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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.

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