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.