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Lessons Learned

Lessons Learned

The NAVBO Education Committee has asked some junior faculty to share their experiences during the transition from trainee to first independent post. We hope that their accounts of challenges confronted, dilemmas dissected, and lessons learned will help smooth your career path.

Bhama Ramkhelawon, New York University Langone Medical Center


Lessons Learned
by Bhama Ramkhelawon, New York University Langone Medical Center

BhamaR800px I am thankful to NAVBO for giving me the opportunity to share my experience with you in this column. I invite early career fellows to read theses sections from all the past contributors. They are REAL lesson learned. I feel it is worth mentioning that I write these words in August 2020 during the unfortunate COVID-19 pandemic that struck us with a pounding weight and burdened us with many uncertainties for the future. There have been may lessons learned from this pandemic. Decisions were made based on observation and data collected during the initial wave of infections. As we gathered more evidence, we became more familiar with the mode of infection and contamination of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. We were then able to refine treatment of patients and make more informed decision to the general public.

This scenario will most likely portray the journey of a junior to a senior scientist. There will be many first times seasoned with complex choices, round-about, painful moments, rejections, but as hard as all these seem to be in the beginning, with careful observation, patience and resilience, you will eventually have “Veni, Vidi, Vici” as your motto.

My colleagues have all provided valuable insights into measures to adopt to trace a successful trajectory as an independent investigator. I would like to take this space to share new perspectives in this spectrum of initiatives that provide guidance and encourage opportunities. I emphasize on these specific points below:
“Professional personality” etiquette. As my colleagues have rightly depicted, networking is one of the important pieces of the puzzle in becoming a successful principal investigator. However, successful meet and greet seem to be facilitated for individuals with outgoing/extrovert personality traits. Personality becomes an important factor. We all evolve in a spectrum of characters-from the most introverts and shy to the exuberant extroverts. We have to recognize our personality and develop a “professional personality” if we fall more in the introvert zones. You will spend a lot of time asking, requesting and criticizing. To editors, collaborators, students, fellows, mentors. Develop this professional personality trait. Practice at asking and questioning. Practice at demonstrating excitement about your research. Practice in your daily routine exercises for example when you order coffee, try to ask for something additional or question how, where coffee is made. Watch and learn. Like what we did with COVID-19. When you leave the lab, you can drop the professional coat. As human beings we tend to reciprocate previous situations and experiences. For those who unfortunately were unlucky and experienced bad mentorship during their training, we sometimes tend to reciprocate these in our lab. Take the opportunity to take a new direction and Recreate instead of reciprocating. We take the best from our past but we should also drop the worse. Make this become your professional trait.

Be organized. Organization is the holy grail of optimal time management. This might seem obvious for individuals with management training but just within couple of years in your scientific leadership role, you will be faced with piles of information to collect- scientific results, dossiers on personnel, finance records, the tenth version of the manuscript or grant proposal… keeping track is important. We will forget and spend hours screening your emails for important information. Take good habit of recording and tracking everything properly and your team will follow.

Trust your results. In our work, we build on what others have discovered. But if we go back in time, these were first time discoveries for these scientists. Some of which you might consider groundbreaking and sometimes appear surprising to you. Details matter. Trust your results and don’t be afraid if your findings seem a bit provocative. With the era of powerful new tools available for in-depth analysis, you might indeed expose new findings that will change the way scientists thought in your field. These are the most exciting moments. Keep exploring.

Be thankful. Express gratitude. Mentors will take time to advise, guide, provide feedback etc. It is important to be thankful not just out of curtesy but it also reflects on the importance of what they did for you. And you will take this time to give to others, your students and fellows. Be thankful to yourself, this journey is tough with many ups and downs. Celebrate the ups, fight the downs. Watch, learn and succeed.

Published September 3, 2020 - NAVBO NewsBEAT

Julie Phillippi, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine


Lessons Learned
by Julie Phillippi, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

PHILLIPPI JULIE PhD RESEARCH 20171213 2 I’m grateful to the NAVBO Education Committee for the invitation to write and share a reflection of my lessons learned. I have been a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine for almost 13 years. In that time, I have learned how to embrace several challenges. In time, perceived disadvantages became strengths that I learned to own and celebrate openly with a sense of pride. After taking inventory of my lessons learned, my message to new faculty can be summarized in four themes: 1) Tune in to what gives you energy, 2) Proactively seek situations that favor serendipity, 3) Don’t shy away from non-linear career paths, and 4) Prioritize relationships.

Take notice of what brings you energy and invest yourself there. Experiencing joy can go hand in hand with energy, and both can emerge when one or a group works in “flow.” The emerging concept of flow can be described as a balance between high challenge and high skill. While in flow, focus and productivity are high, and enjoyment is derived from the work. A unique energy is palpable. The mind is open and poised for active growth. Though flow can be achieved with intentional practice, commitment to a shared purpose can conjure flow organically. There can be joy in little moments that renew energy. Perhaps it’s making the acquaintance of potential new collaborator. A smile from a colleague who is usually serious. Moments of silence when working side by side. Where one draws energy has a lot to do with personality. Make a mental note of these joyful experiences and recall them as needed to draw energy.

Create opportunities that favor serendipity. Most of us have a story about an experience of serendipity. An event or occurrence that transpired seemingly by chance, with no other logical explanation. Recalling a serendipitous event invokes a positive feeling. Perhaps it was that first chance encounter with a now close collaborator, a “right place at the right time” kind of interaction. Maybe an unexpected experimental outcome led to a key observation that opened up an entirely new line of inquiry. Serendipity can bring forth joy into your work. How can one move about a career in such a way that increases opportunities to experience serendipity?

One idea is simply be actively open to new experiences and be willing to step out of a comfort zone. One example from my own experience is when I chose to meet with a guest seminar speaker somewhat as a favor and service to my Institute. My perspective is that saying “yes” can foster collegiality. (Side note: gracefully saying “no” is also important for professional development and shaping healthy working relationships.) On this particular occasion, the guest speaker held a role as Editor-in-Chief for a high impact journal. I approached the meeting with a simple intention to chat about the publishing field. By the end of the meeting, I had a recommendation to become an Associate Editor at a new sister journal. That simple 30-minute meeting led to an entire new opportunity for professional growth. My advice is to be open, meet with guest speakers, and attend seminars outside of your home Department. It need not always be a calculated pre-conceived strategy. You never really know who might reveal or open the next door for you.

Be open to non-linear academic career paths. This next opinion may be controversial, but I think academia places too much importance on pure independence in the overall value of a scientist and as a basis for advancement. When I first joined the faculty, it was as Research Assistant Professor in the non-tenure stream. I functioned initially in a lab manager role tasked with helping to establish a new research program with an early career surgeon-scientist. In this role, I was also afforded substantial latitude to develop independent research projects. These early efforts in the background led to a transition to the tenure stream and writing proposals as a PI. At the same time, I was collaboratively designing experiments and co-writing proposals together with the surgeon as PI. This symbiotic arrangement evolved into a highly efficient and productive multi-PI group with my surgeon partner and I each landing multiple NIH awards. Though some may have viewed this arrangement as too “dependent,” the partnership was fulfilling, prolific, and compatible with career advancement. Importantly, it was best for the science we were working together to understand. Individual ideas and creativity are undeniably important in establishing oneself academically. One should also develop and practice self-reliance because an opportunity that challenges you to function more independently may arise. However, I think clinically impactful research is a team contact sport. To me this means that when one’s ideas are extended and shared with trusted colleagues, they touch and blend with others’ ideas and perspectives. Breakthroughs are made, partnerships are nurtured, and multiple lives are positively impacted. I believe there is room in one’s career to grow individually and be a part of a something bigger than yourself. It requires a specific chemistry of personalities, selflessness at times, and importantly, trust.

Partnerships depend on building and maintaining trust. Finally, I have lesson learned about partnerships. Academia requires strategy but one need not play games. It is a fact that honesty and transparency are key ingredients of trust. What I have learned is how essential upholding these values truly are for maintaining partnerships. I encourage you to practice gratitude when others display trust in you. When broken, trust is difficult if not impossible to repair. Trust can waver without breaking and, with a renewal of honesty and transparency, can emerge stronger and deepen, thus enabling a partnership to evolve. When you find trust with a person, protect it, continually nurture it, and let them know you treasure it, because you have something precious and irreplaceable.

Published May 14, 2020 - NAVBO NewsBEAT

Amber Stratman, Washington University School of Medicine


Lessons Learned
by Amber Stratman, Washington University School of Medicine

StratmanAmber My name is Amber Stratman, and I have been an Assistant Professor at Washington University School of Medicine since December 2018. Time has flown by, and while I’m still learning to navigate many aspects of being a new PI, I’m happy to share some of my ‘Lessons Learned’ about accepting a job, the importance of community, and myself. So, with that in mind…

Congrats! You’re on the job market! My number one piece of advice when choosing your new position is to understand the expectations of the job you are taking and the community of people you are joining. This might seem like obvious advice, and one might think that the definition of ‘success’ is fairly ubiquitous in science, but it’s not. There are so many different types of institutions, positions, job descriptions, departmental cultures, and expectations it’s almost overwhelming. Ask questions, even if you think they are silly. Start the position you chose with your eyes open to as many aspects of your future home as you can. As part of this process, reach out to future colleagues, other recent faculty hires (even if you don’t know them well), and senior mentors to get answers to questions you have. Do the research on your potential new home, and remember to ask for what you need to succeed.

