Postdoc Fellows Get New Advocate in Wasif Khan

Over the years, Wasif N. Khan, Ph.D., who is known for his work in immunodeficiency and autoimmune diseases, has shared his scientific expertise, sound career advice and lessons learned at the bench, the bedside and life in general with many postdoctoral fellows.

Now, the professor of microbiology and immunology is officially assuming that role as the Miller School’s new director of the Postdoctoral Programs Office, where he plans not only to ramp up training and mentorship for postdoc fellows, but also to elevate their stature in the campus research food chain.

Building UM’s reputation for research is at the core of his efforts. As Khan, who completed a research fellowship in genetics at Harvard and is now focused on understanding and disrupting the mechanisms that trigger autoimmunity and B cell lymphomas, says, well-trained postdocs who love the institution make great ambassadors and will boost high-level recruitment to the Miller School.

“One of my primary goals is to make sure our postdoctoral fellows receive the best training possible so they can become successful in their future careers and represent the University very well,” said Khan, who joined the Miller School in 2008 after a stint as an associate professor at Vanderbilt University. “But it’s also important that we let them know how important they are to us. They are highly qualified ‘wet bench’ scientists and they are the linchpin in our research.”

In addition to pursuing his own postdoc initiatives, Khan is implementing the plans of his predecessor, Joy Lincoln, Ph.D., including improved benefits and training via a postdoctoral workshop series. A Pakistani native who earned his Ph.D. in immunology at Sweden’s University of Umeå, Khan also plans to embark on recruitment efforts to increase UM’s ranks of talented research fellows from around the country and the world.

Khan says he is looking forward to implementing the initiatives to improve research and career training of postdoctoral fellows because he will collaborate with José Szapocznik, Ph.D., executive dean for research and research training, and John Bixby, Ph.D., senior associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral studies, two research leaders who “consider excellence in postdoctoral training integral to the success of our research missions at the Miller School.”

Khan will make his campus debut in his new role during a social event on September 23, Postdoctoral Fellows Research Day, which features posters of postdoc research and is part of a national Postdoctoral Appreciation Week celebration. The annual week of educational and social events is intended to recognize what Khan calls the “absolutely critical” contributions of postdocs to the University’s research portfolio.

“The timing of this event is perfect for me to get to know more of our postdocs,” Khan said. “I would like to learn who they are and what they are doing. Sometimes a social setting is the best place for such a large group to meet each other and see all the things we have in common.”

Such meetings, he added, are becoming increasingly important because biomedical research is changing rapidly and, more than ever, dependent on collaborations among researchers who are spread across the campus and from different disciplines with different interests and skills. “The boundaries between disciplines are blurring and the new question will be, ‘What disciplines do I need to be involved with to get the results I am after?’” Khan said. “The Miller School has many cutting-edge research strengths to promote this new culture in science.”

In his new post, Khan will draw on both his experiences as a Harvard fellow and a postdoctoral fellow in immunology in Sweden, and his current life as a busy scientist and father of two boys. The elder is a student at Grossmont College near San Diego, and the younger a 20-month-old whose presence is a daily reminder of the importance of life outside work.

Fulfillment, Khan says, comes with balancing the two. When he’s not in the lab, he’s a full-throttle family man and, of late, a gardener. He’s found that seeing plants grow and flowers bloom is good for the soul, and the neighborhood.

“My mind is always thinking about research, but that kind of activity allows me to think in a much more relaxed manner and ponder important research questions outside the task-oriented mindset,” he said. “And my wife loves the way it looks. People have even come by to take pictures.”

Now, as mentor-in-chief, Khan is reflecting on his own mentors, including renowned genomics and cancer researcher Frederick Alt, Ph.D. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Alt was honored with the Excellence in Mentoring Award by the American Association of Immunologists in 2003.

Though the environment at Harvard was extremely competitive, Khan recalls that Alt and the other professors enjoyed nurturing postdocs and “expected them to develop into independent scientists or industry leaders and do bigger things.”

“That alone made you feel important and that you would become much more,” Khan said. “That’s the same feeling I want all Miller School postdoctoral fellows to have.’’

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