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I walked past the mini-conference room area that AACR set up in the middle of the exhibit hall and my eyes immediately zeroed in on the name of one of my science idols: Elizabeth Blackburn. She was going to be speaking about careers to young scientists and allow them to ask her questions.
I noted the day and time. It wouldn’t matter to me what she was talking about. I would be there.
The next day at 10 am, I watched her walk in to the roofless cubicled room and you could feel the excitement as she hurriedly walked to the front. I stood in the back by the entrance. All of the chairs were reserved for scientists who were post-docs and grad students but I was just grateful to be there early enough to have a spot to stand and listen.
How I wished I had this advice when I was young and ill-informed!
If you ever have the opportunity to listen to Dr. Blackburn speak, go out of your way to see her. Words can’t describe her magnetic presence and gentle, sincere smile. I could use some California new age terms here to describe her positive energy or radiant aura, but I’ll spare you.
Just a little introduction for people who don’t know Elizabeth Blackburn, she is one of three 2009 Nobel Prize winners in physiology and medicine for discovering telomerase, the enzyme that replicates the ends of chromosomes, which plays many important roles in cancer and aging. At present she is faculty at UCSF and is president elect of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). Some of her current research was promoted in a press release last year because it involved research looking at meditation and its effects on aging and telomerase activity.
This forum sponsored by AACR was a chance for early career scientists to ask her advice on their own career paths in cancer research. I didn’t have paper or pen and had to stand so I couldn’t take notes. So I hope you’ll be ok with my summary of what she said. Fortunately I was hanging on every word so this really covers the important points.
How Deep into a Topic should you go?
She was asked to comment on how important it is to be an expert in the field vs knowing a lot of techniques. Dr. Blackburn told the audience that is it very important to go deep into your area of research. She said that collaborations with other experts are key because you cannot know everything, but you can learn anything. She said that she was an expert in molecular biology (she was one of the few people in the world who could do Sanger sequencing) and she collaborated with people who were experts in other areas. She said it is important to be able to bring something to the table. You bring something to the table and so do the other people.
Better not to be a jack of all trades too early.
Collaborate with people and learn all those other research areas by working with other experts. But you should be the expert in what you do.
Choosing a Postdoc
She was asked for advice in choosing a postdoc. Her advice was to find a lab where the PI is known for being a good mentor. She said both the science and the mentoring is important. When she choose her postdoc lab, her mentor had many successful trainees. She strongly suggests that grad students looking at labs make sure to consider the mentoring abilities of the PI.
On a Failure
She was asked to comment on something that she did and felt like she failed. She said that she failed in getting herself the support she needed when she was struggling. Dr. Blackburn said that she thought she had to be the strong and tough scientist that never asked for help. Looking back, she felt that she may have made life harder for herself than it had to be. When she talks about getting support, she means, for example, talking to people about how to deal with problems like raising kids and balancing life. She never asked for advice or help or sought the advice of others. She considers this a mistake on her part.
On Collaborations and Letters of Recommendations
One of her important points which related to collaborations was that as a candidate in search for a tenure track position, the committee knows you are going to have a great letter of recommendation from your PI. They also assume that it is going to be over-inflated in describing your greatness. So, the other two letters of recommendation are really important. They want to see excellent letters of recommendations from other PIs that you’ve worked/collaborated with too.
Here again she stressed how critical it is, when you are a postdoc, to collaborate with other labs and PIs and to start thinking about who is going to write your other letters of recommendation for you. Think about it early and develop relationships with people so that you have strong support from other faculty besides your boss.
Publishing in High Profile Journals
She was asked to comment on how important it was to publish in the high profile journals. She said that while they all (meaning her colleagues who sit on selection committees) don’t believe that they publish the best science, they do recognize that having those types of publications gives someone a little bit of an edge. She said to focus on the science and do good research and not think about the journal, necessarily. Giving a great talk and doing solid science is more important. The upper tier journals are good to have on your CV and unfortunately, having them will make a difference. But, she said that when they are looking at candidates, they are looking at the whole package and not just the impact factor. She said she wished that impact factors would go away!
"Alternative" Careers in Science
She made an interesting comment about “alternative careers” when someone asked about jobs outside of academia. She said she didn’t like that term “alternative careers” because it made it sound negative like the term “alternative medicine”, like it was not as good as other careers in science. She stressed that there are plenty of excellent and important jobs for scientists that are not all bench work. She said we need scientists who know law and business who can play the important roles that help bring the science to the public. She wanted the students to know that choosing a non-bench science career was in no way a negative and should not been seen as a failure.