That said, no one can fully prepare you for what it is going to be like to run a lab. It’s hard. Very few people are trained as managers before you’re thrust into a position where you have trainees… and budgets… and teaching… and grants to write… and the list goes on, and on, and on! … Accept now that you are going to make mistakes. You’re going to hire the wrong person and have to fire them; you’re going to follow an unproductive idea, have a bad day, have to say no; you’re going to be sick, have to prioritize your time in tough situations, and let people down; you’re going to have a lot of days with rejections, days you aren’t sure what you’re doing, and possibly even days you want to quit.

BUT you’ll also have successes, and find you have allies, both expected and unexpected; you’ll have ideas that take off, trainees that succeed, and hard-fought battles you’ve won; you’ll have days that make the difficult one’s worth it and remind you why you chose science in the first place. The important thing through all of this, is not being afraid to ask for help. Go to a management or a mentoring workshop, take a grant writing course, seek advice from your support network. Spend time building the culture and community of people around you, both near and far. These are the people who will not only help you navigate the hard decisions and days, but who will give you genuine advice and celebrate your success. And do the same for them.

Because—one of the hardest things about this job is the feeling that you are behind (even if you aren’t!). That success will never happen, that you’re not going to finish that paper or get funding; that your research is moving too slowly or that you just can’t pull your ideas together to submit that grant. The emails never stop. The deadlines never stop. The requests for your time never stop.

BUT sometimes you have to. It’s ok to take time off. It’s ok to spend time with family or friends away from work—there are always more deadlines, and emails can wait. We all know this job takes hard work and commitment, but it is also okay to have a life outside of running your lab—when needed rest, reset, and come back recharged.

During the first few years of your lab, you are going to get a lot of advice—some good, some bad, some well-meaning but possibly out of touch, and a lot that is completely unsolicited. But I will let you in on a secret—no one has it all figured out. Everyone only knows what works for themselves. There are as many different paths to success as there are different types of people. Follow your own internal compass. You know your work, your strengths, your novelty, and your limits. Trust yourself.

This brings me to my final point—and for me this is the most important—don’t let imposter syndrome rule you and your decisions. Follow your ideas, do your controls, think boldly, and don’t second guess your seat at the table.

Some additional resources outside of NAVBO:

Published March 5, 2020 - NAVBO NewsBEAT

Sara Nunes Vasconcelos, University of Toronto


Lessons Learned
by Sara Nunes Vasconcelos, University of Toronto

SaraNunesVasconcelos3 My name is Sara Nunes Vasconcelos and I have been an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto since 2014 and a Scientist at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute since 2012. It has been an amazing journey and I have learned a lot.

In reading the Lessons learned from other PIs I found that a number of ‘lessons’ really resonated with me, like the value of choosing the right place, seeking out mentoring, making time to write, and finding out which resources are available at your institution, etc. I’d like to add a few things that I learned that may be of value to others as well.

Seek advice but only follow what makes sense to you. When I first started and shared my grant with more seasoned PIs who also sat on committee meeting panels (known as study section in the US) I was taken aback by the somewhat contradictory feedback I received. It was very confusing! When I expressed this to my colleague (and fellow NAVBO member) Myron Cybulsky I heard: “Sara, there are many ways to skin a cat, you have to find out what works for you.” And I have been following that advice ever since - thanks, Myron! This is true not just for grants, but for hiring, presenting, teaching, etc. Just because someone has been doing something successfully for a long time does not mean that the same approach will necessarily work for you. In other words, there are no formulas!

Celebrate every achievement. This job can be challenging and is replete with rejections (grants, manuscripts, awards). Do not let these obscure your view of the big picture! I find it helps to celebrate every accomplishment, especially those of your trainees.

Expand your research. I realized I was often limited in my day-to-day interactions in terms of the people that I sought feedback from and that this gave me a limited (and perhaps field-specific) perspective on things. So, recently I decided to join Twitter. I was initially skeptical but decided to give it a try anyway. I have met so many researchers from different countries and also from Toronto because of Twitter. I have also engaged in advocacy related to the state of research in Canada and I feel that I am a more integrated part of the community now. Yes, you can interact with a lot of people at scientific meetings and other venues but I found social media (Twitter, Slack) let you have those interactions every day without having to go anywhere. Because of my social media presence, I have also been able to contribute to the communications committees of different Societies – including that of NAVBO.

Find out what the metrics for success are for your institution but do not allow yourself to be limited by them. Yes, we all aim to get grants, mentor, publish high impact papers, serve on grant review panels, become recognized by our peers, and receive awards… But is there anything else that matters to you? I found that I am also passionate about supporting underrepresented groups in science. So, I have dedicated more of my time to accomplishing this - by joining Women Leadership committees and mentoring at-risk girls that show interest in science - instead of saying yes to another type of committee that does not appeal as much to me. I have also tried to come up with other small ways that I could contribute, such as agreeing to have high school placements in my lab on the condition that the student is part of a minority group. We have a limited amount of time, we might as well prioritize what we are passionate about.

Ask. I loved Cynthia St. Hilaire’s advice about saying YES to things. I would add that you should not only say YES but also volunteer your time. Ask to be involved in anything that is important to you and that you feel you could add value to, such as organizing a conference, creating a workshop on a topic that is important to you or chairing a session at a meeting you are going to anyway, etc. Most often than not there are too many things to be done and very few people willing to help and those are great opportunities to meet new people, bring a fresh perspective and change the way that things are done.

Published January 9, 2020 - NAVBO NewsBEAT

Patrick A. Murphy, University of Connecticut Health Center


Lessons Learned
by Patrick A. Murphy, University of Connecticut Health Center

MurphyPatrick There is no doubt that there is a yawning gap between the postdoctoral position and the faculty position, and finding that faculty position takes foresight, determination, and also a bit of luck.

The foresight should be in finding a research trajectory that is ready to expand through some new techniques or approaches, and a PI that is able to support you in that. For those who are looking at postdoctoral positions, make sure that you talk with all of the members of the lab before you join, not just the ones the PI trots out. I chose my post-doctoral lab because the people in the lab were all happy. That is not chance. That comes from setting up a lab environment where each post-doc or student project is well separated, and being sensitive to conflicts that arise and dealing with them quickly. The ideal lab will host a variety of backgrounds and skill sets that complement each other and a PI that supports that through clear project demarcations. Your ideal PI will be able to provide you with top notch collaborators that respect your work and enhance it. So, seek someone willing to fight for you.

Once you have settled on your lab environment, you will need to be determined. My graduate PI told me once that many people have the intelligence to be a PI, but few have the grit – and I think she was absolutely right. Put in the work and start writing grants. In addition to providing focus for your science, winning grants will give you autonomy in lab that is hard to achieve in any other way. Simply put, each lab must pay the bills, and if you are paying your part, you will have a much larger say in how your part of the lab is run. I heard during my interviews and conversations afterwards, that a history of funding is a compelling case for future funding and a productive researcher, making these awards an important part of your faculty transition.

Finally, landing that faculty position will take luck. As scientists, we don’t believe much in luck, but luck is another way of saying chance. The more chances you give yourself, the more likelihood you will have the outcome you seek. When I applied to faculty positions, I had an excel sheet of my contacts with institutes I thought could be a good fit. That included both open positions and cold calls. I pulled all of the strings I had, every contact I thought might be helpful, and let them know I was on the market. Even with all of that, it took two full seasons to get it right. But I did get offers, and they were from the places I felt would be the best fit for me. Luck, or chance, means you find the group of researchers you complement well, but you can put yourself in that position by working hard to find that fit. You want to hear about the position before it opens and to have put in the groundwork to know how to sell yourself as the best candidate for it.

Ok, you’ve made it. Suddenly there are so many open doors and research directions to follow, how do you choose? For me, it began with taking stock of my new environment, meeting as many people as possible and thinking hard about my long-term goals. Through this searching, I discovered two things that have shaped my first few years here.

First, through the foresight of my chair Linda Shapiro, I was connected to a developing project program grant (PPG) group led by Dr. Annabelle Rodriquez-Oquendo. This group brought immunologists together with human geneticists and lipid researchers. I was able to contribute as a researcher focused on endothelial cell functions and with expertise in the low flow models that drive plaque. This group has helped to bring new perspectives and lots of brain power to my own grant and paper preparations, and has resulted in the establishment of some exciting new models to assess T cell functions in the plaque microenvironment with Dr. Tony Vella, which we recently published with a review in the American Journal of Physiology. This is one of the early publications which can be so helpful for later grant applications, and would have been hard to get going so quickly without his help. The moral in this for me is that it is worth the time to find the groups in which you can have mutually beneficial relationships, and put time into those relationships. The experience of the senior researchers you meet through these interactions will be invaluable.

