Career Q&A with top developmental biologist’s

Find out what some of the BSDB Spring Meeting 2018 speakers had to say in response to career questions from the BSDB student and postdoc community.

Q. At what point in your scientific career did you decide that you wanted to be a PI, and was this an active decision or just natural career progression?

A. ‘It was a natural career progression, but what kept me from not choosing to go back to finishing my medical studies or choosing industry was the freedom to follow my curiosity and OWN interest in basic research’. Henrik Semb, Professor of Human Stem Cell Biology and DanStem Executive Director at the University of Copenhagen.

Q. Did you ever experience failure during the beginning of your career (before being a PI)? If yes, how did you manage to go with it?

A. ‘Of course! not just during the beginning (though that was probably the worst time). It happens all the time, one just has to face and get on with life. Try again and do it better, or find a work-around, or wait and concentrate on something else for a while. We are supposed to be doing difficult things, so of course failure is part of the equation’. Maria Leptin, Director of EMBO and established a research group in Heidelberg at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL).

Q. Did you ever experience failure during the beginning of your career (before being a PI)? If yes how did you manage to go with it?

A. ‘Science is full of failure. Experiments fail for technical reasons all the time. And as soon as you get results, your favourite hypothesis is rejected. Your papers, applications for funding, and applications for positions of various kinds are constantly being rejected. This starts on day 1 of your career and goes on until the very last day. And it does not matter how successful you were before – it applies equally to Nobel Prize winners. An essential skill is to find good ways to deal with it. There are lots of different ways. I have typically taken all these things as “useful learning experiences” and tried to find ways to do what ever it was better or differently the next time. It helps a lot to keep your eyes, in a broad sense, what you are trying to achieve. There are almost certainly alternative approaches if the first ones fail- different techniques to test the same hypothesis; different ways to write the grant, the paper or the job application; and completely different career options that fulfill your core goals’ Ottoline Leyser, Professor of Plant Development at the University of Cambridge and director of the Sainsbury Laboratory, Cambridge.

Q. At what point in your scientific career did you decide that you wanted to be a PI, and was this an active decision or just natural career progression?

A. ‘This was an active decision for me. I worked as a chemical engineer and found I enjoyed research. In graduate school I experienced the fun of working under a mentor on an individual project and exploring new ideas. These experiences taught me I was good at research and like working in a semi-independent manner. However, as a postdoc I experiences the value of working as a team on diverse aspects of projects and was stimulated by the idea of leading a team. I was exposed to the other duties of academic research and found I enjoyed teaching, writing and collaborative interactions. Being a PI seemed to be the best way to fulfill these goals’. Robb Krumlauf, scientific director at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Professor at the University of Kansas.

Q. What are the best strategies to discuss your independence and future lines of research with your postdoc supervisor when you start applying for PI positions?

A. ‘I believe being open about this question is best. I received great advice from my PI mentor. She said that if I continued to work on projects in the same area I was free to do so but it would be hard to show I was truly independent and not simply following the easy path. It would be a challenge to show the ideas were my open and separate myself from the former mentors accomplishments. I was encouraged to think of new areas/approaches and she worked with me to devise a research plan to pursue those goals. After being a PI myself for many years, I am always willing to help my people in pursuing their interests. I have found that frank and open communication about ideas and what they want to do is best. If people want to move in new directions great. If they want to work on the same project I try to help. I would not want to compete with a former colleague so being aware of what they want to do and what I want to do and working on an effective plan is best. It is important they have a good answer to the question of how will their work will be different than mine in their job interviews. People expect you have had these conversations with your mentor so I strongly encourage to work on a plan over the years as postdoctoral training progresses and not simply rush this at the end’. Robb Krumlauf, scientific director at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Professor at the University of Kansas.

 
Q. It seems there is a big difference between being a postdoc/bench scientist and a good PI/mentor, how does one prepare for this transition/what do you wish you knew before you made it?


