BCMB News has been exploring the the Howard Hughes Medical Institute with a three-part article series. Part I, published in November, showcased the history of HHMI. Part II, published in December, contained anecdotes from HHMI faculty in the BCMB program, sharing some of their own experiences. Part III, the final part, shares advice from these BCMB faculty on how to build a career as a scientist.
BCMB News had the good fortune to sit down and talk to many of the HHMI faculty at Johns Hopkins: ask them questions, listen to their stories, and learn from their collective years of experience. One question we were certain you’d like them to answer was, “Do you have any advice for a young scientist, such as a graduate student or postdoc, who aspires to have a successful career in academic science?”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of them were eager to answer this question, reflecting on their own experiences from when they were students and postdocs, or drawing from their role as a mentor. The majority agreed that the most important thing was to work on something that was an interesting, compelling question, regardless of how “trendy” the topic may seem.
“I think the main thing is to follow your dreams. Especially when you’re young, you have to do what really excites you. If you can do that and if you are passionate about what you’re doing, then the good ideas will just bubble up. I don’t think there’s any other advice,” says Dr. Jeremy Nathans.
Dr. Cynthia Wolberger talked about her own experiences with the field of x-ray crystallography. “[Don’t] think about the current trend because whatever the current trend is [now], that won’t be the trend in five or ten years. I went into x-ray crystallograpy back when, apparently, it was almost impossible to get an academic job. I didn’t know that (laughs), I thought it was just so cool, I loved it! That turned out in my favor, because suddenly when it became popular there was almost nobody trained in it.”
Others advised generating a tool or technology that could potentially spread to your field or other fields. Dr. David Ginty explains, “Generating new tools puts you in a strong position of addressing or asking important questions that nobody else can ask, so it gives you a niche. Over and over again in my career I’ve seen that if you if you generate new tools, you’re in a strong position for success, and it gives you something that that allows you to stand out from the crowd.”
Other faculty emphasized the value of getting well-rounded training in scientific knowledge and concepts. Dr. DJ Pan commented that, “For students and postdocs I think the very best thing you can do now is just to try to train yourself as much as possible, both technically and also conceptually. Don’t just limit yourself to your own research field. Go to a lot of seminars, read widely, understand your friends’ research. Often the marriage of different fields is a fertile ground for new ideas.”
Being brave in the face of adversity is an important quality for a successful scientist. “[Don’t] get discouraged, because you’re inevitably going to face grants being rejected, papers being turned down. It can be very discouraging, but you just have to keep going. The people who succeed are the people who can just keep doing it and keep being excited,” says Dr. Bob Siliciano.
BCMB News would like to thank all of the HHMI faculty who participated in the interviews for this article series.