Postdoctoral fellows Natascha Merten and Cara Moravec receive mentoring awards

Two postdoctoral fellows affiliated with School of Medicine and Public Health recently earned Postdoc Excellence Awards from the UW–Madison Postdoctoral Association.

Natascha Merten, MS, PhD, is a member of the research team of Karen Cruickshanks, PhD, professor of population health sciences and ophthalmology and visual sciences. Cara Moravec, PhD, is in the lab of Francisco Pelegri, PhD, professor and chair of medical genetics. Merten and Moravec each earned mentoring awards in recognition of their efforts to guide and inspire the next generation of scientists.

This is the first time these awards have been given by the UW–Madison Postdoctoral Association, which is a campus organization run by and for postdoctoral trainees. The association is supported by the Office of Postdoctoral Studies.

Photo of postdoctoral fellow Natascha Merten, MS, PhD
Natascha Merten, MS, PhD

Merten earned her PhD in epidemiology from the University of Bonn in Germany in 2019. In the spring semester of 2017, she was a visiting scholar in the SMPH Department of Population Health Sciences. When she returned for her postdoc, she continued building relationships she’d established during her visit.

During her time as a postdoctoral trainee, Merten has launched and led the Population Health Sciences Postdoctoral Graduate Student Mentoring Committee. The committee organizes regular mentoring sessions and meetings to help build connections between graduate students and postdocs in the department.

Merten says her goal is to give back. During her PhD, postdocs were a great resource for her. Now as a postdoc herself, she wants to encourage graduate students to think critically and gain confidence.

“I enjoy seeing them grow to become independent researchers,” she says. “We postdocs can be another resource for the students for guidance and information on career advice and on soft skills, such as general communication in an academic setting or how to prepare for a conference.”

Students in the Department of Population Health Sciences find Merten and the mentoring committee very useful for navigating graduate school.

“Students often approach Dr. Merten for advice on their graduate program progress, scientific conduct, and questions about career development,” says Beini Lyu, MD, PhD, who nominated Merten. “We find it easy to approach her and appreciate her time and constructive feedback.”

Photo of Cara Moravec, PhD
Cara Moravec, PhD

Moravec earned a PhD in genetics at Stonybrook University in 2016 before joining Pelegri’s lab. She has had a positive impact on undergraduate students by teaching a course called Course-Based Undergraduate Research Exploration. Many of her students, including her student nominators for this award, later joined the Pelegri lab as undergraduate researchers under her mentorship.

She says she mentors for two reasons: to share knowledge and educate others about science.

“I’m only one person doing science, but if I help mentor I can have an even greater impact in my field,” she says. “I also believe that as scientists we are responsible for educating people about science. I take that very seriously because I think it’s important, and I see mentorship as education.”

In the lab, Moravec involves undergraduates in all aspects of the scientific process, from lab work to writing and submitting a paper. She is a proponent of having undergraduates listed as authors on papers they contribute to, for example.

“She played a major role in our development as aspiring researchers and professionals,” say her two nominators Jacky Lor and Gabriella Voit, who were both mentored as undergraduates by Moravec. “She also allowed us to pass on the knowledge that we gained from her to undergraduate students who came after us, which developed our ability to be mentors ourselves.”

Merten and Moravec want to continue their focus on mentoring students. The award organizers at the UW–Madison Postdoctoral Association say this is just the type of commitment they were looking to recognize.

“Our group saw the need for additional avenues to formally recognize UW–Madison postdocs for their work in mentoring, service, and teaching,” says Jessica Kelliher, the association’s co-president and a postdoc in the SMPH Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology. “We are thrilled with how the awards were received this year and look forward to recognizing postdocs for their outstanding achievements in the future.”