Skip to Main Content

Annual retreat helps young scientists on their way

Ania Jastreboff, M.D., Ph.D. ’11, lived through innumerable grant application nail-biters as a child. She remembers her parents, both Yale researchers at the time, writing feverishly through the night—paperwork strewn across the living room—as the next deadline loomed. Her father and mother, a neuroscientist and molecular biochemist, both well-known in their fields, might have operated their labs during a time of greater federal largesse, said Jastreboff, assistant professor of medicine (endocrinology) and of pediatrics (endocrinology). But she stopped short of saying grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, are more difficult to get today. “There are ebbs and flows in funding,” she said. “Some things that were harder then are easier now, and vice versa.”

Since 2011, Yale’s medical school faculty and administrators have tried to make things a little easier for young scientists like Jastreboff by offering the annual Junior Principal Investigator Retreat. The daylong meeting for assistant professors still in the first six years of their appointment is “a skill-building retreat, not an orientation,” said Merle Waxman, the school’s ombudsperson, who has helped organize the retreats. Co-organizers Stefania Nicoli, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine (cardiology), and Marcelo Dietrich, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of comparative medicine and of neuroscience, introduced a quirky note to October’s program, held at the Greenberg Conference Center. They invited a former creative director of New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, Jeffrey Ernstoff, to be an “artist-in-residence” for the day, and called the retreat “Team building and all that jazz.” Ernstoff flew in from Evanston, Ill., where he is creative director for the Kellogg Innovation Network at Northwestern University. Between sessions he mingled among tables and offered jazz interludes on his saxophone, backed by a three-piece band that included bass, drums, and xylophone. (When one session ran over, organizers asked faculty to raise their hands if they wanted to skip a music segment. No hands went up.)

Topics at the retreat ran the gamut: how to hire international students as lab researchers; how to determine whether a postdoc will be a good fit; and how to avoid mistakes made by others. After one presentation, Jastreboff, who studies obesity, made a note to check with librarian Rolando Garcia-Milian about a service offered by the medical library: bioinformatics support to biomedical researchers. “Once researchers have identified a list of statistically significant molecules, like genes, or proteins, we help with the functional analysis to identify the biologically significant networks, processes, diseases, and pathways, in which these molecules participate,” said Garcia-Milian.

In an early afternoon session, Linda K. Bockenstedt, M.D., the Harold W. Jockers Professor of Medicine (rheumatology) and associate dean of faculty development and diversity, stressed the importance of having a strong network of mentors. These mentoring relationships can take time, especially since researchers often burrow in their labs for long stretches, she said. Jastreboff agreed that the value/importance of inspiring mentors could not be overestimated. She stayed at Yale because of hers.

Jastreboff arrived at Yale in 2007 for a fellowship fresh from her residency at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. She planned to return to Maryland after the fellowship to practice endocrinology, but a doctoral degree program housed within the Yale Center for Clinical Investigation (YCCI) caught her eye. Jastreboff applied, was accepted, and asked YCCI’s director, Robert Sherwin, M.D., and Rajita Sinha, Ph.D., to be her thesis advisors. Jastreboff had not considered a career as a physician-scientist, but quickly grew enamored with translational research in neural mechanisms involved in obesity. Sherwin said Jastreboff’s fellowship, which she completed in the areas of pediatric and adult endocrinology, is a rare accomplishment. “Very few have done a fellowship that combines both areas,” he said. “She is uniquely qualified to study obesity throughout a person’s life span.”

Jastreboff said she decided to stay at Yale after finishing her Ph.D. due largely to a close-knit group of mutually supportive peers and inspiring, altruistic mentors, and to keep working within YCCI, which is funded by a Clinical and Translational Science Award from the NIH. Jastreboff has continued to work with Sinha, Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry, professor in the Child Study Center, and professor of neuroscience, and Sherwin, the C.N.H. Long Professor of Medicine (endocrinology). “They are both so generous with their time and extremely supportive,” Jastreboff said. Through one-on-one conversations with her mentors, Jastreboff settled on her specific area of research: elucidating how such metabolic perturbations as insulin resistance or hyperinsulinemia affect neural mechanisms which subsequently impact eating behavior and weight gain. “Being overweight and obese is not a choice,” Jastreboff said. “My question is: Why is that? What are biological factors that affect brain response and subsequent eating behavior?” After completing her Ph.D., Jastreboff applied for a KL2 grant, a mentored grant, through YCCI. When that grant ended in 2013, she she applied for and received a mentored, patient-oriented research career development award from the NIH. In the next year or so, she will follow in her parents’ footsteps and apply for her first R01 grant, the bread-and-butter NIH funding source for university research labs.

At the retreat, in one of the final sessions of the day, Laura Freebairn-Smith, Ph.D., a leadership consultant with Woodbridge-based Organizational Performance Group, led a team exercise. Each table in the room represented a new “lab” group tasked with an unusual goal. The team members had to work together to build a structure out of index cards, paper clips, and any other available objects. With three minutes left in the exercise, Freebairn-Smith threw a curve ball: the team with the tallest tower would win. The six groups leapt into action. Afterward, Freebairn-Smith coaxed the takeaway lesson from faculty: there are different approaches to building a successful lab, but all of them require teamwork. Everyone took a moment to admire the ingenuity of the winning team. While other groups had painstakingly balanced notecards within elaborate paperclip scaffolding, the champions had simply put a chair on top of their table, with their structure sitting high above the rest.