What should grad. school be?

I survived grad. school and, ultimately, thrived, for a variety of reasons that rarely had to do with the lab and more often had to do with the communities where I felt I belonged. The things I learned in those communities were the things that make me successful now, and we need to build more of them into graduate school opportunities if we want students to thrive.

Two things in grad. school saved me. The first was theater. In my program, we had to minor in something, and I picked playwriting on a whim. I fell in love not only with the writing but with the community. I became a producer and stage manager for productions and learned how to manage people, run a budget, and get things done on time. All of that has been essential to being a PI.

I also lived with undergrads and a graduate resident fellow. First, getting to know the undergrads, bake cookies, and watch X files was incredible. But I also received training in how to identify issues, and I had a great deal of practice with students who were struggling with school, family, and depression. I learned how to listen, and I learned when to trust my gut and make a call. I’m still very much working on learning to listen, but any success I have with it came from my time with my undergrads. I have to say that when it came time to get my hood, there was no one I wanted to celebrate more than them. I still have the white board, all these years later, where they wrote notes of congratulations after my successful defense.

Right now, approximately 50% of PhDs in STEM fields do not complete their PhDs. That number is horrifying. Not only are graduate students often putting the chance to earn an income and build their life up to the side to pursue their degrees, but there is a huge financial investment from universities and grants that support these students. When students leave, science is often left undone and there is a significant cost to the scientific enterprise beyond the impact on students who are the creative and passionate people who move the discipline forward. You want to know what the next great thing in science is– ask the grad. students. They know, and they know when we’re not treating them well and not giving them the experiences and tools to be successful leaders and innovators.


Changing the playing field and the players

Last year, I was at one of the major conferences in my field. A colleague
and old friend came up to me and started listing off her recent
accomplishments. She’s phenomenal, but it had been a long day, and I asked whether we could just talk about what we cared about whether it was science, kids, or the latest tv we saw?

Luckily, she’s a wonderful person, and she laughed, and then we did talk about the stuff we really cared about. Much of it was science. We both love science.

What I don’t love about science is the seemingly obsessive need to market
oneself. Conferences are becoming places where people seem to download their cvs to each other.  I’m all for celebrating successes, but I’m not sure I really want to hear about ever paper, every experiment, and every grant. Perhaps its sour grapes, but I think it’s because we are all seeming to move through these accomplishments because they are important for careers, but do they actually help people, even us?

Funding to do science keeps shrinking relative to the costs. When I started,
it was hard. Now, it’s even harder and there is no sign that is changing. When people get ready for the job market, they work hard to market their talents and success. It gets even more intense as tenure looms. Does it create the best work? I wonder. Putting brilliant people under huge stress so they go flat out to build their work, or realistically, their brand? That’s not what helps deal with huge challenges. I get that it is what we all feel like we need to do to survive, but maybe, we need to change the system instead.

I want to change how we do science. I want it to stop being about the
accolades and individual accomplishments. I want it to stop being about how one person, one lab, did some particular thing. I want it to stop being something that some of us do. I want it to be something all of us do.

I don’t want people to feel like they should couch their statements with
whether they are a scientist or not. I don’t want people to feel like they
aren’t capable of understanding math and science. I can’t think of many
disciplines in which people fundamentally feel outside of what is going on. I
still don’t really understand some of the existentialists, but I’ve never felt
like I should explain, I’m not a literary scholar when I dive in. I have
opinions, and I dare you to find someone who has read Camus who doesn’t.

We are born curious. We are born wondering, questioning, learning. We have a responsibility as human beings to continue to wonder, to question, and to learn. Are the more intense storms we see on the East Coast a function of the warming of the oceans? That is not the realm of science, that is the realm of survival, and each of us, regardless of our background should want to learn, and each of us who is learning should reach out to our fellow humans and help understand what is happening.

I believe in inclusion in science, but I believe you cannot have real
inclusion until the notion of who is a scientist is exploded. We are all
scientists. We all have to be scientists to see the world as it is, ask the
right questions and come up with the creative solutions we need to survive.

