When I got my PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology over 10 years ago (yikes!), I honestly didn’t really appreciate what I was getting myself into. I started studying hematology as a graduate student in Dr. Mitch Weiss’s laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania; the idea that trillions of mature blood cells were generated from a self-renewing adult stem cell absolutely fascinated me. And, to think that this had to occur over an organisms’ life span intrigued me even more.
My love of research didn’t start in graduate school, though. While my love of science was always present, it really started when I was an undergraduate student at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a liberal arts university with a strong focus on engineering and the sciences. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with myself after college, but I had a unique experience working and doing research in the laboratory of Dr. Lynne Cassimeris when I was an undergraduate student, and it changed my future career path. While I wasn’t doing research on blood, I was performing basic cell biology research dealing with cell division. I was hooked; I realized that I could have a future career where I could answer questions that no one else had the answers to and that I could contribute to the field of science. The educational experiences that I experienced at Lehigh really changed the way that I thought about science; I had small classes, great laboratory experiences, and great professors. The understanding that science was not just memorizing facts, but being able to discover new things made me want to continue performing research.
I remembered those educational experiences when I got to graduate school. My program was in the medical school at UPenn, so I had no teaching responsibilities. But, Mitch encouraged me to mentor a few undergraduate and high school students in the laboratory, and it reminded me of the experience that I had a few years before that inspired me to be a scientist- working closely with students performing research. I did strike out over a few summers as a teaching assistant, but my time in graduate school was like most people; working at the bench and doing research.
Fast forward to my postdoctoral work in Dr. David Traver’s laboratory at University of California, San Diego. I switched over from doing mouse hematopoiesis to studying blood development in zebrafish, as well as trading in cold winters for the sun and sand of California. Around this time I was trying to sort out exactly what I wanted to do with my scientific career. In David’s laboratory, I got to perform research and was awarded a K01 mentored career development grant from the NIH, but I also got to directly mentor several students. David also encouraged me to teach classes at UCSD and to take pedagogical classes offered at UCSD to become an effective science teacher. Importantly, my time in David’s laboratory was the best experience that I had as a developing scientist. It was a collaborative, friendly atmosphere and David encouraged us to collaborate with other scientists outside of our group, which changed my whole perspective of how important the social aspect of science could be. Working together with my colleagues in the laboratory (and at locations around the world) to solve complex problems again reminded me of my undergraduate days of being excited to discover something new. It made me want to show up every morning excited to achieve and discover something. Another formative moment was having Dr. Dawne Page, a professor and the chair of biology at Point Loma Nazarene, a small liberal arts university in San Diego, in David’s laboratory for her sabbatical. The more that I interacted with my mentees, talked with Dawne and her undergraduate students, and taught class, I realized that I didn’t just want to do research in the laboratory; I wanted to work with students and teach in the classroom, inspiring the next generation of students. Basically, I wanted to be the kind of mentor that I had in college.
So, how did I achieve this goal? Well, I shifted my job search dramatically. Instead of applying to large research institutions, I shifted my focus to liberal arts colleges and universities where I could teach and still have a laboratory to do research with students. How did it end up? Great! I’m now an Assistant Professor at California State University in Chico, California teaching developmental biology and immunology. Chico is a great place to be; it’s a beautiful area of California, and Chico State, a Hispanic-serving institution that serves the largely rural area of Northern California, aims to give a high quality liberal arts education to its students. I have an independent laboratory with excited and motivated undergraduate and Master’s students, and our program has a growing Cell and Molecular Biology program. The best part? Every class that we teach has a laboratory component and I have integrated my research into the classroom, exposing students to real life research. If you went to a large state university, I doubt you had that experience. And honestly, how can we expect to teach scientific literacy without actually performing science in the classroom?
In essence, I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do by performing research and inspiring students to become future scientists. And while I’m not doing the same type or amount of research the way that I did in graduate school or as a postdoctoral fellow, I’m contributing to the field in another way; by inspiring the hematology researchers of the future. I’m trying to do a good job; let me know when you have one of my students in your graduate program or as a postdoctoral fellow!
If you’re a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow in a similar situation as I was there are definitely concrete steps that you can take now to prepare you for a more education-based career. My next post will tell you how to prepare yourself, put together your CV, write your research and teaching statements, and prepare for your interview. It’s a very different process to what your research-based colleagues and PIs are going to tell you!