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Leaders' Lessons

Leaders' Lessons

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

How do you choose what to pursue scientifically?

 

compiled by Craig Simmons, University of Toronto

Patricia D’Amore, Senior Scientist, Schepens Eye Research Institute; Director, Howe Laboratory; Associate Chief for Opthalmology Basic and Translational Research, Massachusetts Eye and Ear; Charles L. Schepens Professor of Ophthalmology, Harvard Medical School
In my opinion, it comes sort of organically. You know some projects you never finish, per se, but you might get to the end of what you're willing to do. I think part of the process is that you have to be doing things somewhere on the side that are a little bit discovery, but that you don't necessarily always have a hypothesis for. So that if you get an interesting observation, you have a choice of things you can pursue at some point. Now we're pursuing this molecule, endomucin, which just came up in a screen we did literally 12 years ago. We didn't do anything with it for awhile, and then as people came to the lab we had choices; now it's turned into a whole project, and my RO1 right now is funded on that. So, I think it's a combination of organic, but always with doing enough discovery research, sort of “look-and-see” experiments on the side; so that you have some new ideas waiting in the wings.

Jan Kitajewski, Professor and Head of Department of Physiology and Biophysics, College of Medicine at Chicago; Director, University of Illinois Cancer Center
My experience has been a bit of a “fearless” approach, but possibly a “foolish” approach, because I have changed directions quite dramatically starting with pure cancer research, moving to vascular biology, and then moving to different pathological settings for studying vascular biology. So, I say it’s foolish, because you need to be able to “talk the talk” and “walk the walk” and need to be an expert in all those different areas; that is such an important element of succeeding. But also, I think being a bit fearless and taking advantage of opportunities is another key element to finding a good scientific area. When I see something that clearly is within my skillsets, but is an exciting new direction with high impact, then I am more inclined to jump into it and then worry later about putting all the pieces together to make it work well. I would say that I look hard for new opportunities and then dive into them.

Shulamit Levenberg, Ph.D., Professor and Former Dean, Biomedical Engineering Department Director, Stem Cell and Tissue Engineering Laboratory; Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel
First, I choose what interests me and what I think is interesting to learn about. I also prefer to identify a direction that will be important clinically and that has the potential to be applied. This is especially important if we are talking about tissue engineering. Another method for choosing what I work on is if I am approached by someone with a problem or an idea to address. For example, I have been approached by members from the foundation for spinal cord injury or from the diabetes area who are interested in our research. They have asked my lab and me to explore and ask questions in this direction. Sometimes we identify new directions based on students’ ideas. Students will identify something that they want to explore, and they come to me and ask to pursue research in this area. I think all of these options happen, and I love this student incorporation.

Robert Mecham, Alumni Endowed Professor of Cell Biology and Physiology, Professor of Medicine, Pediatrics and Bioengineering, Washington School of Medicine in St. Louis
Scientifically, I think the first influence is really the environment and familiarity. What I mean by that is when I think back to when I was starting, the first project that I got involved with was as a lab technician. I was trying to sequence a protein, and I didn't know anything about it. It was a job; however, I was interested in science, and it was an introduction to the scientific method, basically. That’s probably true for most of the students as well--that first project is probably assigned when they come into a lab. They might have an idea of what's going on in the laboratory, but I don't think that many students are aware enough of the details of the research to really understand the depth that they will need to understand a project. What I like to do when students come into my lab is talk about a project that will get them going on something that they are peripherally interested in. But I also encourage them to interact with the other students and postdocs; and that's important because it gives them an idea of what the major questions are that are being pursued in the lab. After a while, they will find their own niche.

Michelle Bendeck, Professor, Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology, University of Toronto and Translational Biology and Engineering Program, Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research
My answer is what has worked for me. I don't know if it would work for everyone, but I've found that it's always a good idea to build on what you know. At every stage in your career, start with the basis of what you've done before, but then always incorporate new techniques and approaches. You can stick with the same questions as long as you're still pursuing the questions that you're passionate about, that you're very interested in. As you establish your lab and advance, you can ask new questions and move into different areas of research, but I think it's always safer to have that concept of building on what you know and working forward from your established expertise. There is something really useful that I learned by example from my PhD supervisor, because I saw him do it: keep the questions that really intrigue you in the back of your mind. You may not be able to answer those questions today, but five years from now there may be a new technique, there may be a new approach, people in the field may have moved forward, and your question may become a hot research topic. So don't forget about those things that that you feel are really important.

