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.