Eric Horstick, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at West Virginia University (WVU). He completed his postdoctoral training in the lab of Dr. Harold Burgess from 2013–2019. Initially, Dr. Horstick aimed to study sensorimotor processing. But over time, his studies evolved into exploring the circuits and molecular pathways that establish and maintain asymmetric function in the brain, which Dr. Horstick continues to study in his own lab.
Check out our Q&A with Dr. Horstick to learn more about beginning a career in academic research:
Q: Did you always know you wanted to run your own lab?
A: I hoped I would run my own lab. Since high school, I was interested in biology, and as such pursued a biology degree in college. My advisor at the Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania got me working in his wife’s lab (the Robishaw lab) at the Weis Center for Research. There I used zebrafish to investigate G-protein signaling. The topics have changed over time, yet the fish stuck. I feel like science, and research in particular, has a current: you start, get caught in the current, and then find yourself moving along through the steps (i.e. grad school, postdoc). Before you know it, you’re looking for a faculty position.
Q: What's your typical day like as an assistant professor at your institution?
A: I’m still very new. Only five to six months in my position. Therefore, I spend a lot of time in lab getting equipment set up and experiments moving. Otherwise, life is emails and grant writing.
Q: How does your academic environment influence your research?
A: Recently, WVU was promoted to a Research 1 institution, so rigorous, quality research is central to success and promotion. The biology department composition covers a broad spectrum of fields. One major area of growth is neuroscience and the department has recently expanded their imaging core which significantly expands research opportunities.
Q: On average, how many hours per week do you spend teaching/mentoring, writing grants, and managing the lab?
A: At WVU, I have one year of teaching exemption, which is very generous and helpful in getting a lab setup. After my exemption period, I will teach one course a semester. I try to get five to six hours per week in the lab doing experiments or directly working with my lab members. Otherwise, I’m writing grants or taking care of administrative responsibilities.
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: Honestly the approach is to be all encompassing. With the difficulty of funding, you cannot limit your scope. You need to approach your research from every angle—and submit a grant on it.
Q: What are your funding sources for your research and how did you secure them?
A: Currently, I am working on startup funds. I am also developing grants for both NIH and National Science Foundation mechanisms.
Q: What trials and tribulations did you encounter while setting up your lab and forming your group?
A: The most difficult adjustment is timing. You quickly learn everything, literally everything, takes much longer than anticipated. This spans from hiring, training, lab set up, to experiments. As a postdoc, you know the experimental logistics and your own capabilities that allow for rapid data collection. Working with new people, you will need to adjust those expectations—and more importantly, learn to not get too frustrated.
Q: How did you find lab personnel, and do you have recommendations for how to structure your lab at the beginning?
A: Recruitment is difficult, especially as a new person. Contacting your friends, using university job sites, and self-promoting at conferences are some of the best ways to start. As for composition, this is really a personal preference. Each level of personnel comes with different expectations that are important to keep in mind.
Q: Where do you seek out mentorship?
A: My previous mentors are immensely helpful. Also, WVU Biology supports both an internal and external mentor program. This helps to semi-officially establish a support system both inside and outside the department. Systems like this are immensely valuable to junior faculty.
Q: Do you have any final tips for fellows who are thinking about running their own labs?
A: There is no guidebook or one set of expectations—so really, no point looking. That is why asking for input and advice is necessary. It can be intimidating to do so because you don’t want to look foolish or unprepared, yet everyone was new at some point, and there wasn’t a guidebook then either. However, a skill you need to develop is the ability to distinguish the advice that is, or is not, good for your research program.
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