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Words for the Wise

Rob Dunn’s advice to a group of eager young postdocs was simple: pay attention to stuff you don’t normally notice.

Take bugs for example, the biology professor told the 51 scholars assembled at the Hunt Library for the university’s second annual postdoctoral research symposium. “What do we really know about species we see all the time?” he said. “The species we step on every day we don’t understand very well.”

Dunn, who’s made a career out of engaging citizen-scientists in the pursuit of knowledge, encouraged the postdocs to keep their eyes open as they launch careers of their own. There are practical as well as theoretical reasons for noticing the mundane, he said, recounting how he backed into a wasp nest while conducting field work in South America.

Off the Beaten Path

Postdoc discusses her research at symposium.

Angela Shelton discusses her research into science education at the Postdoctoral Research Symposium.

If Dunn’s experience is a guide, the payoff for veering off your well-charted career path once in a while can be extraordinarily rewarding, despite the risk of misadventure. Since joining the faculty in 2005, he’s led popular projects to map insects and microbes in homes, backyards and even belly buttons across the globe. An award-winning author and essayist, Dunn is adept at promoting the wonders of the natural world, and at harnessing the curiosity of a new generation of budding scientists, who eagerly fill up test tubes with samples of ants, cicadas and other insects at his bidding.

He’s learned a lot since completing his own postdoctoral work at the University of Tennessee.

“Much of the science we do is really simple,” he said. “And kids work for free.”

It was the perfect audience for Dunn’s inspiring, if plain-spoken, words of wisdom, said Nisha Cavanaugh, director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs.

“Having already earned their doctoral degrees, these postdocs are making significant contributions to the research program of the university,” she said. “They are independent researchers and often bring new, innovative ideas to their projects. These are the future leaders in research, and the symposium gives them the opportunity to show it.”

Following Dunn’s address, the postdocs took part in an interactive poster session demonstrating a remarkably diverse range of work, from a device that promises to improve the treatment of pancreatic cancer to a methodology for predicting hurricanes. The capacity crowd clearly enjoyed the chance to talk shop and learn about a wealth of advanced research taking place across campus.

“It helps postdocs feel more connected with faculty, students and the whole community at NC State,” said Zeynep Yurtseven Avci, a postdoc in curriculum, instruction and counselor education. “And it provides an opportunity for postdocs to share their research with each other and others at the university.”

The event was sponsored by the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs and the NC State Postdoctoral Association.

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