Postdoc Program Offers Rare Opportunity for Participants
June 23, 2022
Ever wonder about how many trees exist in your community or if exposure to chemicals from plastics used in water bottles is harmful?
Two Frost Teacher-Scholar Postdoctoral Fellows in the College of Science and Mathematics are exploring questions around those topics through a distinctive program.
Cal Poly’s teacher-scholar postdoc program started three years ago through support from The Frost Fund established by donors Bill and Linda Frost. The model offers a rare opportunity for postdoctoral fellows that combines research, teaching and mentorship.
“It’s impactful because it brings new talent and fresh minds into our community of scholarship and research and learning,” said Dean Wendt, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics. “That benefits our faculty and students to have a group of professionals at an early stage in their careers infusing their energy into learning.”
Plant biology researcher Natalie Love is collecting comprehensive data on California’s urban tree populations in collaboration with Biological Sciences Professor Matt Ritter. Public Health researcher Adam Seal is studying impacts from Bisphenol A, also known as BPA, the chemical compound primarily used in the manufacturing of various plastics — working with Todd Hagobian, a professor in the Kinesiology and Public Health department.
Postdoctoral programs offer paid positions for scholars who have completed their doctoral degrees.
Roles at most universities and other institutions typically are focused exclusively on research unless a scholar seeks out a teaching role on their own, said Derek Gragson, associate dean in the College of Science and Mathematics.
But Cal Poly’s postdoctoral program is rare, Gragson said, in that it combines postdoctoral research, teaching and mentorship with undergraduate students in all aspects of the work.
Fellows and undergraduates benefit from guidance and shared work, while faculty join forces with recent Ph.D. students who can bring their knowledge base in the field to advance their investigations.
“We wanted to develop a program that leverages our unique position to offer recent Ph.D. graduates an opportunity that they couldn’t get elsewhere,” Gragson said. “When we hire for tenure track positions, usually it’s people who have completed postdoc programs and those who sought out teaching experience are valued just a little bit higher.”
“We wanted to develop a program that leverages our unique position to offer recent Ph.D. graduates an opportunity that they couldn’t get elsewhere.”
Derek Gragson, Associate Dean, College of Science and Mathematics
Over the course of two years, postdoctoral fellows will collaborate closely with their faculty advisors. And undergrads often contribute to research by co-authoring academic papers.
Love’s research is partially funded by Cal Fire. Documenting trees in municipalities from Los Angeles and San Jose to Gilroy (looking for smaller sized city example) and San Luis Obispo, so far the team has identified seven million urban trees in all — including location, types and sizes — inputting their findings into a new database they’re creating.
“This allows us to answer all kinds of interesting questions like ‘What are the most common trees in California’s urban forest?” Love said. “Where is there the most diversity in California's urban forest? Is that correlated with things like bird diversity in urban environments?”
The project could be used in the future to help communities decide on what types of new trees to plant.
They’ve used arborist data from community agencies and Google Earth to document trees (San Luis Obispo data shows about 13,000 trees citywide). The more types of trees, the more different birds are attracted, Love said.
“This is my dream postdoc because I want to get research experience and I love teaching,” said Love, who earned her doctoral degree at UC Santa Barbara in ecology and evolution after studying soil science and biology at Cal Poly.
The research Seal is undertaking is partially funded by the American Diabetes Association.
“BPA leaches into our foods and water from can and bottle lining, and, interestingly, receipt paper,” Seal said. “We’re exploring if it has an effect on your insulin sensitivity, which is how your body responds to insulin.”
Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas that regulates glucose, a simple sugar, in the blood. The study is assessing if BPA disrupts normal glucose regulation.
Seal — who earned his doctorate degree at University of Arkansas in health, sport and exercise science — said he was drawn to the project to further his knowledge about the study’s technique to measure insulin sensitivity and applications for his interest in research on hydration and diabetes.
Seal said that the Cal Poly study has applications beyond diabetes.
“Studies nationwide have shown a large percentage of the population has BPA levels detectable in their urine that are higher than normal,” Seal said. “A lot of people are searching out BPA-free water bottles, so people are starting to catch on.”
The research involves observing participants who consume pre-determined amount of BPA over a five-day period versus a control group that ingests no BPA under strict dietary guidelines.
“This is one of the first experimental studies in humans as far as actually giving people BPA and seeing if there's any effect on insulin sensitivity,” Seal said.
The participants are given BPA doses deemed safe under existing standards, but those amounts may need regulatory adjustment.
“If we do find this dose creates a problem with insulin sensitivity, hopefully we can influence the (Environmental Protection Agency) to reduce that recommended amount,” Seal said. “We’ll see what the data says.”