Some researchers build their career very differently. Some people build a successful career by moving from one hot topic to the next. But I find that most people do better with a logical progression of thought building from where they started.

Joyce Bischoff, Ph.D., Professor of Surgery, Harvard Medical School; Research Associate, Surgery, Boston Children's Hospital; Principal Investigator, Surgery and Vascular Biology Program, Boston Children's Hospital
I think it's good to pick a question or a disease that you want to tackle and keep that your main focus. Sometimes people early on in their training become really attached to a protein, transcription factor for example, or certain cellular process. That's really good for your training, but you don't know if your favorite transcription factor is going to turn out to be less important for the question(s) you want to tackle. When you start your own lab, I think you need to pick the question and or disease and then just do whatever it takes to answer that question.

Victoria Bautch, Ph.D., Beverly Long Chapin Distinguished Professor, Department of Biology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Co- Director of McAllister Heart Institute
I think the single most important thing is to find something that you really want to know the answer to and that you think is cool, interesting and piques your imagination. No matter what else happens, if the passion for the answer isn't there, then it's just hard to enjoy doing science. Once I have something that's really interesting, exciting and stimulating, it is important to think about what you know and how it can be packaged in a way that's fundable-- ideas without money don't get you very far, especially in this day and age. Think about where the NIH wants to be, and where you and your questions could fit into that context. Also consider other funding sources. The way I pursue things scientifically isn't the same way that everybody does. We follow the science and the biology, which sometimes leads us into different areas, but also keeps things fresh and has allowed me to stay excited for a long time in the field of vascular biology. Also, people come to the lab with good ideas that fit into the bigger picture of the research goals, and those ideas often drive different, but interesting areas of research.

Published April 8, 2021 - NAVBO NewsBEAT


How do you stay efficient with splintered time?

 

compiled by Craig Simmons, University of Toronto

Patricia D’Amore, Senior Scientist, Schepens Eye Research Institute; Director, Howe Laboratory; Associate Chief for Opthalmology Basic and Translational Research, Massachusetts Eye and Ear; Charles L. Schepens Professor of Ophthalmology, Harvard Medical School
That's a good question! I can't sit and write for three hours, but if I know I need more time than a 45-minute window, I might put in three hours in my calendar. Then, I break that up by working for 40 minutes and then doing something else for 20 minutes. If I know I'm doing a writing project that's going to require me looking at the literature a lot and going back and forth to writing, I definitely make sure I have blocks of time set aside in my calendar. Otherwise, you start to get your momentum going and then you have to stop for another task. It's very frustrating and then, for me, it's very hard to get back to it. I try to give myself enough time. I look further ahead to plan and I'll put several hours in my calendar, knowing full well that I'm going to take breaks in the middle of it. For example, I know that I can edit something in 45 minutes, but I will block out more time so that it is not available for other people to schedule over. The key is that you have to respect what you put in your calendar and finish the task. That helps you figure out how to say “no” if you have a deadline coming up and you have a lot of writing to do. If you know it's going to take you 10 hours and you have those blocked out in your calendar; giving those times up for other tasks is a bad idea. Because when else are you going to get it done? I am an obsessive list maker and what really helps me is breaking bigger projects into smaller projects. If I am working on the preliminary data section of a grant and that's going to take 9 hours, I will put “write about figure one” on my list. That’s doable in one hour because I broke it down to small enough projects. I have also tried to keep Fridays open as much as possible and not schedule things on Fridays unless I have no choice. That gives me big blocks of time to do things that are time-consuming. I try to force all the other commitments into the rest of the week and make good use of my calendar to protect my time. Then once you put something in the calendar, mean it….if the calendar item is “work on the introduction”, then write the introduction so that you are accountable to yourself.

Jan Kitajewski, Professor and Head of Department of Physiology and Biophysics, College of Medicine at Chicago; Director, University of Illinois Cancer Center
I don’t know how to answer that; it’s a tough one and I don’t have any specific tricks. I think that one thing to pay attention to if there are a lot of demands on your time and you need to be efficient, is to recognize that when you are focusing on something to give that your full attention. Focus very intensely. Don’t do it half-heartedly or while you are doing other things. Because if you are trying to balance a lot of time management and your mind is focusing on a lot of different things, then you will not have productive time. I would say that my trick may be that once I carve out even a small amount of time to tackle an issue, research-related, I try my best to stay exquisitely focused in trying to achieve some action items during that time and then move on.

