My Experience as a Postdoctoral Fellow - Sarah Kay Buddenborg

Wellcome Sanger Institute
Sarah Kay Buddenborg, Postdoctoral Fellow, Wellcome Sanger Institute
Sarah Kay Buddenborg, Postdoctoral Fellow, Wellcome Sanger Institute

When you join us as a Postdoctoral Fellow you will benefit from a unique learning environment. We are proud to produce and analyse genetic and biological data on a scale unmatched by other institutes in Europe. Below Sarah Kay Buddenborg shares her experience of being a Postdoctoral Fellow at Wellcome Sanger Institute.

How long have you been working at Sanger Institute?

Two and a half years. Prior to coming to Sanger Institute as a Postdoctoral Fellow I was doing my PhD on snail-schistosome interactions on field-collected specimens prior to coming to Sanger as a PDF. at the University of New Mexico. My research included field work in East Africa, transcriptomics, genomics, and population genetics. When I saw the advertisement for the PDF position at Sanger, I didn’t think I was qualified or had the background they were looking for. After discussing with my PhD advisor, I decided to give it a shot and applied. When I received the offer letter I was completely surprised as I didn’t think the second interview went very well, but obviously overjoyed. Deciding whether or not to take the offer was a bit more complicated because my partner was only one and a half years in to his five-year PhD programme at New York University and I was planning to do a postdoc at NYU. He knew I couldn’t turn down the Sanger PDF because it was really the perfect postdoc for me and agreed it was best for my career to accept the position.

Tell me about the work you are doing at Sanger Institute?

When I first came to Sanger I started working with computational biologists on the latest genome assembly of the parasitic worm Schistosoma mansoni using a combination of genetic linkage maps, PacBio, and ONT. With the addition of metaphase FISH, we’ve been able to completely assemble and characterize all the chromosomes, including the highly repetitive sex chromosomes. Schistosomes are unique among the phylum Platyhelminthes in that they have sex chromosomes and true chromosomal sex determination the pathway that leads to male and female worms has yet to be determined. I’m now combining computational analyses and functional experiments to uncover the genetic elements responsible for making male and female worms as well as the overall evolution of schistosome sex chromosomes.

What is the most rewarding aspect of doing a postdoc at Sanger? 

The most rewarding aspect of doing a postdoc at Sanger is the amount of freedom for growth and creativity I am given. I also feel privileged to work with a group of very talented scientists in a supportive and collaborative environment. The thing I enjoy most about my role is that I have true scientific freedom, within reason of course. I came to Sanger with a bit of an idea of what I wanted to work on after discussing options with Matt (future Sanger PI) at a scientific conference 5 months before my position started. When I arrived at Sanger I wasn’t rushed into committing to any specific project but given time to catch up on what everyone else was working on. I was given the opportunity to formulate a well-thought out question, plan appropriate experiments, and then execute the project independently. Even though it wasn’t something anyone in the lab had worked on before, my project fit into the scope of the lab overall and Matt was incredibly encouraging and supportive. I knew I wanted to incorporate experimental and computation approaches and was given the freedom to do so.

What are the major challenges you face?

Time. There is never enough time to do all the experiments or analyses you would like or planned. Prioritizing projects has been a challenge as 3 years really does go by quickly.

How will your time at Sanger Institute influence your future choices? 

It has certainly made me aware of the kind of working environment I would like to be in and provide for my future employees. The main skill I have developed whilst working here is time management and staying better focused on one project. My PhD in the U.S. was 6.5 years and included months of the year in the field, intensive graduate coursework, teaching every semester, supervising/mentoring undergraduate students, and research. Because I knew my PhD would take 5-7 years, I was more relaxed about taking on multiple unrelated projects and helping others with their own projects. It took me a year into my postdoc, but I have realized that it is a skill to say “no” (to others and yourself!) and to keep focused on what you need to do to achieve the next step. It’s fun to think of new project ideas but you have to be able to determine if this is an integral part of your overall project or not. Three years as PDF goes by very quickly, especially considering you need to begin looking for your next position 2-years in.

Best advice I’ve received at Sanger Institute: 

Use your holidays and relax on the weekends. Coming from the US I’m used to working all day, when I got home from work, and every weekend. Being limited to using the campus bus forced me to take time away from the lab and clear my head for the next day. I feel this has increased my productivity and creativity immensely.

Is your postdoc what you expected?

It is better than I expected, overall. I couldn’t have imagined the resources available at Sanger. On the other hand, I did not anticipate the extent changes in scientific direction here that can happen quite suddenly and have an impact on my future plans here. It felt like a natural next step for me. I’ve never been interested in working in industry and my goal is to eventually have a research group leader position in a government lab, non-profit organization, or in academia. I knew I needed more training and publications to get a permanent position and there’s no better place for that than Sanger. I also knew I wanted to continue work on schistosomes and the Berriman lab is second to none in researching helminths. I was completely drained mentally at the end of my PhD and all I wanted was to get back into the lab without the burden of teaching and taking classes.

Please share some tips for someone starting a postdoc at Sanger

Take advantage of all the trainings offered for professional development and make sure to put these in your CV. Do not underestimate the importance of good management and leadership skills.

Focus and don’t try to do everything. As soon as you begin, sit down with your PI and carefully plan what you need to do to be successful in your postdoc in order to achieve your end goals. Keep in mind that these may be very different depending on whether you’d like to into industry, academia, or non-profit work.

First thing I mastered after joining Sanger Institute

Exiting the campus bus properly according to English standards.

On a more serious note, I had to quickly master and accept how to ask for help from people much more knowledgeable than me.

Favourite work perk? 

Subsidised coffee. I’ve also taken many training courses for professional development including the Pathways to Independence programme. I regularly attend the Parasite and Microbes programme seminars and Postdoctoral Fellow seminars. I do enjoy socialising with fellow lab mates and other peers at the drinks and nibbles events.