Biosciences & engineering faculty tell their stories about the real world of research
“We do science to feel alive and to appreciate the wonders of the world around us.”
Daniel Herschlag, professor of Biochemistry, and, by courtesy, Chemical Engineering & Chemistry
By Nadine Taylor-Barnes
September 6, 2019
If there is one common denominator among the Awesome Science Symposium faculty speakers, it is their sense of passion. Passion for discovery, passion for their home programs, and passion for their research -- be it investigating dendritic cells, enzymes, proteins, nanomaterials, coronary arteries, or biophysical properties.
As Juliana Idoyaga, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology & immunology, said, quoting Vincent van Gogh, “It is what you are put on this earth to do. It is spiritual in its calling.”
Passion is what enabled each of these faculty members to rise above all kinds of adversity, be it enduring lifelong critics, loss of a mentor, bouts of failure or self-doubt, and graduate school rejections. They rose above the setbacks, and in doing so, have learned lessons that they want to impart to other young scientists who are just beginning their journey. And that was what this symposium was all about.
“It is about how to get the most out of science,” said Martha Cyert, PhD, Dr. Nancy Chang professor of biology, “We want to motivate and inspire you and help you create a community of peers and mentors.”
First there is the passion
Idoyaga described the first moment she saw the immune system’s dendritic cells under a microscope. “It was love at first sight,” she said smiling “and that determined my life’s work.”
Many nights over family dinners, Idoyaga recalled her physician-parents discussing their patients’ intractable health problems and the limits of medical knowledge at the time. “I knew I had to do something,” she said. After an introductory course in immunology and learning about immune system problems being the basis for many major diseases, she thought perhaps this was the field to pursue.
As part of her undergraduate training, Idoyaga joined an immunology lab working on dendritic cells. There, she studied dendritic cells’ ability to present antigens, substances that identify cells as being “self” or “non-self,” to the immune system and activate T cells, and, by doing so, protect mice from developing cancerous tumors.
Shortly thereafter in 2002, Idoyaga met Dr. Ralph Steinman in her native Bueno Aires. Being the father of dendritic cells, Steinman inspired scholars around the world to study these cells. “I knew then I wanted to train under this remarkable scientist,” Idoyaga said.
For Kristy Red-Horse, PhD, associate professor of biology, it was the imaging of the coronary arteries that captured her. “I am captivated by visualizing the coronary heart cells and watching them change before my eyes.” Her lab is studying coronary artery development and disease, and recently discovered a molecule that promotes the growth of new arteries. “When doing our experiments in the lab, I feel like we are solving an intricate puzzle.”
“I love being a scientist day in and day out,” Red-Horse said. “It is what your brain likes to experience. It’s what you are driven towards.”
The Office of Graduate Education’s Latishya Steele, director of biosciences programs and curriculum, planned the symposium with current graduate students to explore the issues of how research is conducted. “Our graduate students suggested the faculty speakers and then worked with them. This event would not have happened without Maia Kinnebrew, Makenna Morck, Margaux Pinney, Adam Michael-Anthony Simpson, Cole Sitron, and Jeremy Work,” said Steele.
What did the trainees want to hear about from the faculty? Steele said, “They want to hear the inside story of the faculty’s daily lives, about their trials and the tribulations -- and how our faculty kept going despite the odds.”
They were not deterred by setbacks
Many of the faculty speakers said that they well remember what it was like to be graduate students. They made mistakes (that they now humbly admit), and they said that one doesn’t suddenly undergo a metamorphosis when becoming a faculty member.
“I was a grad student here, and I’m still the same person,” said Polly Fordyce, PhD, assistant professor of genetics and bioengineering. Fordyce, who spent two years as a waitress and river guide before finishing her undergraduate degree, remembers taking forever to write her first paper and being too shy to seek a mentor. “I can still make a mistake; I can have a bad day or feel frustrated as I try to balance my life and work.”
In talking about science as a profession, Cyert said, “as scientists, we have our share of stress, failure and doubt. It seems to be endemic to our profession, but the intense pleasure of discovery makes up for it.” Red-Horse added that “scientists all have that self-defeating voice in our heads, and we must actively learn to silence it.”
