In this episode of
Expert Insights for the Research Training Community, two longtime
NIGMS grantees, Dr. Enrique M. De La Cruz, a professor at Yale University,
and Dr. Tracy Johnson, a professor at University of California, Los
Angeles, chat about managing pivotal career decision points, weighing
short- and long-term goals, and planning a career path in science.
The original recording of this episode took place as a webinar on July 8,
2020, with NIGMS host Dr. Rochelle Long. A Q&A session with webinar
attendees followed Dr. De La Cruz and Dr. Johnson’s talk.
Recorded on July 8, 2020
Download Recording [MP3]
Welcome to Expert Insights for the Research Training Community—A podcast
from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Adapted from
our webinar series, this is where the biomedical research community can
connect with fellow scientists to gain valuable insights.
Dr. Rochelle Long:
Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to the NIGMS webinar series for
our trainee community. This was started during the time of COVID-19 in
order to offer some valuable online learning opportunities and resources
to our trainee community, but it is open to all.
I’m Rochelle Long. I’m your moderator today representing NIGMS, and I am
Director of the Division of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological
We’re about halfway through our second series, and you can follow these
webinars through Google, through YouTube, follow our Feedback Loop Blog,
or you can follow our NIGMS Twitter accounts. We have @NIGMSgenes and
@NIGMStraining. You can also go back and find any of our past
webinars—these are recorded, this is being recorded—so you can go to our
archive and look at any topics that you might have missed before.
Today’s webinar is entitled, “How I Got Here: Following Your Own Career
Path.” We hope to cover the topics of pivotal career decision points,
weighing short-term and long-term goals, and also planning for a career
path in science.
So we’re delighted with the speakers we have today. We have two
individuals who are longstanding colleagues of NIGMS. We have Tracy
Johnson, Ph.D., who is a professor at UCLA. She has been funded by NIGMS
for quite a while. She has a R01 grant on RNA processing and chromatin
modification. She is also the co-PI of an IRACDA grant for postdoctoral
research and training. She is a past chair of the MGA study section, and
she is a current member of the National Cancer Institute Board of
We also have another speaker today. It is Enrique De La Cruz, also Ph.D.
He is a professor at Yale University. He is also a long-term funded
grantee of NIGMS, and he has an R35 MIRA award on actin filament
mechanics. He is a past regular member of the MSFC study section, and he
is a current member of our National Institute of General Medical
Sciences National Advisory Council.
We are delighted to have both of these speakers today. We thank them for
coming. And we’ll begin with Enrique speaking first today.
Dr. Enrique De La Cruz:
Thank you, Rochelle. Before I begin, I’d like to thank NIGMS for
maintaining the scientific community alive and active during this very
challenging time. And your efforts are laudable and have not gone
unnoticed. We really appreciate the commitment you have to the
scientific community, as well as the general public.
I also want to thank Tracy for being my partner in crime today. I’ve
been a long-time fan of her work, but I think this is the first time
we’ve actually shared a session together. As Rochelle pointed out, the
topic of today’s discussion is how we got to where we are, and
specifically following one’s own career path.
And so I put together a few slides that are going to, I hope, address
the topics, the talking points that Rochelle pointed out. But before we
start actually addressing these, it’s important to begin how I got here.
And first and foremost, it’s important for me to identify myself in
terms of my family heritage, and I’m a first-generation American. My
mother, father, and sister were born in Cuba. That’s a picture of my
mother with my father and my big sister when she was a little baby. I
love this photo because this was taken a few days after my father came
to the United States to reunite with his wife and my sister. But it’s
There’s a story behind this, because my mother and father were in their
late teens and in their early 20s, they were married in Cuba. And this
was the time when the Cuban revolution was well on its way, and the
political climate of the time resulted in a large exodus. And my father
actually left behind my mother, his then-wife, when she was six months
pregnant, and he came to the United States, came to Dallas, and ended up
working and eventually ended up in New Jersey, which is where I’m
from—and I’ll show you in just a moment.
But it took my mother two years before she could get out of Cuba, and
she had to actually go to Spain. So this photo of my father is literally
the first day after he got to see his daughter for the first time and
his wife after not seeing them for well over two years. And it’s quite
sad, but I think it’s a real testament to the commitment that parents
have for their children, which is where it all really begins.
And as I said, I was born in Newark, New Jersey, a lovely place,
although most of you probably only know it as the airport. I marked
Newark Airport there. It’s one of the busiest places, and Newark now
it’s a relatively lovely place, but when I was growing up there in the
1970s, this is pretty much what it looked like. It was a pretty large
urban center that, like many cities in the United States in the 1970s,
was ignored and led to a considerable amount of decay and decline of the
sustainability of many aspects, but particularly the schools.
And so as a result, in the 2nd grade my parents moved literally just
right across the river to a town named Carney because they had good
public school systems compared to the ones that we were at in Newark.
