Saturday, October 10, 2009

Whoa. Where did that come from?

Note: I have no idea if these ramblings will make any sense. If they don't, I blame the horrendous cold and the cold medicine. Actually I probably shouldn't blog 'under the influence', but I'm going to anyway.

Making life-changing decisions is hard. Making the actual change is infinitely harder. That's when the real work begins, and it usually takes years. After all, they're not week-changing decisions. You take that first step. You start on your way. You keep your head down. You're watching your feet because the trail is can be rocky, your footing unsure, and you don't want to fall on your face right out of the gate. You keep going this way for a little while. Then you look up and see what's really in front of you. Sometimes it knocks the wind out of you.

When Paramed and I made the decision to move to the Northland so I could do a postdoc at BRI, we knew it wouldn't be easy. There were events prior to and after the decision that made us question if we'd made the right
one, not so much from the career standpoint, but because we were moving even farther away from family. We had no idea, though, just how hard the change would be. Even though we were both ready to move on, it was
tough leaving PSU City. We spent the first 5+ years of our marriage there, and it was the first place where we established a set of friends and habits that were completely independent of our families. Having spent our entire lives in the southern US, moving to the Northland was a HUGE culture shock. Plus it's always a challenge to walk into a group as the newbie, trying to figure out where you fit in and establish connections with the people. On top of this, there was a massive emotional roller coaster involving Paramed's plans and future for the first 9 months we were here. All of this is to say, for the past several months, I've been keeping my head down, watching my feet.

Then, over the past few weeks, many small things--blogs, conversations, ramblings of the subconscious, etc.--that caused me to look up, see what's in front of me regarding my career track, and say (initially at least), "What the hell did I get myself into?" To be honest, I'm a little jealous of Dr Becca, who said this week:
What seems to be most highly valued is having a real focus throughout your career, as opposed to flitting about learning a million methods in different fields.

... realizing that this is what is desirable in a New Investigator candidate, a sneaky grin crept onto my face because I was also realizing that I have GOT IT.

I'm jealous because I don't have that. I chose a different path, a different field, and it seems I've been trying to rationalize this to myself recently.

I think what it comes down to is that 'finding yourself', figuring out what you want to do with your life isn't a linear path for everyone. It certainly hasn't been for me. I briefly described my background when I first started this blog. Growing up where I did, I didn't know any scientists, and there certainly weren't any opportunities to do research as a high school student. I had loved science from the outset, but it was a long time before I considered it as a career. When I made the decision to pursue a career in science, I was almost done with my BS and jumped straight into grad school. I didn't take/have much time to explore areas outside of chemistry/biochemistry. I gravitated to biochem, but as a grad student, I was fascinated by more heavily bio/biomed-related research. Bear encouraged his grad students to keep up with what was going on in the literature outside our area of interests. I took that to heart. And I became intrigued by two fields that were quite far removed, in both content and techniques, from my graduate work.

Ultimately I chose one of those fields--immunology--for my postdoc work. Part of my reasoning was that immunology is constantly changing and evolving. There is really no shortage of questions and problems to work on. There is certainly a place in immunology for biochemistry and for tools emerging from chemical biology labs, which are not being widely used. I wanted the change work on something that was really important, to work in a field where a novel discovery has the potential to change medicine. And, for reasons that I can't even explain to myself, it just felt right. Maybe that's a poor reason to choose a new field, but it was one of mine, nonetheless.

Of course, that decision has brought a lot of things with it--like learning (obviously) immunology and, perhaps not so obviously, (re)learning cell signaling and physiology. I also realize that this choice all but guarantees taking a second postdoc before I start searching for my 'dream job'. Even then, it could very well count against me with some search committee/study section members that I switched fields. No one is guaranteed success in science, but sometimes I'm afraid that I might have made it much more difficult for myself.

But then I consider that one smart, successful immunologist decided to give me a chance--a chance to learn the field, yes, but also a chance to bring a fresh outlook to the project. He didn't bring me in and send the biochemist to purify antibodies or quantify binding constants. He gave me a problem that needs a biochemical perspective but is immunological at the core. Yes, it's been a bit rocky, but isn't almost every new project? And it's been exciting to see that the systems and pathways we're studying are slowly gaining more attention and interest--both in academia and industry.

