Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path? How did you regroup and get back on track?
Inexperience is often the root cause of most setbacks, beginning with mistakes in coursework, foul-ups at the bench and later navigating the politics of academia, such as paper authorship. Graduate school is a wonderful opportunity to explore research, but careers are built on accomplishments. I wish I had learned earlier how to balance the exciting, high-risk questions with more pedestrian, but publishable, experiments. I ended up with essentially two thesis projects (theoretical bioinformatics and experiment-based molecular biology) when I should have picked one and completed my Ph.D. sooner. Getting back on track involved choosing a postdoctoral project where the publications came quicker but not necessarily easier.
What advice would you give to young persons from underrepresented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
My general advice would be to focus on a specialty and be productive through deliverables such as publications in either peer-reviewed journals or news stories. My motto is “we’re all minorities, so let’s help each other” because being a minority just depends upon your context. Thus, we should all help one another achieve common goals. I also recommend practice to improve writing skills that are critical to careers in academia and other sectors. While many students are regularly texting, they should use long-form writing to communicate thoughtful ideas. I will be exploring the use of blogs as a training ground for students to build up their writing momentum for future projects such as manuscripts and theses (1).
My specific counsel for underrepresented, marginalized individuals is to draw upon your resilience when facing environments and circumstances that disrespect your values and accomplishments. While your home community of family and friends might not understand your research, their unconditional support should stoke your drive to push forward through adversity. Be true to yourself, and your priorities when balancing work and personal demands. Use wise mentors so that you do not have to toil alone; but, be prepared to listen to advice that may contradict your short-term view. For example, in college I have Professor Nancy Mills to thank for setting me straight when I was falling behind in my organic chemistry class. Finally, once you are a successful, remember to give back so that others can benefit, too.
What are your hobbies?
Since graduate school, I found that movies with a great plot distract my curious mind and allow me to forget the troubles of the day. Later, my wife and I became parents and our fulfilling hobby was caring for our daughter.