So, with all of that, how do we change science? How we fund science is a big
part of that. In grant reviews, we all assess whether a person or team of people are capable. We look at their biosketches, at their accomplishments. We need to find a way that looks at whether the team has the expertise needed for a project. We need to develop ways to assess whether the group understands how to work together. We need to celebrate the work at the interfaces of traditional disciplines and ideas. We need to celebrate work that engages people across disciplines, areas, and ideas regardless of their backgrounds and expertise. We need to celebrate ideas that are creative and different but also well motivated, and we need to help people outside of traditional environments to learn how to propose ideas and support them.

In our lab, we often joke that we are unhindered by knowledge. It’s not that
we think knowledge is not important- it is essential. But, it can be easy, when wading into all of the things that have been done, to believe that there is nothing that will work and that everything has been done. The gift of being new is not knowing. The gift of collaboration is new perspectives. If we want science to be creative and transformative, we need to open the door. We need to change how we celebrate, communicate, and investigate what might be possible.


Always room for one more

This was first published as a note on the Bioconjugate Chemistry facebook page. -Erin

When I was in college, the dining hall was organized with large, round tables, and smaller square ones. The round tables sat 8-10 people easily, and the smaller tables were designed for 4. Most people gravitated towards the smaller tables or, if the small tables were full, towards opposite sides of the large tables, except for one group.

Every evening, at 5 pm when the dining hall opened, a group of people gathered at the first big table. Each time a new person showed up, they cheered. When the table was full and someone showed, they cheered “detray, detray…” to make more room. When the table was full, and people would come up slowly, someone would always announce, “there’s always room for one more.” Room was found, even if it meant merging multiple tables. No one was ever turned away. As loud and chaotic as it could be at that table, everyone listened to each other. I have a quiet voice, and I never, once, had to yell to be heard. The loud people were loud, the quiet were quiet, and there was room for everyone.

I was a very shy freshman who really wondered if I’d find my place in College. This group, and their motto was an important part of feeling included. I didn’t sit with them every evening, but I was always welcome, no matter how full the table was, and I was always invited to be part of all of the chaos.

I think about that group of people a lot when I think about inclusive excellence. Just knowing that everyone was welcome changed the way the dining hall and the dorm were. It was a practice that set a culture whether it was hockey teams, the annual musical, or the Thursday night panic to get through the problem sets due on Friday. The brilliant thing was that everyone was welcome, period. The anxiety of being part of something was eliminated. Instead, we all focused on what we wanted to do.

How do we incorporate this mentality in science? I think we start with the words. If there is always room for one more, how do we support them? How do we make space and invite people in? I think we start by valuing each person’s strengths and are open about our own shortcomings. I think we change the way we approach graduate education from a place where people have to prove that they belong to a place where we learn how to help people capitalize on their strengths to do novel research. I think we stop seeing whether or not people are worthy of tenure and start supporting work that truly is interdisciplinary, inclusive, and by that, excellent. We value people and groups who go beyond traditional boundaries and expectations and who support each other.

Inclusion doesn’t stop at those who work in research labs. We need to expand the table to include the lay public not just as listeners but as people who are valuable partners in science. We all wonder about things. How do we go beyond demos and simple data collection to helping each other to ask questions and find solutions to the daily challenges we face? We need to work together not only to look for answers but to figure out what questions we need to be asking. Foster curiosity and provide the tools to start to pursue questions.

There is always room for one more.

Launch Committees: A walk to lunch

Many of my colleagues have been circulating an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education about U. Michigan which has done exceptional work in promoting diversity and inclusion in the faculty and leadership in the College of Engineering (Chronicle article)

What they have done and what they have learned is exceptional, and they have made the investment to try new things, to study the outcomes, and to institutionalize the best practices.

Two of their major initiatives are their STRIDE program and Launch Committees. Launch committees are near and dear to my heart– they were envisioned and started by myself and GQ Zhang when we were at Case Western as part of the ADVANCE leadership program there.

GQ and I were told we would be the representatives from Engineering. I had just come on campus, and GQ was trying to be more integrated in Engineering (most of his time had been at the med. school), so it made sense. We had no idea what it meant, but we said we’d help. I’m sure information was shared with us, but like the good faculty we were, we had missed all of the information.

