Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Bob

I’d been working in his lab for two years, and I’d made an interesting discovery but couldn’t find a mechanism*.  I knew that most of the other postdocs tended not to meet with Bob about this sort of thing. But he was my advisor, and I needed advice.

I sat down, across the table from him in his office, and explained my predicament.

Bob: Is it X?
Me: No.
Bob: Could it by Y? Did you check Y?
Me: Yes, I checked, but that isn’t it.
Bob: Hmm. Give me a minute to think.

And then, he put his head on his hand and was silent. My typically fidgety advisor, so still. I vividly remember my disconcertion as the seconds ticked away. He thought and thought.

An eternal minute went by before he looked up at me and said, with a sense of wonder, “It could be anything.”

And that was that. He directed me to some other folks in the lab, and I left.

I remember thinking, Are you kidding me? In my naivety, I had gone to Bob, thinking he was some kind of Infallible Knower of All Things. Yet, he was as stumped as I was.

But then, a funny thing happened. Every time I saw Bob around the lab, he’d ask me, with genuine interest, if I had figured out the mechanism. Well, I hadn’t figured it out in the previous 6 months, and I didn’t see how I’d do it now. But, he kept asking me, over and over, and I didn’t want to disappoint him. So I worked harder. Sometimes, he would ask me twice in the same day! I wondered if he was operating in some unique time-space dimension that I couldn’t access.

Within another couple of months, with the help of some of my fellow postdocs, I had the answer to my mechanistic question. I wrote up a manuscript, and submitted it to a good journal. When the reviews came back, one was positive, one was negative, and the third was leaning negative.  The editor was poised to reject the article based on a philosophical issue that we could not remedy with revisions.

I decided to write a rebuttal letter, and I was cautioned by everyone I knew that this would almost certainly not work. But, Bob- he said, go for it! I wrote this rather eloquent letter discussing the purpose of science and scientific communication, and backing up my opinions with citations from the journal in question. Against the odds, the paper was accepted.

When I told Bob the news in the hallway outside of his office, he excitedly embraced me and told me that he had always believed in me and that he was so proud of me for persevering. I was one of 100 people in his lab. It was in that moment that I realized that every single one of us genuinely mattered to him. I was nothing in the grand scheme of his lab, and yet he cared very much.

Experimental resources, funding, and other things matter in science. But people matter more than anything else. Bob knows this, and it's precisely why he is an incredibly remarkable man and advisor. And ultimately, it is his unfailing belief in his people that has yielded all of his amazing science and the technologies that have changed the lives of millions of patients (and counting).

I will never be Bob. But I can take the parts of him that resonate with me and make them my own. I can try to be for my students what he has been to me. A supporter. A believer. Someone who has always made me feel like I can do anything I want if I try hard enough.

--

We honored Bob at a 70th birthday symposium a couple of weeks ago. There were about 700 people in attendance, and I suspect it was way more fun for us than it was for him. I listened to many others talk about his impact on their lives, and it's clear I'm not unique. But I nonetheless wanted to honor him with this one small story. 

*In science, the how can be even more important than the what.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Anger and Innovation

About a month into my maternity leave last year, I received a rejection from a grant mechanism called the NIH New Innovator Award. Although rejections never feel good, this one really hurt. The proposal, which I loved, had garnered encouraging (but not fundable) reviews the year prior, so I improved it. I was especially invested in the project, and had devoted substantial time, personnel, and monetary resources to it. I expected it to be well-received.

But, the reviewers hated it. They said things that reviewers shouldn't say. One of them, following a slew of criticisms, remarked, "None of her ideas are innovative."

I was in a vulnerable place when I read those reviews. I had recently had my daughter, and for the first time in my career, I was away from work (and feeling like I wasn't making progress) for a substantial period of time. I absolutely adore my daughter, but I didn't care for being chained to my couch, nursing a ravenous baby for 85 hours a day while my brain atrophied.

None of her ideas are innovative. As if the reviewer knew anything about my other ideas, the ones not in that application. It was as if s/he had dismissed the entirety of my previous accomplishments and future potential with those simple words. Quit now, a voice said to me, your efforts will never amount to anything.

I became angry. But anger can bring good things.

Because I knew I had a choice. I could continue sitting on the couch, overwhelmed by motherhood, feeling crappy, allowing the careless words of one reviewer to dictate my self-perception. Or I could use those words to motivate something new.

--

innovative. adj. (of a person) introducing new ideas; original and creative in thinking.

The reviewer's words hurt so much, in part, because I've become hell bent on innovation in my career. For me, it's the point of being an academic - to push the boundaries of modern science and change the way we think about what's possible. I've come to place so much value in this concept that I've developed a borderline unreasonable attraction to awards and grant mechanisms with the word Innovation or Innovator in the title.

