Finding Success in your Postdoc with Derrick Morton, PhD

Derrick Morton, PhD

Postdoctoral training prepares newly minted PhD or MD researchers for careers in academia, industry, and other scientific professions by honing their research skills. Selecting the right lab or mentor can set you up for success. ASHG spoke with 2019-2021 HGSI Scholar Derrick Morton, PhD about his postdoctoral experience at Emory University as an IRACDA fellow. Dr. Morton recently started his first faculty position at the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine with a joint appointment at California Institute of Technology, where he will use genome editing techniques to study the function of an RNA processing machine linked to neurological disorders.

Though he was passionate about research, Dr. Morton also knew he wanted to incorporate teaching and mentoring students into his career. The FIRST program is one of several NIH-funded Institutional Research and Academic Development Awards (IRACDA) programs across the country, all of which combine postdoctoral research with teaching and other professional development opportunities. During his graduate career, Morton had mentored students from high school to graduate level and wanted to continue this work during his postdoctoral studies and beyond. Dr. Morton’s first met his future postdoctoral mentor at a seminar during his PhD at Clark Atlanta University. Dr. Anita Corbett, PhD was well known for her commitment to mentoring students and postdoctoral fellows, and when Morton spoke with her following the seminar, he knew it might be a good fit. Another important piece of the puzzle was his success in receiving the competitive NIH-funded postdoctoral Fellowship in Research and Science Teaching (FIRST) at Emory University, where Dr. Corbett’s lab was located.

Dr. Morton described his experience in Dr. Corbett’s lab, saying “Anita does not simply lead by example, but instead she is involved in her mentees’ development each step of the way. During my first meeting with Anita to discuss potentially working in her lab, she asked me a series of questions that piqued my interest, the type of work I was interested in taking part in, and how those interests aligned with my future career goals. Importantly, she took interest in my development as a scientist and how she could help me meet my goals. Anita understands that formal mentoring does not begin the day a mentee starts in the lab, rather effective mentoring begins during the interview process. Furthermore, Dr. Corbett displays a commitment to graduate and postdoctoral training that is evidenced by the numerous trainees that have continued to excel since departing Emory.

Central to Dr. Corbett’s mentoring philosophy is her commitment to diversifying science at all levels — driven by her passionate belief in equity in higher education, where everyone has an equal opportunity to gain knowledge, learn, share and challenge dogma in new ways. This belief has further implications than just “gaining knowledge”; it means that she seeks to include individuals from diverse backgrounds, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, or religion. As an underrepresented person in science myself, I uniquely understand the challenges of underrepresented persons in the classroom as well as in the laboratory. In Dr. Corbett’s lab, I feel a sense of belonging and value that has empowered me to continue in pursuit of career in science.”

Dr. Corbett’s mentorship helped Dr. Morton to navigate submitting publications and grants, including another individual NIH fellowship, as well as a public outreach grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Fortunately, he had started the job search before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered labs and offices across the country. Though navigating a cross-country move during this time has been difficult, he is excited to continue teaching, mentoring students, and researching the RNA exosome in the Drosophila melanogaster model system.

Lastly, Dr. Morton has also benefited from the support of the Human Genetics Scholars Initiative, where he “received additional mentoring, resources and training experiences that have aided in the development of conceptual and experimental expertise that has enhanced my success. Most importantly, this fellowship provided networking opportunities that have allowed [me] to build both peer and mentoring networks with scientists that share a common passion for discovery.” With his NIH-funded postdoctoral fellowship, HGSI Scholars support, and many mentors along the way, Dr. Morton was well-positioned for his first faculty role this year.

The Human Genetics Scholars Initiative recently selected its class of 2020-2022 fellows. Read more on this program and learn about the other 2019-2021 scholars here. ASHG members can also get involved in the program by becoming a mentor to future scholars.

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