And I eventually ended up graduating from Carney High School there in
1987, which is giving away my age, but one should never be ashamed of
And so this is really one of the first parts of talking about pivotal
career decisions, and I often ask myself, when and how did I decide to
be a scientist?
While I would love to say that ever since I was a little kid I was
curious and I liked to take things apart and put them back together,
that would be a complete misrepresentation of what I aspired to as a
child. Like many kids, I wanted to be a soccer player or a famous
musician or an actor. But nevertheless, there is this quote from Joseph
Goldstein that says, “If we’re facing in the right direction, all we
have to do is keep walking.”
And so I often think deeply about how I became a scientist, and I really
attribute my mom and dad for pointing me in the right direction. The
beautiful thing about my parents’ parenting style is that they didn’t
encourage me to be a scientist, but given the suffering that they had
from leaving Cuba, leaving family behind, the one thing, the one thing
that they really emphasized in all of their children was that we needed
to get an education.
Because my mother had said to me many, many times, I still remember as a
child her saying to me, an education is probably the only thing that
cannot be taken away from you. I don’t know if that’s entirely true, but
it’s a sentiment of how an education and the power of learning can
really change one’s life in ways that poverty, revolution, politics
cannot take away. And so they really encouraged me to study and to do
well in my schooling.
When I was in high school I joined a work/study program. So this is when
you go to school for half a day, take your requirements—math, gym,
English—and then I went to work at Hoffmann-La Roche Pharmaceutical
Company. So I was 16 years old when I started doing science. But it was
this experience of working in a lab there that actually made me want to
go to college and study science.
And because I was from Newark and I was from New Jersey, I decided to
apply to college, and of course I applied to Rutgers University, the
state university of New Jersey. And I applied to the Newark campus
because that’s where I was from. Now this place is a small campus, but
Rutgers Newark completely changed my life only for the better.
But it was particularly this individual, Barry Komisaruk, who ran a
minority biomedical research support program, or MBRS program, which
incidentally has been supported by GM for over 35 years, this specific
program that I went to. And it was with Barry that I ended up doing
research, working in a lab for four years with Harvey Fader and Chris
Robelot, and it was an absolutely wonderful experience. I learned so
much. I got the research bug.
But like most undergraduate students, I decided that I wanted to go to
medical school and be a doctor. This is what we normally did. This is
what all biology majors aspired to, and I actually had the opportunity
to go to medical school, but I admittedly never really thought about
what I wanted to do for the rest of my life until it was time to do it.
And at that point, I actually said to myself, “I don’t really want to be
a doctor.” I wanted to be a teacher more than anything else. So here I
found myself with a dilemma: should I go to medical school or should I
go and pursue what I actually wanted to do?
Now the problem was that I didn’t take any GREs so that I could go on to
graduate school, and I took what is now called the gap year, but at that
time a gap year was not something one aspired to. It basically reflected
poor planning, which I admit to, to this day. But nevertheless, I took a
I worked in a chemistry lab, and I took the GREs, and I applied to
graduate school. And I ended up going to Johns Hopkins to work with this
guy named Tom Pollard. And Tom Pollard is…I love this man as I do a
parent. He really took me under his wing, and I got my Ph.D. with him at
Johns Hopkins, and then subsequently we moved to the Salk Institute in
And then I decided that I wanted to go back to the East Coast, for many
reasons. Primarily because I wanted to be close to my family—and that’s
something that’s important to me. And if it’s important to you, don’t
ever deny yourself the proximity to your family. That is as important as
any career move you can make, because it is central to being happy for
many of us—and it was for me.
So I moved to the East Coast. I moved to the University of Pennsylvania.
I worked with Michael Ostap, and I worked with Lee Sweeney as a postdoc
for four years in the physiology department. And then in 2001 I joined
Yale University as an assistant professor in the molecular biophysics
and biochemistry department.
Now I’d like to just take a moment here and pause and acknowledge what
it is that we’re looking at here. So what do we see there right now? We
see four white dudes. That’s right. And the reason that I am where I am
is because these four individuals really genuinely cared about me. They
got to know me. They got to understand where my strengths and weaknesses
were. They supported me at times of weakness and at times of humility,
and they encouraged me to aspire to everything that I did subsequently.
And this is a valuable reminder to me that good people are everywhere.
They come in all shapes, colors, genders, and we should all aspire to be
good people that really help others. And I am not too proud to say that
on a good day, I’m pretty much just an example of what happens when good
people focus and really try to help others, particularly their students
in these cases.
And then after being at Yale, I’d like to say everything was wonderful
and I was doing everything that I wanted to do in my life. But the truth
of the matter is that these people here, these are photos of people in
my lab, it’s fair to say that pretty much everything I’ve done as an
independent investigator was done by these people here.
OK, I guide them. I navigate them. I mentor them. But the work is done
by them, and many of the ideas are derived from their efforts. And with
them, we worked in many exciting areas of science, as Rochelle pointed
out, supported by General Medicine, NIGMS. We worked on molecular
motors, lipid cleaving, and calcification enzymes.