--

For several weeks, I told myself that I'd show them. That I'd cook up an idea so innovative that there would be no question about it. Maybe it would be an academically impossible idea. Maybe it would be too expensive, or impractical, or dangerous. No matter. It would be innovative, and that was what mattered to me.

The more I nursed my daughter, the more I thought. The minutes and hours ticked by. I thought about what I was doing. I wondered why I was putting so much effort into nursing. I wondered what was in that breast milk. I tried to look for answers, but answers were sparse and hard to find.

I learned that there are living human cells in breast milk - stem cells, immune cells, and epithelial cells. But we don't know why they are there. I learned that these cells can leave the GI tract of infants and take up residence in the organs of the infants. Indeed, if you - my reader - were breast-fed, there is a chance that the progeny of your mother's cells live inside of you still. (And you wondered why you can always hear her!)

There is almost no information on this. But my imagination had come alive. And so, over the next several months, as I transitioned back to work slowly but surely, I did the most difficult professional thing I've ever done: I conceived of and wrote a proposal on studying breast milk cells and genetically engineering them to treat infant diseases that are currently untreatable. It was so difficult because I didn't know anything about it. The research topic wasn't in my "wheelhouse". I had to pull together sparse literature, fill in the gaps, and make a compelling case for why my idea had merit.

Going through the incredible challenge of writing that proposal is one of the most important things I've ever done. I submitted my idea this past fall for funding, and its status is pending. But I wanted to write this post now, because the process was enormously important for me - regardless of whether or not my proposal is funded. It happens all the time - we focus too much on outcome. But the process is what's empowering. The process I went through is why I feel better, and why I will be a better scientist and innovator no matter what some anonymous review says about me.

I have that careless reviewer to thank. And my daughter, and the countless hours spent with her gnawing on my appendages. And my anger. Anger can be transformative if we allow it to be.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Five

Five years ago, I came to Carnegie Mellon and walked into an empty office. I didn't know what to make of the blank space, just for me. Private space was unheard of in my huge postdoc lab, and decorating my own home always required compromise with my husband.

Fig. 1. I started with some loaner tables and a poinsettia gifted to me by a kind staff member who thought my office looked pathetically bare. 

I bought paint samples and considered them in morning and afternoon lighting. I interviewed my colleagues about the types of desks they were using and their degree of satisfaction. I brought in an ass-ton of plants to add life and beauty and thoughtfully chose my decorations, rugs, and pillows. I wondered if I should be spending so much time making the space my own, but, secretly, I knew that this office would be home to the metamorphoses of my life.

I spent $800 on a desk chair, and it has ergonomically supported my rear end as I wrote my first grants, as I fawned over my students' data, as I called facilities about the never-ending clogged A level toilet, as I authored beautiful manuscripts, destined (I hope) to be of value to others. That chair held me when I did the most difficult thing I've done as a PI, which was to fire one of my students. And it held me when my nurse called to tell me that, after years of heartache, I was pregnant with my daughter.

These five years, each as important as the fingers on my left hand, have witnessed many firsts. Firsts can be thrilling, I suppose (my first time galloping on a horse that, incidentally, understood only Spanish comes to mind). Firsts in this job, though, are mentally challenging. Taxing. For me, the feeling of "been there, done that" has mostly been one of relief.

Fig. 2. The defining factors in each of my first five years.

So what were some of my firsts in this job as professor?
  • Negotiated the purchase of equipment (difficulty will depend on the sales person, your patience, and whether or not you're flush with cash - hahahhaa right)
  • Lectured to someone other than my husband
  • Calmed rioting students after I returned their midterm
  • Figured out how to return exams without causing riots
  • Endured an undergraduate escalate a grading disagreement to the Dean's office
  • Recruited and graduated a Ph.D. student
  • Advised Ph.D. students that passed and failed qualifying exams
  • Retained a student that I helped through a difficult time
  • Fired a graduate student
  • Sang karaoke at the department Festivus party and Ph.D. recruiting weekend 
  • Hired a postdoc
  • "Starred" in a promotional video about my research
  • Had researchers visit my group from abroad 
  • Threw a cocktail party for my departmental colleagues
  • Managed a grant from the Department of Defense (push-ups are not a requirement in my quarterly reports. thankfully.)
  • Pitched a review topic to an editor of a high profile journal. Was successful. Wrote review.
  • Presented my research to the Dean's Advisory Board
  • Cleaned non-self bodily fluids off of my office furniture
  • Recruited new faculty to my department 
  • Consulted for a pharmaceutical company (it is surprisingly unnerving for your opinion to be worth hundreds of dollars an hour to someone)
  • Sat on NIH study section
  • Met Jennifer Doudna :)
  • Assembled a promotion package
  • Gave a conference talk to a packed house of 500 people
  • Gave a conference talk to 15 people in a Grand Ballroom that seated 1500 (I wish I was kidding)
  • Gave a conference talk while hung over. I had to lean on the podium. 
  • Drove from Paris to the Swiss Alps on two hours of sleep in a car I could barely operate during French air and rail strikes to get to a Gordon Conference. The sandwich I had at a rest stop along a highway in France was possibly the best, most delicious, most memorable sandwich of my entire life.
Fig. 3. Difficult journeys lead to beautiful destinations, like the Swiss Alps. 