Second, I found we have amazing resources in flow-cytometry, single cell analysis, and sequencing. The ability to quickly get onto a sorter within minutes of deciding to run an experiment, and with the help of very talented technical assistance, allowed me to run a large set of CRISPR screens I would have otherwise hesitated to take on. This investment ultimately led to a successful AHA Innovative Project award, and is providing a basis for two NIH R01 grant submissions, and several manuscripts underway. These resources and the amount of time I have had in these cores gathering these data would have been hard to come by in many other institutes where these resources are less accessible. Find what works well near you, what gives you an edge, and take full advantage of that.

For everyone that sees this entire process as incredibly daunting and painful, it is. I hope you are as fortunate as I am to have a spouse who understands, and at least is willing to tolerate this lifestyle. It is often hard to explain that our job is also our hobby. My wife Catherine deserves more credit than I can give her here. However, for those that would be put off by the long hours and low pay through the early stages of this career, I can tell you the joy and excitement of discovering a new way to look at things, and to develop the next generation scientists, is an amazing feeling. I feel very lucky to have met the people I have in science, and to see many of them a few times a year at meetings. I’ve had many long conversations on the philosophy of science with my graduate mentor, Rong Wang, often at odd hours and on late night drives home. She has been incredibly helpful throughout my major career decisions, well beyond my time in her lab. I have also seen the beautiful camaraderie among the former trainees of Richard Hynes, and the respect and science ethos he has instilled in the “Hynsonians”. Both are inspirations for me in establishing the type of lab that continues far beyond the walls of the institute.

Published September 5, 2019 - NAVBO NewsBEAT

Ngan Huang, Stanford University


Lessons Learned
by Ngan Huang, Stanford University

HuangNgan 1 2015 2My name is Ngan F. Huang, PhD, and I have been an Assistant Professor in the department Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Stanford University since 2013. Many people consider the milestones of a successful Assistant Professor to include: publishing high impact papers, receiving grants, getting top teaching evaluations, serving on grant review panels, becoming nationally recognized by peers, obtaining leadership positions in service organizations, becoming journal editors, and receiving achievement awards. However, these milestones can be challenging and even overwhelming. I remember feeling lost as a brand new faculty member, not knowing how I would eventually be able to reach these milestones towards securing tenure. Now, six years later, I would like to share some of the progressive steps I took towards reaching these milestones.

Years 1 & 2: Setting up the laboratory and developing thick skin for rejection. I consider the first two years as being simultaneously the easiest as well as most challenging years of being an Assistant Professor. The reason for being the easiest is because new faculty would already know that the initial tasks are to establish your laboratory, purchase any necessary equipment that cannot be borrowed, hire your first trainees, and start teaching. Although the process of doing these tasks can be daunting, at least every new faculty already knows these initial responsibilities. On the other hand, the most challenging aspect of the first two years is in getting that first grant without leaning on the shoulders of your former mentor.

Writing a fundable grant requires first and foremost good ideas, and getting that first grant is to affirm your ability to develop novel ideas and to build self-confidence. Therefore, the first two years are like a testing ground to get feedback from reviewers about your ideas. Some ideas might be met with enthusiasm, and other ideas will be harshly criticized. This seemingly endless cycle of writing grants and then learning of the funding outcome is like a filtration process—separating the non-fundable ideas from those that stand a chance. Although these rejections can provide some constructive feedback on potential improvements to your ideas, it may feel very disappointing at times. In times of receiving rejection, my advice for new faculty is to persevere and not give up. When facing rejection, take a break to seek support from colleagues who have gone through the same experience. At a later point, revisit the reviewer comments to identify ways to improve the quality of the proposal, or possibly to approach the same question from a different angle. As an example, I once took the well-received elements of a non-funded R01 grant and submitted it as a R21 grant, which was later funded. Also consider alternative funding agencies that might be more receptive to your ideas. Being able to grow from writing non-funded grants is a necessary aspect of academia. Keep writing and refining your ideas. Do not be afraid of rejection, as your skin will adapt with time by thickening.
Years 3 & 4: Becoming visible in your field and getting that elusive major grant. Most new faculty members already have training in writing manuscripts and grants, but many people have never learned about becoming visible in the research community. I used to think that publishing high impact papers was the only way to get invited as a speaker at conferences or to become an editor of a journal. I realized a few years into my faculty position that taking an active role to becoming visible in the field is more effective and more fun. Whereas in the first two years I was predominantly focused on attending research conferences, by the third year I began to actively organize conference sessions, volunteer for service committees, and distribute my CV to program officers for consideration as a grant reviewer. Becoming actively involved in societies or service organizations is helpful towards becoming recognized for both research and service in the research community. In the process of organizing conference sessions, you will meet other colleagues, some of which whom may one day be a reviewer on your manuscripts or grants. Social media is also emerging as a highly effective way to meet colleagues and publicize your latest research findings.

By now you have already have gained ample experience in writing grants and perhaps have successfully received some small grants. However, getting that first major grant, such as an R01 grant, is another stepping stone for junior faculty. Some senior faculty suggest waiting a few years until you have a strong proposal with plenty of preliminary data, while others suggest submitting early on to test the waters of how well the idea will be received. I know of colleagues who waited until their third or fourth year to submit their first R01 grant application, only to find out that reviewers were not enthusiastic about their idea, leading them to start over in another research direction in their fourth year. Personally, I found the latter advice more helpful. I submitted three R01 in the first three years, and then focused my efforts in resubmitting the R01 grant with the best chance of funding. Besides having a good idea and supportive preliminary data, a fundable R01 requires clear grantsmanship and a strong team of collaborators. For this reason, carefully planning and timing are needed to craft a well-written and well-designed proposal. Enlisting the support of colleagues to critique your proposal is an excellent way to gauge the response of reviewers.
Years 5 & 6: Reaching for high-impact papers and expert status. Research productivity in the form of publications is an essential component of the tenure promotion process. However, it can be challenging to publish a high-impact publication, especially without knowing from the beginning whether the hypothesis will be proven true or not. In some fields of research, publishing in top tier journals may not even be relevant. However, most faculty members would like to have at least one high-impact factor publication as part of the tenure promotion process. My senior colleagues advise me that high-impact factor publications do not emerge accidentally, but are instead carefully crafted starting from a transformational idea. Since these projects may require extra financial resources, long periods of time, and unwavering dedication by the primary researcher, it may not be feasible for starting faculty to reach for this kind of publication initially. However, by the fifth or sixth year, faculty members who have the financial resources and time may be able to wager on a highly transformational idea for a chance in getting a high-impact factor publication.

By this time you probably have published a number of papers as the senior corresponding author and are becoming known by research peers and leaders in the field. Now is the time to congratulate yourself for becoming an expert in your field. Do not be shy to regard yourself as an expert—you earned it after all these years of hard work. If you have not yet, you can start nominating yourself for leadership positions in societies or as an invited seminar speaker at other institutions. If tenure is around the corner for you, continue to develop friendships with colleagues, including senior faculty who might one day review your tenure application.

Published July 11 - NAVBO NewsBEAT

Cynthia St. Hilaire, University of Pittsburgh


Lessons Learned
by Cindy St. Hilaire, The University of Pittsburgh

St.Hilaire2 My name is Cindy St. Hilaire, and I’m an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Medicine and Bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh, and a member of the Pittsburgh Heart, Lung, and Blood Vascular Medicine Institute. My lab was established in July 2015 after my postdoctoral fellowship at the NHLBI, and these last 3.5 years have been both the most rewarding as well as the most challenging of my professional life; starting your lab is an exciting yet surreal experience. You’ll be called upon to develop and master skills that have little relation to your previous training, and in the first few years resolving that main conundrum will reveal many of your hidden character strengths and weaknesses. I hope sharing my experiences thus far can help a fellow new PI.