Eric Pop, PhD, professor of electrical engineering, surprised the audience by saying, “I could do a whole talk on failure. I’ve had my share of it.” Considering that Pop was named one of the world’s most cited researchers of 2018, and works with nanoelectronics and nanoscale energy conversion, you may find his comment difficult to believe. During his career, Pop received degrees in engineering and physics, did a stint in industry, and worked as a DJ before returning to academia.
Red-Horse remained staunchly committed to her dream of becoming a scientist even though she was rejected initially from graduate school. “I never thought I would be a professor,” she said, describing her circuitous route to Stanford, coming from a business-oriented university. Fortunately, the university had a center for poultry science where she worked on a project involving immunity in chickens that sparked her interest in science.
After deciding to study dendritic cells, Idoyaga encountered two major challenges. First, the mentor she wanted was thousands of miles away in New York. She had to leave Argentina and attend the National Autonomous University of Mexico to obtain her doctorate, before joining Steinman’s lab at The Rockefeller University for her postdoctoral training. Finally ensconced in Steinman’s lab, Idoyaga’s research was disrupted by Steinman’s untimely death, due to pancreatic cancer. Idoyaga persevered. “Difficulties shape us, and no matter how hard they are, we learn from them.”
Early in his career as a third-year graduate student, Dan Herschlag, PhD, professor of biochemistry, encountered his lifelong critic after submitting his research for publication review. A notable biochemist leveled scathing criticism at Herschlag, calling him names, and telling Herschlag that his theory about enzyme reactions was entirely wrong. Over time, Herschlag was slowly able to offer more proof, advance his theory and publish. The other scientist backed down, calling Herschlag merely “mis-guided,” but never relented.
“We are all complicated, and we all have our blind spots,” said Herschlag sanguinely, whose research is at the intersection of physics, chemistry and biology. “Sometimes, it is due to ego, feeling threatened or wanting to win an argument. Sometimes, it is an honest mistake or ignorance. Sometimes, it is about going up against the establishment or the established way of thinking, and this is not readily accepted.”
Idoyaga added to this thought, “You may have to fight a battle more than once,” as Margaret Thatcher once said.
Lessons from experience
In sharing their coming-of-age-as-scientists stories, the faculty offered the following lessons, extracted from their experiences.
Cultivate motivation & resilience
The faculty members impressed upon the audience that motivation and resilience are essential.
“Motivation sustains you when things don’t go well,” said Red-Horse as she described how research goes in phases. “It helps to know that you will go through alternating cycles of good and bad.” She figures that thirty percent of the time her work is “really fun & exciting,” another thirty is “nice enough/enjoyable,” with a final thirty being “a little unpleasant.”
Red-Horse then mentioned ways to enhance your motivation. “Get into the moment; focus on what you are doing and actually train your brain to focus. (Silencing your cell phone is a start.) Feed the positive part of your brain and enjoy small victories. Regarding postdocs, she said it is good to remind yourself that you are getting paid to do what you love.
She cautioned about motivation killers, such as cynicism and shame. “Give yourself permission to pursue an idea, or accomplish the task at hand, instead of feeling like you should be doing something else.”
Idoyaga suggested thinking like an athlete. “Have an athletic state-of-mind,” she said. “Think of it as being in training. If something doesn’t work; learn from it.”
Find a great mentor
Idoyaga believes a prime determinant of success is having a great mentor. “A mentor will accelerate your growth,” she said.
Herschlag strongly agreed, remembering the key role his mentor W. P. Jencks at Brandeis University played in his life. “Find a great mentor, someone who believes in you and will support you. Jencks had my back. He told me my enzyme theory was correct and that I should keep going. He also bluntly told me, ‘You know that your research is important when they get upset!’ “
But how does one actually find a mentor? Herschlag had ideas.
Herschlag said that he found mentors by engaging people about their science. “I was genuinely excited or curious about people’s research; and, importantly, I had read papers and thought about their work, its implications and limitations. Some were not open to discussion, but most were. They did engage and that often started a career-long relationship and fun conversations!” Also, he said he would ask faculty whom he respected for advice. “I came with questions, specific enough to define a topic but open-ended enough to invite their perspectives.”