I know first experiences won't go away, and there will always be new things to keep this job interesting. But as the density of first experiences recedes, I can settle further into my $800 office chair, knowing that I've been able to handle a lot, and that surely, there is room for more. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Time I Cried in Front of the Dean

It was the Fall of 2015 when I found myself crying in the Dean's office. I forget the documented reason for the meeting, but I was discouraged. As the Dean and I discussed my (lack of) funding and other career challenges, I felt that special tingling in my eyes, a prelude to the tears that would meander down my cheeks and into my lap before I would get up to find myself a tissue.

I was over it, really.

The Dean continued to listen as I talked. There was no judgement in his gaze, and I felt no urge to apologize or verbally acknowledge my tears. He said many supportive things regarding my career challenges and told me a personal anecdote that made me feel better1.

--

I've spent most of my life mortified by my own tears. Perhaps because, as a child, I would be made fun of for them. Perhaps because I got a message that they are a sign of weakness. My attitude towards my salty accessories changed only once I arrived at Carnegie Mellon, and the work-life tango began in earnest. Being a new professor is stressful. Dealing with frequent, unrelenting professional rejection is stressful. Add in the personal - family illnesses, intensive house renovations, and the medical/physical/emotional ramifications of years of infertility - and there is most certainly reason to cry.

And so, I became a pro at crying at work, because work was life, and life was work. I stopped caring because I wasn't crying about trivial stuff. What were people going to say? Oh, she's crying because she had two grants rejected and she miscarried in the same week?!!?! Boo hoo, what a wuss.

Maybe a man wouldn't cry under the same circumstances, but I don't care about that either, because I am not a man. I am a woman2. And if we want women to be scientists, if we want women as professors and engineers, if we want them as leaders - for all of the good that they do, for their creativity and collaboration and emotional intelligence - then we need to be more accepting of tears in the workplace.

I have been fortunate to be surrounded by supportive advisors, friends, and colleagues throughout my graduate and professional career. I've cried in front of my Ph.D. advisor, my postdoc advisor, my Department Head, my Dean, and a fair number of mostly male colleagues. Most recently, I cried during one of my lab's group meetings following an upsetting personnel issue. That last one caught me by surprise, but ultimately I decided that it was good for the group to see me like that, because I am setting an example for them.

I have also been the "recipient" of tears in the workplace, hosting both crying colleagues and students in my office. I keep tissues in close proximity to my meeting table, particularly in the last several weeks of the semester. I am pretty darn good at not passing judgement in these situations, although for the record, it is really not cool to get snot all over a professor's office furniture. (I have to say that I've been pretty surprised by the variety of assaults that office furniture must withstand in a university setting.)

How to handle tears in the workplace, no matter your gender? I have included a handy table below for your reference! [Edited to add: the best thing to do is to treat crying the way you would a sneeze.]



And finally, I will close with an apropos exchange from one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes.
Jerry :     "What is this salty discharge?"
Elaine:    "Oh my God, you're crying."
Jerry:      "This is horrible. I care!"

1I have a pretty amazing Dean.
2Testosterone suppresses the act of crying.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Young Genius Professors

A couple of times per year, I will attend some kind of event - maybe a conference, maybe a reception at my university - where I have occasion to converse with a senior professor. In this case, "senior" professor refers to someone of the 60+ variety, often older, and often (always?) white and male*.

We'll start chatting, and the conversation may turn towards some kind of recognition or award I've received, paper I've published, or topic related to my productivity. The senior professor will then deliver a remark along the following lines:

You young people are really something. I wouldn't get tenure if I went up for it today. 
Wow, our junior faculty are amazing these days! Where did we find all of you?
It seems most young faculty are geniuses; I wouldn't fit in with you guys!

Now, such remarks are meant as compliments, and I take them as such. But they also give me serious pause, as I look around at all of my fellow young faculty members - whether at CMU or elsewhere. Do I see intelligent people? Yes. People deserving of their careers and eventually of tenure? Yes.

