WRF Innovation Fellow, Institute for Protein Design
Nine days before my scheduled dissertation defense, my then-spouse and I split up. I was suddenly in way over my head with two enormous life events unfolding simultaneously — one, the culmination of five-and-a-half years of hard work, demanding me to be at peak professional-performance; the other, the dissolution of the most significant relationship in my life, requiring me to process, think, feel, learn, and grieve — so I called the student health center and asked to speak to a counselor. Because I was a graduate student, they set me up with someone to talk to, and helped me realize that I did not want to reschedule the defense. I just wanted to get through it. Shortly after that, my father was delivered a chilling medical diagnosis, and having access to counseling was immensely useful in helping me deal with that, and in allowing me to be able to be there for my family as much as I could. My PhD-adviser and I decided together that I would stay on for about a year to tie up loose ends on various projects before moving on to the University of Washington. However, as soon as my status changed from graduate student to postdoctoral researcher, I was turned away from the counseling services I had relied upon. It’s a pretty similar story here at the UW: while graduate students can use services at Hall Health, postdocs are simply on their own to figure it out. This kind of experience is not even an uncommon one; it’s just one example of the many ways in which postdocs have fallen through the cracks at our nation’s universities.
Most, if not all, of these predicaments are the direct result of substandard or (more often) nonexistent policies pertaining to our working conditions and terms of employment. One does not have to look far to see other instances of these issues. Most of my fellow postdocs are in their 30s, and many are thinking about starting a family. When it comes to parental leave and childcare, we need reasonable, clear policies — and we don’t have them. The President’s continued attempts to institute travel restrictions, the proposal of deep cuts to federal agencies we rely on for funding, and other governmental policy changes are making the future uncertain for postdocs, especially international scholars in the US on visas. Many are concerned about their ability to continue in their careers in research. What kind of support, if any, will our employers offer those of us facing these obstacles? More broadly, Seattle is an incredibly expensive place to live; arranging affordable housing before arriving and on a postdoc salary is a formidable misadventure endured by all UW postdocs. We cannot be effective in our positions and focus on our research and teaching if we live with anxiety about working conditions, family planning support, access to appropriate facilities, or immigration status for ourselves, colleagues, collaborators, and friends. To address these concerns and advocate for ourselves, we must be empowered to bargain as equals with University Administration for improvements to our salaries, benefits and workplace rights, as well as for predictability from the policies that affect us. The only effective way of making meaningful progress toward this goal is to form a postdoc union.
The postdoctoral researchers I have gotten to know and work with at the UW are incredibly ambitious, hard-working people who conduct research that will positively impact our world, and are pursuing careers that will empower them to make lasting changes and contributions for decades to come. It’s challenging, rewarding work and we love it; most of us will spend several years as postdocs after already completing a decade (or more!) of education and training at both the undergraduate and graduate level.
An uncomfortable truth about the reality of postdoctoral training is that we have virtually no ability to negotiate the terms of our positions. Perhaps this doesn’t seem like a big problem — after all, although we are largely independent, we are still being trained, and no one ever said anyone must be a postdoc. The validity of the latter point is waning, even outside of the academy with entry-level research positions in many industries now requiring 2–4 years of meaningful postdoctoral experience for a candidate to be competitive. Additionally, while we are being trained, for some of us, the totality of the sacrifice we are required to make “has gone beyond character-building and become an impediment to development and morale.”
Like all the other postdocs I know, I love my research. I’m working to develop and use computational methods to design proteins to catalyze chemical reactions. As we gain insight into the fundamental rules that govern these complex processes, we can even begin to consider a wide variety of abiological reactions. The potential impacts are far-reaching, from changing the way we produce and test potential pharmaceuticals — making new drug candidates precisely so we can produce exactly the molecules we wish to use in a pill, vial, or vaccine — to allowing us to rethink industrial chemical production by replacing (for example) expensive platinum or palladium catalysts with easy-to-produce, tailor-designed protein catalysts. Other projects in the lab-of-which-I-am-a-member aim to design proteins to target and interrupt Ebola infection, to serve as universal influenza vaccines, as well as more abstract projects like proteins that self-assemble into nanoparticle cages that could be used for drug delivery to specific cells. Each of the projects in the lab could revolutionize at least one industry, improve the lives of countless human beings, and help protect the environment. It is humbling and an honor to be a part of this work.
The opportunity to work with my adviser was the deciding factor for me to come to the UW after graduate school. He is a rock-star in the field, an incredible mentor, and quite possibly the greatest scientific resource I can imagine. But this does not magically ameliorate the myriad challenges many postdocs face — we can love our research, we can have fantastic mentors, and still find that our working conditions interfere with our ability to conduct our research.
