How Uncertainty and An Unexpected Email Propelled Me Into Thrombosis Research
By Joshua Muia, Ph.D.
“Joshua, your graduation is almost here with us, have you gotten any postdoc position yet?” I struggled to answer my friend because I lacked the words. My graduation was in two weeks, and I had no clue what to do next. I had thought about a postdoc position during my doctoral program, but my plans did not proceed as intended. I worked well on all levels of graduate school and reasoned the next position would come easily. However, my main project trajectory took a nosedive after another group published similar work. I needed to refocus and put finding the next position in the backseat.
I was born and raised in Kenya and moved to the United States to pursue graduate school at a University in Michigan. As an international student in the US, I was on a non-immigrant visa (F1) with a provision to obtain optional practical training (OPT) after graduation only if I received a relevant post-graduation position. With so much uncertainty in my last semester, I approached the Chair of our department to request financial support to attend a major scientific conference held in Anaheim, California, one week before my graduation. My mission to attend the conference was clear: to network with potential mentors/established researchers. I thought someone might have a postdoc position available and would interview me on the spot. I even paid $20 USD to have my CV highlighted during the conference.
As expected, the conference was vibrant, and I attended every career development session offered. I had a poster presentation, and a few people stopped and asked questions, and that was it. This was my first major meeting, and I got lost in the crowd. The five-day conference went fast, and it was time to go home. I was in disbelief about how I failed to secure any on-site interviews. So, I took a bus shuttle to Los Angeles for a late afternoon flight to Chicago on my to Michigan.
About 15 minutes after the bus departed, I tried to nap but felt unsettled. My graduation ceremony was exactly three days away and the “what next” question lingered on my mind. I decided to browse the net on my phone to pass time. I opened my email and my attention was drawn to an email from J. Evan Sadler, a name that I did not recognize. I quickly searched his profile online at Washington University in St. Louis, and his achievements blew my mind. I even began to wonder whether the email was sent by mistake. The email contents were straightforward; he was looking for postdoctoral trainees and had identified me as a potential candidate! I did not respond to him immediately; I needed time to craft an error-free response.
Evan’s reply asked to have my referees send their recommendation letters---no application. I was invited for an on-campus interview and would say it was one of the best. I was greatly impressed by the von Willebrand factor (VWF) and ADAMTS13 research performed there. I knew upfront that his laboratory was where I wanted to be, but I had to be accepted first. Unlike going home from the conference, Evan asked me to join his laboratory the same day as the interview. Ironically, I was not prepared for that moment and offered no response. Evan added that I did not have to decide then, but I knew I was coming there.
Joining Evan’s laboratory transformed my career trajectory more than I anticipated. As a postdoc, I developed an ADAMTS13 assay to characterize patients with thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP) and made seminal contributions to the structure/function of ADAMTS13 and VWF. My thrombosis research work has been published by journals such as JTH, Blood, and PNAS, a feat that I could not have contemplated before joining Evan’s laboratory. I have since moved to Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences, Tulsa, where I direct a thrombosis and cardiovascular research laboratory.
This story would be not complete without saying something about Evan’s great mentorship. Evan allowed trainees to take ownership of their projects and freely pursue research questions. But he admired meticulous work and valued quality over quantity. He was the most caring and accessible person I think of. Despite being extremely busy, he always wanted his trainees to succeed. I do not know another way I could have pursued thrombosis research without him taking a chance on me.
More importantly, I benefitted a great deal from the professional network to which Evan introduced me during many scientific conferences, such as ISTH. Like many of his trainees and mentees, I will forever be grateful to Evan. His passing is unfortunate and occurred at the peak of his career. J. Evan Sadler, M.D., Ph.D., will be truly missed as a mentor in the field of thrombosis and hemostasis. I am keeping his legacy alive by being an impactful mentor to my trainees as he was to me; paying it forward.