Nurturing tomorrow’s researchers: UMaine’s postdoctoral engagement

The National Postdoctoral Association has designated a week each year to recognize the invaluable contributions of postdoctoral scholars. Formally acknowledged by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, this week, commencing this year on September 18, presents a unique occasion to celebrate the impact of postdoctoral scholars.

A postdoc is often a short-term position that provides further research and training in a particular field of interest. For individuals who have just earned their doctoral degrees and aspire to a career in academic research, this experience allows them to develop greater independence, enhance technical abilities, and specialize within research areas. 

The composition of postdoctoral fellows at UMaine is ever-changing, with around 30 individuals affiliated at any given time. “Because of the nature of these positions, there are a lot of postdocs that join the university for a year or two and then move on to new positions. So there’s a lot of new people coming in on a regular basis,” explains Sandra De Urioste-Stone, an associate professor of nature-based tourism in the School of Forest Resources. De Urioste-Stone also serves as Assistant Vice President for Research and in this role, she is charged with crafting a valuable experience for postdocs while they are here at UMaine. 

The constant flow of new faces enriches the university’s research community and has a significant impact across campus in a variety of ways. Armed with fresh ideas that can be transformative, postdocs fill a vital role in propelling research forward.

Onur Apul, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Maine, runs the Drinking Water Treatment Innovations Lab. Over the years, he has hosted a large number of postdocs and currently has at least four working alongside him. “Postdocs bring a lot of value to my lab but most importantly their fresh education brings new and exciting ideas that are relevant and timely. Since they recently finished their Ph.D. programs they are accustomed to conducting high-quality research independently…they remind me of ‘loaded springs’ ready to excel,” he says.

Postdoctoral fellows are also uniquely able to step into leadership roles, and in turn, gain invaluable experience that prepares them for what lies ahead. 

Apul says, “Postdocs are the hands and eyes of a PI in the lab. They are in the most critical position to run a research lab with their intellectual maturity and fresh research experience.” The result, he says, is that it helps them become independent investigators. A Principal Investigator or PI, is the primary researcher in charge of designing and managing a research project and is responsible for guiding the team and ensuring the project’s success.

While research is a significant part of their role, De Urioste-Stone acknowledges the multifaceted contributions of postdocs. “Although many times we think about postdocs contributing to research, they are also contributing so much in terms of teaching and mentoring,” she says. In fact, over sixty percent of postdocs at UMaine have undertaken supervisory roles for undergraduate or graduate students during their current tenure, with approximately one-third also engaging in teaching activities.

To gain insight into the evolving requirements and ambitions of this dynamic community, De Urioste-Stone conducted surveys aimed at capturing perspectives. Results of the most recent survey showed a strong demand for professional training in science communications, grant writing, teaching, and in developing a collaborative community for postdocs on campus. In response, several events were organized to meet those needs.

One such event was the Postdoc Spring Social and Faculty Panel, a gathering of students, faculty and postdocs meant to foster networking and professional growth. The event, hosted by the Office of Research Development and the Office of the Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School, underscored UMaine’s commitment to fostering a thriving postdoc ecosystem. 

To further enrich their experience, workshops in science communication and facilitation were also offered, providing attendees with the chance to master the art of crafting engaging narratives and steering productive dialogues.

De Urioste-Stone says UMaine is committed to providing ongoing programming that results in a beneficial experience for visiting fellows. “It’s important for us to understand that although we have done this survey twice, we keep gaining more information about who the new people are that are joining, what their needs and concerns are so that we can be responsive,” she explains. 

Looking forward, UMaine’s pledge to provide an enriching experience for visiting postdoctoral fellows remains steadfast. De Urioste-Stone reaffirms this commitment, highlighting the university’s adaptive strategy, rooted in flexibility and responsiveness. The journey to empower postdocs is an ongoing narrative—one that evolves in tandem with the influx of new talents and the ever-changing currents of research.

As universities across the country celebrate National Postdoc Appreciation Week, the University of Maine invites its community to join in the celebration of their remarkable contributions, and in extending gratitude for the essential impact they have in achieving the university’s mission.


Written by Tilan Copson