How I Got Here: Following Your Own Career Path

Podcast icon.

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

View Transcript Download Recording [MP3]

Podcast Transcript: How I Got Here: Following Your Own Career Path


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 Chemistry.

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 Scientific Counselors.

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 also…

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 their age.

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 year off.

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 California.

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 for science.

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 switched fields.

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 of this.

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 science.

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.

Dr. Rochelle Long:

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 wonderful gift.

And so I will stop there and look forward to having this conversation. Thank you for being here.

Dr. Rochelle Long:

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?”

Dr. Enrique De La Cruz:

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 looking.

Dr. Tracy Johnson:

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 characteristics.

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.

Dr. Rochelle Long:

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 training opportunity?”

Dr. Tracy Johnson:

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.

Dr. Enrique De La Cruz:

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 a scientist.

Dr. Rochelle Long:

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 matter?”

Dr. Enrique De La Cruz:

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.

Dr. Tracy Johnson:

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.

Dr. Rochelle Long:

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?”

Dr. Tracy Johnson:

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 trainees.

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.

Dr. Enrique De La Cruz:

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 we do.

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.

Dr. Rochelle Long:

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?”

Dr. Enrique De La Cruz:

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 to lead.”

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.

Dr. Tracy Johnson:

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.

Dr. Rochelle Long:

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?”

Dr. Enrique De La Cruz:

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 delivering end.

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.

Dr. Rochelle Long:

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 and productivity?”

Dr. Tracy Johnson:

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.

Dr. Enrique De La Cruz:

I’d just say, “Hear, hear.” That’s absolutely the right answer.

Dr. Rochelle Long:

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?

Dr. Enrique De La Cruz:

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 yourselves.

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.

Dr. Tracy Johnson:

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.

Dr. Rochelle Long:

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, everybody, today.