A. ‘This is one of the biggest challenges of being an effective PI. There is no magic answer. It helps to supervise students and interns during postdoctoral training to gain experience. Another important idea to to openly discuss this with your own mentor. Ask about the challenges they face, how they have developed an effective approach and ask for tips in dealing with the challenge. Also talk with other faculty. If there are fairly recently hired faculty at the institution where you are doing your training, also ask them to describe the challenges they have faced in mentoring and how they are developing an effective approach’. Robb Krumlauf, scientific director at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Professor at the University of Kansas.

Q. How do you balance research that is of interest to you with research that you know will get you funding?


A. ‘This is a major challenge. There is increased emphasis on medically relevant research, but fundamental research has much to offer. It is important to consider how explain the importance of what you are interested in pursuing. I have found that one can attract competitive funding as long as they are clear ideas on the importance of a question and why this is relevant. Without funding the work can not be done, but it makes no sense to pursue research just because chances of funding are better. I recommend finding something you are passionate about and seek advice on how to build an effective way to address the question that clearly communicates its import. Funding panels are open to basic and fundamental questions if a compelling case can be generated. You can’t assume reviewers will find your interesting you need to make it clear that it is interesting’. Robb Krumlauf, scientific director at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Professor at the University of Kansas.

Q. Have there been moments in your career when you have felt that there were personal factors limiting the type of choices you could make? If so, how have you dealt with these circumstances?

A. ‘I am also married to a scientist. Some great career opportunities were opening for me but would have had consequences that would not have been ideal for my partner. We talked openly about these issues and made a join decision. There are many compromises that are made in following your career goals. I wanted to have a good work/family life balance and see my partner and I following fulfilling scientific opportunities. Hence, I did not see it as a sacrifice for me to make choices that might limit some of my options if it worked for us as a whole. I believe it is important to self reflect and understand what is important to you and compare this with your goals. Many people are willing to make decisions and choices that might seem strange to others because it balances their goals and needs’. Robb Krumlauf, scientific director at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Professor at the University of Kansas.

Q. How do you keep positive in a life of science? How do you balance the workload and have a normal life outside of the lab?

A. ‘This is an ever increasing problem. Before having children I devoted a huge proportion of my life to science. However, after my son was born I made a commitment to having a better balance between work and family. I talked with lab members to let them know I would not be as available as before and the reasons why. I did not work every weekend and evening as I spent time with my family. I found everyone supportive in helping me to become better at prioritizing time and ensuring I had set dedicated time aside for my family. However, I made it clear that members of the lab were no less important to me and we would have to find some additional ways to ensure I was meeting their needs. I believe they appreciated my honestly and I am truly grateful for the understanding they and my colleagues showed in helping meet this challenge’. Robb Krumlauf, scientific director at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Professor at the University of Kansas.

Q. How to change fields without compromising productivity?

A. ‘I have changed fields a few times. An effective approach for me has been to start by collaborating with people in the new area to be sure this is what I want to pursue and fully understand the benefits and challenges. This also provides an opportunity to learn new technologies and approaches relevant to the new field so you are prepared for the research challenges ahead. This approach means that you are winding down one area and have some productivity while efforts in the new area are ramping up’. Robb Krumlauf, scientific director at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Professor at the University of Kansas.

Q. How necessary/advantageous is it to move to a different country from that of the PhD?

A. ‘Nothing is ‘necessary’. If you’re a genius (or maybe just really really good, original, talented, independent etc.), you build your own environment in the way you need it, and you do your successful work. Most of us aren’t like that. We benefit from experience, learning from others, absorbing useful knowledge from our environment. Going to a different environment – and that includes a different cultural environment – is stimulating and enriching. It can also be difficult, but you grow personally and professionally by dealing with difficulties. That is also known to employers, search committees etc, so an applicant who has shown herself to be able to succeed in different environments is a safer bet than someone who has always stuck around in the safety of their home environment. The same goes for changing scientific fields’. Maria Leptin, Director of EMBO and established a research group in Heidelberg at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL).

 

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