Published: Sept. 21, 2020

Portrait of Dr. Stephanie MoonDr. Stephanie Moon is working on ridding the world of disease. Beginning with an early obsession with finding a cure for chicken pox, Dr. Moon set her sights on RNA viruses, a family which includes some of the most prolific killers in human history: HIV, Zika, Hepatitis C, Ebola. Part of the challenge with these RNA viruses is the extremely rapid rate at which they can mutate, which means much shorter periods for natural selection to promote nasty traits such as immunoresistance and rarely, resistance to vaccination. Dr. Moon has spent the past five years as a post-doctoral research associate here at CU Biochem exploring just how RNA viruses make us sick.

Dr. Moon joined Professor Roy Parker’s lab as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Linda Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome’s postdoctoral research fellow to look at how disrupted RNA degradation affects development and function in humans. As one of her lab’s senior researchers, a significant component of her role involves sharing the lab’s work with the broader scientific community. “It’s a huge component of working in a lab—networking. I was initially attracted to CU Biochem by the prospect of having Roy as a mentor, and since then I’ve found over the past few years our department is one community working together to tackle some really important questions.” She fondly remembers her first trip to Europe—a seminar where she presented the lab’s research—as one of the perks of her postdoctoral experience at CU.

These postdoctoral fellowships are a critical step in the careers of many professional scientists. Postdocs conduct research while gaining the necessary experience and skills to compete for faculty or industry research positions. Part of a postdoc’s job is applying for fellowships, i.e. actively seeking out funding streams for continued research. According to Dr. Moon, “you need to be in constant communication with your mentor throughout these application processes.” When it comes time to move on from the postdoc position, mentors can help navigate complex applications for competitive professorships or industry research positions that can take upwards of a year, and their connections and support can help you build a professional network beyond one's alma maters.

New American doctorates typically do a single postdoc for no longer than five years, while European scientists are more likely to take multiple positions and spend more of their early careers conducting postdoctoral research. Some funders explicitly limit funding to a set duration, reinforcing the expectation that graduates move on to more permanent positions. For relative newcomers such as Dr. Moon, improved benefits and compensation provide intrinsic motivation to forge ahead. While professorships allow for greater autonomy and permanence, they are highly competitive: “I’ve had colleagues who’ve had success after a year, while some have been successful after six or seven years. Multiple postdocs are becoming more prevalent in the United States, but the goal is still to keep the total time around five years.”

Preparing for a Career in Science

Dr. Moon grew up in rural Colorado, studying biology and chemistry at Fort Lewis College, working as a hospital lab technician post-graduation before eventually earning her Ph.D. in pathology from Colorado State University. She found transitioning to graduate school especially challenging due to her limited research experience “in a small lab, at a tiny school,” and a scarcity of micro-and-cellular biology course offerings at Fort Lewis. In terms of course offerings, Dr. Moons says CU Biochem students are much freer to choose courses tailored to a specific field of interest. She recommends all aspiring scientists develop core skills in writing, statistics, and computer science. “We do a lot in this field to visualize and analyze data, and a lot of that can now be streamlined with coding.” Dr. Moon also recommends current students utilize CU Biochem’s large research community as a critical resource: “One of the great opportunities for our undergrads is the ability to tailor their education to their goals, interact and work with professional scientists from their first semester, conduct real research, and publish work. For instance, Parker Lab is home to an undergrad named Gabe Tauber who’s already co-authored multiple publications.”

Given the chance, Dr. Moon would have worked harder to seek out undergraduate research opportunities, “especially if studying at a smaller school; look out for internships and research positions at larger schools and in bigger cities during your summer and spring breaks.” As a grad student, Dr. Moon often looked to social media for these research opportunities: “Twitter can be a valuable resource for finding and pursuing research, as you’re instantly connected to the global scientific community”. CU Biochem frequently posts information on research opportunities, seminars, and networking events to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. “You should also practice grant-writing and apply for funding as early as possible—I’ve been able to conduct research here [at CU] because of competitive postdoctoral fellowships such as these.” In January, Dr. Moon accepted an Assistant Professorship at the University of Michigan. While Dr. Moon may have moved on, we look forward to meeting our next group of postdocs and following our CU Biochem grads as they begin their own postdoctoral careers.