Picking the right place— You really need to define for yourself what circumstances will create your ideal environment, what circumstances are less than ideal but workable, and what conditions constitute a deal-breaker. Obviously, having the tools, cores, and resources that you need to conduct your research are essential, but those alone will not guarantee your scientific success or happiness. Consider the one-on-one meetings during interviews as a two-way street; yes, they are interviewing you, but you need to interview them as well. Do not be afraid to ask questions that will help you determine if the institution is a right fit for you. Ask about life outside the lab, where do people live? What do they do outside of work? How good/bad is the commute? Besides talking about science, can you see yourself having coffee or lunch with the people in your department? Or doing social activities? Do them seem enthusiastic or stressed? Competitive or collaborative? Very important: does the department have a solid history of fostering young PIs through to tenure, or is there a suspiciously high failure rate? Are people smiling in the hallways or do they stare at their feet as they walk by? Academic departments and institutes have pretty defined cultures, and they can vary widely from school to school, make sure the one you join is a culture that suits you.
Setting up shop—Start your lab in as organized a way as possible. I moved into new space on a freshly renovated floor, so my first month was a frenzy of purchasing. I quickly realized a more accurate job title for my new career was “small business owner.”. I needed to meticulously keep track of what I had ordered, what had arrived, cost, etc., so I set up an excel sheet of all my purchases. We still use this sheet; literally everything I have bought for the lab is on it. Not only do I know exactly how much remains on all my accounts, but when it is time to write grants, I know exactly how much we spend on reagents, consumables, etc., so can budget accordingly. Similarly, as you write up protocols, receive reagents, chemicals, antibodies, etc., start an electronic database that everyone has access to and can update. I use Lab Guru, but there are several types of software available. Take the time to write a lab manual. Put in writing all of your expectations for your employees – I outlined how I want lab notebooks kept, how electronic data should be named and filed, cleaning and organizing procedures (e.g., lab space, reagents, freezer boxes), safety, data analysis and ethics, attendance (e.g., for lab, meetings, seminars), sick and vacation time, and general advice for conducting experiments. It is immensely helpful when onboarding new members; they start with a clear view of your expectations for their conduct, and it helps maintain some continuity of your overall lab culture. I also have everyone start with the same experiment: grow human cells, and run a qPCR, western blot, and immunofluorescent stain. With this you can very quickly assess their skillset, they learn how and whom to ask for help, and also learn where everything is in the lab and how to operate the major equipment.
Staff & Students— Hiring is so hard when you are new. Most likely, you will have some sort of personnel disaster and it will make you questions every decision you have made in your nascent career. Do not worry! Literally every new PI I have spoken with has some horror story, and we all get through it. There is no perfect way to learn, on the fly, a management style that makes your employees happy and productive and loyal and satisfied. You’ll mess up as you figure this out. I’ve found that there is an amazing community of new PIs on Twitter and on the Slack platform (https://newpislack.wordpress.com/), who can offer advice, support, and lots of laughs. To help in recruiting, spend time making a sleek website for your lab, and set up a Twitter account to help in your advertising. Save costs by sharing advertising space in journals with a few colleagues. When it comes to the hiring interview, make an agenda for the day and have the candidate meet with a few faculty that have a bit more experience at this than you. Pay for the candidate to go to lunch with 2-3 other people at their level (other techs, other postdocs, etc.), and be sure to get feedback about your candidate from them – it is amazing what you will learn! I have made a list of ~30 questions that I now ask every person I interview. This helps to keep me calm during the process and also allows me to more easily compare candidates. If you are interviewing a postdoc, have several colleagues join you for their talk and do not be afraid to ask tough, but fair, questions. If you have any hesitations go with that feeling – you are probably not wrong.
Saying YES– I feel like a lot of people will tell you that you should say “NO” to everything, so as not to be overwhelmed with commitments; I do not fully agree with this. It’s true that the opportunities for service to your department, your university, your journal affiliations, etc., will be essentially limitless, and you’ll need to triage. Some useful guidelines: As a brand-new faculty member, you first need the people in your department and school to get to know you, and importantly, like and trust you — ; your CV got you in the door, now your attitude, character, and actions will influence how they see you. Say “YES” to the higher profile things that others will take notice of. Offer to take on responsibilities but only if you can be sure to complete the task on time and in order. You want people to know your name and, that you are dependable, knowledgeable, and a team player. Similarly, go to as many conferences as possible to network. For tenure you will need 15-30 letters written by colleagues who do not directly work or collaborate with you. Start making these connections now. Identify and meet the people who sit on the study sections that you plan on submitting your grants to. While you are not allowed to talk specifics, you can certainly ask about whether your research is suited for a particular study section, if the models/tools/techniques you are planning to use in your R01 are appropriate, etc. Some of the best feedback I have gotten has been at poster sessions where I was presenting the foundations of what became my first R01.
Build a support/mentoring team–Start thinking about your grant submission early. Write an Aims page 6 months in advance of the deadline and set up a meeting with colleagues who have successful grant experience. Present your Aims page to them with the data you have in hand and ask them to tear it apart. Hopefully they will, and your grant will be all the better for it. This early timeline is essential because mostly likely there are key experiments that you haven’t thought of, and probably can’t be done on too short of notice.
Figuring out what works for you–I am still trying to perfect this. Figuring out how to optimize your time is exceedingly important. For a while I would be in my office at 7AM so I could go to yoga at 5:30, but then the strictness of having to be out the door by a certain time was stressing me out, so I switched to working out in the morning so I could have afternoon flexibility. I also learned that I write better before lunch, so I’ve blocked off my schedule and don’t have any meetings before 12. I also utilize different apps and tools; I use the Pomodoro method when I have any writing tasks, this helps me to not spend too much time on small things, but also keeps me focused on longer projects. My lab uses the project management tool Trello to organize our projects. We use it to outline and assign experiments in a visual manner. We can literally watch as the experiment progresses from idea, to active experiment, to final figure for the paper. Trello helps keep me on top of everything and my team says that it helps them to see the bigger picture. Lastly, I’m a big fan of the Bullet Journal method. I never have that pit-in-the stomach feeling that I am forgetting something because all tasks big and small are listed. And I love the feeling of checking things off.

Published May 2, 2019 - NAVBO NewsBEAT

Stefania Nicoli, Yale School of Medicine


The View from the Other Side of the Desk
by Stefania Nicoli, Yale University School of Medicine

Nicoli2016LessonsMy name is Stefania Nicoli, and I have been an Assistant Professor at the Yale Cardiovascular Research Center since 2012. This four-year journey in the academic world, more than any previous experience, has made me understand the importance of mentoring models for junior faculty.

Reaching the other side of the desk is what everybody dreams of during their training positions. However, during this time you are not only learning to become a boss but also a mentor. You are now in charge of efficiently communicating, motivating your employees, solving team conflicts, understanding and working with their career and life priorities, their weaknesses and reactions to stress and rejection, and ultimately, their success. Indeed, it appears that this part of the work is energy consuming and sometimes no matter what you might say or do you are wrong and for many of us this feeling, together with the continuous stress of reaching scientific excellence, is overwhelming.

Becoming a boss might be a natural process for a new faculty member, as we ourselves reached this academic status thanks to determination, self-assurance and hard work, traits typical of a leader. However, becoming a mentor is not necessarily included in our natural predispositions. Seeking direction, I asked several senior colleagues about their experiences regarding how they became mentors. Interestingly, there are various theories, all very personal, that I would like to classify into two distinct points of view: the Darwinian or Lamarckian theory of the junior faculty evolution. Essentially some faculty members believe in "natural selection" of the strongest phenotype. Others believe in the progressive learning process of more complex skills that allow successful "adaptation and survival" in any environment.

Of course, this sounds like a scientific joke, but there is some truth in both theories. Indeed, in our competitive and difficult economic climate, scientists have limited time to learn naturally from their mistakes. Therefore, learning quickly is the key to successfully "survive" and "drive." I found it crucial having someone to teach us mentoring strategies as rapidly as possible, to avoid energy dispersion while also gaining efficiency. For example, attending periodic psychology workshops or leadership courses is essential in acquiring these tools. High profile corporations invest time and considerable resources understanding strategies to make employees more efficient. Obviously, academia might not have the same capacity, but an investment toward junior faculty mentoring programs is, in the long run, important for the success of the entire institution.

Published April 14 - NAVBO NewsBEAT

Sathish Srinivasan, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation


Identifying the important questions
by Sathish Srinivasan, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation

S SrinivasanMy name is Sathish Srinivasan, and I am an Assistant Member at Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF), located in the vibrant downtown area of Oklahoma City. I came to OMRF in February of 2013 after an enjoyable period of postdoctoral training in the lab of Dr. Guillermo Oliver at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis. The last three years have been the most challenging of my entire life. Identifying the important questions, addressing those questions with innovative approaches, and being a motivating leader and spokesman for your team are very difficult tasks. Knowing that there is no guarantee for success makes each task all the more challenging. Here I will list a few things that I think are important for a startup lab. I hope that my experience will be helpful to others who are taking their first steps as independent investigators.

Getting the team together: As a new PI, it can be difficult to attract talented, motivated, and experienced researchers to join your team. However, setting the bar high is important both for the team and for the individual. I am very fortunate to have Xin Geng (staff scientist), Boksik Cha (post doc), and Lijuan Chen (research assistant) in my lab. They are my super heroes. Stephanie Yeager (research assistant) and Bing Liao (post doc) also made important contributions during their stay in the lab.

Plan to continue working in the lab: You will likely be the one with the most experience in your field when starting the lab. Be ready to continue working in the lab and training others. The time invested will pay off. Riaj Mahamud (graduate student), who joined my lab with little experience but with a strong motivation, is now a well-trained, important member of my lab.

Don’t hesitate to invest in your startup: Proper reagents and tools are a must to run your lab, so don’t be stingy in making that mouse model or buying that microscope. But do get a quote and make sure you will get good service.

Be generous: You got hired because other PIs in the institution thought that they could collaborate with you; be willing to share your expertise and resources to help others both within and outside of the institution. The favor will be returned to you many times over.

Choose your collaborators carefully: I am lucky to have many thoughtful collaborators. However, collaborator-on-collaborator conflict is not uncommon and could be career-ending. Make sure you are truly independent in collaborative projects. Also, verify the sincerity of a collaboration request. You don’t want your precious time and energy to be wasted on projects that the collaborators are not serious about.

Focus: When I started the lab, I wanted to simultaneously work on 10 different projects and write five R01 applications. It was an exercise in futility. Focus on the most important questions that you can address with your expertise and resources and for which you are recognized. Try to obtain small grant funding that will keep your lab moving forward. Bigger grants, such as an NIH R01 grant, need plenty of time and work before applying. The time you spend on writing those big grants can be better spent in generating the preliminary data and publications that are absolutely important in getting those larger grants funded.

