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Dr Joshua Ramsay: Postdoctoral fellowship interview

Dr Joshua Ramsay was interviewed about his experience of being awarded a University of Otago Health Sciences Postdoctoral Fellowship. These are the original interview questions and his responses.

What does your current work involve? What do you hope to achieve in this role?
I am currently a lecturer and researcher in molecular microbiology at Curtin University in Western Australia. My laboratory research focuses on the process of gene transfer between bacteria (i.e. bacterial sex), and how this facilitates the evolution of pathogenesis, symbiosis and the transfer of antibiotic resistance. Much of my research extends from projects that began at Otago during my PhD and postdoctoral fellowship. I have also started new research looking at the transfer of antibiotic resistance between dangerous pathogenic superbugs like MRSA in collaboration with the Western Australian genotyping group ACCESS.

Where do you hope your career path will go from here?
My aspirations are probably very similar to most in my position; I hope to make great discoveries, publish great papers and most importantly attract funding from national funding bodies to continue my work and be able to give students the same chance I got.

What attracted you to this field of work? Were there specific people that were an influence on your choices?
I think microbial genetics is one of the hardest of the 'soft' biological sciences. That is, you can ask really complex questions about fundamental aspects of biology using microbes and you can actually get definitive answers. It is very much harder to achieve this when studying animals, for both practical and ethical reasons!

I have been influenced a great deal by high school teachers (Kings High School, Dunedin) and lecturers (Otago) over the years. I have especially been influenced by my PhD supervisors Prof Clive Ronson and Dr John Sullivan from the Microbiology & Immunology Dept. Clive has a very broad knowledge and insightful view of genetics and microbiology, while John is a guru of modern molecular techniques, so between the two of them I got a good grounding in both the big picture and the small details.

What excites you about it?
I simply like problem solving and understanding living organisms and evolution. I am really attracted to fundamental/basic sciences because you are pushing the boundaries of understanding. Evolution has always fascinated me because of clear patterns in nature that emerge from it. Once you understand the simple rules of evolution, you can very easily make predictions then go on to design experiments to directly test it in nature!

What role did receiving a postdoctoral fellowship have on your career path up to this point?
At the time I was coming to an end of a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Cambridge and was considering returning to New Zealand or moving to Australia. The Health Sciences Postdoctoral Fellowship allowed me to come back to New Zealand and develop many of the exciting discoveries made during my PhD, and gave me a chance to take a more senior role. With help from Prof Ronson we recruited students onto projects I helped design and gained funding for our research.

What were the most valuable things that the opportunity provided you with?
Salary and a place to work, which provided a platform from which to apply for grants and initiate new projects. While the fellowship is not really long enough to allow you to apply for nationally competitive schemes like the fast-start (because the fast-start doesn’t provide enough funding to cover salary after the postdoc has finished), it does allow you time to apply for smaller grants to cover consumables. It is a decent stepping stone towards establishing yourself as an independent researcher.

Were there any downsides, sacrifices or difficult choices to make?
There is a surplus of excellent PhD students out there and not enough postdoctoral positions. The biggest downside in getting this fellowship was being aware of the large number of excellent applicants that applied and didn’t get it. This fellowship is more competitive that the one I got from the University of Cambridge! There are just not enough positions for PhD students at this level.

If I didn’t get the postdoctoral fellowship I would have not returned to New Zealand. I would have got a postdoc elsewhere, or an industry job overseas. There are very limited postdoctoral opportunities in New Zealand. Postdocs are expensive for research group leaders and universities, but they are critical as they provide valued expertise and relieve the load from others in the lab (especially for student supervision). Without postdocs and senior lab members, the whole laboratory system falls apart.

What advice would you give to someone aspiring to postdoc work?
Make sure you are competitive. Publish papers as early as you can during your career and take every opportunity to gain awards and scholarships. Try not to burn too many bridges. If you are lucky enough to get a fellowship, then don’t waste it! Things get even more competitive following a postdoc, because the postdoc fellowship opportunities dry up around 5 years after your PhD and there are very limited jobs for research academics.

Where did you grow up? What interested you in the world as a child?
I grew up in Dunedin. The answer to the second question is pretty much everything, much to the annoyance of my parents. My mother told me she dreaded the word 'why' when I was a child, as it was every second word that came out of my mouth.

Did you have a clear vision as a child of what you would like to be doing as a career?
Not really, but sort of. As a child at one point I wanted to be an archaeologist and then I wanted to be a computer programmer and then I wanted to be a theoretical physicist and at one point I even considered being an artist. I wasn’t really sure if I even wanted to go to university either. But luckily my parents and school teachers convinced me.

What subjects did you enjoy most at school, and as an undergraduate?
At school I probably most enjoyed physics and painting/art. I enjoyed art because it was decent at it and it was a nice contrast to the other subjects. I think studying art was actually useful to me now as we were encouraged to self-analyse and be critical of the way our brains interpret things and to be aware of our inherent cognitive biases.

In my first year at Otago I took papers from across the sciences (Maths, Chemistry, Physics, Biochemistry and Biology) to try and help me with the decision of what area to pursue. I did better in physics, maths and chemistry than biology, but I found genetics and evolution most interesting, so in the following years I switched.

At first I didn’t think I did so well in biology, and I worried I had made a terrible decision. I was very relieved when Otago genetics lecturers presented an incredibly refreshing and demystified view of genetic analysis, from the perspective of the founding geneticists, microbiologists and chemists! I pretty much instantly decided this was what I wanted to do.

Why did you choose Otago, or the group you worked with, for your postdoc?
I chose Otago because I worked well with people in the Ronson laboratory and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. Professor Ronson has always been very altruistic about students' career development, so I felt I could trust his mentorship. He has gone out of his way to help me progress my career - even when has led to me leaving his lab!

Did it prove to be a good decision?
The Fellowship at Otago was definitely a good decision. It gave me an opportunity to quickly get more research published, and put me in a better position to apply for grants, and subsequently jobs.

What do you enjoy doing outside of your work?
I am constantly asking myself this question and I still don’t have a clear answer. I am lucky I enjoy my job because I have very little time outside of it!