We were walking to a lunch meeting with the ADVANCE team and suddenly realized that we were supposed to have a plan for a project. GQ and I dropped back from the group. “Did you know we needed a plan and that we were presenting?” GQ responded, “No. Thoughts?” And so, as we walked we started talking about what we wished we would have had that would have helped us succeed.

There was no research, no investigating the literature. We just talked. Both of us felt like getting started was tremendously hard, and both of us felt incredibly isolated in our first positions. I had moved to Case Western in the hopes of being in a more collegial, collaborative environment. I vented about how frustrated I was that no one seems to think about where a person will go or what space they need until after they start. GQ wished people tried to help make connections.

Over the course of the walk, we put a plan together. By the time we sat down for lunch, Launch committees were born. I can’t help but think that seeing the lunch menu spurred the idea of calling it launch committees, but I don’t remember.

We were given a coach, Helen Williams, who was beyond great. We both wondered what a coach did, and as we learned, she helped us figure out how to implement it. She brought up the idea of a checklist so we could make sure all the committees covered the critical content. It also helped with tracking.

We were in the middle of a strategic hiring initiative, and GQ and I were both involved in the hiring, so it made it relatively seemless to organize them. We didn’t require the new faculty to have launch committees, but we were delighted that the vast majority wanted them. Our early data was promising. People had the space they needed earlier and, based on interviews, had more contacts and connections that were leading to collaborations.

After two years, we were supposed to turn over running the program to the associate dean for faculty development. Unfortunately, that person stepped down and the position wasn’t filled. We ran it in an ad hoc way for people and departments who were willing to participate, but it stopped being the norm.

We presented on the project at the IDEAL leadership Plenary ADVANCE meeting in 2011. A number of colleagues from the universities in attendance asked for the how to guide. We happily shared it. Our colleagues at U. Michigan ran with it and did formal studies of the impact and published the work.

Launch committees have a positive effect on getting faculty started and helping to support them as they grow and become part of the university. It is worth taking the time to invest early and often with new faculty in a formal way. It helps them get started, but it also helps to build a practice of collaboration across disciplines.

I’m thrilled that it has become a successful and formal part of U. Michigan’s approach to helping faculty be successful and that it is part of what has increased inclusion and diversity of the faculty. I hope more and more universities embrace the practice. I’ll never forget, though, that it all started when GQ and I asked what we would have liked and then tried to figure out how to make it happen as we walked to lunch.

Parenthood and Science

An article in PNAS (The changing career trajectories of new parents in STEM Erin A. Cech, Mary Blair-Loy Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Mar 2019, 116 (10) 4182-4187; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1810862116) shows that nearly half of women and a quarter of men leave science following the birth or adoption of a child.

I did everything wrong when it came to having a child. I’d been told I couldn’t have children, so my son was a surprise– a welcome one, but a surprise nonetheless.

I wasn’t married. My partner and I hadn’t been dating that long. He was moving to a different state. We really hadn’t thought through anything up to that moment. When my son was born, he wouldn’t stop crying. It took 4.5 months to figure out what was going on. For those months, he didn’t nap, he barely slept, and I was as emotionally strung out as I have ever been.

During the first review I had after all of that, I was told I shouldn’t consider going up for promotion. I didn’t have the cv. Ironically, the year before, I had been told I was strong enough. After my son, there were those who asked me if I would continue. I started to wonder if I would continue, too.

I wasn’t as focused after my son. What I was, was more aware of the world around me. (And tired. Very tired.) I couldn’t be single minded as I had been before. My son has made me more human and, perhaps, more humane. My son has taught me that life happens. When life happens to others, I can recognize it in a new way. Hopefully, that helps me to be more supportive.

I love science. I always did. I still do. I now share that love with my son. I am just as excited as I ever was, but I leave the office to go home and be with him. I am tired, but I have incredible joy that finds its way into my work.

We need all kinds of people in science with all kinds of backgrounds and interests. We need to find a way to approach science less as a list of achievements, and more as a creative, collaborative enterprise where we can work together, support each other, and learn from each others’ experiences. Parents are a kind of cannery in the coal mine. With the stresses around limited funding, we can forget that when we look after each other– when there is give and take– when we actually say something supportive and kind to each other rather than take each other down– we can build a far better environment for all of us.