She was asked to talk about how she dealt with “mommy guilt”. She has a son and was raising her child during her years of trying to move up in her career. She said that she had it too and it is always there but she figured out ways to deal with it. For example, she limited her travel to two-day trips only. She figured that being away for two days was manageable for her family. She didn’t travel for longer periods during certain years in her child’s life when she needed to be there.
Also, she never went to any dinner related activities for work. She drew the line at dinner and always had dinner at home. She would go to lunch but dinner was family time.
She mentioned again about getting support when you need it and not being afraid to go to other faculty (as a post doc or PI) and ask for advice when you need it. She mentioned seeking mentors to help with different areas of your life. For example, when your child is in kindergarten, you need mentors and support from people who know what that's like and can help you with those problems. As you develop, you will need different mentors depending on your needs. But reach out for them. Don’t suffer alone.
I thought it was really funny when she shared some practical advice that was given to her by a colleague. For example, she said that rather than trying to buy her son a gift on every trip so when she returned she had something for him, she was advised to just buy a bunch of gifts and hide them up in the closet. Then, when she got home from the trip, she could pull out a gift and give it to him as if she bought it while she was away. In truth, there really is no time for shopping when you have two days to attend a meeting so this little time saver helped her out when she had to spend time away from home.
She talked about how she felt guilt for not being the mommy that made the fancy cupcakes with the multicolored frosting on top but instead she figured out that kids loved these bagel bites way more. So when all the parents had to bring food to class, she made bagel bites for the kids and she said they were the first thing to go. And she said this trick worked from first grade all the way to senior year in high school.
So her message here was to find ways to save time and use time efficiently but still get the job done. She didn’t have a lot of time to bake but she found something kids liked just as well that took much less time. Find shortcuts and you can still do the things other moms do and not feel the guilt (as much).
Regarding kids, her final point was to remember that this time with your child is short-lived, just two decades and that you have many decades, maybe four or five, to do science. So once your child grows up, you can travel and do all the things that you had to put off. But you have plenty of time for that so don’t worry about missing a faculty function or part of a meeting because you can only attend two days. Set your boundaries and use your time wisely.
She talked about how you can chase idea after idea, there are so many ideas and it is easy to get off onto tangents (and that’s good because that’s how you make the big discoveries, by exploring the unexpected result). But you also have to know when to stop working on something. You have to be able to say “that’s not a good idea or not a result worth pursuing any longer” and then throw it away and move on. Don’t get hung up on every idea being right.
She said she likes to take her lab on a retreat where she forces them to take a day off from the lab and give them time to think. They spent a whole day together just talking about ideas and what could be true and what could be possible. She nurtures and encourages them to spend time thinking and not just being in the lab doing experiment after experiment. Because you can do science all day and night and not ever take the time to sit back and think about the problem you’re working on.
I really liked this idea. It might be something I would do with my team one day.
That's about it for my summary of Dr. Blackburn's wisdom. It was really wonderful to see one of the greatest women scientists of my time be so generous with her time to share an hour with young scientists. Also that she cares so much for other people's happiness that she wants to spend time helping others be a success. She is an inspiration is so many ways.
She truly is a rock star of science.
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There's a ton of really good advice in this post. Thanks for sharing, Jade!
Thanks- it was really good. I was wishing I had paper so I could write it all down. When I was waiting for her to arrive, I felt a little like I was waiting for my favorite musician to take the stage.
She had that effect on the whole room- you know you are in the presence of greatness.
She is so down-to-earth, she probably wouldn't like being put on a pedestal like this. But she'll have to take her seat there anyway.
I doubt she will read this but I hope she knows how far-reaching and deep her impact is on others and how much she is loved (at least by me).
Awesome Post and great advice. I definitly will be taking a lot of these things to heart. Thank you so much for sharing this!
Thanks for posting this! I really wish I could see her- I also have a tinge of hero-worship with Blackburn. There's a lot to think about here.
That was great. I hadn't thought about collaborators writing letters of recommendation.
I agree she is an amazing scientist and sounds like she could potentially be a great mentor. But I would have to disagree with her on mentorship. I think it fosters the idea that your supervisor is the sole and most important mentor and I think that sets up false expectations around the relationship. As with all relationships no one person is going to fulfill all aspects of mentorship. It's really important to make sure grad students and postdocs find several different mentors. That way your eggs are not just in one basket.
Thanks Dr. G, Alchemystress, and Becca. Becca- I hope you have the chance to see her someday. I hope her advice is helpful for you.
