Old Postdoctoral PI Taking My Project

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Old Postdoctoral PI Taking My Project

Postby Sekacoby » Wed Jun 10, 2015 8:09 am

When I was a postdoc, I started a completely new research program in the lab (breast cancer in a lab that studies development). I got external funding to support me and one technician. When the funding ended, I had another grant lined up but there was a 4 month gap in funding. My PI decided to let me go rather than pay for the bridge much to my (and everyone else's) surprise. There was no money to pay me and and I was told my project was too divergent from her "bread and butter research" and she had tried this direction and failed, so she didn't want to take any more risks. I had been a productive member of the lab and got along personally with everyone. I have no reason to believe that I was displaced for any reason other than funding. She gave me a top recommendation.
I was fortunate to get a great job right away. When I left, we had a conversation that the project was still mine to follow up on, even though it would probably take me a year to get it back up and running (I had to decline the orginal grant I would have recieved as it was only for postdocs and my new job, while supportive of my old research, wanted me to initiate some screening studies).
I just recieved an email from a postdoc in my old lab asking for my help with a fellowship she is writing. When she sent me her specific aims page, I found out that it had significant portions of my old project.
What should I do? My old PI made it seem like she had no interest in this project and now clearly is taking my old proposal and is reworking significant parts (including mentoring plans, patient advocates, etc) for another postdoc. I have a feeling this is because the postdoc's initial project failed and this one is clearly fundable. I am not yet in a position to compete. I did not get anything in writing, which I now regret. I feel like I am about to get screwed over a second time.
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Re: Old Postdoctoral PI Taking My Project

Postby Dave Walker » Wed Jun 10, 2015 4:06 pm

I suggest cooperating with the new postdoc and thanking your stars that you have found a great job instead.

Many questions come to mind in your story -- what is your new job? Are you still collaborating with your old lab, or somewhere else entirely? Was your old PI an advisor on your grant? -- and we could easily get hung up on the minutiae. Generally, I think it is bad form to continue a project from a previous lab while working at a new position, and worse to lay claim to your postdoctoral research as 100% your own.

Even with external funding you are at the mercy of your postdoctoral mentor -- they are "responsible" for you to the scientific community. You could never publish a finding or give a presentation without their approval and their acknowledgement. Doing so, I believe, would label you as trouble for the rest of your research career. I also don't believe you would win much sympathy with a judiciary community at your institution if you insisted, and it would burn that bridge forever. And that top recommendation, which may be useful later in your career, could turn into much worse.
"The single factor that differentiates Nobel laureates from other scientists is training with another Nobel laureate." -- Sol Snyder
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Re: Old Postdoctoral PI Taking My Project

Postby John D. D, » Thu Jun 11, 2015 3:25 am

This seems to me to be rank-assertive behavior. Your old postdoctoral PI had it; you want it. She can keep it by giving you a job somewhere else.
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Re: Old Postdoctoral PI Taking My Project

Postby Craig B. » Fri Jun 12, 2015 11:11 am


A little more information about your situation could help clarify it for the rest of us. What is your new position? I assume it isn't another postdoc, but are you still on the academic track, trying to establish your own research group? Could you expound a bit more on the nature of the funding that supported you in your previous lab? It sounds like it was more substantial than a fellowship since you were able to support a technician on the grant.

The whole point of postdoctoral research is to establish yourself as an independent investigator. Having heard your side of the story, it sounds like you did just that and were quite successful. If you're continuing your academic career, I think you have every right to pursue the project you initiated.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but reading your post I got the sense that you heard about this potential conflict from a postdoc and not your old PI. Talk to your old PI and try and figure out exactly what is going on. Maybe your old proposal was handed off as an example of a successful application and this postdoc decided to copy the project for lack of original ideas.

If your old PI is genuinely continuing with the project, I don't see how you could try and stop it without burning bridges that shouldn't be burned. You can certainly reach out and try and become more involved in the work as an active collaborator. On the other hand, if the idea of picking up your project came from the postdoc and not the PI, you may be able to express your continued interest to your PI and steer this other individual to more original research.
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