When I was at the bench, I used to observe my colleagues and wonder how they always seemed to get it right. Their gels were clean. Their images looked great. They seemed to know all the names in the field, both established and newcomers to the scene. If my former lab mates are reading this letter, I’m sure they will be surprised! I think I managed to air a sense of confidence most of the time. Behind the cool, I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to be at the bench anymore. I didn’t know when I should start a family. And I was uncertain about the quality of my skill sets. I was dealing with a lot of tough topics. But having put together the past three issues of this newsletter, I now realize: so were they.
From postbac to postdoc, every fellow at the NICHD is dealing with something. We covered a handful of subjects during our “Tough Topics” series, including research hype, progress problems, postdoc project carryover, and presentation before publication (alliteration unintentional, I promise). But the potential number of tough topics stretches far beyond what this newsletter can handle. Thankfully, you have access to answers all around you. Talk to your colleagues and mentors. Many of them have encountered your problem at some point in their own careers. And if not, you can seek out an answer together.
For our third and final tough topics issue, we are given generous access to the personal experience of postdoctoral fellow Dr. Anna Roberts-Pilgrim. I can’t think of a tougher topic than the decision to leave the workforce altogether with the plan to return years later. For Dr. Roberts-Pilgrim, being at home to raise her young family was the right decision for her, even with “whispers [of being] shunned to the non-academic world forever.” Yet, the whispers were wrong, and she successfully navigated her way back to the lab. Dr. Roberts-Pilgrim recounts the steps she took that allowed her to re-enter research after “pressing the pause button.”
NICHD graduate student Justin Demmerle, 2018 Graduate Student Research Award recipient, writes about the life-shaping power that good mentorship has had on him when faced with difficult decisions. Fittingly, Demmerle’s mentor, Dr. Todd Macfarlan, won a 2018 NIH-Wide Outstanding Mentor Award. Inside, Demmerle shares what Dr. Macfarlan taught him about being a good mentor, from a mentee’s perspective.
Looking back at those days in the lab when I questioned my career decisions, I realize that my peers and mentors helped guide me to a science career that I love. If you absorb just one idea from our tough topics series, I hope it’s that problems are not solved in a vacuum. Reach out. Ask questions. Engage with your colleagues. Rest assured, one day, someone will come seeking your guidance too.
Your Editor in Chief,
Shana R. Spindler, PhD
Interested in writing for the newsletter? Contact our editor at Shana.Spindler@gmail.com.