Posts (6)

Sep 17, 2015 · Exploring the World through Research

By Luz Milbeth Cumba-García, MS

At the age of 16, I was admitted to the Universidad Metropolitana’s early admission program in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to study Cellular and Molecular Biology. From my early days as a college student, I had the opportunity to do summer internships abroad, conduct research in different laboratories in Puerto Rico, and attend countless national and international conferences. These experiences have led to great adventures in different countries where I not only learned about their culture, but also about their approach to research and science in general.

International experiences

My first research experience abroad was in 2010 when I investigated the response of T lymphocytes in a model of collagen-induced arthritis in the laboratory of Dr. Jaime Sancho López at the Institute of Parasitology and Biomedicine López Neyra in Granada, Spain. There, I learned the importance of networking and leaving the doors open for future opportunities since I returned to this institution in 2012 to obtain my master’s degree.

The following summer, I traveled to the German Cancer Research Center where I had the opportunity to fulfill one of my dreams of working with a Nobel Prize winner. Guided by the intellect of Dr. Harald zur Hausen (Nobel Prize 2008), I studied the isolation of multiple viral genotypes from the umbilical cord. It was a wonderful experience where I learned to believe in my capabilities and I found that through patience and perseverance, I could achieve my research goals.

My most recent internship experience was in the summer of 2012 at the “Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro” in Brazil where I investigated the reliability of using musculoskeletal protein α-actin as a marker for muscle damage in athletes, under the supervision of Dr. Luiz Claudio Cameron. Although it was a great experience, it was also the most challenging. As I conducted my research, I encountered many obstacles such as the shortages of materials and lack of supervision helping me to discover my weaknesses as well as strengths. To my surprise, I received a presentation award for my research confirming that hard work and dedication ultimately pays off.

In 2014, I traveled to Duyun, China where I matured professionally and honed my mentorship skills by teaching college students how to do research. Being in one of the poorest provinces in China, I also realized how fortunate I was for the opportunities I was given to travel around the globe and perform innovative research.

Lessons learned

The difficulties and challenges associated with doing research abroad have been many, I encountered differences in methods and scientific standards, lack of resources and mentoring, as well as cultural and language barriers. Through all of this, I have been pushed to my limits and learned to develop the skills necessary to adapt to any situation with resilience and courage. Each obstacle has become an opportunity for personal and professional growth; further affirming my belief that with patience and persistence, I can achieve any goal.

As I look back, I see that my opportunities and achievements have been many, but I have pursued each of them with humility and an open mind. By remembering my background, values, and life goals, my journey through the sciences has allowed me combine my passions for research and travel. To me, there is no other career path that will fulfill and inspire me in such a way.

paris1Luz in Paris during her 2012 winter break from her Master’s degree

Currently, Luz is working with Dr. Aaron Johnson in the Immunology Department at Mayo Clinic as part of the NIH funded Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP). She continues to expand her research experiences towards her goal of obtaining a PhD and making meaningful contributions to society.

Jul 30, 2015 · Does gender bias benefit women in academia?

Historically, women have been underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). This trend seems to be predominant in academia, where sexist hiring has been labeled as one of the culprits. But does current evidence support this hypothesis?

Research from Cornell psychologists, Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci, suggests that sexism in hiring may no longer be an obstacle for women in academia. Published earlier this year, the objective of this study was to determine the role of the gender bias in tenure-track faculty hiring. Male and female candidate profiles, which were identical in every respect except for sex, were created and subsequently reviewed by faculty from all 50 US states who were then asked to rank the candidates for an assistant professor academic position.

Overall, tenure track faculty members were twice as likely to prefer hiring women over identically qualified men. To account for differences in lifestyle, the authors also tested how candidate family and marital status influenced rankings. They found that female faculty members strongly and significantly preferred divorced mothers over traditional fathers, while male faculty members preferred women who took one year parental leave over those who did not.

This highly publicized study contradicted decades of research regarding the gender bias and obstacles that women face in academia. Although the authors believe it is a “propitious time for women launching careers in academic sciences,” we should take these results with a grain of salt. The study did not address the obstacles that keep women from pursuing academic positions nor the struggles they might encounter once they are part of it.

While the gender gap for trainees seeking PhDs closed in the early 90s [1], women still only make up a quarter of tenure track jobs [2]. So, why aren’t more women pursing academic faculty positions? Do women simply have different career ambitions than men?