Be cautious…: In this highly competitive research environment, it is important to find a balance between camaraderie and caution. Avoid presenting unpublished data until you get some traction.

…but don’t get cynical: Many papers and grants do get favorably reviewed due to the political connections of the PIs. Yours may seem to be unfairly reviewed. You will be angry and discouraged, but acknowledge the reality and your emotions and move on. Grow a thick skin, keep improving, and believe that good science will be appreciated and acknowledged sooner or later. I am fortunate to have known plenty of researchers who are genuinely curious about nature, passionate about research and kind-hearted to support others.

Improve your writing skills: It is important to have good science. It is even more important to communicate your work well. My first two R01 applications were beaten down, and rightfully so. Now my grantsmanship is a work in progress. Do everything possible to make your grants and papers easy to read and understand. Your peers deserve that respect.

Try to relax: If we are lucky, we are expected to be creative and productive for 30-40 years. It is a daunting task. When I confided my fear to Mike Davis (University of Missouri, Columbia), he gave me the best career advice that I ever got. If you are worried about everything, you are not going to do anything. Andrew McMahon likens the scientific career to running a marathon. You have to plan for the next 3-5 miles (years) and not focus on the finish line. So find your circle of supporters, spend quality time with your family, develop a hobby, read good literature and give a good fight. It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.

Published June 9, 2016 - NAVBO NewsBEAT

Daniela Simona Ardelean, University of Western Ontario


Remember why you are doing science
by Daniela Simona Ardelean, University of Western Ontario

Do you remember the day when you thought that science is really cool and that this is what you want to do, no matter what? For some, it was a defined moment; for others, a longer, slow process. Some people could explain it, others just knew it. But for all, the knowledge or feeling (yes, it can be either one) that doing science is the right thing, was the same. You just knew. Remember that when you come across challenges that may seem insurmountable.

I am a pediatric rheumatologist who is doing translational research. Since I have started one year ago as a junior faculty at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada, I have been working towards establishing my lab and building the team. This is still work in progress.

The transition from trainee to faculty is often lengthy and difficult. On this journey, I have learned a few things that I would like to share with you:

Think early about your research program. Beyond research projects, you also need to discuss about your research program with your future collaborators, mentors and funding agencies.

What is your long-term goal? What is your vision? What do you need to get you there? It is important to define it early.

Connect with peers and scientists outside your discipline. To broaden your knowledge and to find collaborators and potential mentors, it is important to attend meetings, seminars, workshops, etc., in other disciplines.

Find out what funding opportunities are available at your institution(s). The University, affiliated Research Institutes, the Department(s) where you are appointed or cross-appointed, hospital Foundations, etc., may have their own funding and internal competitions. Find out early about these opportunities and apply to them.

We need time for reflection. We are all busy people. However, without time put aside regularly for reflection, for thinking things through and for a break, it is difficult to come up with that great idea that is worth pursuing, be creative, have balance in life, and evolve as a human being.

Writing is about telling stories that matter to you and others. There was something that motivated you in the first place to look for answers when there were very few or none. Findings how things work, deciphering the mechanisms of a process or disease, discovering new treatments for your patients. Conveying that "something" in writing increases the chance that your grant application or paper will connect with those that read it.

Despite the long path, challenges, ups and downs, we are privileged to do research. Remember why you chose science and make the most of your journey.

Published September 29, 2016 - NAVBO NewsBEAT

Mete Civelek, University of Virginia


Lessons Learned
by Mete Civelek, University of Virginia


I started my laboratory at the Center for Public Health Genomics at the University of Virginia about two years ago. I made several good decisions as well as several mistakes during this time. While everyone’s experiences will be different, I would like to share some of the lessons I learned with the hope that you will make wiser choices when you start your research group.

I immediately found a group of likeminded junior PIs who also started their labs around the same time as me at UVA. This group has been a great support both mentally and scientifically. In fact, four of us hold joint lab meetings together as we have overlapping interests. If you are just starting your lab, I highly recommend to you to be part of the New PI Slack, which is a community of about 400 junior faculty members primarily across the United States (https://newpislack.wordpress.com/). This is a group of generous and thoughtful new PIs who share many things from examples of grant applications to advice for wet lab and computational tools, funding opportunities, how to deal with diversity-related issues, and even tips for work-life balance.

One of the mistakes I made was not to have a laser-like focus on a single project that will result in a publication as soon as possible. Since publications measure our productivity, it is important for a junior PI to prove that he/she can produce results as a result of all the investment an institution makes. My advice is to focus on a publication rather than grant applications in the first one or two years. If you are going to send in grant applications, it is better to apply to organizations that provide feedback so that you can improve your application by addressing the reviewers’ comments and resubmit.portrait civelek mete 2015 09 11

Hiring and managing people will prove to be challenging. You will not find a postdoctoral fellow or a graduate student who will be just like you. Many times, you will think “I could have done this in an hour instead of a day.” I learned to be patient as I trained the lab members and allowed them to make mistakes. It is the only way the trainees are going to master the techniques. I also learned to look out for warning signs as it is important to correct the mistakes quickly so that they don’t accumulate and become bigger problems in the future. I quickly learned that weekly one-on-one meetings where we go over even small details increased the productivity of the lab.

I am required to teach as part of my appointment. I started a new class in large-scale data analysis, and it took a considerable amount of my time in the first year. Becoming a good teacher is an iterative process, and it takes time to be a good teacher. If you have teaching duties, set aside only one day of the week to prepare for the class. We all tend to have perfectionist qualities, but you do not want teaching to consume your precious time.

Finally, science is a collective effort. Your lab will be more productive if you can create a welcoming and fun environment in the lab where diverse ideas are openly discussed.

Published September 14, 2017 - NAVBO NewsBEAT

Michael Dellinger, UT Southwestern Medical Center


by Michael Dellinger, UT Southwestern Medical Center

Dellinger PicWEBMusic has always been an important part of my life. I enjoy listening to songs and trying to find the message in lyrics. When I started my lab in 2014, I was the only person in the lab for approximately two months. This was a chance for me to play my favorite albums in the lab, and I listened to “Ill Communication” by the Beastie Boys at least once every other day. As people joined my group, I discovered that I had ill communication. Sometimes I had a hard time getting my ideas across to the people in my lab. Below are a few suggestions that have helped me become a better communicator and a more efficient and effective leader. 

Tailor your interactions with the members of your lab to suit their specific needs. Your lab is going to be filled with people with different backgrounds and levels of experience. Take the time to have individual meetings with the members of your lab. Over time you will discover who in your group finds verbal instructions useful and who in your group finds a combination of verbal and written instructions beneficial. Taking this time will ensure that you and the members of your lab are on the same page and that projects move in the right direction. 

Listen to the people in your lab. Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” You can also hear a lot by just listening. Sometimes you will hear bad news. If a person in your lab tells you that there is a specific problem, take action. Other times, you will hear excitement over a new result. Listening to what the people in your lab say will help you customize your interactions with them. It is also a lot of fun learning about the people who are spending their days (and nights) working hard in your lab.

Regularly review lab notebooks. One way the people in your lab communicate with you is through their lab notebooks. This form of communication is critical, especially when the people are no longer in your lab. It is essential that you can easily find descriptions and details of experiments. Take a little time each week to really read lab notebooks and make sure that you understand what is written.  

Take a course on grant writing. I took a course on grant writing during my first year at UT Southwestern. It was one of the best courses I have ever taken and I regularly refer to the materials I received as part of the course. If you have a chance, take a course on grant writing. This will help you communicate your ideas in a coherent manner in grants and papers. I’ve also been able to join a group at UT Southwestern that meets regularly to discuss grants. This has helped me become a better writer and reviewer.

Contact and interact with foundations and societies. In addition to being a member of the faculty of UT Southwestern, I am also the director of research of the Lymphatic Malformation Institute (www.lmiresearch.org) and I regularly interact with the Lymphangiomatosis & Gorham’s Disease Alliance (www.lgdalliance.org). I have found that foundations and societies are always looking for help to carry out their respective missions. Reach out to foundations and societies that are relevant to your area of research. Let these people know who you are and offer your assistance. This could lead to opportunities to speak to the patient community and other rewarding experiences.  

It can take time to become an effective communicator. But by putting the time in to hone your communication skills, you will find it easier to realize your ideas, lead your group, and inspire the next generation of scientists in your lab.

Published November 2, 2017 - NAVBO NewsBEAT

Henar Cuervo, University of Illinois at Chicago


Lessons Learned
by Henar Cuervo, University of Illinois at Chicago

Cuervo Grajal 2I started my lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) about a year and a half ago. I am still finding my way through and know that there are many challenges ahead, but I am happy to share some of my lessons learned. Some of you may find it helpful; some of you may enjoy the trip down memory lane.