Herschlag then mentioned the exceptional qualities in a mentor. “Being a great scientist, like Jencks, also means you don’t have to be right all the time -- and can admit when you are wrong. Jencks always gave credit to others and rejoiced in their research and successes.”
As a corollary to finding a mentor, Herschlag and Pop suggested picking good, productive people with whom to work.
Look at the next step, not the mountain
Too many trainees become overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the doctoral studies or their postdoctoral research. For this, Idoyaga has a solution. “When this happens, don’t look at the entire hill. Just look at the next step and achieve small goals.” She found that being disciplined during her day, following routines, and tracking her progress helps.
Have a broader perspective
Often, trainees are too inwardly-focused and tend to over-analyze situations. “Don't view everything strictly from your own point-of-view,” said Fordyce. “You need to understand the perspective of others.” This was an early lesson she learned from her father. Whenever she would ask him for something, he would retort, “What’s in it for me?”
Fordyce realized that he was teaching her how to understand the perspective and needs of others, a trait that is especially important as one transitions into graduate school. Fordyce said it will help trainees deal more effectively with requirements and processes. As examples, don’t guess what your advisors are thinking, talk to them about your projects, objectives, and what you hope to achieve.
She said that trainees should also understand that qualifying exams are given for a reason, to help determine an individual’s training needs. Consider the needs of the lab, when scheduling internships so as to have minimal impact on grant work, and even consider the viewpoint of reviewers when applying for fellowships.
Learn how to interview
Pop offered some lessons from his experience in industry that apply directly to academic settings -- the finer points of applications and preparing for interviews.
“Interviewing is a crucial skill in career development,” he said, giving advice about the academic interview process. “If you understand that the faculty interviewers are trying to build a department, in much the same way as sports teams build a team by looking for particular expertise, it makes this opaque process understandable. Also, consider that they are looking to hire you for 40-plus years; they are going to be your colleagues. It all comes down to fit. Therefore, do your research, be intellectually curious about them, and be able to convey your experiences.”
During his very first interview, Pop was asked how much his proposed lab would cost. Taken by surprise, he has since learned that it helps to have an understanding of finance basics and research costs. This includes: budget spreadsheets, overhead on grants, and not just the cost of equipment but also its installation.
When writing applications, Pop advised thinking about who is going to be reading them. Faculty reviewers are tasked with reviewing hundreds of applications. “Many times, a faculty member has flown hours to present at a conference. They are jet-lagged, sitting in a hotel room, and reading applications. Make it easy for them. Make your application complete and diligently check all information.”
Communicate your science
Pop talked about being able to explain your research to different audiences, to scientists, who are in other disciplines, and to non-scientists. “We all have to apply to grants in Washington, and taxpayers need to understand what they are paying for, and how it will impact their lives. So, you need to be able to communicate the significance of what you are doing.” He also encourages developing an elevator pitch – a few lines that summarizes what you are researching and why it matters.
Fordyce added, “Do the best science possible – but also return that knowledge to the public.”
Writing is an important professional skill. “Learn to write well,” said Pop. “When writing papers or giving talks, make it about something people care about. Make it easy for your audiences to be able to immediately extrapolate what your work is, and why it matters.”
Network & ensure you are known
The speakers agreed that many scientists may be socially shy, but, regardless, they need to learn how to network. “You’ve heard about six degrees of separation,” said Cyert, referring to the six or fewer social connections linking all people. “We will be interacting with other scientists our entire lives, and the most meaningful exchanges are person-to-person, through conversations and meetings, such as this one, and through friendships made at conferences. Social media, she warned, does not provide the same benefit.
Pop recommended giving formal talks at conferences because they are a great way to meet faculty and collaborators from other institutions. He also advised keeping in touch especially when doing a stint in industry, as he did. “Keep the pipeline of papers flowing,” he said, “and keep your academic contacts apprised of your work.”
By the symposium’s end, trainees came to understand that although research can be fraught with crosscurrents, they can thrive in spite of them. The key is possessing a passion for science. And, as Herschlag added, “attending events like this to connect our research community to the humanity of science.”