Climbing the Mountain

Today was a day to celebrate. I have a student who is defending her thesis next week. She’s brilliant and hardworking. She has a lot of data, but up to today, the data told a story of things tried and their outcomes. Today, that changed.

The student is making a new kind of material, and when she proposed it, her committee was very supportive but expressed serious reservations about whether or not the approach was possible. Those reservations are well founded. It wasn’t going to be easy.

Way, way back in my youth, I climbed fourteeners in Colorado. Climbing mountains is a funny business. It sounds incredibly hard, but when you get to the base of the mountain, if it is a clear day, you can see the top. It’s there. It’s doable. Then you start climbing.

It goes from being doable to impossible. Every step hurts. Your lungs scream for air. Your body burns. Your head dreams up awful things it would rather be doing. You will not make it to the top. It’s too windy, too wet, to hard. You suck on lemon drops to make your mouth stop hurting.

But, if you keep taking step after step, you’ll get to a ridge. I’m sure that some mountains don’t have ridges like this, but the ones I climbed always did. It is the spot where the top is in view again. Where you know you’ll get there. You can see it, feel it, and all the pain goes away. You still have to work, often very hard, but you’ll do it.

Today was that day in my student’s project, where she saw the mountain top again. She will get to the top of the mountain, and it is one heck of a beautiful view.

As hard as it was, I always loved mountain climbing. The one thing I love more, is getting to be a companion on the climb. Watching her as she has that moment is one of the greatest gifts I have had. I’m going to stay on the ridge and watch her summit, and it will be the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

There are moments I truly love this job. This is one of those moments.

C of Shame

I was that graduate student. My first semester in grad. school, I got a C in thermo. This was a class I rocked as an undergrad and a topic that was fundamental to my research. I was incredibly ashamed. I tried to chalk it up to being in the lab 12 hours a day– wasn’t that why I was in grad. school– and to not spending enough time on the class, but it was still a terrible feeling. I knew that one could be asked to leave for a C, but everything else had gone so well. I had a published paper. I did well (ok, at least) in my other classes. That didn’t stop me, however, from feeling incredibly embarrassed and wondering whether or not this was for me. Still, I told myself, I could do this.

The grad. program director came to me to explain that I couldn’t take the qualifier and should leave the program. The best part was that he explained it to me in the hall in front of all of my fellow grad. students. My embarrassment exploded in to full on shame. I was a failure.

I didn’t know what to do. I was sure I could do the work– at least I thought I could do the work. When I wasn’t mortified, I couldn’t help but think this seemed like such a stupid reason to say I wasn’t up to the task of science. I went to my advisor. I worried about talking with him because I had just told him a few days before I thought I should change fields which would mean leaving his lab. He had every reason to wash his hands of me. I had announced I wanted to leave his lab, so why not grad. school?

I went into his office and explained that I had to leave. I didn’t know where else to go. He looked at me with one of the most intense looks I have seen. He walked out. I was sure he was disgusted by me. I was disgusted by me.

He came back. “You’ll take the qualifier. You’ll be fine.”

It turned out that he went into the grad. program directors’ office and explained to him that I had a paper, I could do the work, and I deserved the chance to prove it. From what my fellow grad. students told me, he was quite forceful. As one of them put it, “Your adivsor is a force of nature. Wow.”

I would have left the program and probably not gotten a PhD if it hadn’t been for him. He didn’t have to go to the mat for me, but he did, even though I was leaving his lab. I passed the qualifier, and when time came for my thesis committee, I couldn’t think of a better person to have on it than him. My new work was outside of his research area, but he graciously agreed and was an incredible mentor and colleague who always brought great questions.

50% of students who start PhDs in STEM fields leave without a PhD. How much of that is because people don’t have the mentor who will go to the mat for them, even after the student is ready to leave? Especially when they are asked to leave for things that do not represent their potential as an independent scientist. I was incredibly lucky. It shouldn’t have to come down to luck.