Although it is certainly tempting to blame the low number of female faculty on personal career choices, the reasons are more complex. Factors such as the lack of role models, crediting success to luck, the struggle to balance career and family, and the perceived gender bias are real obstacles that need to be addressed in order to solve the problem of female underrepresentation in STEM. As an institution and as part of the scientific community, it should be our duty to empower women to trust their qualifications and confidently pursue their career ambitions.

Perhaps soon, we might truly eliminate the obstacles and gender bias that prevent women from pursuing academic positions and from making substantial contributions to the STEM fields.

Editorial comment: Please refer to the posts by Stella Hartono and Rielyn R. Campbell for further reading on the gender bias and struggles for women in science.

[1] The bachelor’s to Ph.D. STEM pipeline no longer leaks more women than men: a 30-year analysis

[2] Inequality quantified: Mind the gender gap

Jan 29, 2015 · Training in Research and Parenthood

Perhaps you are contemplating becoming a parent in the future. If so, you may be wondering how becoming a parent will affect your career, how you will handle your responsibilities as a researcher and parent, or how you will survive these tough years in graduate school with the addition of children. To answer some of these questions, this blog will offer different perspectives and advice from students who have made the decision to become both scientist and parents.

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Fan-Chi Hsu, Ph.D. received her doctoral degree from the immunologyfan-chi track in November 2014. She and her husband, Chien-Chang Chen, a 5th year pre-doctoral student in the immunology track, have a 2 year old boy.

Did your career path change after you decided to have children?

No, I always want to be a professional immunologist, and I think I have met at least part of that goal now. I will continue my career path in the field of immunology and my goals will not change even though I have a child now. A family friendly job in the future sounds great, but life is not always smooth. You have to find the right balance and you might need to sacrifice some of your family time in order to make your dreams come true.

Are there advantages or disadvantages of having a child while in graduate school?

Everything has its pros and cons. I cannot definitely say that having a child in graduate school is the best time to raise kids (the salary for a graduate student is OK, but it is not a luxury). However, if having a child is part of your life’s plan and you enjoy your family’s support, then having a child in graduate school is a good decision. My husband and I have a lot of fun with our son, and we truly enjoy parenthood. For us, this is the perfect time to have a child, but I understand how it might not be the right time for others.

Has your PI/program been understanding for the demands that a family may bring? In what ways has your advisor/program been considerate of family demands?

Your mentor’s attitude towards your decision to become a parent is absolutely crucial. As a first time parent of a newborn, many situations can arise which will interfere with time/productivity in the lab such as lack of sleep and constant trips to the lactation room. You must definitely have your mentor’s support and understanding. I still remember that one time I fell asleep in front of the flow cytometry machine due to lack of sleep and just felt overwhelmed by my maternal duties. My PI woke me up, and said that she had been there for 10 minutes. I felt embarrassed, but she told me the following, “You must have had a hard night last night. Finish your experiment, go home, and have a rest.” I truly appreciated her words and thoughtfulness. I hope that everyone can have such an understanding mentor as her.

Do you find it hard to separate your work and family life?

Yes, it is hard, but you’ll eventually find the balance. I found that if you have a reliable person or daycare environment in which to take care of your baby, it is easier for you to separate your work and family life. You can concentrate on your work and experiments when you’re in the lab, and finish your work efficiently. However, if your baby is not happy in daycare, you will constantly worry about how he/she is doing. Did they feed your baby well? Why does he/she look sad and exhausted? You should devote some time in finding the best daycare fit for your child before going back to work.

Did having a child affect your productivity in the lab?

I have to admit that after giving birth, my brain didn’t function as usual for several months (one reason was the lack of sleep). Therefore, it indeed affected my productivity for a while. However, once you establish a routine schedule and have your baby in daycare, you should be able to perform better. You know that you need to finish your experiments within limited time, and you’ll become more efficient. One thing I learned after having a child is that I cannot do as many as experiments at one time anymore, so you will have to prioritize.

What resources are available through Mayo Clinic/Graduate School for parents or soon to be parents?

During gestation, you should obtain all kinds of information about your pregnancy: the book “Mayo Clinic Guide to A Healthy Pregnancy” is a good start, Mayo Clinic website, and of course, Google. One important thing to consider is your health insurance. The medical expense for labor and epidural is high so you might need to search for other medical insurances to help you cover the costs. You can also attend the exercise classes for pregnant women in Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center to improve your and your baby’s health.

