Dr. Kevin Francis is an Assistant Professor at The Children’s Health Research Center at Sanford Research in South Dakota. During his six years at the NICHD (2009-2015), he was a postdoctoral fellow first in the laboratory of Dr. Heiner Westphal. Upon Dr. Westphal’s retirement, he transitioned into the laboratory of Dr. Forbes (Denny) Porter. Dr. Francis’ research was focused on defining how lipid metabolism regulates pluripotency and neurodevelopment using human induced pluripotent stem cell models.
Check out our Q&A with Dr. Francis to learn more about his postdoc to PI transition:
Q: Did you always know you wanted to run your own lab? What led you to this career path?
A: Early in my graduate career, I was dead-set on going to industry after my PhD. However, the more experience I gained in different fields, my views slowly began to shift towards a career as a principal investigator. I love the scientific freedom this allows, but also mentorship of junior researchers this position entails.
Q: What's your typical day like as an Assistant Professor at your institution?
A: My typical day is a balance between benchwork, working on grants or manuscripts, mentorship/outreach, and committee meetings. On an average day, probably a 25:40:15:20 percent effort of each, respectively. Unlike most academic positions, my institute is a little unique in that classroom instruction is a minor portion of our jobs.
Q: What’s the character of your academic environment (primarily teaching, research, clinical, etc)? And how does your academic environment influence your research?
A: My faculty position is at a private research institute within a large Midwest healthcare organization. We do not have a lot of students, so traditional classroom teaching is a very small part of our effort. I’m primarily expected to focus on the development of translational research programs to impact human health. While my research program also has basic science components, this translational focus was very appealing to me and was one of the reasons I accepted my current position.
Q: On average, how many hours per week do you spend teaching/mentoring, versus writing grants, versus managing the lab?
A: I’m not sure about specific number of hours. I tend not to count! I would say it’s similar to a postdoc except instead of being in the lab most waking moments, I’m writing, going through committee work, establishing/cultivating collaborations through meetings, etc.
Q: How did you define the scope of your research? Did you find it hard to find a balance between broad questions versus a narrow focus?
A: This is definitely a problem early on when you have 100 ideas for projects but only enough staff to work on a handful. You will also have lots of people at your new institute that want to collaborate with you, which is also going to take time and effort away from yourself or your staff. You really need to prioritize projects that you feel are the most interesting scientifically but are also likely to lead to sustainable funding down the road. As you are testing out new hypotheses and projects, you’ll find ideas that stick and likely lead in new directions. But, maintaining on overall scope for your research program will be essential.
Q: What are your funding sources for your research and how did you secure them?
A: My department has been fortunate to obtain several large program grants through NIH, which help support a number of junior faculty like myself while I’m still trying to obtain a R01-level grant. I’ve also been lucky to obtain some smaller grants from private foundations to help support some specific projects. These are typically very competitive but can lead to greater recognition by reviewers of large NIH grants.
Q: What trials and tribulations did you encounter while setting up your lab and forming your group?
A: The biggest issue I ran into was recruiting high quality employees or students to my lab. It’s critical to not just fill open positions with warm bodies, but to find motivated individuals who fit with your group. Particularly in a new, small lab where everyone needs to contribute, one poor personnel choice on your part can diminish both your lab’s productivity and personal dynamic. If possible, have people you trust at your new department help evaluate potential hires (particularly postdocs) to help you avoid making a potentially catastrophic mistake.
Q: How did you find lab personnel? Do you have recommendations for how to structure your lab at the beginning (for example, ratio of undergraduate students to graduate students to postdocs)?
A: How you fill your lab staff is going to depend a lot on your department, program, and location. At my institute, technicians and postdocs dominate lab personnel. Undergraduates are rare, outside of summer research programs (though I have managed to recruit a couple to work part-time during the school year as well). Graduate students are also few in number, and it can be very competitive to recruit top students from more established labs. Personnel and staffing is a critical subject fellows should be discussing with prospective departments to get a feel for how labs are staffed. Postdocs are expensive but can also help drive some of the intellectual process. Some departments will provide support for graduate students, while other departments will require faculty to fully pay for student stipends and insurance from their start-up package/grants. I’ve managed to obtain a mix of undergrads, grad students, a technician, and a postdoc, which works, for me.
Q: Where do you seek out mentorship?
A: Anywhere and everywhere. While my institute has a pre-established mentorship program for junior faculty, this doesn’t always provide the right kind of support (either emotionally or intellectually). Therefore, I’ve tried very hard to identify other individuals, through regional collaborations or at scientific meetings, who I can also lean on from time to time. Early on, I also relied on some former colleagues at NICHD for guidance.
Q: What was the application/hiring process like? Did it take a long time?
A: For the position I accepted, I first interviewed for the position in January, received an offer in April, and started in July. Pretty quick really. Other places where I applied were sometimes considerably longer, maybe owing to interviewing more candidates, institute bureaucracy, etc. If you have applied somewhere and want an update, it’s definitely ok to politely email the search committee chair to get an idea of where your application stands.
Q: Were there any workshops or programs at the NIH that helped you prepare for your current position?
A: I think I participated in every workshop offered by OITE or NICHD at one time or another during my training. I don’t think there was a single workshop where I didn’t learn at least one thing new. Take advantage of these opportunities, as well as reaching out to Drs. Lori Conlan and Sharon Milgram at OITE and Dr. Yvette Pittman at NICHD* for one-on-one assistance. Also, I would strongly encourage going through the K99 or K22 grant writing process, so you know what you’re in for as a faculty member. Even if you don’t receive the award, this is a great learning experience for submitting R-grants to NIH.
Q: Do you have any final tips for fellows who are thinking about running their own labs?
A: Don’t get discouraged. You are going to have setbacks scientifically but push on. You were hired because you are a good scientist with lots of potential. Also, your grant applications are going to get trashed, sometimes with little or no feedback. Remind yourself this is happening to everyone and persevere. Lastly, surround yourself with good people. Having a lab full of people you can trust, as well as a career support network through colleagues and a personal support network at home with friends and family, will be vital to your success.
*Editor’s Note: We also encourage you to reach out to NICHD Office of Education Associate Director, Dr. Erin Walsh, whose time in the office did not overlap with Dr. Francis.