Former Postdoc Reflects on Biochemistry’s Strong, Career-launching RNA Research

Photo of Aaron Goldstrohm, former biochemistry postdoc

The Department of Biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison has a long and rich history of studying RNA biology. It’s what former postdoctoral scholar Aaron Goldstrohm says drew him to the department and helped further his career.

Goldstrohm was a postdoc in the lab of professor Marvin Wickens from 2001-2008. After a stint at the University of Michigan, where he earned tenure, he is now a faculty member at the University of Minnesota. He rapidly became a leader in understanding the mechanisms of RNA regulation, and most recently, its roles in human disease.

“At Wisconsin, I had a terrific mentor and got to work with a lively group of students and researchers,” Goldstrohm says. “There was a really big group working in RNA biology and I think that really helped in my development and expanded my horizons.”

Before coming to UW–Madison, Goldstrohm earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology from Duke University.

In the Wickens Lab, he says he enjoyed the constant mentoring and financial support. It allowed him to branch out and take risks in his research but also be a productive and successful researcher. Wickens also runs the RNA MaxiGroup, a hub of RNA researchers on campus that invites successful researchers in the field to campus. Goldstrohm says the group allowed him to make many valuable connections.

“It was obvious early on that Aaron was a gifted experimentalist, and kept his eye on the scientific questions, not on what was trendy,” Wickens says. “But on top of that, Aaron was unpretentious and exceptionally generous. He helped foster a great environment in the lab, sharing data, reagents and ideas, and fostered multiple shared papers. That’s not something you can teach; it is who he is, and was an enormous asset in the lab.”

Today, Goldstrohm still studies RNA, focusing on its biology related to development and cancer. In the Wickens Lab he worked with yeast but has since moved to working with fruit flies and human proteins as well. It’s led to a number of connections in cancer biology as the proteins he studies seem to be regulating a group of cancer genes, he says.

“Marv and the department as a whole allowed me to be very independent,” he says. “I got to explore many different areas inside and outside the lab. I worked with other postdocs to form the postdoc association, which I think is now a university-wide group.”

UW Postdoc Association logo
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That group is now the UW-Madison Postdoctoral Association, and the university has an official Office of Postdoctoral Studies to organize and support the scholars. The Department of Biochemistry recently established its own resource for postdocs, a website with current scholars and also past ones, along with links to their current careers and other helpful information.

“I think some of us were realizing it was important for us to gain other experiences outside the lab to prep for maybe a position in industry or elsewhere, and that’s how the association came into being,” he explains. “We were able to connect with each other and offer resources for training in topics like business or management, and more. The faculty were very supportive of it.”

He adds that his advice to current or future postdocs is to pick a mentor that will be really supportive and allows for independence.

“It’s a very competitive job market and universities really want you to be able to hit the ground running to be able to carry out research and secure funding,” he says. “If you can find a mentor and environment that fosters that independence you will be on the right track. I really found that with Marv and the department.”