After birth, Mayo also provides convenient supports for nursing mom/parents. First, lactation rooms equipped with hospital scale pumps are located at various locations throughout Mayo Clinic. Second, each child has up to 20 days per year for temporary daycare service (Mayo Employees Back-Up Child Care Center, $15 per day). Third, if your child is ill and cannot attend his/her daycare and you cannot take off the same day, there is “Children’s R&R” for taking care of sick children (employee only and no fees). Finally, other graduate students who have children already are a great resource.

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roryRory Olson is married to his wife, Rachel and they have a 4-year old son named Leif. Rory is a 2nd year pre-doctoral student in the biochemistry and molecular biology track. 

Did your career path change after you decided to have children?

No, I think having a child pushed me further into the sciences. Without going into gory detail, I was reading publications on the effects of various labor inducing agents as the medical doctor advised us on our medical options for delivery. Life, and therefore biology, is pretty cool!

Are there advantages or disadvantages of having a child while in graduate school?

The decision on when to have children, just like the decision on when to attend undergraduate or graduate school, is going to be unique for every person/couple. There are distinct challenges of having a child while in graduate school, such as the anticipation that this decision will likely involve multiple moves resulting in punctuated disruption in my child’s life. Nonetheless, graduate school warrants greater flexibility than many alternative career paths. For example, I have had the opportunity to go on a field trip with my son and his class during the weekday, something that many jobs may not be amenable to. In the end, it is my responsibility to complete the experiments that are required.

Has your PI/program been understanding for the demands that a family may bring? In what ways has your advisor/program been considerate of family demands?

Being the male counterpart and the fact that my child is now 4 years old, there has not been a significant impact on my time. However, we had our child while my wife was in graduate school and she received support from her program, which granted her maternity leave and accommodations in terms of time and special allowances for breast-feeding

Do you find it hard to separate your work and family life?

Yes, there are certainly times that it is a challenge. For instance, I have been called during work because my son was running a fever and he needed to be picked up; conversely, I have worked late, worked on weekends and have returned to the lab in the evenings, missing out on time with my family.

Did having a child affect your productivity in the lab?

The realization that I may get that call from his daycare and the desire to be home with my family encourages me to be more efficient with my time.

What resources are available through Mayo Clinic/Graduate School for parents or soon to be parents?

We have used Mayo back-up daycare and are aware of the sick-child care offered. In addition, Rose Marie within Mayo Graduate School was very helpful in providing information on local daycares prior to us arriving.

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April M. Huseby is a 3rd year pre-doctoral student in the immunology track and mother of a 10 year old boy.

Did your career path change after you decided to have children? 

Having my son caused me to stop and think seriously about long-term goals.  While pregnant, I was working for the Department of Defense in a job that I found uncreative and hazardous at times.  Being a single parent, I had to work, but I wanted to make my time away from my son a career move that I felt was important and kept me challenged.  I started college within a year after he was born and quickly decided that a degree in biological sciences is what I wanted to pursue.  It is not certain what my future job will be, but I do know that it will be important to me to have a balance between work and family.

Are there advantages or disadvantages of having a child while in graduate school?

I do not believe there is any one good/best time to have children. I think there are certain moments in life that it would be more challenging to have a child than others, but I think people make time for what they feel is important to them.

Has your PI/program been understanding for the demands that a family may bring? In what ways has your advisor/program been considerate of family demands?

I felt it was extremely important for me to find a PI that was supportive of the fact that I have a child which sometimes makes the time that I am physically at work more restrictive.

Do you find it hard to separate your work and family life?

I would say no, except (there is always an exception to every rule) during the time period spent studying for qualification exams. I also don’t feel that separation is always necessary. I like exposing my son to the life of a graduate student and he seems very curious about it. It’s also fun to do our homework at the same time!

Did having a child affect your productivity in the lab?

Having a child restricts me from spending more than 9 hours in the lab on most days which means that I have to be more diligent with my time at work.

What resources are available through Mayo Clinic/Graduate School for parents or soon to be parents?

I have used two great resources at the Mayo Clinic that have helped me as a parent. One, the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), helped me with a list of local daycares when I first moved to Rochester. Two, I was able to send my son to the “sick kid” daycare (he had a fever and I couldn’t send him to school) so that I could finish an important experiment I had planned for that day.

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Acknowledgements: I wish to thank Fan-Chi, Rory, and April for sharing their experiences as parents and students at the Mayo Graduate School. I would also like to extend this gratitude to their corresponding mentors: Virginia Shapiro, Peter Harris, and Aaron Johnson for supporting them throughout their PhD degrees in the biomedical sciences.