CGP: She did say that you should and will have several mentors along the way and that even as time goes on those will change. The PI is the person who is directly overseeing your training though. I think its a good idea to make sure, when choosing a lab, that previous postdocs in the lab felt they had good mentorship. I know for one of my postdocs, I didn't consider that at all. The result was that I could not have chosen a worse mentor and that choice essentially ended my career in academics.
Extremely interesting!!! Thanks a lot for sharing. You rock!
By the way I just discover your blog which seems quite good. I'll probably come back later.
Have a great day,
Awesome writeup! But to be nitpicky, doesn't winning a Nobel prize place her in the pantheon of one of the greatest scientists of your time period, without the 'female' qualifier?
@magali - thank you!
@Hermitage- She is both. Thanks for reading!
Great post, I am looking for a post-doc right now; while i agree with her that finding someone who is a good mentor is probably important, does anyone have any advice on how to find out if a lab is led by someone who is a good mentor.
Martin, ask to speak to the lab in the absence of the PI when you interview. I had one interview where everyone in the lab told me the PI was a slave driving asshole. I didn't join that lab ;)
Good question Martin. Dr. Blackburn mentioned that she looked at where his former trainees went, how they were doing, and how many people were coming out of the lab.
She said her postdoc mentor was known to be a good mentor, but I don't know if she asked people or her own PI, or if she talked to his former trainees.
Definitely, during the interview, talk to the lab folks alone. In my case, they were too scared to say anything outright negative. (red flag right there.) They were more middle of the road, but leaning towards the negative side. I just took it to mean that he was tough on them but not something that I couldn't handle. It wasn't until I got in the lab that I knew I made a mistake. I decided to live with the choice vs. bail. I should have bailed. It's never too late to make a u-turn.
There is a good reason to use the female qualifier. Dr. Blackburn is not only one of the greatest scientists of our time, but she is also a pioneer. She is paving the way and showing the young women of today what is possible and that they don't have to compromise having a family for a career. She is one of only a handful of women to have reached her level of accomplishment.
There are plenty of amazing women who are as talented and successful as Dr. Blackburn but won't win the nobel prize. Not many people will win that, period. But their stories are just as important to be shared and their advice is needed. Dr. Blackburn is just one woman, in one field, who leads the way.
Many others will follow and I am looking forward to the time when there are so many women chairing departments, running organizations, and leading scientific discovery that the fact that it is a women is no longer a rarity. It will be no big deal.
Talking with the people in the lab during the interview and without the PI is definitely something to do. You actually don't need to wait for the interview. Before contacting the PI you can also email people in the lab directly and ask questions about the lab in general, how are the meetings, how is the supervision organized (e.g. PI always in conf, general meetings onlys, one-one meetings, etc..), do you take holidays, do you work on weekends, are several people working on the same projects, ..... I did that when I was looking for my postdoc. In general people were happy to answer the questions, very positive and it was useful to see the differences between the labs and which one(s) would fit me best. It's not necessarily a question of good/bad bur rather a question of fit with what you want (it can also help you actually define what you want). But also it happened once that a person asked me to call and told me "don't come".. or even by email I had some kind of answer that made me think that's not a good lab for me.
My 2 cents,
First off, I'm very impressed by your memory skills! But that was some really great advice that I definitely learned from, so thanks for remembering it all and sharing it!
Haha thanks Whitney! I was impressed too, considering I was working on hardly any sleep and feeling a bit ill. I recalled more good advice a day after I wrote this, but I figured this was a lot. I hope you find it helpful for your own career. I think it will be a great benefit to you having Brian by your side, because he can help you avoid some of the pitfalls the inexperienced make.
That is a really good point about focusing on the PI that is the best fit for you. Sometimes it is not a question or good or bad but common philosophy. And many people prefer to talk vs. email if they want to tell you something negative, so it's not in writing. Thanks for sharing your experience!
Thanks for passing on this advice. When I was writing my PhD it felt like nobody was ever going to employ me. Seems mad looking back but I know lots of people feel that way. I left academia (though I miss it) so it makes me happy to see 'alternative careers' spoken of so positively
Me too. I was really happy to hear her make those comments about non-academic science jobs. She was very adamant about it. I miss it too.
Thank you for reading and posting a comment.
Excellent post with so many tips; thanks for sharing!
I felt the same excitement when i got a chance to attend a lecture by Prof. Werner Arber. I felt like I could just sit there and absorb every word he uttered for all eternity. He talked about how important it is for a scientist to keep all eyes open to any kind of abnormality in an experiment and warned us never to stick around an idea for too long..
It's great meeting your science idol, isn't it? Thanks for reading and commenting!