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Postdoctoral research during pediatric residency

I have just entered a 2.5-month research period in the midst of my pediatric residency. During this time, excluding a few night shifts on call, I will be able to concentrate 100% on research. As my current research involves cell culture experiments, I would not be able to do it without these lengthy breaks from clinical work. (Read more)

Luckily breaks – both shorter and longer – can be arranged, and many PhD-Residents at Helsinki Children’s hospital are able to continue their research, often at their own desired pace.

Postdoctoral research can be done in many ways. Some choose to stay in the group where they did their PhD. Others find a new research group and continue with similar research they have done before. I chose a different path, since I ended up changing my research focus from prematurely born infants, register studies and health economics to congenital heart disease, genetics, bioinformatics and cell biology.

My postdoc project has not been a typical one in other ways either. I aimed for a research period abroad, and ended up at Stanford University with my own new project, which I started before the fellowship. Although the data formation was arduous and done in a restricted time frame, it ended up being a good approach. I had data to work with from the moment I entered my new lab at Stanford. This approach triggered its own US based funding for the experimental work, which we would not have had resources do otherwise. Having my own project also gave me credibility as a researcher, and enabled connections with other researchers with similar data.

Starting a postdoctoral project from scratch makes it somewhat slower to get publishable results, as compared to hopping aboard an already ongoing project. This was at times frustrating. However, after recently returning to Finland with two manuscript drafts and a candidate disease gene to work with - in addition to a large amount of data, of which we’ve only started to scratch the surface- is both rewarding and motivating. This approach also helped me to get a homing grant from The Finnish Medical Foundation, which gives optimal conditions to continue the research without interruption.

Although everything has not gone as planned, and some trails have been dead ends, others have led to unexpected possibilities and new research ideas. I have some great collaborations going on both in Finland and at Stanford. We have currently a talented graduate student from my Stanford University lab at my present lab, Kivelä lab, for 6 weeks to share her expertise and help us start our iPS cell work – differentiating iPS cells to endothelial cells and cardiomyocytes. Our aim is to establish an efficient differentiation routine for our lab, and these methods are already sparking interest in other Biomedicum based groups as well.

None of this would have been possible without help from numerous senior colleagues here in Finland. I have been helped and directed by several dedicated scientists in all phases of the project. Some have written recommendation letters, while others have given mental support, and used their networks to connect me with the right people. I have been on the receiving side of all of these favors and, to keep the balance, I have tried to pay it forward by helping colleagues that are planning postdoctoral research periods abroad.

In addition to the scientific learning and collaborations, a postdoctoral research period abroad is an excellent opportunity for the whole family to learn about other cultures and explore different ways of living. Strangely enough, after experiencing nearly constant sunshine throughout the year, you might find yourself missing the four seasons of Finland, and start dreaming of a run in the cold slushy November darkness. For many reasons I can warmly recommend a postdoctoral research period abroad.

Alex Dainis, a visiting scientist, tells about her experience in Helsinki: Science is International | Helsinki Vlog: Salt, Salmiakki, and Science!