But do I feel like I am a genius walking among other geniuses? Do I stand around wondering how on earth Carnegie Mellon ever amassed so many genius junior faculty in one place? No, never.

Quite simply, I work in the midst of other young people who are busting their asses, just like I am busting mine. I see smart people that work long hours, that sacrifice weekends, holidays, and evenings with their children, significant others, and former hobbies - all so that they can elevate their work and reputation beyond what used to be considered normal or acceptable. The world has not suddenly started producing more geniuses, and I believe that, on average, young faculty are working with the same average level of raw intelligence present in young professors 30 years ago.

 Figure 1. Not my business card.


I have never had a chance to sit down with a senior faculty member and ask them what it was like to work as a professor and get tenure in 1980. I don't know how much they worked, and I don't know what the "bar" was at that time in terms of productivity and ultimate academic impact. But I strongly suspect the modern world has not been kind to the lifestyle of the Professor.

Science has exploded on a global scale - for example, I receive on the order of 100 articles delivered to my inbox every week. I have to sort through these, trying to read enough to stay on top of my field(s) of research, worrying about the ever-expanding number of groups that may scoop my own work. And because of all of the added competition, I have to work harder and think more creatively about how to differentiate my work from that of others. Such considerations are ever present - in recruiting students, in writing proposals, and in "selling" my work to university or national media.

And then, of course, there is the obvious reason why young professors have to work harder than ever before - the state of funding. More people competing for a shrinking pot of money. Success rates used to be 30-50% at many agencies - now, we're looking at the 10-15% range (on average, which means even lower for very young faculty). Will these trends continue? If so, can someone please send me a memo, because I'm going to quit now and start flipping houses.

Add all of this to the fact that many young professors are no longer white men with stay-at-home wives. I love my husband, his professional aspirations, and the added dimensionality that comes with being a dual career couple. But I also know that I'd be more productive if I had a stay at home wife who could do my laundry, run the household errands, cook all of the meals, and take primary responsibility for caring for the children.

So, what is my message? My message is that if you're looking at many young faculty of today and thinking, "wow, what a bunch of geniuses" and "oh, I can't be like them because I'm not a genius" - stop yourself now. We are intelligent people who work hard. There are some geniuses, of course (I'm not one of them). The point is that you don't have to be stratospherically intelligent to do this job well. But you do have to be willing to put in the time (and even more difficult, the mental energy) to meet the demands of modern science, particularly if you want to be at the forefront of your field. It's the current reality - genius or not.

*I must make note that I have had many conversations with senior faculty, and the type of conversation mentioned here is atypical. Many senior faculty are very accomplished individuals (some even geniuses), and I am in no way trying to diminish the work ethic or accomplishments of any individual.

Friday, August 26, 2016

In Failure, There is Hope

I read an opinion article at Scientific American this morning that bothered me. But Katie, my husband would say, many things bother you. This may be true, but my feathers are ruffled enough this morning to write.

The thesis of the SA article is that scientists are "fascinated" by rejection. That we love to hear stories of failure, of ground-breaking science that was rejected by many journals, of excellent scientists that were declined jobs at many institutions. The author posits that we are "fascinated" because:

1) We are saturated by news of others' successes on social media.
2) Rejection runs contrary to our belief that the course of science is a rationale one, where great discoveries are always met with accolades.

Perhaps these factors contribute to our preoccupation with rejection. But they aren't why stories of rejection are so popular. The author barely touches the REAL reason:

"Apart from being a source of comfort,..."

Ahh, here we go. A source of comfort. We are human, no? Not robots.

We are highly trained professionals that have reached the alleged pinnacle of scientific success: tenure track jobs in which we sit in our "ivory tower", doing what I hope each one of us believes to be important work. Because most of us tend not to hate ourselves, we are biased towards thinking that we've done a good job, that our work is of value, and that we've tried really hard. And we've bought into a narrative in which we're told that academic scientists succeed (at least the wide majority of them).

Yet, this outward perception of the successful world in which we live is juxtaposed against the fear and pain that privately lives in our hearts. We are all too intimately familiar with the sweat and blood, the personal sacrifices and loss of sleep that have gone into each one of our scientific endeavors. And when our efforts are rejected - efforts that we have coached ourselves into believing are worthwhile - we hurt. We hurt, as any normal human would.

