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Leaders' Lessons

Leaders' Lessons

The NAVBO Education Committee is posing questions to senior researchers asking them to share them wisdom on several topics. If you would like to get responses to particular questions or would like to share your experience, please email Anita (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).

How can faculty maintain trajectory throughout their career?


compiled by Craig Simmons, University of Toronto

Masanori Aikawa, Brigham & Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School
I have always tried to implement new technologies in my manuscripts or grant applications. I have also focused on proposing new concepts rather than follow others' footsteps. I have tried my best to maintain mutual trust between leadership members of my department or division. If you support them, they may want to support your career development too. I suggest to my trainees to have courage to innovate, which energizes the entire team so that you as a PI can fly high with them.

Ondine Cleaver, UT Southwestern Medical Center
How to maintain your career trajectory in science throughout your career? My answer is do what you love. Stick to the science that excites you, and put one foot in front of the other to get the answers you seek. It's not easy, be clear on that right upfront. But with a sense of humor, resilience, persistence, and creating peer groups for cross-critiques, venting and support, it can be done. Demand critical feedback, and thicken your skin so you can make use if it. Value and foster a love of discovery in your labs, simultaneously challenging them and appreciating their efforts. Write those papers and grants, and expect rejections. But keep submitting. Remember it's a marathon, not a race. So learn to enjoy running, and maybe the view along the way.

Bill Muller, Northwestern University
The most useful thing I have found to help maintain trajectory is to realize that you are in it for the long run. This is easier to say than to do, but if you focus on a question or series of questions that you want to answer and stay focused on answering them-knowing that science never proceeds in a straight line-you are less likely to get too distracted by the usual disappointments that come with the territory (e.g. manuscript rejections, bad grant reviews, getting "scooped") or worry how much time you are losing by moving your lab or your institution. Hot topics go in and out of fashion, so don't run around like a groupie following them. Stay focused on the science you want to do and do it really well. Eventually, it will be a hot topic again and then you'll be in the middle of it. Most of all, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you have spent your life doing exactly what you wanted. And how many people can say that?

Kristy Red-Horse, Stanford University
I try to maintain my trajectory by making time to push my brain in new directions. When I feel myself starting to go on autopilot with the same thinking, proposing the same experiments to address a question, I take the time to read and think about something completely different. This is tough as time goes on because of the increased amount of administrative tasks that need to be done as you progress in your career. For example, the other day I had so many tasks on my plate, but gave myself permission to instead take time out to read (slow reading, not scanning) about the collective behavior of ants. I left that day inspired and invigorated instead of with a head bussing from a day filled with completing tasks. I find doing this on a regular basis translates to me giving more creative advice to my trainees.

Linda Shapiro, University of Connecticut Health Center
I raised three children while my husband traveled extensively and have been fortunate to have been able to maintain NIH funding since my first award in 1996, when my youngest was 3. I think the most important part of combining a research career with a family is organization- I'm a great list-maker and avoid procrastination. My kids had the most elaborate excel spreadsheets outlining their summer camp schedules, immunizations, soccer practices etc.! One mistake that I do regret is that I stopped attending meetings for the 5 years when my kids were in high school- too old for babysitters but too young to be trusted to not have parties when Dad's in Germany and Mom's at NAVBO! Getting to know other investigators, learning what's at the cutting edge and selling your science is very important to advance your career and harder to do without establishing face-to-face personal contacts.

My advice to early stage investigators is to concentrate on their personal careers - publishing, obtaining funding and networking/presenting at meetings to the exclusion of many 'public service' roles such as study sections and institutional committees. The goal should be securing funding as the highest priority-this will enable your promotion to the next level- tenure (if available) or senior faculty, to prove your ability as an independent scientist and obtain some degree of stability in this very unstable career.

Once your funding is in place, I feel serving on a study section is an invaluable learning opportunity to discover how the system works and ways to improve your grant writing. SROs are constantly in need of fair and reliable reviewers- ask colleagues who have served to suggest your name to their or other study section leaders. Continue to come up with new research projects and lines of investigation- this keeps the science fresh and much more interesting as you learn about new fields and systems. Never stop writing papers and grants- it takes so long now to publish a paper or get a grant that you have to have a few in play at once.

Finally, once you are established, it's time to give back. Emphasis at this point should be on training the next generation and serving the organizations that have supported you for so long. I don't mean to stop your research, but you have the experience to make it work with less effort. Finally, never stop striving for diversity and inclusion- valuable insights and opinions are critical!

Cindy St. Hillaire, University of Pittsburgh
I strongly feel that a key to success at your own institution it to have people know you and like you and your work, thus, try and say yes to things that matter to those who will be reviewing your promotion and tenure documents. Almost more important, anything you say yes to, you must adhere to timelines and follow through with good work.


Published April 2, 2020 - NAVBO NewsBEAT