And so here’s where I’d like to touch on a different point of how does
one plan for a career path in science? And I’d like to say that all of
the research projects that we’ve worked on in the 20 years that I’ve
been an independent investigator were because I’ve had this good nose
But the truth of the matter is how I chose these research areas were
based on real, personal interactions with other people. And the first,
actin filament assembly, which is the primary focus of my work now, it
was really driven by the fact that I didn’t understand some aspects of
this. It was my first true love in science. I got my Ph.D. in this. I
But there were so many aspects of this that confused me, and I still
didn’t understand, despite reading it in textbooks. So I began working
on it, and as a result, I identified areas that actually needed to be
reevaluated, and 20 years later we’re still trying to work them out.
The second one of RNA helicase or motor protein enzymes, I was literally
having lunch with two of my colleagues—Tom Steitz and Peter Moore, who
were RNA and helicase and polymerase experts—and I was just having lunch
with them, asking them questions about helicases work. And I was very
surprised that they did not know the answer to many of the questions
that I was asking, so as a result, I decided to start looking into it
and I decided to start working on it.
And the third, these nucleotide processing enzymes, is work that I’ve
been carrying on now for about 15 years with my friend and colleague,
Demetrios Braddock. We just founded a company that incidentally just
went public yesterday studying these enzymes. And how did I begin
working on this project?
Demetrios had an undergraduate student who took one of my classes and
came to talk to me about analyzing data. And as a result, Demetrios and
I worked together with his student, and we’ve had a very long, fruitful
collaboration ever since.
And so I guess the lesson here in choosing your career path is to
believe in your work and the reasons that you’re doing it. And don’t
feel that you have to have all of the answers. You just need to be aware
of responding when the information to pursue something comes before you.
Now the pivotal career decisions.
The second part that I’d like to discuss is something that I think about
a lot these days, and that is why am I still a professor? I’m 50 years
old. I’ve done more than I ever imagined I’d be doing as a scientist.
And I could do something else at this point in my life.
But I continue to do science, and I really think deeply about why I
continue to do what I do. Because you need to stay motivated, and I
think of George Washington Carver, who said, “Since new developments are
the products of a creative mind, we must therefore stimulate and
encourage that type of mind in every way possible.”
And so the bottom line here is that class is always in session. There
are always people out there that are eager to learn from you, people
that will engage you in your interest and that are looking to learn
about things they didn’t know they didn’t know. And I’ve been just
horrified, as most of us have, about the inequalities that exist around
us and how they just simply cry injustice.
And so in my 20 years as a professor, I went back and looked at my CV,
and I realized that I’d done about 100 different events that were geared
towards helping students, particularly underrepresented students or
underserved students and women to pursue career paths and career
development. And while this is absolutely wonderful, I questioned the
extent to which this can actually have an impact.
And one day I decided to actually ask the people in my lab how many of
these outreach activities they were doing. And my lab, which was only I
think five people at the time, they did 15 events in one year. And so I
realized here that this passion that I’ve had for teaching and educating
and training the next generation of scientists was something that was
shared by my trainees, and I believe we had a tremendous impact in all
And these are just some photos of some of the sessions we do. And it’s
not just graduate students. We do elementary school things, science fair
projects, high school career fairs, and it’s been really, truly probably
the single most fulfilling aspect of my career is to see the students
that come in at high school levels and go on to pursue careers in
And I think this one quote from one of my former undergraduate students,
Karina Nunez, who she came to work in my lab as an undergraduate student
from when she was in Puerto Rico, she subsequently went to Johns
Hopkins. She recently got her Ph.D., and she sent me an email a few
years ago basically just thanking me for giving her the opportunity. And
this is a photo of her with some students that she was mentoring, and
she said to me, “Who would have thought that at Puerto Rican girl could
teach science to students from other countries at Johns Hopkins?
Probably no one.” And it’s moments like this that really make being a
scientist truly one of the most exciting, fulfilling, and truly
rewarding careers that one could ever choose.
If I had to do it all over again, I absolutely would do it all over
again. I’m going to leave you with two last reminders, and then I’m
going to hand the stage over to Tracy.
And the first is as you’re thinking about your career and what you want
to do for the rest of your life, just Joe Strummer. If I have a hero,
it’s this guy, the singer and guitarist for the punk rock band The
Clash. And he wrote simply, “The future is unwritten.” Keep that in
mind. Your destiny is not written out yet, and you have control over
your future. You’ve got to grab that bull by the horns and steer it to
where you want.
And the last thing I want to leave you with is don’t be mislead when
everybody says, “Oh, science is wonderful. You can have everything.” No,
you cannot have everything. Science, like any career, is made with
sacrifices and decisions. But science is amazing, and you can have a
little bit of everything.
And so I have a wonderful family. I get to travel the world. I got
amazing students that I get to work with. I learn science. I teach
science. I live with undergraduate students, and I can certainly say
that science makes the best things in life even better. And I just hope
you will always keep that in mind as you aspire to a career in science.
