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Evan Merkhofer, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, Department of Biology | Mount Saint Mary College

Interviews by: Alexandra Bortnick
Editing: Jamie Joseph

1. Please list your previous department at UC San Diego and provide a brief description of the research you conducted?

I was a postdoc in Dr. Tracy Johnson’s lab in the Department of Biological Sciences. My research focused on investigating the regulation of early steps in pre-mRNA splicing, a mechanism of post-transcriptional regulation of gene expression that is critical in organisms from single-celled yeasts to humans. My main interest involved the interaction between this process of pre-mRNA splicing and transcription. New and exciting research has shown that these processes interact during gene expression, however, we have very little knowledge about how these processes interact in order for gene expression to occur properly. My research aims to broaden our knowledge of these interactions, specifically interactions involving critical ATPases required for splicing.

2. Please describe your current job profile?

My current position is Assistant Professor of Biology at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York. Mount Saint Mary College is a predominantly undergraduate institution (PUI) enrolling approximately 2700 students. This position is predominantly teaching focused, as I teach 4 classes or labs in the fall semester and 4 classes or labs spring semester. However, the position does give me an opportunity to carry out research with undergraduate students, which is very important to me.

3. What made you decide to transition into your current position?

I felt the time was right for me to look for faculty positions that would allow me to do what was of most interest to me – teach undergraduate students. My mentor, Dr. Tracy Johnson, spoke often about when it was time to “hit the job market”. When I applied for positions, I decided that I would only take a position that was right for my family and I. Fortunately, I found a position in the right area at the right institution.

4. Apart from the research you conducted, do you feel like anything in particular has helped you to acquire your current position?

I believe my experience away from the bench made a huge difference. During my postdoc I was able to get a significant amount of teaching experience which set me apart from other candidates. Teaching is a rewarding, but also very difficult endeavor, and it’s very important that if you are interested in a faculty position that involves a lot of teaching, that you obtain undergraduate level teaching experience. Also, undergraduate education is undergoing somewhat of a renaissance, and getting training in implementing some of the exciting new ideas for instruction was very helpful in acquiring my current position as well. My interest and experience in outreach, including training biology TAs on teaching inclusively, was also a plus.

5. Please list some of the most striking similarities and differences between your post-doc and current position?

One of the biggest differences is resources. UCSD is a world-class research institution with seemingly unlimited resources and opportunities for collaboration in research. The research is different at a small liberal arts college, as you need to pick and choose your projects based upon resources, as well as time, since a large chunk of time is devoted to teaching and service. That said, working at a school the size of Mount Saint Mary College gives me the opportunity to work much more closely with my students, which can be more difficult at a school like UCSD. In many ways, teaching at a school like Mount Saint Mary College makes it feel like you are able to have a more direct impact on the students, and you certainly get to know them better.

6. Is there any specific challenge (during the entire process of transitioning) that you would like to highlight and if so how did you overcome it?

Communication during the process can be difficult, as you are moving into a new, unknown situation, oftentimes in a new location, and your colleagues are all quite busy with their own responsibilities. I think it is important to be in communication with as many of your new colleagues as possible, as each of them may be able to help make the transition easier in different ways.

7. Please describe your goals and ambitions for the next 5 years?

I would like continue to grow as a scholar and to use my experience to help make my department and Mount Saint Mary College as a whole, an even better place than it already is. By challenging my students to achieve at the highest level, I hope to not only prepare them for their chosen occupation, but also to make them more educated and informed citizens in their community. I also hope to cultivate their inquisitiveness and involve them in research projects that can ultimately contribute to scientific endeavors. Furthermore, I would like to help further foster a relationship between my school and the community through outreach programs for K-12 students, as I believe it’s critical to get students interested in science as early as possible.

8. What do you feel you could have done more, as a postdoc, to help prepare you for or acquire your current position?

I think as a postdoc, it’s often times difficult to find that fine line between spending time on your research projects and gaining experience in the classroom teaching. I believe the more practice you have in performing both of these tasks at the same time, the better prepared you will be for a position such as this.

9. What do you feel is the most important advice you can give to a current UCSD postdoc in order for them to obtain a position such as yours?

I think it is important to make sure that you are doing excellent and impactful research, but also to think about how parts of that research may translate into interesting projects at the undergraduate level. Mentoring undergraduates in research and gaining teaching experience are also invaluable in obtaining faculty positions at undergraduate institutions.