When I was a grad student and postdoc, I was faced by occasional failure, but this was equally balanced (or so it seemed) by successes. And then I began my faculty position, a "reward" for being an excellent (e.g. successful) scientific trainee. And I submitted twenty-eight external proposals over 3.5 years before having one funded. If that isn't enough to give a person imposter syndrome, then I don't know what is. We all have different specifics - maybe you had to apply for faculty positions three times, maybe you had 12 or 172 proposals rejected at this stage of your career, or maybe you had grants funded, but your manuscripts were being rejected because you were simply ahead of your time. Whatever the case, I bet this made you feel crappy, too. And I bet you wondered if this was what you were supposed to be doing with your life-

Name: Katie Whitehead
Occupation: Banging My Overgrown Head on the Wall
Favorite leisure activity: Vodka

But then, there is a ray of hope. A famous scientist, or even just a successful one, tells a story about how he or she was once rejected, too. And it makes you feel like maybe you have a chance. Maybe you're not an imposter, maybe rejection is simply the way it is, and it's something we just need to get through. We are not "fascinated" by stories of rejection followed by success - we are encouraged by them. We keep going because of them.

My postdoc advisor, Bob Langer, tells a story in many of his seminars that has become a source of great comfort to me. It's the story of the drug Gliadel, the most ground-breaking therapy for brain cancer that the world had seen in decades. Bob tried to get funding to develop Gliadel from the NIH maybe 10 times over a span of 12 years or so, and every time, the reviewers came back with a show-stopping reason why the drug wasn't going to work. Ironically, Gliadel was FDA-approved in 1997 before Bob was ever able to get research support from the US government's main health-related funding agency. Gliadel was extending real human life before other scientists monetarily acknowledged that maybe this idea could work.

And there's the part of me, the part of many of us that believes that if Bob Langer's breakthrough idea was able to succeed despite heavy criticism, then maybe ours can, too. As human beings, we thrive on hope. Hope is more powerful than fear.

And so, in conclusion, scientists are not fascinated by failure. What a weird word to describe this phenomenon. If not fascinated by failure, then, we are embedded in it, sometimes overcome by it. And we want to extract from whatever sources are available the motivation to put our heads down and keep going.

Friday, August 19, 2016

A Different Kind of Tumor

My season of summer conferences is over for the year, which included two Gordon Research Conferences (GRCs). I've come to enjoy the intensive networking and animated scientific discussions at these conferences - but I'm always reminded of my first GRC, in which I learned the importance of professionalism towards all academics, regardless of career stage.

I was a fourth year postdoc and was one of five postdocs from my lab that attended this particular conference (of about 200 people). I postdoc'ed in the Langer Lab - a mega biomedical engineering lab of about 100 trainees at any given time. The Langer Lab is some kind of brand name in academics and biomedical start-ups, and I am one of many successful products of the machine. Behind the machine, though, is Bob Langer himself, who is an incredibly kind, non-assholish academic superstar who cares deeply about his trainees (aka, he is a rare bird).

At this particular GRC, I experienced what I'll call a strong anti-Langer sentiment. This surprised me because the people I was meeting didn't know me, they didn't know anything about me or my work. They just knew that they didn't like the Langer enterprise. I hadn't been to many conferences as a postdoc, and I despaired that this sentiment might permeate the rest of my career (it has and hasn't, depending on the context).

On the second day of the conference, I was viewing posters and introduced myself to an Assistant Professor whose work I found interesting. He asked me where I worked, so I told him. A disgusted look then fell upon his face as he snarled:

You people are like f**king tumors, you metastasize everywhere. And you make me sick. 

I don't remember how I responded. But I remember his exact words, and I remember my shock. I didn't understand his anger, and I didn't understand why anyone would ever say such a thing to another academic*. As a grad student and postdoc, I often got the impression that professors at conferences thought of us as disposable, temporary. That they could say whatever to us without repercussion. But I understood then what they never did, because they didn't know me: I was going somewhere. One day, I was going to be a professor, too, and I was going to remember them.

Amusingly, I was at a conference this summer, and met someone I vaguely remembered. It turned out he was at that first GRC I attended. During our conversation, he remarked, unsolicited, "It was a pretty good conference, except there were all of these Langer people there." I looked at him with amusement: "Oh really?"

He paused for a moment, and then eyed me up warily: "You're not one of them, are you?"

I smiled and said, "Indeed I am. And really, we're not all so bad."

Our conversation continued, and I'd like to think he changed his mind, if only a little bit.

The lesson here is clear: It is not uncommon to become bitter when faced with the success of others. We all deal with this. But we need to watch what we say, no matter who we're talking to. You never know when a snide remark or unkind interaction is going to come back to bite you in the ass.

*I am generally not one for schadenfreude, but I felt quite satisfied, a few years later, upon learning that this jerk had not earned tenure at his reputable university.