Freedom, Funding, Flexibility Add Up to A Beckman Fellow

Malini Ranganathan displays a photo of herself and a neighborhood activist in Bangalore, India.

Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellows come from around the globe with Ph.D.s in hand from the top universities across America, Europe, and a few other distant corners of the world for a chance to do independent research unfetered by teaching or other duties.

As a Beckman Fellow, David Mayerich discovered a completely new outlet for his skills in reconstructing biomedical imaging data: applications in cancer research. New Fellow Malini Ranganathan is taking results from fieldwork she did tens of thousands of miles from Illinois and forging a unique research line involving the political ecology of water. Eddie Wlotko spent many hours as a graduate student toiling in a Beckman Institute lab, but was thrilled when he found out he could continue working here as a Beckman Fellow after earning a Ph.D.

They are just three of 12 current Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellows who are given a stipend and other resources and are asked in return only to continue doing research.  Ranganathan knows she is fortunate to be a Beckman Fellow, in part because there are no teaching duties or other requirements to distract from her research goals, and in part because of the resources a Fellow enjoys.

“It’s rare to have a period in your life where you are using the time just to work on the things you want to work on,” she said. “It’s a privilege to be in this spot.”

Ranganathan, like the other current Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellows, didn’t just fall into her position. She and the other Fellows earned their spots by being among the top Ph.D. candidates or postdoctoral researchers in their respective fields. Ranganathan, who came here in late last year, was one of only five out of 59 applicants chosen for the 2010 class of Beckman Postdoctoral Fellows.

Fellows come to Beckman from around the globe and work in so many different areas there is no way to summarize all their research. They come with Ph.D.s in hand from the top universities across America, Europe, and a few other distant corners of the world. They do research in everything from neuroscience to robotics to the environment to nanoelectronics.

We have the means to do our own research and more and more, I understand, that is very unusual. If you are not faculty it’s very unusual to pick a project and run with it.
– Eddie Wlotko

The Beckman Institute Fellows program was begun in 1991 and is funded by the Arnold O. and Mabel M. Beckman Foundation. It was created to give recent Ph.D. students an opportunity to do research before they begin their professional careers, without having to worry about funding or having teaching or other duties. Michael Walsh holds the unique position of being the first-ever Carle Foundation Hospital/Beckman Institute Fellow, a position that was created in 2008 and is funded jointly by the hospital and the Foundation.

Four to five Fellows are selected each year from the areas of the behavioral and biological sciences, chemistry, engineering, and physics for appointments of up to three years and are, according to the guidelines, selected “on the basis of their professional promise, capacity for independent work, interdisciplinary interests, and outstanding achievement to date. Preference is given to those applicants whose research interests correspond to one or more of the programs in the Beckman Institute.”

The Beckman Postdoctoral Fellows are given an office, computer resources, and staff support from the Beckman Institute. Beckman Fellows are expected to collaborate with faculty researchers, as well as work independently doing interdisciplinary research. For many, it is a time to continue and/or expand research lines begun while earning degrees, while also preparing for an academic, business, or government position.

Former Fellow Jose Jimenez says that the most important thing he took away from his experience was learning the importance of having a big picture view of science.

“The details help you to write a paper, to advance the field, but to make strategic decisions doesn’t come from super specialization, it comes from understanding the field in which you are working,” he said. “The Beckman Institute allows you that because you can interact with more people and see a completely different picture than as an individual Ph.D. student in a group.” 

When some of the current Fellows describe the advantages of their position, interestingly the terms seem to all start with the letter f: freedom, flexibility, and funding. The current Fellows echo the program’s mission statement, which states it “provides an excellent opportunity for young scholars to initiate a post-Ph.D. career of independent research in a stimulating and supportive interdisciplinary environment.”

Ranganathan, who is focusing on issues such as access to water in developing countries, cited the flexibility Fellows have in pursuing their research.

“Whenever I describe that for my colleagues they acknowledge that it’s a really good deal,” she said. “But they also expect you to have a lot of responsibility and be a self-starter because it’s up to you to make what you can out of this time here.

“I think the best part is the flexibility given you to fulfill your career goals. It’s also the idea of being an entrepreneur, of being someone who creates your own agenda, your own research and networks.”

Mayerich, who earned a Ph.D. from Texas A&M in Computer Science, said funding is key to the freedom that Beckman Fellows enjoy.

“One of the biggest things that a faculty member has to deal with is being able to get funding and to manage funding,” he said. “I think the experience of being able to freely manage a budget has been nice, especially,” he added with a laugh, “since I as a computer scientist can make these things stretch pretty far. Some of the other Fellows, they have to buy a lot of lab stuff, whereas I just need a really solid computer.”

I think the best part is the flexibility given you to fulfill your career goals. It’s also the idea of being an entrepreneur, of being someone who creates your own agenda, your own research and networks.
Malini Ranganathan

Wlotko is a homegrown Fellow, earning a Ph.D. from the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois. He said the transition from graduate student to Beckman Fellow was a smooth one.

