Lauren “Laurie” Waters, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh (UW Oshkosh). She completed her postdoctoral training from 2007 to 2012 in the lab of Dr. Gisela “Gigi” Storz. While at the NICHD, Dr. Waters studied the molecular mechanisms of small regulatory RNAs and small proteins (<50 amino acids) in bacteria, specifically Escherichia coli. This work led to her current research on manganese homeostasis in bacteria, which affects microbial survival in eukaryotic hosts, at UW Oshkosh.
Dr. Water’s school is a primarily undergraduate institute (PUI). PUIs are accredited colleges and universities that mostly offer associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and/or master’s degrees and award a limited number of PhDs.
Check out our Q&A with Dr. Waters to learn more about being a principal investigator (PI) at a PUI:
Q: Did you always know you wanted to teach at a PUI?
A: No, I did not know I wanted to teach at a PUI. I loved academic research and knew I wanted to continue in the lab in some fashion, but I was mainly familiar with R1 (research-intensive) labs. As I mentored students, especially during my postdoc years in Gigi’s lab, I realized I enjoyed working one-on-one with students. Combined with my interest in basic molecular microbiology (which is cheap, fast, and has a wealth of well-developed biochemical and genetic techniques), I realized that I could accomplish this well at a PUI.
Q: What was the application/hiring process like?
A: I applied to both R1/R2 (essentially institutions with graduate students) and PUI positions. I had separate applications for different types of schools because the type and amount of research that can be done is different. I wrote my general application in late July/early August. I started applying in August and continued submitting applications until February. Most applications were due in early fall, and I had several phone interviews in the fall. I had an on-campus interview at my current institution (University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh) in November, and they made me an offer in December. I negotiated in January and accepted in February.
Overall, the process took several months. But the specific process of hiring with UW Oshkosh was quick.
Q: What is the career path of a PI after joining a PUI?
A: Typically, a PI at a PUI is tenure-track, but it is important to clarify expectations carefully during the interview process. Clarify not only if the position is tenure-track, but also about expectations for teaching versus research loads, which classes you would teach, lab space and equipment availability, and tenure requirements (how teaching excellence and research progress are measured).
Q: What's your typical day like?
A: Most semesters, I teach four days a week and have one non-teaching day. On my teaching days, I am in class from one to five hours, depending. At UW Oshkosh, we are under contract to teach 12 credit hours per semester, but you can have three credit hours reassigned to research. I have mostly taught nine credit hours per semester, which means nine hours in class. I also spend two to three hours outside of class for each credit hour making teaching materials (lectures, quizzes, exams), grading, prepping for labs, and meeting with students.
On a typical day, I spend at least a little bit of time on research—starting some cultures or carrying out a several-hour experiment. I usually have two to three undergrads working with me in a given semester, and they come into the lab about five hours per week. Some of my research time is spent with them in the lab, and some time is spent designing their research projects. I often tag team with them—doing some of the steps of a protocol while they are at class or work.
Q: Overall, what is your relative time spent teaching, mentoring, writing grants, managing the lab, service projects, etc.?
A: Officially, my position is 45% teaching, 45% research, and 10% service. However, during the semesters, I spend about 70% of my time teaching, 20% in research, 5% on service, and 5% mentoring students (career discussions, letters of recommendation, etc.). During our three-week “interim” period in January and during the three months of the summer, I spend about 80% of my time on research and about 10% of my time each on teaching and service.
Q: How does the environment of a PUI influence your research and chosen area of study?
A: The most important thing to consider about carrying out research at a PUI is feasibility. Your time and your student researchers’ time is quite constrained. In addition, your budget and available equipment is limited. You need to carefully design experiments that are feasible with the resources you have and that will generate useful data. This does not mean compromising the science, but it might mean figuring out how to spread an experiment over several days, or how to collect data with different equipment. I have never forgotten how an NIH program officer once explained PUI research to me: “You can still do impactful and high-quality research at a PUI. It is just at a slower pace.”
While undergraduates can become very independent and knowledgeable about their piece of the project, it is hard for them to see the whole picture and know the field. This means that you, as the PI, do almost all the thinking and planning. In contrast to graduate students or postdocs (who can readily keep up with new developments in the literature, design experiments, and apply new techniques to a question), undergrads need more guidance and direction. They don’t necessarily require more supervision (hands-on time), but undergrads might need more guidance on experimental design. As the PI, you will need to provide both the questions and methods to address the questions.
Lastly, it is hard to carry out research in a very competitive field at a PUI, due to the rate at which results can be generated. Finding a less-populated niche of your field is essential.
Q: What are the funding sources for your research?
A: I have received funding from Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) for two grants, and I am very excited to be starting my first NIH R15 AREA grant. My first year as faculty, I went to an excellent workshop called Beginning a Research Program at a Predominantly Undergraduate Institution, put on by the Council for Undergraduate Research (CUR). I recommend this workshop (or similar workshops for R1/R2/R3 institutions) to everyone! As an NIH postdoc, I had become familiar with the NIH granting system, but the workshop helped me navigate the broader world of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other federal agencies, as well as non-profit foundations. The CUR workshop introduced me to RCSA, and it also provided valuable guidance about research with undergraduates.
Q: What trials and tribulations did you encounter while setting up your lab?
A: I didn’t really encounter any major trials or tribulations setting up my lab, just the mundane ones of lack of time, students mixing up samples or using up expensive reagents quickly, and the stress of figuring out what to order and how to manage money!
Perhaps the most challenging was feeling isolated from my research community and being in a different scientific environment where no one else carries out similar research. At a PUI, departments hire to fill specific niches rather than to build a powerhouse of research labs in related areas. However, attending conferences, forming collaborations, and keeping up with former lab mates helped a lot.
Q: Where do you seek out mentorship?
A: I sought out mentorship in different ways for specific needs. For teaching, I turned to my department for advice about our student body and general pedagogical techniques. For biochemistry-specific teaching, I have found many helpful mentors and fellow practitioners through the societies, particularly the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). My Cottrell Scholar grant from RCSA also has been amazing for connecting me to other scientists passionate about teaching.
For research, my number one mentor has been my postdoc advisor, Dr. Gigi Storz. She is an exceptional mentor and has been incredibly supportive since I left the NIH. Another great resource is former postdoc and graduate school lab mates.
Q: Were there any workshops or programs at the NIH that helped you prepare for your current position?
A: Yes, many! I attended several programs through the OITE that helped me discern career paths I did and did not want to pursue. In particular, the “Grant Writing 101” and “Developing Teaching Statements, Syllabi, and Curricula” workshops were very helpful. I also had the opportunity to teach part of a course at the NIH through the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences (FAES). Of course, mentoring postbac students in the Storz lab was very valuable and enjoyable. Lastly, I had a postdoctoral fellowship through the Postdoctoral Research Associate (PRAT) program at NIGMS that was fantastic in providing scientific and career mentoring.
Q: Do you have any final tips for fellows who are thinking about running their own labs?
A: One great tip I got was to go into the lab each day. Especially when you are just starting to teach, you could easily spend all your time making lectures and grading. But make yourself at least walk into the lab every day and do a short routine task, like streaking out single colonies or making a buffer—just to connect with your research space and keep that part of your mind active.
It is a busy, often hectic, challenging career, but incredibly rewarding and exciting. Nothing compares to the feeling of getting great data, or the fulfillment of seeing your students go on to become incredible researchers, skilled clinicians, or use their science background in new, creative ways.
To learn more about Dr. Water’s career and research, please visit her website or check out her latest publication, “Structure-function analysis of manganese exporter proteins across bacteria.”
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