The future is in your hands.
And I’m going to stop right there, and I’ll stop sharing my screen and I
will pass the mic over to Tracy. Thank you all.
Thanks, Enrique. Your love of people really comes through. Tracy, I’d
like to invite you to make your opening remarks.
Dr. Tracy Johnson:
Wonderful. Thank you so much for inviting me to be part of this
conversation, and thank you, Enrique. That was so inspiring, and I’ve
been a long admirer of your work and your passion, and so it’s really an
honor to get a chance to follow you in your footsteps today.
When I was thinking about participating in this discussion, I started
thinking about really what do we mean when we have conversations about
pathways or your path? And I always sort of envision walking through a
forest or someplace with a lot of foliage and discovering a cleared foot
space that you can then follow into a clearing.
And then I have this vision that then after navigating the complicated
environment, the direction becomes obvious, and then you can reach your
final destination. And so “path” sort of implies that there is maybe a
pre-described way to go such that as long as you stay on it, you can
find your way.
And so today I’d like to unpack that a little bit and start by really
challenging this concept of path and then tell you a little bit about my
own experiences. And then talk a little bit about the lessons that I
learned that maybe there are some nuggets that will resonate with some
of you here.
First, I’d like to challenge the notion that there is a set path. I
mean, in reality, many of us I think as you beautifully heard an
illustration of this from Enrique today, in reality, many of us have to
create a path because there aren’t people who necessarily look like us
or look like you, grew up like you, or have the same history.
It’s important to recognize that there are many ways to get to a
destination, and just because it isn’t exactly how others have done it
doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible. And I think what’s interesting is
that as each person forges their path, they may, in fact, be clearing a
way to create a model that can be followed by others.
The second notion I’d like to challenge about this idea of a path is the
idea of a path can sometimes devalue the role of exploration, which
means trying things that may seem to veer a bit outside of the lines
that can be a crucial part of the process of getting to whatever the
destination is. And in this case I would argue—and I’m going to come
back to this—that understanding one’s own values, which of course
requires deep reflection, can allow one to see the long-term view and
then point oneself toward it, even if the specific details of the
journey aren’t always clear. And that’s an idea that I will return to.
So I’d argue that the process of getting there is just as important,
really, as the destination. And so I’ll say a little bit about my own
personal story, not necessarily because it’s typical, but hopefully it
will at least put my other comments into context, and then in so doing
maybe highlight a couple of pivot points.
I was an undergraduate at the University of California San Diego, and
when I started as an undergraduate, I was not a science major. In fact,
it was very clear to me that I was not a scientist, because my vision
was scientists were…It just didn’t resonate with who I thought about
myself to be. And what really made the difference is professors who saw
something and actively encouraged me to pursue an interest in science.
And that really comes back to mentorship, a theme that I think you’ve
heard already, but I will return to it. So I’ll just highlight one
particular example was when I started as an undergraduate, I started
working in the lab of a relatively new assistant professor who is now
very well known, Jim Kadonaga, and we were studying transcription. And
so he gave me a research project.
It was a real project in which the results mattered, and people in the
lab were interested in what I was doing. He encouraged me to write a
small grant as an undergraduate. So he and the rest of the lab treated
me like a scientist, so I felt like I had the capacity to do science
because of that very intentional and thoughtful mentorship that assumed
that I was capable.
So that was kind of the first lesson in the importance of intentional
mentorship. And I think, like Enrique mentioned, in my mind, up until
that the only thing I saw as a possibility would be medical school,
because we’d all seen doctors on TV. But it was the first time I
actually saw the magic of research.
And then I had other mentors who asked, I think, the critical question,
why is it that you want to be a doctor? And my answer, as many probably
this sounds familiar, is, I want to work with people. I want to help
people. And then the reality is that there are lots of ways to do that
besides being a doctor, which I just never really understood until I had
mentors who really helped to show me the way.
So then I went on to graduate school at Berkeley, and I worked in
another transcription lab with an extraordinary biochemist, Mike
Chamberlain, and this is where I’d say I had the second pivot point.
Because as a graduate student, I was involved in a graduate student
organization that also provided or emphasized the role of
mentoring—graduate students mentoring high school students—and so I
started working with local high school students, mostly students who
were from underserved schools, and I realized I loved teaching.
And what I loved was I loved the idea that you could see a spark in a
student, and it was a reminder of how just really transformative it is
to learn something new and to then just kind of experience the beauty of
nature. I recall when I was an undergraduate I fell in love with Mark
Ptashne’s “A Genetic Switch.”
So this group of high school students, not knowing any better, that was
the book that we all read together. And the reality of it is that since
then I’ve learned that some of those students, it was the first time
they’d actually really experienced science and the love of science from
someone who was also in love with science.
So at that point that was a pivot point because it was clear to me that
I loved teaching, I loved research, and the only way I was going to be
able to get paid to do the things I loved was to go into academia. It
was pretty clear to me that that was going to be the choice.