Sep 4, 2014 · Avoiding a Career as a Perpetual Postdoc

As trainees, we are faced with a frustrating reality– the job market cannot meet the increasing supply of PhDs. We know this and most of us decide to pursue further postdoctoral training in order to become more qualified for the limited positions. Unfortunately, the few years we anticipate for postdoctoral training can extend longer than desired, thereby causing many of us to become stuck in perpetual postdoctoral work. Disillusioned by the process, a portion of us will abandon our initial career goals to settle for less than desired or just leave science altogether. But are some of us simply destined to this path? If not, then what can we do to avoid the fate of a perpetual postdoc?

Well first, it is important to realize that even the brightest PhDs will fail to reach their career goals without proper planning. Regardless of your performance in the lab, it should be a priority to think about your career path and how you will reach your objective. Even if you are unsure of what path to pursue, you should consider all your options and select the one or two that fits you best. Web based tools such as myIDP (Individual Development Plan) are designed to help graduate students and postdocs identify their career path as well as providing step by step plans for reaching their goals. It is also important to keep your mentors informed of your career ambitions as they might provide additional guidance and motivation to help you reach them. Once you have completed your initial IDP, you will be better prepared to put your plans into actions and closer to reaching your career goals.

Although individualized career planning is an important first step, it is not sufficient to ensure your future success. Networking is another key aspect to your professional development and should be cultivated throughout your training. It is not only beneficial in terms of exchanging ideas and creating collaborations, but it also opens the door to future job opportunities. Considering the many advantages of networking, you should plan to attend lectures and meet visiting scientists. You should also try to expand upon your network by exploring other areas unrelated to your field of research. Remember to make time to strengthen these new relationships since those you meet might be your future collaborators and mentors.

Lastly, you should match your skill set to the particular job you seek. As researchers, we develop transferable skills such as analytical thinking, problem solving, written/oral communication, and collaboration. These skills are desirable for many jobs even those unrelated to research. The key is to highlight your skills and sell yourself to a particular position. For example, a trainee applying to a science writing position will need to emphasize written manuscripts, grants, reviews, presentations, blogs, or any other form of communication especially those explaining complex ideas into simple language. The trainee will also need to de-emphasize laboratory skills and research in general since it does not apply to the desired position. It might also be necessary to supplement your skills with additional classes and experiences. For example, if the goal of the trainee is to work for a start up biotech company, then the trainee should already have some leadership and management skills. However, it would be beneficial to take some business, marketing, and accounting classes to supplement the training received during doctoral/postdoctoral work. Bear in mind that the broad spectrum of PhDs will gain similar skills during their training but you will stand apart from the crowd by spending time investigating the skills needed for a particular position.

So plan early, network, and sell yourself to avoid a career as a perpetual postdoc. Your primary job as a trainee should be to reach the next milestone in your career. And although times are difficult in terms of career advancement, proper planning should prepare for a fulfilling career. We are in a competitive market and it is in our best interest is to consider many options and be flexible with your skills.

Jun 5, 2014 · DREAMing a Career in Science (Undocumented Students’ Pursuit of Science Careers)

On June 15, 2012, the Obama administration announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides deportation relief for a period of two years to qualified undocumented youth who came to the United States as children. While deferred action does not confer lawful status in the United States, it is a renewable program that can provide employment authorization to DACA recipients. Since its announcement, more than half a million youth have applied to deferred action becoming a successful first step into a more permanent immigration reform.

Modified from Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC) – the case for undocumented students in higher education http://www.e4fc.org/images/E4FC_TheCase.pdf%5B/caption%5D

Locally, several states have passed legislation to either support or resist the DACA program. For example, many states have granted DACA recipients eligibility to a driver’s license while others have granted in-state tuition for those attending state colleges. Considering the opportunities that are being granted, we should expect an increasing number of talented undocumented individuals graduating from college and seeking advanced degrees in the sciences. These motivated individuals will join the ranks of future scientists and physicians bringing their diverse background into their fields. Additionally, their experiences as an underprivileged group will produce resilient doctors driven to achieve their career goals despite social, financial and legal obstacles.

Many schools have recognized the contributions that undocumented students will make to the sciences and have created programs to support them. In 2013, The Stritch School of Medicine of Loyola University became the first medical school to accept application from undocumented students holding DACA status. In addition, various summer research programs throughout the country have extended eligibility to undocumented students.

