaching children from the earliest years, that everyone who has the interest and determination to learn and contribute belongs — and is needed — in the sciences.

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