I want to find solutions to improve housing affordability, provide support for postdocs on visas, make sure that it’s possible for us to start families when and how we want, ensure that we can get the support we need when we struggle with the unexpected difficulties life throws at us, and to continue to humanize research by learning about the plethora of issues we all face. Most importantly, I want to ensure that we, the postdocs affected by these policies, have a voice equal to that of the university when advocating for ourselves and each other. Forming a union is the surest way we can do this.
During the last budgetary crisis, the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs was closed. Although the office was recently voted by the faculty senate to become a permanent part of the UW, this (non-binding) change did not come until rumblings of postdoc unionization were heard; it remains a cogent reminder that anything the university offers can be taken away and that our on-campus advocates are only being empowered defensively. We deserve better than that. A union will empower us to negotiate a binding contract as equals with the UW administration.
Perhaps it’s easy to diagnose the problems we face as postdocs; it’s certainly much harder to identify the prescription. Many of my colleagues across campus and I understand that we need guidance to be effective in our goals, so we approached the United Automobile Workers for help. UAW represents 60,000 academic workers across the country, including the nearly 5,000 Graduate Student Employees at the UW. UAW also represents the roughly 7,000 postdocs — about 10% of all postdocs in the country — within the University of California and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab postdoc union (UAW Local 5810). The specific, negotiated improvements realized by the UC postdocs are impressive and include: (1) longer minimum appointment lengths that consider the term of any awarded fellowships, and a change in status from being at-will employees, which, taken together, help postdocs obtain J-1, H-1B and F-1 visas that are valid for the duration of their training; (2) four weeks of fully-paid parental leave for birth and non-birth parents that can be used at any point in the first two years of having or adopting a child (up from zero); (3) stronger, clearer sexual harassment prevention and reporting policies; (4) access to more-comprehensive and more-affordable healthcare; and (5) increased compensation to two steps above the NIH National Research Service Awards scale, which means an increase in starting salaries from $43k to $48k.
Being under the UAW umbrella ensures that we have the resources, expertise, and the structures in place to be organized, focused, and effective. Ultimately, our union would be comprised of us, the UW postdocs. Our voices, concerns and interests will be supported and amplified by one another’s and, for the first time, be brought to the university administration and demand a response. I urge my fellow postdocs to come together and form our union, so we can make important changes to our working conditions, create a strong network of support for each other, and push the scientific excellence of the University of Washington to an even higher level.
 He’s fine now (thanks, modern medicine!), but the timing of all of this was a lot.
 Full text of executive orders: (1) https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/25/executive-order-border-security-and-immigration-enforcement-improvements; (2) https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/03/06/executive-order-protecting-nation-foreign-terrorist-entry-united-states
 Not to mention anyone funded by NSF grants relating in any way to climate research or EPA, including principal investigators.
 In fact, the duration of a typical postdoctoral experience is increasing. According to the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences in “Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Investigators in Biomedical Research” published in 2005, the age at first assistant professorship appointment has increased steadily between 1978–2003 from 34 to 38 years-old. (Fig. 2–4A, p. 39 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20669450)
 According to a report published by the National Academies (National Academy of Sciences; National Academy of Engineering; Policy and Global Affairs; Institute of Medicine; Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy; Committee to Review the State of Postdoctoral Experience in Scientists and Engineers. The postdoctoral experience revisited. National Academies Press, 2014. https://doi.org/10.17226/18982), approximately 65% of those who have earned a PhD in the US continue onto postdoctoral training (see Section 2.3 “The Disconnect Between the Ideal and Reality: The Current Reality”, p. 24), but only 15–20% will secure a tenure-track faculty position (see Table 4–2, p. 58). Making matters worse, delaying entry into an industrial role has a substantial, measurable cost: a recent study (Kahn, S and Ginther, DK. The impact of postdoctoral training on early careers in biomedicine. Nature Biotechnology, 2017) pegged the cost of postdoctoral training at $239,970 in terms of unrealized salary alone. It’s clear that additional experience is useful for research groups, universities and trainees alike — why should it bear such a heavy financial cost for the trainee alone?
 This sentence fragment comes from a discussion in Infinite Jest about when it’s sufficiently cold outside in Boston to allow the students at the Enfield Tennis Academy to practice indoors. This is usually sometime in mid-November, which is to say, quite cold.
 Though I’ve often described it as “love not given lightly”, taken from a lyric from the Velvet Underground song Venus in Furs [Reed, Lou (comp.) and Warhol, Andy (prod.) Venus in Furs. The Velvet Underground. © 1967 Verve Records.]; several other postdocs have commented that pulling lines from a song about sadomasochism to describe their relationship to their research is apt.
 http://engage.washington.edu/site/MessageViewer?em_id=203256.0 It’s also staffed by less than one full-time equivalent employee.
 The full name of the union is “The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America” (https://uaw.org). Given that over 15% of the UAW’s current members are academic employees, I think it is wholly appropriate to view ourselves as United Academic Workers within the UAW.
 I view these gains as a starting point. Perhaps we can do even better and secure access to affordable childcare as well as the kinds of improvements the UC postdocs have seen?