I like this quote from Susumu Tonegawa in a recent piece in Cell about taking risks in science:
I keep telling young people, if you want to accomplish anything you have to be an optimist... You have to control you own life. You have to ask yourself why you do science. To put it bluntly, publishing papers in prestigious journals should not be the goal of a scientist. The goal is to discover something, to do something important.
In the end, it comes down to this: I chose to take a risk. I might fail. In fact, there's a good chance that I will fail--many times. I might even fail miserably. When I fail, I have to remember why I'm in it--for the thrill of the discovery, for the chance to have an impact--and pick myself up and go back again. And have as much fun as I can along the way.

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Comrade PhysioProf said...

Even then, it could very well count against me with some search committee/study section members that I switched fields. No one is guaranteed success in science, but sometimes I'm afraid that I might have made it much more difficult for myself.

You've got this completely backwards! Having received training in multiple fields that you can then integrate to make yourself uniquely qualified to pursue an exciting creative research program as a new PI is exactly what search committees are looking for. Tenure-track faculty applicants who have always been working in the same field throughout their graduate and post-doctoral training are *less* attractive.

If you re-read Dr. Becca's post on this topic, you'll see that this is pretty much what she was getting at. Her statement about "a million methods in different fields" should be interpreted as indicating that you need to construct a genuine narrative about how the different conceptual and methodological approaches you have been trained in can be fruitfully integrated, and not just be a dilettante.

biochem belle said...

PhysioProf-thanks for the comment. Sometimes it comes across that you should do something different but not too different. It's hard to be sure when you're starting out. Now it's a matter of getting it done.

Dr Becca, PhD said...

PhysioProf has it right--it's all about the narrative. There are people who bounce from high-profile lab to high-profile lab picking up that lab's special technique without knowing what it is about science they actually care about, or what problem they want to solve. Knowing what Big Question you're interested in, and having several angles by which to look at it (as it sounds like you do) is what's going to make search committees love you.

Spiny Norman said...

I largely agree with Physioprof. Some people work on a single problem for their whole career, and are wildly successful. But we nevertheless strongly prefer people who make a big change at the postdoc -- a change in problem, model, or technique. Probably the most successful youngish person in our department *totally* changed fields between grad school and postdoc -- more or less started a new career. Now he is recognized as perhaps the top person in his current field. Choosing to change demonstrates courage. Managing such a change well demonstrates flexibility, a capacity for personal growth, and shows that you're interested in more than one thing (I cannot overstate the importance of this last point). The key is that the change should not be arbitrary. Instead, it should be part of a narrative. I was here, and something in my past experience led to go there for reasons x and y, and maybe z. (Ideally you should also be going TOWARD a broad goal or set of goals and not running FROM a past experience...).

One more thing. I don't care what anyone tells you. Do NOT waste a line or a page on your CV telling search committees that you know how to run and SDS-PAGE gel or stain it with Coomassie brilliant blue. At this moment I'm deep into a stack of 350 job applications. You would be astonished how many people trying to get TENURE-TRACK FACULTY POSITIONS put on their CVs lists of techniques that a half-bright macaque could master. Obviously if you have mastered something deep or difficult and valuable, you should mention it, but not trivial methods! Every single time I see, this I ask: WTF is wrong with this person? WTF is wrong with the peers and mentors who presumably read their application materials before they were sent out?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

The key is that the change should not be arbitrary. Instead, it should be part of a narrative.

The change can absolutely *be* arbitrary; you just need to be able to create a narrative that it can fit into.

Obviously if you have mastered something deep or difficult and valuable, you should mention it, but not trivial methods!

No. Listing "techniques" on a faculty application CV should *never* be done.

Spiny Norman said...

PP and I are pretty much on the same page here. At some point a technique becomes an approach or even an entire field. If you're working at the cutting edge of mass spectrometry or electron tomography or single molecule techniques, you should say so. If you're not, techniques don't belong in your CV as separate items.

biochem belle said...

Thanks for the comments. Sounds like the major point is knowing how to pitch the goods.