How my postdoc prepared me for setting up my own group

Having recently secured a principal investigator position at the University of Glasgow, former postdoc Hua Wang reflects on what he learned from his group leader here at the Crick, and how he made the decisions that led him to form his newly-established group.

Dr Hua Wang is an independent Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow establishing the ‘Bacterial Pigments of Life Research Laboratory’. He was a postdoc in Luiz Carvalho's Mycobacterial Metabolism and Antibiotic Research Laboratory at the Crick until 2019.

The route from postdoc to independent investigator is unique to each individual. It is easy to read about the success and hear about the failure, but I think that it is crucial to know that there is no endgame. Careers are a continuous process of personal growth, and much of this growth involves making meaningful decisions. 

Many decisions led me to my current position at the University of Glasgow, but three big ones face almost every postdoc beginning the transition to PI – choosing a postdoc supervisor, choosing postdoc projects, and choosing the field of research for a new group.

Choosing a supervisor

After my DPhil, I knew that a postdoc was the opportunity for me to purely focus on science without having to satisfy specific degree requirements. When it came to looking for a supervisor, it was important to me that the person was driven by scientific curiosity and not exclusively looking to publish while sacrificing everything else. I wanted to work with someone who understood the needs of early-career researchers, and a group where I would find both exciting research and a good day-to-day experience.

From 2015 to 2019, I was a postdoctoral researcher at the Crick and had the privilege to be part of Luiz Carvalho’s research group investigating the basic biology of mycobacteria. On my first day in Luiz’s group, we had a meeting over coffee to discuss four completely different projects, each focused on a different question.

Luiz did not dictate which project I should work on but gave me options. He was aware of the challenges that early career researchers face, such as the pressure to publish and its effect on mental health and quality of science. Luiz values growth in both people and science and this confirmed my choice of supervisor.

Ranking the projects and realistically balancing my own interests with my hopes for a long-term career in research helped me to focus on what I wanted to get out of my postdoc.

Choosing a project

When I was deciding between the projects that Luiz suggested, he wanted to make sure that I was happy, working on a project that I was passionate about, which would also be useful for my career progression. I ranked the four projects from ‘highest risk’ (the highest potential for failure and spending my entire postdoc trying to answer a question that couldn’t be answered) to ‘lowest risk’ (almost guaranteed to have straightforward results that I could present when applying for PI roles). 

With the support of Luiz, I decided to pursue both the highest risk and lowest risk projects. The decision proved to be a good one, as it gave me the chance to pursue an ambitious research question without leaving myself without any results to show. Ranking the projects and realistically balancing my own interests with my hopes for a long-term career in research helped me to focus on what I wanted to get out of my postdoc.

Fortunately, both projects were successful in their own way – the low-risk project led us to find that Mycobacterium tuberculosis uses the same enzyme for two distinct biological processes, resistance to our immune system and metabolism of the amino acid leucine. It turned out to be a fundamental contribution to understanding mycobacterial physiology and disease.

Choosing my group’s research topic

The high-risk topic eventually led to the topic that I’m now working on at Glasgow. I’m interested in the role that different pigments play in the lifecycle of mycobacteria, so my current work has allowed me to merge my love for science and art. My research focuses on how microorganisms use the haem pigment, the molecule that gives our blood that distinctive crimson red colour. Hopefully, it will provide a fresh perspective on bacterial biology and achieve scientific breakthroughs that improve human health.

From my postdoc experiences, I’ve learnt what works and what doesn’t, and my decisions at the moment are about the culture that I want to create in my lab. 

When deciding on my group’s scientific goals, I found it useful to ‘test the water’ with new research ideas. For me, this meant introducing the idea to a diverse audience for feedback, then incubating the idea with the feedback and presenting the idea again and again as it developed. There is a beauty to it; witnessing the idea become polished into a real research possibility and potential career, while learning a bit about myself along the way.

New decisions

Of course, there’s more to a research group than just the topic. Now that I am in the early stages of establishing a research programme, it is the perfect time to lay the foundation for how I want to approach research, and how I want to approach being a supervisor. From my postdoc experiences, I’ve learnt what works and what doesn’t, and my decisions at the moment are about the culture that I want to create in my lab. 

What I loved about the Crick was the people, who value the different skills that we each have as scientists and the need for creativity in science. I want to have a similar approach and hopefully work to address some of the common problems in research culture. 

I am grateful to Luiz for giving me the intellectual freedom to explore, which is a luxury for many and something that I hope to emulate as a supervisor. I am also thankful for the incredible group members, especially Acely, Hania, Debbie, Aleks, and Cesira, who offered their time and expertise when I first started. 

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