Get plenty of advice, and then trust that you are making the best decision you can. As scientists, we do a thorough background research before we start an experiment, we search what has been published, what techniques have been used, and then once we have all the information, we design and execute our experiment. So, I felt that I needed to do the same when making important decisions about managing/setting up my new lab. I read several books (I strongly recommend “At the Helm: Leading your laboratory” by Kathy Barker, and “Making the Right Moves” published by the HHMI), and took advantage of the great faculty mentorship at UIC. However, more frequently than not, I would hear opposing advice from similarly successful senior professors; for example: Professor A would suggest using your Start-up funds aggressively to get the best preliminary data you could to secure grant funding, while Professor B would recommend to be cautious with spending and save some of the Start-up funds for a rainy day. As it usually happens in life, nothing is black and white, and everyone has had a different story and has different circumstances, ultimately the decision has to work for you and how you like to manage your lab.

Learn to say no. This is one of the big clichés, I know, but after a year and a half I am still struggling with it. It is much easier said that done. As you start your lab you will be invited to give talks, to review papers, to review grants, to serve in multiple committees, to teach…etc. I actually find most of these activities to be exciting; they make me feel proud to be contributing to my Department/University, and to the overall scientific community—plus it is a good way to learn the lay of the land. I found that being part of the “Graduate Education Committee” in my Department allowed me, for example, to get familiar with the graduate student selection, and the thesis (and qualifying exam) rules and requirements. This experience turned out to be particularly useful when I was part of a qualifying exam committee, or when recruiting graduate students to my lab. Similarly, being a grant reviewer for the Department of Defense and seeing how that process worked was a fantastic learning experience towards crafting my own grants. However, while all this service work can be edifying and rewarding, it takes a substantial amount of time and focus, and it is easy to neglect your own research group. It is therefore critical to keep a good balance between your own research and the service to the academic/scientific community. As I mentioned, I still have not found the perfect formula (I am not even sure it exists), but I try to select talks, reviews, and other tasks that I feel I can either learn from, or that can help in the development of my career.

Be patient. The first year while setting up the lab is usually not as productive as you would like it to be. You have to spend time negotiating prices with sales representatives, preparing IRB and IACUC protocols, training students…etc. The experiments that you thought were so easy and just took you a couple of hours to get done when you were working at the end of your postdoc might take much more for your newly trained student(s). I remember feeling frustrated with how slow things were moving in the first months: I knew it would take some time to get the lab up and running, but I also wanted to be productive and get good results as soon as possible. I had to be patient, and focus on building my lab and training my students thoroughly. It took more time than I wanted, sure, but now when I see my students’ data and presentations I know it was worth it.

Published January 11, 2018 - NAVBO NewsBEAT

Stryder Meadows, Tulane University


Lessons Learned
by Stryder Meadows, Tulane University

Meadows Head Shot 1 2

Greetings from New Orleans! My name is Stryder Meadows and I am an Assistant Professor at Tulane University. In 2014, I dove head first into the most challenging undertaking of my life. I uprooted my family and started my own research lab in a new state. Reflecting on the past 3 years, I would like to think I've had some professional successes while minimizing the hiccups along the way. I'm happy to have the opportunity to share my thoughts and opinions about my journey, and hope that my experiences prove useful to future independent investigators. We are all somewhat thrown into this position with no road map for establishing a thriving research program, so be proactive in seeking advice and stay ahead of the game.

Focus on the science: You already know this but it's important to keep in mind - science drives everything. So get in the lab and stay focused! If you're like myself, you will have a tendency to get interested and distracted by too many potential projects. Don't do this - work hard and place your energy on the most promising projects that will drive your lab. Make sure these projects differentiate yourself from your postdoc advisor. And don't be afraid to use your start up funds because you need the resources and man/woman power to build a solid body of work for that first big grant.

Getting funded: The obvious goal is to get big money grants, but don’t forget about all those smaller grants out there, including those from your own institute. Take advantage of grants that are designed for new investigators. Acquiring these grants will look good on your resume, help with the research finances, and give you additional writing practice for your first big grant. In terms of the obtaining your first big grant, my advice is to hold off until you have a good, solid body of work. It takes time to build a story, and very few new investigators are going to get that big grant unless they’ve built a story, started publishing, etc. Be sure to have your mentors and colleagues look at your grants. A common mistake of a new investigator is to try and put too much into that first R01. Established investigators have been through this process many times and will know how to keep your grant focused.

Setting up the lab: Don’t plan on getting to your job and being able to set up your lab uninterrupted. There are ALWAYS unexpected bumps along the way that can stall your progress. Your tenure clock usually starts on your hire date, so every day, month and experiment is valuable. Use that window of time before the job starts to be proactive in getting the lab set up. Immediately work on the IACUC protocols and transferring your mice (if you work with them). This process can take months and really delay your experiments. You can also order equipment, supplies and reagents before you get to your job. Be sure to take advantage of deals for new investigators that most companies offer. Hire someone to help; you can put out job ads and interview people before you arrive. You’ll be in much better shape the sooner you can get that first experiment started.

Make your presence felt: You are the most productive person in your lab, so get in the lab and start the experiments that are going to get you funding. Establish the culture and work ethic of your lab, and be diligent in your training of lab personnel. At some point you won’t be able to spend as much time in the lab and those people you trained will be setting an example and training future members of the lab. With that in mind….

Be picky when assembling your research team: Check every reference and try to meet lab technician and postdoc candidates in person. With rotating graduate students, be sure to be in the lab so that you can really assess their critical thinking, bench skills and interactions with lab personnel. Even if you’re desperate for a grad student, don’t bring them on board unless you’re confident they will be a good fit. I’ve turned down students even though I could have used the extra hands, and I know I’ve dodged a few bullets. If red flags pop up or something doesn’t feel right, trust your gut and move on. This is advice I’ve gotten from almost every established investigator, including several that have made this mistake.

Learn to wear multiple hats: You’re now the boss, which means you’re job description includes being a leader, mentor, manager and advisor. Sliding between these different roles can be quite difficult. Each of us is different so figure out what works for you. Stay on top of things and pay attention. Know where your money is going and learn how to budget, even if you have an administrative person that covers the finances. Be mindful of what’s going on in the lab and be sure to have open communication with your staff. Remember, not every person reacts the same way and has the same drive and passion as you. So choose your motivational tactics wisely.

Balancing research and teaching: This part is for junior faculty members like myself that are expected to teach throughout the year and simultaneously run a successful research program. This has been one of the most challenging aspects of the job. Remember, you’re competing with lots of other researchers that have minimal teaching requirements. I’ve heard different views on whether this is an advantage or disadvantage. My opinion: it’s an advantage salary wise (usually more hard money in your salary), but a disadvantage to your research program. So figure out how to balance the time and energy put into teaching versus research. Many times the biggest components for tenure are teaching/school service, publications and funding. I would suggest finding out how much each component is weighted for tenure, and use that as a way to help guide and balance your effort going forward.

Publishing is the name of the game: You already know that publishing your work is paramount to your future success, but it’s really important to come to terms with the reality that not every paper can be a Cell, Science or Nature publication. Get those least publishable units (LPUs) out the door. It will show your R01 reviewers that you have a functional lab and are progressing towards those bigger papers. Plus, every publication counts towards your tenure package and the clock is running. In my experience, most manuscript preparations take longer than you think and time is not on your side.

Develop a thick hide: Science is hard, getting funding is hard, publishing is hard, teaching is hard and running a lab is hard. Get use to the fact that your grants and papers are going to get rejected, reviewers are going to hit you hard, and sometimes you’re going to get scooped. Take a breath, sleep on it and revisit with a fresh mind. Often times you will find that everything isn’t as bad as you first thought (of course some things take more time to get over). Don’t get discouraged - fight on! Besides, what’s the alternative?

Go to meetings: Don’t forget to attend and present at meetings (hopefully you’ve already started this as a postdoc). It’s critical that you interact and network with the vascular community. After all, they’re the ones reviewing your papers and grants. In this highly competitive environment, it’s beneficial to have a reviewer that can place your name and face to the work they are critiquing. This is also a good way to form collaborations. Plus, you may need recommendations and reviews from established investigators outside of your institute for your tenure package.

Get to know your administrators: I think people often overlook the importance of a good working relationship with their administrative staff. Get acquainted with your grants people and department administrators. Your grants are important and managing your research money is important – therefore I would suggest treating those people that help you manage the grant submissions and lab finances as important. I know it’s their job to assist you, but most people like to be treated as colleagues not as personal assistants. I’ve found that if you treat your administrative staff with respect, they will go out of their way to help you. Plus they will know some of the nuances of your institute and other tricks that will be unknown to you.

Balancing work and family: This particular balancing act can be very stressful and everyone’s situation is different. In my case, I try to make my time at work efficient so that I can squeeze in as much quality time at home without feeling guilty. Newsflash: you will still fell guilty. I think this is natural but I also think it means you recognize that your family is still important, which is a good thing. Try celebrating professional accomplishments, such as getting a grant, publishing your paper or grading your last exam, with your family. This is a good way to include them into your work life, and gives your children the opportunity to see that hard work is rewarded with fun.