I went on to do a postdoc with another extraordinary biochemist and
geneticist, John Abelson. And in working with John, one of the magical
things about working in John’s lab was that the beauty and love of
science was always permeating the atmosphere, and that really made a
difference. And then the other piece of working with John that goes back
to this idea of mentorship is that John not only created an environment
in which everyone could thrive scientifically, but he also was very
active in promoting and providing access and exposure of the people of
his lab to the larger scientific community.
And so I will say one of the really important messages that I learned
from my postdoc is that even when people say writing grants is hard,
getting papers accepted is hard, getting jobs is difficult, those same
people weren’t giving up their jobs. So it was clear to me that there
was something about this profession that even when it was challenging
could be transformative.
And then I’ll say one last thing about a final pivot point, which
actually I think I’m in the middle of now. I’ve recently taken the
position of becoming dean of life sciences at UCLA. And I mention this
because in many ways, and maybe Enrique can say something about this as
well, administration is kind of a loaded concept among academics. And I
have received some emails that say, “Congratulations and condolences.”
There’s this complicated sense of what does it mean to be an
administrator? And honestly, the path to this is not totally clear, but
I will say that I love research and have every intention of continuing
it, but at this moment that we’re in—because of economics, because of
racial reckoning, because of so many things that are happening—there are
huge challenges, of course, but opportunities.
And so in a way, I feel like this is a pivot point where it might be an
exciting time to try to rise to the occasion. So the key lessons, if I
could just summarize, are the following.
The first is that I’ve learned along this journey is the extraordinary
power of good mentoring. Mentors make a huge difference. And each mentor
doesn’t necessarily provide the same lessons. It’s critical to have
different mentors who can provide different insights. And I guess what’s
obvious from both my comments and Enrique’s comments, they don’t always
look like you. They don’t always have the same experiences. But by being
intentional, mentors can be profoundly, profoundly effective.
And I would say that something I’ve really learned is that, whether you
know it or not, this is particularly to the trainees, you are a mentor
to someone who is watching how you do what you do and taking important
lessons from it. So why not be intentional by reaching back, reaching
out, and being that person who can have that impact on someone’s life?
The second lesson is a recognition that there really isn’t a set path,
that every person has to approach this journey differently. And face it,
there was a time when everyone doing science really had similar
backgrounds, pedigrees, cultural frameworks, and the idea of a path is
based on these experiences. But simply put, those just may not
necessarily apply anymore. And so recognizing that there is no set path
and we each have to find our way to whatever our ultimate passion and
goal is can relieve some of the anxiety of questioning whether you’re
doing the right thing.
The third lesson really stems from that, which is that there is a need
for deep reflection to know what’s really important to you and be
willing to explore the comfort edges, recognizing that if you really
know what’s important to you, know your values, keeping your own
personal North Star in view, then it’s possible to wander even a little
outside of the lines, and it will feel less uncomfortable.
And only if you know yourself and what’s valued and what’s important can
you know really whether you’re on the right track. So those are some of
the lessons that I find that I’m learning over and over again as I
pursue this career.
And then I’ll just finally say, in terms of just being an academic, I
can’t imagine any other job. And the reason why is because you get to go
to work every day and interact with brilliant people—students,
colleagues, students at every level from high school to graduate
students, and it’s always fresh. And also, I think what’s very clear in
this moment that we’re in is that scientists can have an impact.
And if we choose to grasp this opportunity, we can really have an impact
on everything from public health to the way in which we envision access
to academia, and so this job at this moment, I think, feels like a
And so I will stop there and look forward to having this conversation.
Thank you for being here.
Thank you so much, Tracy. Thanks for talking about your own personal
path and the importance of values in the decisions you make.
So I do see a question in the chat box. First of all it compliments both
of our speakers, “These are amazing insights. Thank you for that.” And
the person goes on to say, “I have a question regarding mentorship. I’m
just starting very baby steps to join the scientific community, but
until now I can’t find a mentor that helps me. What do you suggest?”
May I ask where you’re looking? Because your mentors are not always
necessarily where you think they may be. So your advisor need not be
your primary mentor.
Ideally, it would be someone that has a vested interest in you as an
individual, and it would be someone within your community. But it
doesn’t have to be your Ph.D. thesis advisor or one of your teachers. It
would be someone who is genuinely interested in your growth as an
individual and your character and has, quite simply, the capacity to see
you for who you want to be.
And family members can be mentors. I think I’ve had family members that
were mentors. We look for scientists that are in positions that we
aspire to to be our mentors, but they can come in many career roles. And
so the question was, I can’t seem to find one.
