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Penn Medicine Professor Trevor Penning spends a brief moment relaxing in his office in the John Morgan Building between a busy schedule of mentoring postdoctorate students and directing the Center for Excellence in Environmental Toxicology. Credit: Melanie Lei

Penn School of Medicine Professor Trevor Penning may be able to point dozens of undergraduates toward the right career paths.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get lost outside of the world of science.

“He can definitely tell you what enzyme does what, but if you ask him to spell a city that he visited yesterday, he’ll get the name wrong,” said Rebekka Mindnich, a postdoctoral student in Penning’s lab since 2007.

Penning will receive the 2010 Distinguished Service Award from the National Postdoctoral Association at their annual conference, held from Mar. 12-14 in Philadelphia.

Penning, who founded the first postdoctoral office in the country at Penn, has been involved in advocacy for postdocs on the national level.

In 1997, after hosting breakfast discussions with hundreds of postdocs to find out what they needed, he established workshops, career fairs and oral communication and lab management training.

“I wanted to find out what was at the heart of making their lives better,” Penning said.

With the programs that he established, “Penn became a model for how postdocs should be treated,” said Yvonne Paterson, who is Penning’s successor as the associate dean for postdoctoral research training at the School of Medicine.

Paterson cited Penning’s dedication to advocating for equal pay, vacations and sick leave for postdocs, regardless of their funding source — standards which were nonexistent before 1997.

She said if it were not for his status as a respected faculty member and his dedication to fairness, creating these postdoc policies would not have been possible.

“I never give up,” Penning said. “People will tell you that once Trevor is taken with something, he won’t let go.”

Penning compared the importance of mentoring to parenting.

“There are few things in academic science that stay the course of time, and mentorship is one of them,” he said.

Laughing, he added, “At the end of the day, I think about all the second generations of ‘Pennings’ that are around.”

Jin Yi, a research assistant professor in Penning’s lab who has worked under him for ten years, said, “Trevor is really hands-on and he really cares about our careers.”

Mindnich emphasized Penning’s dedication to individual mentoring for postdocs.

“He really finds out what you like and points you towards that direction,” she said.

Mindnich said she most admired Penning’s great attention to detail and wide base of knowledge. “He’s a full-blooded scientist ... this is his world, and he always wants to know more,” she said.

But all scientific seriousness aside, Penning is also known for having “a dry English sense of humor,” Paterson said.

Since companies often contact his lab to use enyzmes for research, “Trevor says he’s running the company ‘Pennzyme,’” Jin said.

Yet despite his many accomplishments, Penning remains humble.

“Staff don’t always get a mention when they deserve it,” he said, crediting Janet Zinser, Victoria Mulhern, and Mary Anne Timmins of Penn Med for contributing to his vision. “I had the ideas, but they made it happen.”

Hailing from London, Penning has consented to making Philadelphia his second home with his children. “It reminds me of a small version of London’s West End — but not quite comparable,” he said. He is especially proud of recently becoming a grandfather.

Penning has since stepped away from official positions in postdoc advocacy but still mentors six postdoc students.

“I don’t want to rest on my laurels,” he said. “I like to look for more challenges once I’ve done the best I can on a particular problem.”

Penning is now the director of the Center of Excellence for Environmental Toxicology and continues to serve as a professor of pharmacology, biochemistry and biophysics and obstretrics-gynecology.

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