2018 Steenbock Symposium program graphic. Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison Biochemistry Media Lab
I recently attended the 40th Steenbock Symposium at University of Wisconsin-Madison. This year’s theme was “Epiphanies in and beyond the RNA World”. Twenty-seven researchers from RNA and related fields convened at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery to share “eureka” moments in their careers. It was so inspiring to hear from founding members of the RNA community, including Joan Steitz, Christine Guthrie, John Abelson, and Harry Noller. I noticed a recurring theme throughout the talks: many of these epiphanies resulted from informal meetings (quite often at a bar or social event) between colleagues in different groups, sometimes from different universities. They discussed tough problems and brainstormed about how to solve them, pondered about what their peculiar results could mean biologically, or dreamed, “wouldn’t it be cool if we could <insert awesome idea here>?” and then came up with a way to do it. It sounded like a wonderful time to be a scientist! Sitting together freely sharing ideas, motivated by curiosity and the joy of doing science.
As I thought back to my research career to look for instances of such encounters, I was happy to find a few. “Philosophy” Meetings during grad school and Tea Time during my postdoc—informal social events to bring people together from different labs and departments with drinks and snacks. RNA Cluster Meetings during grad school and RNA MaxiGroup during my postdoc—events where people interested in a certain research area (in this case RNA) would gather for dinner and to hear an informal research talk. These organized events were intended to provide a forum for conversations between scientists to spark new ideas. Sometimes, I would talk to someone in a totally different field and learn something new. But I really didn’t have an epiphany about my own research. I often found myself (and others) scurrying away after the event to get back to lab work. Was I missing out on the best part of the meeting: the after-discussion?
My reflection on the Steenbock Symposium talks led me to ask a somewhat troubling question:
In today’s competitive research environment, have we missed out on crucial discoveries and technological advances because they weren’t given the right environment in which to develop? Continue reading
Pearl Jam, a popular alternative rock band in the 1990s (and still pretty awesome!). Photo credit: Rolling Stone Magazine.
This post could easily start out as an ode to ’90s alternative music (of which I’m a huge fan). That new and totally different sound (a la Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Nirvana, etc.) in the 1990s eventually made its way into the mainstream as it gained popularity. (I have to say that I got a shock when I recently heard some Pearl Jam on “classic rock” radio stations. But I digress…)
Why isn’t the same true for science career paths? Science careers outside of academia are still referred to as “alternative.” Continue reading
On December 27, 2017, the life sciences community lost a pioneer in neurobiology and an advocate for equality in science. Dr. Ben A. Barres passed away at the age of 63. His work focused on the critical role of glia (non-neuronal cells) in the brain and how they interface with neurons to maintain cognitive function.
Equally remarkable was the more personal side of his life. In 1997, Dr. Barbara Barres transitioned from female to male and lived the remainder of his life as Ben Barres. I read a number of the articles that Dr. Barres wrote and came across one that particularly caught my attention. Continue reading
When I was in grad school and pictured what a role in industry would look like, the first thing that came to my mind was a Research and Development (R&D) Scientist. My life as a grad student and as a postdoc revolved around benchwork, so that must be the case in industry too, right?
It really wasn’t until I started working at Promega that this image of a scientist in industry was completely turned upside down (in a good way). Here are some roles that a scientist can assume at Promega: Senior Scientist, Research Scientist, R&D Group Leader, Production Scientist, Technical Services Scientist, Product Manager, Strategic Marketing Manager, Client Support Specialist, Client Support Consultant, Clinical Technical Consultant, Field Support Scientist, Applications Scientist, Scientific Instructional Designer. The list can probably go on for a while, but it makes the point that there are a variety of interesting positions for scientists in the biotech industry.
Science has been an important part of my life for a long time. One of my motivations for being a scientist was to help people. As scientists, there are many ways that we make a difference. For example, doing research that reveals information about basic biological processes can provide insight into how a disease might wreak havoc, and in turn facilitate drug design and effective disease treatments. I can say from experience that it’s especially rewarding to go beyond the impact of science to assist someone in the community face to face.
A St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry host helps a client to shop for food.
Just over 5 years ago, I started volunteering at the St. Vincent de Paul Madison Food Pantry, the largest in Dane County, Wisconsin, which serves an average of about 400 families per week1. The pantry uses a customer-choice model in which clients are allotted points to shop for food, allowing them to make selections that preserve their dignity and ethnic diversity. The food pantry has a small staff, so volunteers are vital to keep things running. I serve as a “host” to clients and assist them to shop around the pantry for the items that they need. It has been such a positive experience for me. In the grand scheme of things, I’m not changing the world, but I’m helping someone to get essential items to make ends meet for their family. Tough times can happen to anyone, and it takes a great deal of courage to ask for help. My goal is to make the experience for clients as positive as possible by being cheerful, courteous and respectful during their time at the pantry. If my help can make a person forget even for a moment that they have fallen on hard times, then I call that a win!
A desire to make a difference in the community through volunteerism is one of the characteristics that I really like about working at Promega. At a recent company meeting, employees were asked to share how they serve the community. Activities ranged from assisting those with disabilities to participate in athletic activities to taking care of shelter animals to starting a non-profit for children in need. There were many more! Employees helped those in their local communities and even those across the globe from where they live. It was so inspiring to hear about my colleagues’ experiences of serving others.
Promega has a mechanism for employees to apply for time off to volunteer through the Promega in Action program. Continue reading
My career took a different direction than what I had envisioned in grad school, and that was a good thing.
About a year ago, I made the move from academic research to the biotech industry. Leaving academia seemed like a huge risk to take, but it was a positive career change that I only recently realized was a long time in the making.
Before joining Promega, I was a post-doc at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I worked on these fascinating enzymes that add nucleotides to the 3ʹ ends of RNAs, developed a Next-Gen Sequencing assay to measure their activities, discovered a bizarre and novel activity of one of the enzymes, and wrote a patent application.
I love science. Being immersed in a tough problem in the lab and then working as hard as I possibly can to solve it is so rewarding and satisfying to me! I really enjoyed my research project, but I found myself interested in a variety of other science topics. The thought of having my own lab where I worked on the same types of enzymes for 30+ years made me anxious. Why did I feel that way? I attributed it to apprehension of the hard work it would take to establish a lab and get tenure.
Meanwhile, at UW–Madison, we had begun a campus-wide discussion to brainstorm about solutions for sustaining the biomedical research enterprise in the US. I attended almost every meeting and, overall, was left with an ominous feeling. Many scientists clearly loved their work but were frustrated and discouraged by the prospect of losing (or never getting) funding. Is this what I really wanted? I reminded myself of my enthusiasm for science and convinced myself it would be worth it once I had a lab up and running and was mentoring my own students. Continue reading