Shulamit Levenberg, Ph.D., Professor and Former Dean, Biomedical Engineering Department Director, Stem Cell and Tissue Engineering Laboratory; Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel
I do my best! You have to focus and concentrate; but it is much easier when you have a block of time devoted to a task because it is easier to arrange your mind around the topic. I know people that can switch more easily during the day; however, for me it is easier to separate tasks. As Dean I had two offices: the lab office and the Dean office. There were days where I would focus on tasks associated with that location (Dean or research) and it helped. I really tried to make it work, but of course it did not always go as planned!

Robert Mecham, Alumni Endowed Professor of Cell Biology and Physiology, Professor of Medicine, Pediatrics and Bioengineering, Washington School of Medicine in St. Louis
I don't know; I don't think I am that efficient! I think you have to plan around priorities and just remember that you are in charge of your time. It is generally best to identify your priorities for the week or the day and work down the line. I really do think planning around priorities really can help in getting things done. I find that if I don't have a lot of planning going into a project, I am very inefficient--I spend too much time on things that I shouldn't and that are not productive.

Michelle Bendeck, Professor, Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology, University of Toronto and Translational Biology and Engineering Program, Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research
This is hard, and I read some of the early career research blogs and listen to podcasts on that because I think that the next generation coming up has a much better handle on that than I have. Right now, I’m trying to allocate blocks of time to certain tasks. For example, I spend Monday morning catching up on e-mail that I did not deal with the week before, and delegating tasks to urgent and not urgent to-do lists. During the pandemic, it has been helpful to book meetings on only two or three days of the week. If I have half an hour between Zoom meetings, I will pick a small task, like dealing with a financial problem or paying a bill. This leaves the remaining days for bigger projects that require more focus, for example revising a manuscript, or writing reference letters. If I am working on writing grants or manuscripts, I try to reserve several days at a time mainly for that. This is the hardest to do, because I cannot always think on schedule. So I start that process by completing some of the busywork, filling in the forms, updating my CV etc. But when I am writing a grant I never really escape it, I think about it day and night.

Joyce Bischoff, Ph.D., Professor of Surgery, Harvard Medical School; Research Associate, Surgery, Boston Children's Hospital; Principal Investigator, Surgery and Vascular Biology Program, Boston Children's Hospital
This may sound very basic, but I actually print out, in big bold font, the four or five things or deadlines I really want to get done in the next month or so, maybe it's a grant or manuscript. I think we all have a tendency to do the easy things on the ‘to-do’ list, check them off and feel good about getting maybe 10 checked off in a day, but they each only take two to five minutes to accomplish. That’s a good way to spend splintered time, but you want to make progress on the big items too. I tape my list of big things to my monitor so that it’s always there in sight; and I update it every month or so. When I’ve got an hour or two here and there, I can decide to use that time to write the cover letter for the manuscript or figure out if I'm going to suggest reviewers, etc. I’m always trying to use these small blocks of time to target what’s on my list. The small blocks are obviously not big enough to write a whole grant but keeping goals at the forefront, and working on smaller aspects, adds up in the long run.

Victoria Bautch, Ph.D., Beverly Long Chapin Distinguished Professor, Department of Biology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Co- Director of McAllister Heart Institute
First, I block out unsplintered chunks of time in my calendar. For me it's better if it's the same time every week. Even more with the pandemic, I try not to over schedule things or schedule anything if I can help it for two days a week. The other days do get loaded up and a bit hectic. Then, I try to use those days to really work on my reading, on my papers or things that require more than 15 minutes of effort to get done. It's not perfect, but it helps because there’s so many things that have deadlines and don't take very much time, but when you aggregate them all together, you can use up every waking minute of your time just doing all the busy work. Also, having these blocks of time to talk to somebody and completely focus your brain (i.e. not multi-task), then have time to think about what I learned from that conversation really helps. Again, it's not perfect, but that's what I do: block off time. I would also say to think about the things that don't really take much time or brain effort and then try, to the extent that you can, fit them into those broken up bits of time.

Published February 11, 2021 - NAVBO NewsBEAT


How can faculty maintain trajectory throughout their career?

 

compiled by Craig Simmons, University of Toronto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Published April 2, 2020 - NAVBO NewsBEAT