My first question, to get more information, would be to ask where you’re
I would follow up on that. I think that’s such an excellent point that
Enrique just highlighted. And I think one of the challenges is sometimes
we have our image of a mentor. You think, OK, I want to get to this
place, so I know my mentor has to have all of these specific
May need to be a Latinx scientist studying neurobiology who is at one of
these institutions. And I would suggest that finding a mentor means
being very open to thinking about all of the things that go into you
being who you want to be. And it might be that your mentor becomes a
composite of many people who are able to capture aspects of what it is
that you’re looking for.
So for example, I had a mentor who was an amazing, amazing biochemist,
and another mentor who was really thoughtful about mentoring students
who were coming from underrepresented groups, and another mentor who was
very focused on raising a child who had special needs. And the composite
was someone who was capturing elements of understanding how to navigate
the world of academia by taking pieces of what each of these individuals
did. So I think that asking where you’re looking and then keeping your
eyes open to finding mentors in unexpected places.
Thank you both. There’s also a comment on the chat box, NIGMS has the
National Research Mentoring Network, the NRMN. If you just Google NIGMS
NRMN, I think it will pop up. You can also find people who have signed
up and offered their willingness to interact with individuals to serve
in the mentoring network. So I suggest that as a possible source.
There’s another question. “What advice do you have for succeeding at the
point of transitioning to the postdoc and maximizing your postdoctoral
Maybe I can start here, thinking broadly first.
As you’re starting your postdoc, as you begin that part of the process,
really thinking about two things. You can think about where do I want to
be at the end of my postdoc? What kind of job, what kind of
institution do I want to be at? But also, what kind of experiences are
going to make me feel complete?
So if experiences that are going to really make you feel fulfilled
include teaching, include mentoring, include industry, if those are the
things that you know are going to make you feel fulfilled, then start
thinking early about how you capture aspects of those experiences even
as a postdoc. I know, for example, that at some institutions in addition
to postdoctoral fellowship programs like IRACDA, there are
opportunities, for instance, for postdocs to be involved in teaching—not
full time, but being involved in teaching to see, understand whether
that’s first what you love, and also to gain the experience that then
you can leverage as you start looking for faculty positions.
And so finding ways of sprinkling those experiences into your
postdoctoral activities so that you’re prepared for the process of
getting, ultimately, the kind of job that you would really like. I would
say one thing about the research aspect of it that I learned best from
seeing other people do this is thinking about what kind of projects you
can begin to develop as a postdoc that you can perhaps take with you if
you’re starting, for example, an independent faculty position, and
planning those ahead of time.
And that requires really deep conversation with your mentor to ensure
that you’re on the same page. So communication with your mentor is an
absolutely critical step for preparing for success through your postdoc.
I’d like to just reiterate what Tracy said, because it’s absolutely
correct. At some point you have to ask yourself, where do I see myself
in 10 years? Or not where will I be living, what kind of position will I
have, but what will I be doing in 10 years? Because if you aspire to
being a teacher, then you should pursue a postdoc where you’ll get
teaching experience and skills and be able to strengthen this.
If you’re really all about research, then your pathway, your options for
postdocs can vary quite greatly. And I’ll rephrase what she said in a
slightly different way, and that is, if you define your goal, the
success, and to be successful is to be happy and satisfied with what
you’re doing, then there are other factors that will play a role. And I
don’t want to understate the importance of things that scientists have
long been told shouldn’t matter, like being close to their families.
When I was growing up, being near a family was not really a career
option. It was you did what was best for your career. But it is becoming
increasingly clear to me that that is central for many people to be
happy and fulfilled and actually enjoy what they’re doing. So it’s not
just about your career. It’s about how you see yourself in the world as
Thank you both. I’d also point out to those of you who are interested in
the postdoctoral experience, again, follow the NIGMS Twitter accounts,
particularly @NIGMStraining. There are other webinars coming up through
our PRAT program that you might be interested in following. And they’re
open to the public too, when they are listed in the Twitter account.
I have another question about postdoctoral experience and another one
about new faculty experience. So the question is, “People say that being
a long-term postdoc at a single lab does not give a good impression when
you apply for faculty jobs. Do you agree with this idea or does it not
I’ll take this one, Tracy. I’d like to say that it doesn’t matter, but I
can’t speak for everyone. There are many people that view a long
duration somewhere as a deficiency or as a sign of a concern. The
reality is you could be a postdoc for six, seven years, and if you’ve
been incredibly productive during that time, the duration is not really
going to matter a whole lot. We’ve hired faculty in my own department
that have done extended postdocs and stayed on as research scientists
and then become professors.
So I would worry less about the time than I would with what you’re doing
with that time. But I think your sentiment, or at least probably
something that’s been conveyed to you, does have some truth—that if
you’re sitting around somewhere for too many years, it’s indicative of a
problem in many people’s eyes. But that’s just something that you need
to remedy by convincing them that it’s actually not a concern.
I love that answer. And I would just add that one of the things that we
all sometimes struggle with is your story is yours to tell. So if on the
outside it looks like you’ve been one place of this long, you know your
story about why you’re there, and what you’ve gotten out of the
experience, and why that’s been important to you, and why that makes you
maybe more adept at starting your own independent position.
