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Gift advances postdoctoral training opportunities in sciences and medicine

A generous donation to Stanford provides funding for postdoctoral scholars who join the university through the Postdoctoral Recruitment Initiative in Sciences and Medicine program, or PRISM. Up to 10 scholars will receive PRISM Baker Fellowships.

A generous new donation to Stanford will provide funding for postdoctoral scholars who join the university through the Postdoctoral Recruitment Initiative in Sciences and Medicine program, or PRISM.

Stanford PRISM recruits hike The Dish during a recruitment event on Oct. 16, 2021. (Image credit: Antonio Robinson)

The gift, donated by Stanford trustee Felix J. Baker, ’91, PhD ’98, will fund a significant portion of the first-year salary for up to ten scholars. The funds will be managed by the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA).

“I am deeply grateful for the generous support that Felix Baker is providing,” said Stacey F. Bent, vice provost for graduate education and postdoctoral affairs. “The PRISM Baker Fellowships will help Stanford attract and retain talented researchers in many fields, particularly those who otherwise may not have considered Stanford an option for their postdoctoral training,” said Bent, who is also the Jagdeep and Roshni Singh Professor in the School of Engineering.

Baker, who is a managing partner of Baker Brothers Investments, joined the university’s Board of Trustees in 2017. He and his wife, Heather, are longtime supporters of Stanford and have made numerous gifts benefiting Stanford Bio-X, Stanford ChEM-H, Stanford Impact Labs, the School of Medicine, and more.

OPA launched PRISM in 2017 as a pilot program at the School of Medicine and has since expanded to five schools. It grew out of the belief that a large group of diverse and qualified graduate students were not seriously considering Stanford for postdoctoral work due to concerns that they would not belong. The program, which aligns with the IDEAL initiative’s recruitment strategies, encourages all graduate students – particularly those from underrepresented groups – to consider furthering their training at Stanford. It then provides support, programming and community for postdoctoral scholars when they arrive on campus for their interviews. This includes travel funds, scheduling assistance, a “kick-off” dinner with faculty and OPA staff, opportunities to connect with postdoctoral affinity groups, such as the Stanford University Postdoctoral Association (SURPAS), education about postdoctoral training, and information about resources at Stanford.

“These graduate students who are thinking of coming to Stanford meet with us to talk about postdoctoral training all around,” said Sofie Kleppner, associate vice provost and associate dean for postdoctoral affairs. “And we help to educate them about what they should be considering for their own training, and then they can assess whether Stanford is a place to do it.”

In addition to expanding the pool of advanced students considering Stanford for postdoctoral training, PRISM also disrupts the established path by which scholars join research groups. Traditionally, postdocs identify a faculty member whose work aligns with their research interest. But Kleppner said that science is changing and more researchers are looking to apply their expertise in novel ways. So, PRISM encourages recruits to consider their broader research interests and how they might be applied in multiple research groups at Stanford.

Engaging faculty in recruitment

Dan Herschlag is a professor of biochemistry and, by courtesy, of chemical engineering, and former senior associate dean of graduate education and postdoctoral affairs. He said he had doubts about PRISM when it was first proposed.

“I was concerned that postdocs applying to a program, rather than a lab, might not explore deeply enough their interests and what they really wanted to work on in their careers beyond postdoctoral training,” Herschlag said. “Fortunately, after we launched the program, I realized those fears were unfounded – it seemed like the opposite happened. PRISM created an opportunity for candidates to engage in meaningful conversations with multiple faculty and engage with multiple labs; these conversations and the additional associated workshops allowed postdoc candidates to better identify their interests and find mentors with styles that would work for them.”

Faculty participation in PRISM has been high, particularly in the biosciences. Although 295 Stanford faculty members have interviewed PRISM recruits, limited access to funding at the postdoctoral level, especially outside of the biosciences, prevents some faculty from participating. Since the program’s inception, 201 PRISM recruits have interviewed at Stanford, and 66 have been appointed to labs, with more appointments to come. Fifty-nine percent of appointees are under-represented minorities and eighty-two percent are more broadly defined as under-represented, including sex, gender, disability and socioeconomic status, among other characteristics.

Building postdoc communities

The PRISM recruitment process aims to change the minds of talented and qualified scholars who may not have thought Stanford was a likely option for them. Maxine Umeh-Garcia is a PRISM fellow in the Hayden Gephart and Plevritis labs in the School of Medicine’s Neurosurgery and Biomedical Data Science departments. She said that near the end of her doctoral studies, she had doubts about coming to Stanford.

“Even though I was interested in Stanford, I didn’t really think it would happen,” she said. “I wondered whether I had what it took to be here and whether Stanford was a great fit for me, both as a scientist and as a person. Fortunately, PRISM helped me learn about campus life and the postdoc culture at Stanford and helped me decide that, yes, I could see myself here.”

A key component of the program is building community for an increasingly diverse postdoctoral population. As interviewees, postdoctoral candidates arrive at Stanford in cohorts, and those who ultimately join a Stanford research group remain part of the PRISM community. Umeh-Garcia said that these connections to other postdocs, as well as faculty and staff, are invaluable.

“It gave me a larger community and a feeling of being supported before I even began my postdoctoral work,” she said. “The university really does put a lot of effort into training and providing resources to get postdocs to that next step in their career, and that’s been a real game-changer for me.”

Looking ahead, Kleppner said that the gift demonstrates just how important the postdoctoral recruitment process is to help Stanford meet its larger objectives.

“Our goal now is to continue this broad recruitment, but to also meet the IDEAL goals of making Stanford itself inclusive and diverse and equitable, by ensuring that every postdoc that comes here has a sense of belonging and has what they need in order to thrive,” she said. “This gift is a significant part of making that happen.”