Published March 8, 2018 - NAVBO NewsBEAT

Kazuyo Kegan, Johns Hopkins University


Lessons Learned
by Kazuyo Kegan, Johns Hopkins University

Kegan3 2My name is Kazuyo Kegan. I have been an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, since 2012. I recently received my first NIH R01 grant, which just started in December 2017. Our institution traditionally provides no direct salary support for non-clinical faculty. Thus, the transition from junior faculty to partial dependence on mentor-initiated funding, to a combination of mentor and independent support, to finally being fully independently funded has been extremely challenging. Before reaching this point, I had to obtain multiple small internal and external funding awards. I am still in the process of building a new lab, but I hope I can share a few ideas that might be helpful and important for writing grants and becoming an independent scientist.

It took a little while for me to understand the fundamental differences between writing a manuscript and writing a grant. When writing a manuscript, we try to describe things clearly, logically, and professionally. There is actually no room to express enthusiasm in it. On the contrary, I have learned that the key to writing a successful grant is to imbed your enthusiasm clearly into your writing. Besides making the science clear, you need to convince the reviewers that your grant is better and more novel, innovative, and feasible than any of the other applications. Here are several steps I have taken to obtain successful grants.

1. Start and plan early: In the first year after my promotion, I was advised that I should apply for an R01 grant at almost every cycle. I did try to do this during the first 2 years without success. Every 4 months, I would be at the bench for 2 months to move my research forward (I had no people to work on my project), generate preliminary data for the grant during the third month, and spend the fourth month writing and submitting a grant. With this schedule, I was not so productive in publication or in obtaining grants. Your productivity is one of the important factors the reviewers want to see for successful grants. I also learned that taking time to obtain strong preliminary data to support the overall hypothesis is the key to creating successful grants.

2. Assemble a support network: I like to finish things before the due date. I usually plan to finish my grant at least 2 weeks early. This tactic allows me to ask senior faculty members to read and evaluate the grant and our scientific editor to edit it. The comments from senior and experienced faculty members are helpful and provide the opportunity for brainstorming before submission. Nevertheless, it is important that you follow your heart and intuition when making final decisions regarding the direction of the grant if you receive multiple contrasting opinions. Also, create good relationships with the finance team and office of research administration, if your university has one. By working together to resolve issues and review the grant and budget, you will be pleasantly surprised by all that you learn about the policy behind grant management.

3. Writing is a skill not a genetic gift: It greatly helps me to allot time for writing, to schedule it into my day, and to set goals for each day and week. Keep track of your progress and reward yourself for meeting your goals. Make writing routine and mundane. I was given the suggestion to join a support writing network in which members encourage each other. As I did not have enough time to do so in person (I am a mother of 9-year-old twins), I created a support network on Social Networking Service (SNS) with scientists in academia from inside and outside of the US. When I feel alone writing grants during weekends and holidays, I can always find someone who is also working on a grant or paper, and we encourage each other. This resource has been a tremendous boost to my productivity and motivation.

4. Focus on creating Specific Aims and abstracts: I was told to dedicate a lot of time to writing, revising, and rewriting the Specific Aims page to make it perfect. A giant in our field also taught me to begin by drawing a picture. If you can draw a picture of what you want to do, then you are on the right path. In addition, the Specific Aims are critical for the peer review process because the majority of reviewers on the panel will likely read only the abstract and Specific Aims during the very short period given to judge and score the applications.

5. Resubmission: One of my biggest mistakes in the first years of working on grants was not communicating with program officer. I was too shy to pick up the phone and discuss how to revise the application. I was wrong. Many times they will help you to interpret the summary statement and offer strategic tips on how to be highly responsive to the reviewers' concerns. If you receive a “not fundable” review statement, please do not take it personally. It is easy for me to say this but very difficult to accomplish. It usually takes me at least a week to read the reviews without tears and all kinds of negative feelings. We should not stop there. Take a breath, calm down, and start reading the review with a cup of coffee (or a glass of wine works best for me!). I found that the critical review is one of the greatest aids to improving your science and application. If you think that the reviewers did not understand what you meant, you need to make more effort to convey your points clearly. If they misinterpreted your writing, then it is possible that many other people would misinterpret it same way.

What I wish I had known when I accepted my first position was that we must have so many new and different skills to transition from a junior faculty member to a successful independent investigator. I learned that we need to make decisions quickly and with conviction. Furthermore, dealing with negotiation—–we do it every day—requires disciplined communication skills, reliable persuasive strategies, the willingness to engage in conflict, and the ability to adapt to a rapidly changing environment.

Probably the most important message I have is to Be Resilient. Becoming an independent scientist in academia is hard. Science is a difficult field, no doubt. It takes years in the trenches to succeed. You may need to learn how to rise from the ashes several times in this path. Scientists who study stress and resilience say that it’s important to think of resilience as an emotional muscle that can be strengthened at any time. I always try to go back to the basics and reevaluate why I am doing this and what motivates me. I try to focus on what is fascinating and meaningful about what I do. What is important to me is the progress I am making in science and medicine, not what anybody is saying back. Then, the productivity naturally returns during difficult times. Do not hesitate to ask for help when necessary. We are more resilient when we have strong support networks to help us cope with a crisis. But we can get an even bigger resilience boost by giving support to others. By doing so, we create a positive feedback loop of helping others and being helped ourselves, This is an important way to enhance our own strength to create a life that we consider meaningful and purposeful.

Published April 5, 2018 - NAVBO NewsBEAT

Elisa Boscolo, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital


Lessons Learned
by Elisa Boscolo, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital

BoscoloIt’s time to fill the empty spaces ... in the laboratory and in your personal life!

… and all of a sudden … POOF! You jumped to the other side!

You have dreamed about it all of your life (or most of it), and you just cannot believe it has really happened. While you are pinching yourself to be sure it’s not a dream, your eyes open wide and what do you see? An empty office and an empty laboratory (Well, I wouldn’t even call it a laboratory as it’s just four walls and a stack of empty shelves!). Now you really miss your old lab mates and your previous mentor.

My name is Elisa Boscolo. I did my postdoctoral training at Boston Children’s Hospital and have been an Assistant Professor at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital since 2014. Back then it surely was frustrating to start from scratch in a new institution and in a different city.

My first suggestion is to not rush in hiring personnel to staff your lab. Choose carefully and make sure they can stay in your lab for a few years, guaranteeing continuity after the initial period. For a faster take-off, start looking for personnel before your actual move; you can contact HR at your new institution and ask them to help opening positions for your lab. Set up Skype interviews and talk to the candidate multiple times to get to know them as much as you can. Make sure to call their previous mentors and ask a lot of questions – do not rely solely on formal letters of recommendations.

Managing people is challenging – little did I know about how hard this is, as I had a wonderful relationship with my former mentor. My advice is to make your expectations clear, write them down and use that list to make sure they are respected. Also, my mistake was to think that every post-doc has the same ambitions and passion for research that I do. Make sure to communicate with your team as much as you can to understand how facilitating their success can fulfill their own life goals and ambitions.

In this empty laboratory, you may suddenly feel lonely, as you will spend most of your time enclosed in your office writing grants, IACUC and IRB protocols, etc. My second advice is to make sure you connect with the other junior faculty at your institutions and try to set up regular meetings with them. Discuss grant opportunities, new data and mentoring issues. Help each other with grant writing and collaborations. And don’t forget that from time to time, you’ll want to have a friend to get a coffee together.

To ensure funding it is crucial to show productivity early on after you set up your lab. What I regret not doing is using the early slow times (slow production of data!) to think of a short-term project that could generate a manuscript in a two-year time frame, aimed at a decent impact factor journal, but not necessarily very high to avoid being trapped in endless cycles of resubmissions.

My last suggestion, as a woman scientist, is to not neglect your personal life because of the academic pressure. I somewhat put my personal life on hold until I became a junior faculty member and waited until then to start a family. Some days it’s just you and your beloved iMac, so when you finally close the office door, it’s a joy to know you will reunite with your family at home. I often wondered if it’s possible to have a career and children. Now that I have a young daughter, I feel more productive during my time at work. When I feel frustrated after a grant or manuscript rejection, instead of healing my suffering with Italian wine, my daughter smiles, makes me forget these disappointments, and re-charges my mind for the next challenge.

Always do your best work and learn to be patient; there will be times when productivity is slower than you wish. Make the best out of this time! In few years you will see that your lab has no empty spaces left and has already produced phenomenal data – hopefully you have already published some of them!

Published May 3, 2018 - NAVBO NewsBEAT

John C. Chappell, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute


Lessons Learned
by John Chappell, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute

CHAPPELL Photo Maintain a work-life balance— Many careers can consume you, and a career in academic science can certainly tip the work-life balance towards working almost continuously. What started out as a passion and a curiosity to discover new things about the vascular system can quickly turn into seemingly endless grant writing, manuscript preparation, e-mail replies, and so on. I would urge new independent investigators to work hard on their science, but to also find the aspects of life that provide rest and reinvigoration outside of their science and the workplace. Striving for and maintaining that work-life balance seems to be a critical skill to help avoid burnout and sustain you through the highs and lows of grant/paper reviews and all of the other challenges you will face.

