Tell us about your current career position.
Currently I am an associate professor of reproductive medicine in the School of Medicine at (the University of California) San Diego. I am a basic scientist conducting research in the area of neuropeptide hormone and metabolic signaling in the pituitary gonadotrope cells that control reproductive function. We are generally interested how the pituitary integrates multiple regulatory signals to control reproduction.
What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
One key experience was writing research grant proposals as a postdoctoral fellow, which helped me learn how to communicate my research interests clearly and to a broad audience. The other was integrating all of my training, both postdoctoral and graduate, to ask novel questions about the system I was studying. Bringing a different perspective to the system turned out to be very important. I worked both in academia and in private industry. Maintaining a strong professional network enabled me to return to academia and establish myself.
How did you first become interested in science?
I grew up during the Apollo era, and those astronauts are my heroes to this day. I was not always interested in biology. My first interest was in astronomy, flight and space travel. But in high school I became interested in biology because of an excellent teacher and mentor. There was a lot of excitement at the time because Genentech was founded and was producing the first drugs developed using the new tools of “genetic engineering.” That just goes to show how important mentors and role models can be.
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?
As a scientist, I fail regularly! Most experiments don’t work, and most of the battle is trying to do the right technical experiment to correctly answer the question or test the hypothesis at hand. I think the key is viewing research as a process that is incremental, iterative and always challenging.
In general, I almost failed out of college. I worked full time through most of college and had at least two jobs. At one point, I had a 1.69 GPA. But that failure helped me organize and prioritize my life, and I became very organized and motivated to do well in my classes.
I also started working in a lab and got a taste of research. I really loved it. I couldn’t believe people would pay me to do experiments! Once I started working at the bench, I never looked back. Having a goal and really enjoying the work helped me focus on the long term, and that turned out to be the best thing to help navigate the daily ups and downs of life.
Instead of being defeated by difficult things like harsh reviews of papers or grant proposals, I tend to think about how that happened, what I need to do to improve my own work and do a better job this time. Science is an endeavor that is based on criticism and questioning. Not in a negative personal way but in an effort to get at the truth. Not allowing criticism to affect you personally is an important skill that helps you move forward. In the end, the thrill of discovery and the satisfaction of the work far outweigh any of the difficult and negative aspects.
What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
I think there are several things I would like to pass on. One is to never think that you don’t belong. When you get to know other scientists and people in general, you realize how many people overcome their own personal struggles to do what they love to do. You actually share a lot more in common with others than you might initially appreciate.
The other is to not be afraid of work. No matter what you do for a career or job, if work is rewarding it will be hard at times. Thomas Edison’s axiom about genius being 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration is really true.
Finally, I think you should always take inspiration from your ancestors. We all have different histories. My grandparents’ generation ended up in the U.S. as refugees. They were fleeing war and poverty in Mexico and even from ethnic cleansing in central Europe. They had nothing. They worked hard not only to survive but to improve the lives of their children. So, in many ways, we are privileged to be trying to make a living as college-educated scientists and professionals. In many ways, we are reaping the harvest of what they sowed and struggled for. We should all appreciate that and honor their struggle by doing the best we can.
What are your hobbies?
I like to brew beer and cook, which is a form of edible experimentation. I also love camping and fishing.
What was the last book you read?
“Fides et Ratio” by Pope John Paul II. This is a short but fascinating examination of the harmony of faith and reason in human experience and how we understand the world. It is a call to unify philosophical thinking by organizing it around common principles. You don’t need to be a Christian to get something out of it.
Do you have any heroes, heroines or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
I know it sounds corny, but the older I get the more I admire my father. His own desire to make a better life made so much possible not only for our family but for those around him who he inspired. His own life is an example of how much an impact one person can make on the lives of so many in a very real way without a lot of fanfare or attention. Outside that, the Apollo 13 astronauts, Abraham Lincoln and Stubb, one of the harpooners in “Moby Dick.”
What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?
I really love the work. I still get a thrill from new results, and I never get bored with learning new things. Since I started as a graduate student, so much has changed and there is still so much more to learn.
Weiyi Zhao (email@example.com) is the ASBMB manager of education and professional development.