And so I would just encourage, I think this may be the answer to a
number of questions: recognizing your agency in the story you tell about
your experiences and then think about how those have made you better
equipped for the next step.
I have a couple of tough questions coming up. Maybe this is reflective
of our times. “I am a new PI who is trying to cultivate a supportive
mentoring environment in my lab that motivates people’s joy for science.
But because the world is what it is, sometimes I am burned out to be
motivated myself. When this happens, what strategies can I use to
continue to have a positive atmosphere without letting my own negative
emotions get in the way?”
If I could take that one first. Someone told me recently that it’s like
when you’re on a plane, and the instructions come over the loudspeaker
or the intercom, and the instructions are to first put on your own
oxygen mask before you help anyone else. And that is so critical that as
a faculty member we often really do want what’s best for our trainees,
because that’s why we have the job that we have, but if you haven’t
taken care of yourself, it is very difficult to tune in to the needs of
So figuring out what each of us needs to do to recharge, to recapture
optimism—that might mean that you need to take some time to volunteer
with elementary school students and see the magic of learning from that
perspective—but whatever it is, to recharge first before you can fully
engage in supporting trainees the way you want to.
I would also add that there’s nothing wrong with being honest about hard
situations, particularly the ones we’re living through right now. These
are very hard times, and every single person on this call is struggling
at this this very day. And don’t feel that it’s your job to act like
everything is fine. You’re not going to be helping anyone by ignoring
what is very real and we are all experiencing. I would also just add as
well that scientists, my general experience and maybe some of you would
agree, scientists can be pretty downers and complain a whole lot, right?
They spend a lot of time complaining about stuff instead of actually
talking about the things that are wonderful. So recalibrating, making
believe you’re talking to your mom and telling her what it is that you
like about what you do. And if I could be quite honest, the only piece
of advice that I think I would give to you as young scientists is to
right now get a little piece of paper and write down why you like being
a scientist and put that little piece of paper in a drawer. Don’t throw
it away. And I bet you a nickel in 20 years you’re going to look at that
and you’re going to forget why you wanted to be a scientist because we
all get so caught up in everything that we’re doing, with deadlines and
pressures and obligations that we forget what actually makes us do what
And that’s why I said I ask myself, “Why am I still a professor?”
Because I’d be lying if I didn’t say that some days I’d pretty much
rather be doing anything but this. But there are these reminders that
you have to be well aware of. As Tracy said, you have to know who you
are, and you have to be true to yourself. And sometimes we forget, so
write it down; you’ll need it. But don’t feel that it’s your job to make
everything seem like it’s OK for other people. You will not help them
actually solve the real problems that we’re all experiencing and dealing
with right now.
I like the 20-year time capsule idea. So clearly, you’re both very
accessible, because I have a number of questions continuing in this
vein. The next one is, “I’ve had a difficult time reckoning with the
idea of continuing to work in a space where underrepresented identities
are continuously more and more marginalized and the effects this can
have on our mental health. What advice do you have to prevent the
effects of imposter syndrome that will inevitably appear and reappear?”
I don’t know if I have any advice. But maybe it would comfort you to
know that after being at Yale for 20 years, I’m head of one of the
residential colleges. I’m chair of my department. And I still don’t feel
like I fit in here—just for the record. And I’m not too proud to say
that. It’s very deep-rooted.
And there is a quote that I have from Julie Freischlag, who was the head
of surgery at Johns Hopkins University. And when she became the head of
surgery at Johns Hopkins, she was the first woman to ever take on the
head position of any surgery department of any medical school in the
nation, I believe, and she was certainly the surgery started at Johns
Hopkins. And she went to the dean of faculty and said to her, she said,
“I’m sorry, but I just don’t feel like I fit in.” And the response of
the dean of faculty to her was, “Your job is not to fit in; your job is
And I found that to be a very profound response, but also a revealing
statement that you have this incredibly accomplished woman who is the
head of the surgery department where it all started, and she still
doesn’t fit in. But that’s not her job. Dealing with it requires an
understanding of the factors and the people involved, but it is a real
struggle, and I wish I had better ways of dealing with it myself.
I’m going to remember that example. I think it’s a wonderful and
resonant example. I was recently at a talk in which the discussion of
imposter syndrome came up, and I thought that one of the suggestions was
really powerful. And it’s, first of all, recognizing that everybody has
it. Everybody has it.
People who you would never think have experienced imposter syndrome do.
So recognizing that it is a natural outgrowth of high standards and
aspirations for success, so it is just there. But then to not stop
there, to recognize it, to call it out, and to have that conversation
with the voices in your head.
For example, if there is this voice that says you haven’t succeeded, you
haven’t done enough, you’re not good enough, take that out of the box
and say, “OK, well let’s look at the evidence.” And what you find is
that the evidence is not consistent with that little voice. Sure, that
voice is there, but what have you done?
