Paola Mera, Ph.D.

Tell us about your current career position. Paola Mera
I started my current position a year ago as an assistant professor in the Chemistry and Biochemistry department at New Mexico State University. The transition from being a postdoctoral fellow, with few responsibilities, to being a faculty member, with numerous responsibilities, was intense. The first week on the job, I started teaching an upper division biochemistry class for undergraduate students. This felt crazy at first, but it actually ended up being good for two reasons. First, I was surrounded by students, which made me happy; and second, students from my class wanted to join my lab, which made me even happier. Two undergraduate students joined my lab my first semester. At that time, I did not have what one would call a lab yet. However, the students did not mind the chaos and jumped in to help me organize the lab. We were able to generate cool new data before the end of that first semester. Thinking about projects and writing grants has so far been very satisfying, even with all the grant rejections. This job requires a lot of work – a lot of work. Working with students, though, and seeing them get excited with new data is priceless. Looking back at this past year, I can see that this job is challenging in different ways, but now I know that pursuing a career in academia was the perfect career choice for me. 

What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?

The two key experiences occurred while I was in graduate school. I started a Ph.D. program in microbiology having done only chemistry and math as an undergraduate. The requirements for the Ph.D. program included serving as a TA in two undergraduate microbiology courses, both of which I had never taken before. I was learning the material at the same time with the students who were in my discussion sessions. Although leading the discussion sessions was a bit stressful because of my limited knowledge, I still felt the magic from teaching. Being in the classroom and having discussions with students was energizing. The discussion sessions were optional, yet I had almost perfect attendance throughout the semester. After these experiences, I completed an HHMI teaching fellowship and was then forever hooked. At the end of graduate school, my plan was to end my training there and start looking for a teaching job. That is when the second key experience occurred. Due to life circumstances, I gave myself a month to explore the options for postdocs. My graduate mentor Jorge Escalante was incredibly helpful in making this search straightforward. In that month, I applied, interviewed, and was given an offer for a postdoctoral position from Lucy Shapiro at Stanford University. After meeting Lucy and seeing her passion for science and for her mentees, there was no way I could go back to my original plan. I then realized I wanted to do both research and teaching.

How did you first become interested in science?
In high school and as an undergraduate student, I loved chemistry and math. Solving problem sets from these subjects seemed like playing games and puzzles. I enjoyed the process of figuring things out and seeing their application. It was not until I got to graduate school that I realized that there is so much about how nature works that we do not understand. Once I started working in the lab, I was captivated by, more like addicted to, figuring out how my proteins worked. I loved coming up with new hypotheses and then allowing nature to show me how these hypotheses were completely wrong and that there was a better and more elegant way of doing things.

Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path?  If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
Yes, there were multiple times. The one that comes to mind is the rejection from a K99 (Pathway to independence award from NIH). The most painful part was that I almost got it. My first reaction was one of blame. I could have prepared the application better. I should have tried it earlier so that I could resubmit, and any other “should have” or “could have” that one could think of. The K99 is a transition award that would have given me two extra years of research as a postdoc and up to three years of funding as an independent investigator. Not getting the award meant that I had to look for jobs. I was so optimistic about receiving this award that I had not prepared for a job search. The rejection generated a lot of anxiety. I felt that I was not ready for a faculty position. I started questioning if academia was the right choice for me. At that point, I had already been in my postdoc position for four years. Of course I was ready. I had to be brave and jump in the water, even though I believed I could not swim. This past year has given me so much self-confidence. I have surpassed my own expectations. A piece of advice I received that was super helpful was to take one thing at a time, solve one problem at a time, meet one deadline at a time. Not receiving the K99 was difficult for me; however, I can say that the K99 rejection gave me the push I needed to leave my comfort zone and trust my strengths and abilities. 

What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
I would say “go for it!” Go for it if you are passionate about working with students and science. Academic jobs are not as financially rewarding as other science positions; however, they are incredibly rewarding emotionally.  Running a lab is like running your own business. Let me tell you, my mother is a businesswoman and I grew up promising that I would never go into business because the uncertainty is too stressful. Well, there is a saying that as we get older we become like our parents. I have to admit that I am starting to understand my mom when she talks about the excitement of a new business idea. I do get excited now with new projects and, even though the uncertainty of them not working is still there, the potential of these ideas being successful overpowers the uncertainty. There is an incomparable feeling of freedom that academic jobs provide by allowing a scientist to run her own “business” the way she would like.

What are your hobbies?
I love outdoor activities, but yoga is what I would consider my true hobby. I started doing yoga when I was in graduate school. I believe I got hooked with hot yoga because I was in Madison, Wisconsin and winters were extremely long and cold. Now that I am in the hot desert of New Mexico, I continue to do hot yoga. My friends have certainly started to question my rationale lately. Regardless of hot or not hot yoga, I love it. It has definitely helped me overcome challenging times in graduate school, as a postdoc, and now as a new faculty member. Being able to leave everything that is going on in my life outside the door of the yoga studio and connecting with my breathing and my body is revitalizing. I love the energy I feel during and after a yoga practice. I am not a super yogi who can do all those challenging poses, but I do try them. Usually I fall on my butt while trying, and I like it when I can just laugh about it.

What was the last book you read?
Since I started working in this job, the majority of books I have been reading have something to do with how to survive in academia. All of these books were gifts from my dear friends. Here is a list of a few that I am reading and re-reading now: "Every other Thursday: Stories and Strategies from Successful Women in Science"; "Bite: Recipes for Remarkable Research"; and "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High". All of these books have been extraordinarily helpful. The last one in particular has taught me how to communicate with a goal in mind and without getting emotional. I tend to be the person who does not want conflict and thus avoids difficult conversations. Running a successful research lab requires me to take the lead and address problems head on and strategically. This is not easy for me, but I am working on it.

Do you have any heroes, heroines, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
Yes, all of my mentors, starting from my undergraduate training to graduate school through my postdoctoral fellowship, and now mentors I have as a faculty member, have been influential. I have made it this far because they believed in me. My postdoc mentor, Lucy Shapiro, is an amazingly strong and brilliant woman. My goal is to become an inspiring mentor like her. My other heroines include my mom and my grandma. They are strong, smart women who never give up. Their lives have been filled with hardship, and yet they are the most optimistic women I know. 

What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?
When I was a graduate student and a postdoctoral fellow, the thing that kept me up late in the lab or just thinking about experiments was curiosity. I wanted to figure out how my proteins were working. While doing my experiments, I always thought I was very close to cracking it open, even when I had been working on the same problem for months. As a faculty member now, I am usually up late working on grants. The incentive this time is to have enough funds so that my students can do the science, and we can discuss together about nature’s beautiful design.