“I remember in the orientation just being really impressed by how organized the Beckman administration office is,” Wlotko said. “Van Anderson in particular made sure that I was aware of all the different resources that were here and that I met someone from every department in the Beckman. So it’s really been great.

“We have the means to do our own research and more and more, I understand, that is very unusual. If you are not faculty it’s very unusual to pick a project and run with it.”

In their applications to join the program, Fellows propose research projects and collaborations they expect to have if selected for an appointment.

Wlotko, for example, worked with Beckman faculty member Kara Federmeier while earning a Ph.D. that had a focus on how the two hemispheres of the brain each serve language functions that are necessary for comprehension. He now collaborates with the Institute’s Monica Fabiani and Gabriele Gratton in their Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory (CNL). He said his day-to-day life as a Fellow isn’t much different than his grad school days working in Federmeier’s lab, but two aspects of his research are different.

The measurement technique Wlotko used in Federmeier’s lab recorded the electrical activity of the brain, while in the CNL he records optical signals in the brain. In addition, his research has expanded to include studies of hemispheric contributions to language comprehension in older populations, across the lifespan.

“I thought I would have a little bit less time in the lab when I started my postdoc but it hasn’t really turned out that way,” Wlotko said. “Just because there are so many things that I’m interested in and have grabbed my attention, so I’m working on many more things now.”

Ranganathan is a child of the world, growing up with a diplomat father in places like Ethiopia, China, Russia, France, and Hong Kong. Ranganathan did field work in Bangalore, India, and the Philippines that she is now applying to her appointment in the Social Dimensions of Environmental Policy strategic initiative headed by Beckman’s Jess Ribot that also includes Fellow Jeremy Brooks. In Bangalore, she focused on neighborhood associations and how they could impact internal distribution of water resources. She describes herself as “a scholar of the environment.

“I’m interested in contributing to our understanding of human-environment interactions and looking at the political, social, economic and technological aspects of human-environment interactions,” she added. “We are living in a time where for the first time in human history over half the human population is urban. This is unprecedented. The areas of fastest and most rapid growth are developing cities.

“Now take that problem and combine it with the fact that 1.2 billion, and some estimate it’s up to two billion people, who don’t have access to safe water sources or sanitation. So you take those two major problems and I would say my research fits squarely at the intersection of the urban phenomenon and the lack of water phenomenon.”

 After all her travelling and fieldwork and doctoral dissertation writing, Ranganathan said she likes having an office and colleagues here at Beckman and in the Department of Geography at Illinois, as well as a more academically-oriented schedule.

“It’s different than my Ph.D. in that I am able to show up and have an office and a sense of having colleagues,” she said. “Ph.D. writing is very isolating whereas I want this to be different. I can make a meeting on campus. Here I’m hoping with Jesse and with people in Geography and with cross university collaborations as well, to be able to have more of that sense of doing research together.”

Mayerich’s doctoral work involved the development of methods for reconstruction and visualization of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) biomedical data with the aim of giving new insights into anatomy at the sub-cellular level. As a Fellow, he has the same goal in developing methods for high throughput microscopy, but the differences lie in the amount of data produced with the latter technique. Mayerich also has a completely new application for his methods; he is working with Beckman researcher Rohit Bhargava toward eventually applying the techniques to dataset visualization for cancer diagnoses.  

“In most biomedical visualization everybody is working with MRI data and CT data and those datasets are relatively small and easy to reconstruct,” Mayerich said. “There are certainly challenges there but when you compare them to high throughput microscopy data, you are talking about several megabytes up to several gigabytes and several terabytes of data. And that’s just not possible to manage using these single threaded algorithms that people have been using for visualization for awhile.”

So Mayerich is developing ways to process and visualize large datasets such as those produced by high throughput microscopy methods like infrared imaging. Mayerich said the work is necessary in order to fully realize the clinical potential of those microscopy techniques.

“The stuff that you can do with the infrared machines is really cool. It really changed my perspective on the direction that diagnosis in medical imaging is going, and there is a lot that we can do with it,” he said. “The research that Rohit is doing is moving in the direction of more reliable, more specific diagnosis. It’s something that uses only optical and computational techniques in order to get results.”

Mayerich is like Ranganathan in that he doesn’t have a lab. Most of his time is spent on the computer.   

“You see me here a lot because my office is my lab,” he said. “That I think is unusual because I know Michael Walsh spends a lot of time in the lab downstairs. I work with him and he gets the data and brings it to me. But there’s always a lot of interaction. We always meet for lunch.”

Being a Beckman Fellow is not a 9-to-5 job and Mayerich says there is a reason for that.

“Well, when you do what you like,” he said with a chuckle. “Maybe since we just got into it, we’re really excited. You have different goals, I think. When you’re a graduate student you certainly want your professor to see you there. But here there are things I need to get done.”

This article is part of the Spring 2011 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.