Here are things that tell you that narrative is not only unconstructive
but false. And it can be very useful to just take on the imposter so
that you can put the imposter in its place. But also recognize that
everybody experiences it, and nothing worth doing is easy.
Thank you. I have a couple of questions in the box about personal life.
The first one is, “How have you approached mentors with personal
problems that affect your studies or research productivity? My mentor,
who is also my PI, has always been approachable and willing to discuss
things, but I have always had a hard time approaching the subject. What
advice would you give?”
It’s sharing a vulnerability with someone. My advice would be to feel
open and willing to discuss these concerns with your advisors and your
mentors. I feel very proud to say that many of my students and postdocs
have come to me with personal crises and the outcome of this was a much
stronger relationship. It’s hard to do, and I’ve also been on the
Every single person that I showed you a photo of earlier there really
helped me during some really bad times. But I had to swallow my pride
and leave it on the side and realize and understand that I needed
someone who genuinely cared about me and was not going to judge me to
help me. And you can reciprocate that to other people as well, and what
ends up happening is a very strong, lifelong relationship as a result of
letting your guard down and just really showing that you need help and
understanding that there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
I’ll go on to one more question, again it’s related to personal life but
slightly different, “How did you both manage your career progression in
situations where personal life must take priority over research progress
Maybe I can start that one. It comes back to having a fundamental
understanding of your priorities and what’s important. And sometimes the
most important thing is a parent, a child, a loved one, and if that’s
the case, then there are times when that just has to be the priority.
And not to feel guilty about it, because ultimately the person you have
to answer to is yourself. And if you’ve made sacrifices that are
fundamentally contrary to your values, it’s going to be much harder to
look in the mirror at the end of the day.
So giving yourself the space to recognize that sometimes the personal,
those things that we think of as personal, things that we have to
confront, just have to take priority. I will say one piece of advice
that I got that was really powerful many years ago, actually from
Frances Arnold at Caltech, was to, when you’re thinking about your
personal responsibilities, your research and professional
responsibilities, know what is fundamental and know what’s crucial.
So sometimes the most important thing is, for example, spending time
with a child. That is something that only you can do. There may be other
things that involve home life that you aren’t the only one who can do,
so you may have to just outsource that, or let it go, or let somebody
else do it. But those things that are fundamental to your value system,
having, for example, a relationship with an individual or a child or
something like that, then one has to construct the professional life in
a way that’s consistent with those values, even if it means that there
are some things that have to be let go.
I’d just say, “Hear, hear.” That’s absolutely the right answer.
I want to thank both of you today. In a moment, I’m going to give you
time to have the final word. But before I do so, clearly you each began
by talking about your own career paths and mentors that you have had.
But what you have demonstrated in your answers to questions today is the
kind of mentors you are. You’re not only scientifically excellent but
also thoughtful and compassionate, and that clearly comes across from
both of you, and I thank you for that.
In closing, I wanted to offer each of you the chance to give one final
piece of advice about the kinds of mentors you are today, in this day
and age, and what’s the one thing you would say to your young self if
you encountered that person now?
Well, what I would say to myself if I was younger, I would say, it’s OK
if you always feel unprepared and unqualified for everything you do in
your life. I would just, like Tracy said, really just be fair to
When I look back at my 30-plus years of doing science, there are times
where I could have been more supportive of myself and less critical of
myself. And I certainly don’t think that I benefitted from being very
hard and having unreasonable expectations placed on myself. I’m lucky
that I have…I feel like I’ve been close with family, so I’ve always had
this sense that I am loved by somebody. But I would probably tell myself
to love myself a little bit more, particularly when I needed it most.
Yeah, something very similar I would say. There may be a two-part answer
to the question. The first part is to address specifically maybe an
important message that maybe overrides, that is an overriding theme, and
that would be to really understand yourself and your values, and dive
deep and have that understanding because that is what will guide you
through times that are triumphs and times that are challenges, having
that deep knowledge of who you are and what’s important.
But I would also say the message to myself, which should be obvious, but
the message would be that in mistakes or in things that feel like
failures are some of the most important lessons that you can learn.
Every time that something has really felt like it was not a success, or
a failure, those are the things I have learned the most from and have
made me a better person, mentor, scientist, parent.
And then it makes those times when mistakes are made or when things are
not perfect feel less enormous. It puts them in perspective, and they
are opportunities. So I think I would tell my former self that before
I’d made all the mistakes, that those are going to be opportunities
where I’m going to be better on the other end of them.
So it sounds like your bottom-line messages are be kind to yourself,
accept and learn from the mistakes that will inevitably occur. Well,
thank you very much for your time today, both of you, Enrique and Tracy.
That was fabulous. We’re so glad you were willing to take the time to
speak with us, and I will encounter you along the way.
And for those of you who are listening who want to go back to listen to
this or any of the other webinars in our series, again you can find us
just Google NIGMS and webinar series for the training community or
follow @NIGMStraining. Look around, you’ll find us. Thanks and goodbye,
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