Published March 17, 2022
Steven J. Fliesler, PhD, has been awarded the University at Buffalo Graduate School’s 2021-2022 Distinguished Postdoc Mentor Award.
Fliesler, SUNY Distinguished Professor and the Meyer H. Riwchun Endowed Chair Professor of ophthalmology, is an internationally renowned vision scientist who is considered the world’s leading expert on cholesterol metabolism in the retina.
He is vice chair and director of research in the Department of Ophthalmology.
“Expert mentoring is a cornerstone of our school’s mission,” says Allison Brashear, MD, UB’s vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
“Dr. Fliesler’s noteworthy career exemplifies how mentorship makes a difference in the lives of his postdoctoral associates,” she adds. “It is quite fitting that UB’s Graduate School recognize these extraordinary accomplishments.”
The Graduate School’s award recognizes truly exceptional faculty mentoring of postdoctoral scholars at UB, according to Graham Lawrence Hammill, UB’s vice provost for academic affairs and dean of the Graduate School.
Nominees are reviewed by a committee consisting of faculty and postdocs, based on the nominee’s exceptional support and development of postdoctoral scholars.
“I’ve been privileged to receive some other accolades and awards, but for me this is the sweetest one ever,” Fliesler says. “As an academic, there is nothing more gratifying than knowing that you’ve made a real difference in — and a positive impact on — the lives of your students.”
Fliesler was nominated for the award by two postdoctoral scholars in his lab — Lara Ann Skelton, PhD, senior research scientist; and Sriganesh Ramachandra Rao, PhD; postdoctoral fellow.
“I’ve had about a dozen of postdocs in my lab over the past 35 plus years, but the two who are working in my lab currently are among the very best,” Fliesler says. “I think I learn as much from them as they do from me.”
Skelton, whose work focuses on retinal pigmented epithelial cell culture and retinal injury models, says Fliesler “is an exceptional mentor in the visual sciences, with the ability to convey an expansive knowledge base clearly and with ease, but also with a sense of critical analysis and questioning.”
“Asking the right questions is essential for life-science researchers, especially today with the vast quantities of ever-changing information available to us,” she says.
“Working in Dr. Fliesler’s lab has provided me with the tools to become a more effective researcher, to apply multiple disciplines to a problem and collaborate on complex projects,” Skelton adds.
Rao completed his doctoral dissertation work with Fliesler, studying the role of cholesterol. He has since continued as a postdoctoral fellow under Fliesler's mentorship, studying cholesterol and dolichol metabolism in the retina.
“Through our research, we aim to study the disease and molecular mechanisms of pertinent rare, congenital blinding disorders such as retinitis pigmentosa 59, and Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome,” he says. “There are currently no effective therapeutic interventions for these rare disorders.”
Rao says Fliesler “always encourages his mentees to bring independent ideas to the table, and then guides us in shaping those ideas into testable hypotheses.”
“The postdoctoral experience has also further enabled me to foster collaboration with over half a dozen research groups all across the U.S. and Europe,” he adds. “My professional network has expanded significantly over the last three years, owing to Dr. Fliesler’s continuous encouragement.”
Fliesler notes that postdocs have already attained a fundamental skill set and are usually technically proficient to work in a lab, to collect, organize, and analyze data, and to write manuscripts for publication.
“I view my job as one of providing the next level of skills and career guidance, to enable them to successfully advance increasingly toward full independence,” he says.
“Sometimes ‘less is more,’ and a laissez-faire approach is best, unless a person is obviously in need of more regular assistance,” Fliesler adds. “It really depends upon how advanced the person is, how much prior experience they’ve had.”
Fliesler says he tries to “lead by example” — in writing and editing manuscripts, grant applications, or correspondence, as well as in giving formal presentations at conferences, either posters or oral platform presentations.
Some challenges in mentoring postdocs involves having to guide them to “unlearn” certain bad habits in the lab or to disabuse them of erroneous “facts” they’ve learned along the way in their prior training, he notes.
“Postdocs also may need to learn the bigger picture of the goals of their research projects,” Fliesler says. “Also, as postdocs are considering career advancement, they need guidance on ‘salesmanship’ — to make them stand out in the ever-growing pool of equally qualified applicants for the limited number of job opportunities that may exist in their particular disciplines.”
Fliesler takes great pride at being adept at helping foreign scholars with cultural intricacies or immigration-related issues.
“Particularly in the sciences, there is a very large pool of postdocs whose country of origin is not the U.S., and their native language is not English,” he says. “I’ve had a few such individuals in my lab over the years, including one postdoc who currently works in my lab.”
“Learning and negotiating the intricacies of the U.S. immigration system, visa requirements, etc., is often very challenging,” Fliesler notes. “As a postdoctoral adviser, I’ve had to become familiar with these issues and to find out the go-to individuals who can help sort those issues out for some of my postdocs.”
“It’s ethically imperative for postdoctoral mentors to be actively engaged in helping trainees to resolve any immigration issues that may arise.”
Fliesler is grateful for his own postdoctoral experiences and says they act as a guide in his mentoring.
“I was very fortunate to have two great mentors and advisers when I was a postdoc many years ago,” he says. “I feel that I am obligated to ‘pay it forward’ and do my best as a supportive mentor for postdocs who work in my lab.”