While it seems that opportunities are expanding, the pursuit of higher education is still unattainable to some DACA grantees. Opposition from a few states prevent DACA students from receiving in state tuition while other states ban DACA students from enrolling to post-secondary schools. Despite this opposition, the DACA announcement has filled undocumented youth with hope for a better future. They will continue to come out of the shadows and courageously proclaim their undocumented status. They will unite and rally for the chance to obtain their American Dream-the opportunity to pursue higher education and to become productive members of society.

Through their hard work and resourcefulness, I believe that undocumented youths will ultimately receive their federal DREAM ACT which will provide them with a chance at becoming permanent residents. In the meantime and if state legislation permits, I advocate for medical and graduate schools throughout the country to follow the example of the Loyola University and openly welcome DACA students for enrollment. We should support these DREAMers and encourage them to become our peers: our future scientists, physicians, and coworkers who will enrich our diversity at Mayo Clinic.

 

 

Feb 28, 2014 · Choosing Your Thesis Lab

During this time, most graduate students are busily wrapping up their last laboratory rotations and thinking about which one to choose. Some students have an easier time deciding which lab to join, but other students such as myself have a harder time making this decision. Committing to a lab is especially daunting when you start considering the great implications of this decision, not only during your PhD studies, but also in your future career in general. Since many of us are in this position, I think it is of great importance to have a few considerations when deciding which lab to join.

Before even starting to consider which lab you will fit into, it is crucial to know yourself first. Ask yourself as many questions as you can think of at this point. What areas of research are you most interested in? What are your career goals? Would you rather do research from 8am-5pm or have a more flexible work schedule? Are you comfortable having a high level of independence in the lab or do you require more guidance? The list can go on and on, but once you feel confident that you know yourself then you should determine which lab is a good fit for you.

Finding a good mentor is perhaps the most important factor involved in your decision to pick a lab. There are certain qualities that every student should look for in a mentor, such as respect and trustworthiness. Your mentor should recognize that you are more than just an extra pair of hands and should respect your interests as a student. Additionally, you should also feel reassured that your mentor will do as s/he says and give you credit for the work you do. Beyond the common qualities for a good mentor, there are additional mentorship qualities that will greatly vary depending on the needs of the student. Here is when knowing yourself can come in handy, as it will help you to determine which mentorship style is right for you. Make sure to revisit mentors from previous rotations and talk about their expectations of you as a graduate student and determine whether these expectations are feasible. Another important aspect to keep in mind is the mentorship record of the PI: Have previous students graduated in a reasonable amount of time? How many publications did they obtain and how many are first authored? Does the PI encourage students to write their own grant? Does s/he support the research ideas of the students? Etc.

Although choosing a mentor is important, you must also consider the lab environment. As graduate students in the process of learning, we will often seek help from fellow lab members. For this reason, we would want lab members who are not only capable in their laboratory and have analytical skills, but who are also willing to help. You should feel comfortable interacting with the other lab members because you will spend a great amount of time together in the lab. In accordance with the self-reflection you have done, you should be capable of identifying a lab environment that best suits you. Keep in mind that lab environments are fluid so do not base your decision to join a lab solely on the great lab members. Some of the post-docs, technicians, and graduate students that serve as your mentors can always leave but your PI will always be constant.

The last main factor to consider when picking a research lab is your research interest. This is obviously important because you have to be motivated by your research project in order to complete your PhD; however, I consider it to be the least important factor because your research interest might change over time. I believe that any project can become interesting and worth pursuing once you become fully invested in it. You should also remember the nature of research in its ability to change over time and take you into exciting directions. On the other hand, a project that was originally groundbreaking or novel might disappoint you–especially if it is not feasible to complete during your PhD and you spend years troubleshooting the methodology. I would like to add that as far as I know, students do not switch their labs because their project is uninteresting. It is more likely that they were frustrated because their projects were not progressing and/or they did not receive the support from their mentors to overcome this.

So as you consider which lab to join, try not to become too overwhelmed by this decision. If necessary, take some time off to think about it or do an additional rotation. However, always remember that there is no such thing as the perfect lab–there will be pros and cons for each lab and you must decide what factors are more important. Talk to the PIs, lab members, and other students and take into account their insights as well as your own experiences. At the end, if you are still unsure of what lab to choose (because they are all so great!) then you might have to follow your instinct in order to make this decision.

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