Find your place of Zen— In reading the Lessons Learned contributions from my colleagues, one theme emerges very clearly—this career path is full of many difficult challenges. Publishing, funding, managing a lab, etc. In the midst of the ups and downs, I have found that staying connected to the science and keeping my hands on the experiments has been incredibly helpful. My place of Zen is at my confocal, taking high-resolution images of biological phenomena – it has been my shelter during the storms of never-ending demands. Find the part of science that fueled your love of what you do, and fight to keep that as part of your schedule. I try to use my confocal at least once every week or two. It helps clear my mind and reinvigorates me, while also inspiring new ideas and avenues for research. I encourage you to find that quiet place of enlightenment, free from worrying about what you cannot change.
Be focused but stay curious— When I started down the path of a career in academic science, one aspect I enjoyed the most was that curiosity was encouraged. As many of my colleagues have cautioned me, staying focused is important for building a critical mass of productivity in a particular area. But I would encourage a balance. Write down your curiosities. One day you may have the personnel and funding to pursue an idea you initially thought was a tangent, but it could develop into an unexpected discovery.
Aim for clarity— Have someone outside your area of focus read your grants and papers. They will help you distill your writing down to the basic principles that must be understood by reviewers. If they can’t understand the basic concepts in the grant or manuscript, the review will not go well. I tend to overcomplicate many things in life, and this is especially true for my writing. Reviewer expertise is unlikely to coincide perfectly with your area of research, and even if it does, you will make them happier (and more likely to review favorably) if they can understand what you are describing on a very basic level. Schematics help.
Seek out mentoring— I was not connected to a formal mentor when I started my position, and I was initially reluctant to intrude into the busy schedules of my colleagues with my many questions about how to approach grant writing, setting up my lab, or anything really. I agree with a number of the other Lessons Learned authors that you have to find your own path for many decisions that must be made. Mentors can be incredibly helpful, though, in sharing things that worked or didn’t work for them, or as sounding boards for ideas that are still developing. You can glean from others specific ideas that you might want to weave together and integrate into your own approach to leading your lab, seeking funding, and doing your best science.
Don’t be afraid to be provocative— This item is fairly specific to grant writing, and I thought this insight into grant review was particularly helpful. A colleague of mine is currently serving on study section. I asked him to read one of my R01 grant proposals as he would as a study section reviewer. He graciously accepted and, when giving me his feedback, he said, “It’s a good grant, and will potentially (imagine air quotations) “fill a gap in knowledge”, but so will most of the other grants in my pile. As a reviewer with 10-12 grants in my pile, you need to wake me up. Provoke me. The worst-case scenario is that your grant lands in the bottom of my rankings, but honestly it’s no worse than being too conservative and landing in the middle. Neither the middle nor the bottom grants are funded, so why not aim for the top? Don’t give me clichés. Give me specifics and a thought-provoking question. Get my attention.” Certainly one person’s opinion, but I thought it was a helpful glimpse into the grant review process.

Published October 22, 2018 - NAVBO NewsBEAT

Yun Fang, The University of Chicago


Lessons Learned
by Yun Fang, The University of Chicago

YF Portrait I started my independent research program in the Department of Medicine, Biological Sciences Division, at The University of Chicago in November, 2012. Looking back, it is one of the most challenging, intriguing, and rewarding tasks I have ever undertaken and I would like to use this exciting opportunity to share a few lessons I learned in the past few years.

Be creative but not competitive. “Be creative but not competitive” is our motto of the lab. It is quite exciting (I feel) to live in the golden age of biomedical research since there are unprecedented advancements of new approaches and techniques which allow us to pursue questions previously unanswerable and to develop new therapies applying these new concepts. One thing I often share with my lab members is that most of the techniques routinely used in my lab nowadays such as ATAC-seq, Hi-C, CRISPR/Cas9-based gene editing, and single-cell sequencing, were not even invented when I was a postdoctoral fellow. Finding creative ways to identify new questions and novel solutions is always recommended and encouraged in my lab. Nevertheless, it is important to maintain a fine balance between being creative and focused for a junior faculty member who not only needs to move the chosen field forward but also show continuous research productivity.

Building a collegial and feedback-seeking environment for your trainees who share your scientific vision. One thing I am striving for is to create an intellectually-challenging but supportive environment for a trainee to pursue his/her (and my) scientific interests. It is tempting for a junior faculty to quickly hire personnel, but I cannot stress enough the importance to find lab members who share your scientific vision. Knowing it is difficult to recruit bright postdocs as a junior faculty member, I started actively searching for candidates via any given channels (meetings, personal connections, etc.) six months before my lab was open. I was fortunate to recruit two outstanding postdocs who were the core members of my program for the first two years. The priority for my first six months at the University of Chicago was to work closely with them in the lab, which turned out to be a very effective and productive way to establish a brand-new research program. These two postdocs then became the cornerstone of my lab to train members who joined later. Nevertheless, I learned that everyone is different and having management styles tailored to lab individuals is key for me to keep effective communication with them. When I am in the office and not on a call, my door is always open to encourage conversations. The first goal I set since the beginning is to build and cultivate a collegial and feedback-seeking/giving work place for the lab members to brainstorm research ideas and receive constructive feedback. I am very proud that my lab members now teach me as much, if not more, as I teach them through our daily conversations and weekly meetings.

Finding collaborators who have mutual interests with you and are mutually benefited from the collaboration. One thing that keeps me extremely excited about the academic work is the opportunities to work with people with different expertise to tackle problem-oriented instead of discipline-oriented questions. We are privileged to have a cohort of wonderful collaborators who unselfishly share their expertise, allowing us to explore uncharted territory related to our research questions. We found that fruitful collaborations are typically built on mutual trust, mutual interests, and mutual benefits of the collaborators. Our scientific scope has been significantly deepened and broadened by actively seeking collaborations across disciplines.

Communicating your scientific passion effectively with your family members, students, lab members, colleagues, and reviewers. I firmly believe one requisite for a productive research career is to effectively communicate with others your scientific projects of choice. My wife is not a scientist, but by speaking often to her about my research projects, she understands my passion for the work and is supportive of my career. Sharing my scientific passion to the trainees in the lab and students in the classroom may breed and foster their own enthusiasm in science. Passionate discussions on research projects, either mine or my peers’, always motivate me to revisit our scientific hypotheses and experimental approaches. Moreover, manuscript submissions and grant applications are also excellent ways to receive honest and constructive feedback from your peers, although rejections are common. I truly believe that the current review system, although not perfect, is still an effective way to exchange and stimulate candid and often time, constructive scientific discussions.

Published January 10, 2019 - NAVBO NewsBEAT

Corinne Nielsen, Ohio University


Lessons Learned
by Corinne Nielsen, Ohio University

Nielsen Lab

My name is Corinne Nielsen, and I have been Assistant Professor, in the Department of Biological Sciences, at Ohio University since 2016. I am pleased to introduce you to our lab and our research and to share some Lessons Learned, as a new independent investigator.

Embrace your new pace— One of the biggest adjustments I made was to adjust my expectations for the pace of research in a newly established lab. During my PhD and postdoctoral training, my academic life focused on lab work and very little else. Suddenly, with many more commitments – from teaching obligations to lab management to proposal writing – I spend less time in lab and acquire fewer data than I am used to. As the lab has found its footing, and as new lab members receive training and develop independence, the pace has quickened; however, this transition taught me another lesson, which is to….

Learn to give up control— Micromanaging the details of every lab protocol and daily troubleshooting is not tenable or healthy, for the long-term benefit of the lab. Give lab members the training and tools to complete an experiment, meet regularly to discuss outcomes/results, and celebrate the achievements.
Be prepared to face roadblocks— While I was setting up my lab (and especially while establishing and working with an animal colony), I naively assumed that moving from Point A to Point B would follow a straight path; rather, I often journeyed down a zigzag path, peppered with setbacks and side trips. Along the way, I realized that as long as we kept moving forward, even though more slowly than expected, we were headed in the right direction, and the only option was to tackle and overcome the roadblocks, one at a time.
Be prepared to spend money— This was much harder than I expected. Even with a detailed budget, I found it difficult to spend money on big ticket items to equip the lab fully. In fact, fretting over spending start-up funds probably dinged our overall efficiency. Make decisions on big purchases in a timely manner – the sooner you invest in your lab’s productivity and longevity, the sooner you will see returns on your investment.
Dedicate time to writing…— …and take the writing seriously. I have found a small faculty group that meets regularly – usually at a coffee shop – for uninterrupted writing sessions. By planning these sessions into our calendars, we hold each other accountable, we share an expectation that writing will move forward, and we enjoy collegial companionship. I have strengthened professional relationships and gained personal friendships, by participating in these writing groups.
Develop long-term professional goals— Perhaps this works for me, because I am very goal-oriented and relish the daily “check, check, check” of my to-do list. Outlining professional goals and understanding my department’s expectations has led me to strategize about how to achieve those goals within set periods of time. Hopefully, this will keep deadlines from popping up unexpectedly and allow goals to be met realistically.
Be a good colleague— Build your professional network at your institution and beyond. At each step along my academic trajectory – education, training, work experience – my network of colleagues, collaborators, and supporters has been paramount. My network has challenged me, critiqued me, offered opportunities to me, commiserated with me, celebrated with me, and I am committed to doing the same for others. That said, I look forward to seeing you at an upcoming NAVBO meeting!

Published March 7, 2019 - NAVBO NewsBEAT