Paul Ekman Says Postdoctoral Opportunities are a "Launching Pad"

Paul Ekman is interviewed at UCSF Postdoc Research Symposium

UCSF Gathering Showcases Postdoc Research, Addresses Futures

By Mitzi Baker

Paul Ekman, PhD, best known for his work making sense of nonverbal behavior, emphasized the importance of his postdoctoral training at UC San Francisco as a “critical launching pad” for his later work that has included working on a Pixar movie and collaborating with the Dalai Lama.

Ekman, UCSF professor emeritus in psychology, was the closing keynote speaker at the daylong 2016 UCSF Postdoc Research Symposium held at Genentech Hall on June 17. The event aimed to unite this group of researchers – who have earned their doctoral degrees and who are being mentored on their way to an independent career path – to give them a feeling of connectedness and to demonstrate their importance to the University.

Ekman related how his lifelong studies on nonverbal communication hinged upon his own postdoctoral training at UCSF in the early 1960s.

“The postdoc is a critical launching pad, and you have two choices: linking your star to someone else’s much brighter star or starting something completely new that no one else has done,” he said. “You have chance to fall flat on your face … but you have freedom to be a pioneer.”

Ekman’s work includes understanding facial expressions and gestures. Following his retirement he has written lay books on the topic, advised television shows and the Pixar movie “Inside Out,” and built the Atlas of Emotions after conversations with the Dalai Lama.

His final advice to the postdocs of the audience was to immerse themselves in the data “until it speaks to you,” as he himself did.


Ekman’s message about the importance of the postdoctoral scholars followed a day of messages about how important postdocs are to the research enterprise, including at UCSF.

“UCSF postdocs are critical to the biomedical research enterprise. Without them there would be a lot less innovative and exciting research being done,” said Assistant Dean for Postdocs and Career Development, Christine Des Jarlais, EdD, in opening remarks. “Often they are not really acknowledged. They are a little bit of an invisible population and we are always working hard to change that.”

The symposium was the brainchild of postdoctoral scholar Björn Harink, PhD, who is the president of the Postdoctoral Scholars' Association (PSA) at UCSF. Harink approached Des Jarlais just four months ago about the idea of putting together an event that would encompass a venue for honing presentation skills, a forum to vent and trouble-shoot systemic issues and a fun way to network with colleagues.

“The event was planned from start to finish by the postdocs for the postdocs,” Des Jarlais said. The postdoc community voted for nine of the many abstracts submitted as ones they wanted to hear presented as talks. The rest of the submitted abstracts were presented as dozens of posters circling the lobby of Genentech Hall.

The topics ran the gamut University-wide, from social and population studies to cellular and molecular biology and genetics. On the day of the event, attendees voted for what they deemed the best talks from each session and the top two posters, with prizes awarded during the reception that followed.

An integral part of the day’s events was a panel discussion on the topic of “The Future of Postdoc Research,” to address a number of their unique challenges. Three panelists representing a range of postdoctoral experiences expressed many frustrations, and gave audience members a chance to voice their concerns.


The keynote speakers for the event were included to illustrate scientists who went in less traditional routes, said postdoctoral scholar Elena Minones Moyano, PhD.

A career shift from research on addiction to drugs and alcohol to the world of food policy was presented by Laura Schmidt, PhD, a UCSF professor in the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy. The two fields turn out to be deeply related, she said, especially with the widespread use of scientific technology to get people hooked on foods and to buy specific products.

After presenting the onslaught of early warning signs of the impending public health emergency that overconsumption of sugar in particular is causing, Schmidt posed the question: How is it going to be fixed? The answer, she said, is combining research and policy to create evidence-based policies.

“You guys do a lot of lab stuff, and I do a lot of policy work and what I have learned is that we really need to work together,” she told the audience. The goal is translation, moving from the bench to clinical trials and out to the community. “That’s what I am about – getting the science that you do out into the community and into the hands of policymakers who are really in a position to do things to help.”

During a day in which a number of challenges were presented throughout the symposium, what emerged in the end was an appreciation for the range of research at UCSF and postdoctoral scholars’ overwhelming passion for science.

“The PSA Research Symposium was hugely successful and demonstrated that our postdoc community is increasingly vibrant and visible. I congratulate the team of postdocs who made the idea of a research symposium a reality,” said Des Jarlais. “I urge all our postdocs to get involved in activities away from the bench, which are not only fun, but connect them to a community of their peers. UCSF postdocs rock!”


In photo above, Paul Ekman, PhD, left, professor emeritus in Psychology, is interviewed by Nathan Szajnberg, MD, a Wallerstein Research Fellow in Psychoanalysis in the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis. (Photo by Susan Merrell)