How the CBN Established Atlanta As A Mecca For Mentoring Black Neuroscientists *I do not own the rights to this music
I fell back in love with science during the Covid-19 pandemic.
That’s it. That is the whole post!
No really, I was on the brink prior to this pandemic. For months, I knew something was off, but I just kept chugging along. I would sit in meetings and would be present, but not present. I thought it meant that I was no longer in love with science. I didn’t realize that I was just mentally and physically exhausted. The mandated “stay at home” order allowed me to slow down, literally! I don’t procrastinate as much. I am more productive and creative. My love for reading journal articles and drawing models to explain how X may affect Y has returned! I have time to do more of the things that I always wanted to do (e.g., start my own small garden, master short rib tacos with homemade pickled red onions and lime crema, ride my bike often, take my dog to the park every day, free my curly afro), you know the little things.
Now, don't get me wrong, the first few months were incredibly hard. I missed my family and friends. I worried about our neighborhood restaurants and other small businesses. I sympathized with the struggles of many of my friends and family who were now "home-school" teachers while continuing their full-time jobs. I worried about everyone's health! I still worry about ALL of these things. However, I knew that I couldn't remain in this state of frenzy if I wanted to get anything done. I knew that whenever this pandemic ended, I didn't want to be in the same mental place I was in when it started. I figured that because I don't have nearly as many face-to-face meetings, and I don't have to drive back and forth between campuses, and I don't have to worry about what I look like before I walk out of the door that I should take advantage of my extra time and do more of the things that I didn't have time to do.
Because my work life and home life are in sync for the first time EVER, I can do more of the personal things that I have always wanted to do while still being MORE productive at work. Part of this increased productivity is because I have cultivated a creative and peaceful living space that makes it easier to work from home. When your home life is out of sync it will impact your work life.
Let me say (write) this again, when you don't take the time to appropriately tend to your personal life, it will eventually screw up your work life! Being stressed out and running on fumes on a daily basis, blocks your creativity.
A depressed and stressed out work force will give you depressed effort. As leaders, it is important for us to check on our staff. Sometimes a lack of productivity is not necessarily because they are lazy or not good enough. Sometimes a lack of productivity is because of exhaustion!
This pandemic, while scary and dreadful in so many ways, has allowed me to fall back in love with things that are important to me because I am taking care of me. I am tending to my personal life which is indeed more beneficial for my work life. When life goes back to "normal," I hope that we all learn that we don’t have to compromise our personal life for our job. In fact, I think it is detrimental to continue to maintain this faulty and distorted view that our work life should supersede our personal life.
A happy personal life will enhance your professional life!
Unless you have been living on a remote island with no WIFI access, then you know the devastating global impact of COVID-19. During these unprecedented times, we are forced to navigate unchartered territories to establish a ‘new normal’ not only for ourselves, but for our families. As with most disasters, racially or ethnically marginalized groups will likely bear the economic, emotional and physical brunt of this pandemic.
So, how do we find ways to cope with the fear and the unrelenting stress surrounding COVID-19?
Historically, black women have relied heavily upon our faith to get us through trying times. Our faith is like a muscle and the more that we rely upon it, the stronger it becomes and the more resilient we become.
Faith triumphs over fear and our unwavering faith will allow us to cope with the stress of COVID-19.
Whether you know it or not, this moment is history in the making. You get to tell your grandchildren and their children about how you survived the COVID-19 pandemic. I encourage you to think about where you want to be on the other side of this global pandemic. We constantly complain about the stress of our hectic lives. Well, utilize this time where we are all forced to slow down, to create the life that you want.
Here are some tips to help you survive and thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
1. Create a living space that you do not want to escape from
Now that the lines between home, work, and for some, school life are blurred, we are forced to do a number of activities in our homes. These blurred lines create stress because most of us don’t have the dedicated space to accommodate this transition. However, you can achieve a multi-purpose living area, no matter how limited you are on space. The first step to create a multi-purpose area for our current ‘shelter-in-place’ situation is to declutter! Yes, declutter, organize and clean your living space, sis. Many of us are holding on to far too much stuff that we don’t need.
The saying “Cluttered space, Cluttered mind” is in fact, not anecdotal, there is a psychology, and well, neuroscience behind this. Clutter can negatively impact our mental and physical health. For example, it is associated with increased cortisol (stress hormone) secretion, increased food intake (put down that ice cream), anxiety, and even depression. It is no wonder that people report being “less creative” when they are in a cluttered and messy environment. There are a number of websites (e.g., Pinterest) that can help you achieve an organized, vibrant and clutter-free environment. So, if you want to be productive and feel less stressed while you work from home, then you need to “Declutter your space to Declutter your mind!”
2. Create a new mindset to protect your mental and physical health
When we are faced with challenging times, physical exercise is important to help us cope with stress. Decluttering and organizing your living space exerts both physical and mental energy. Now that you have decluttered your environment, it is imperative for us to create a new mindset to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
After the ‘shelter-in-place’ mandate, the first thing that my friends and I did was commiserate about all of the things that we were going to lose. None of us thought about the potential benefits from this situation. I saw a very powerful meme that stated that “Our attitude can change with just one word. Instead of saying that I am STUCK at home, say I am SAFE at home.” Believe me, it works. Our thoughts have a huge impact on our mental and physical health. Try these positive spins to replace the negative feelings associated with COVID-19. Instead of saying that I have to cook for my family every day”, say “I get to cook for my family every day!” Even though we are practicing social distancing, this does not mean that we have to be socially distant! Now that we are safe in our homes and we don’t have to deal with the hustle and bustle of rushing home from work and hauling the kids to their many activities, we can find new (Zoom) and perhaps old (hand-written letter) ways to stay connected with our loved ones.
Tip: Journaling Is a great way to help you practice intentional gratitude. The trick to successful journaling is to write as if no one will ever see it but you. This is the only way to get your most authentic thoughts on paper.
3. Create a family, financial, and health plan
If there is anything that I have learned from our government’s handling of this pandemic is that we were prepared for a street fight, but we WERE and still ARE, woefully ill-equipped to handle the COVID-19 war. Don’t get me wrong, there is no way that we could have imagined the ensuing calamity, but there were warnings. One positive lesson that I have personally learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is don’t just prepare for tomorrow, prepare for the next day, and the day afterwards. If our current state of affairs does not underscore the fragility of life and finances, then I don’t know what will.
Today is the day to sit down, or stand up, if you are so inclined to, and create a financial and health plan to protect your family. We MUST get our proverbial affairs in order. Many of us don’t like to think or even talk about living wills, life insurance, or death. But, we NEED to discuss all of these things right now, at this very moment. To continue to ignore the importance of having a concrete plan amidst this pandemic is irresponsible. Having a plan does not prevent hardships; however, it allows us to more easily navigate through these unforeseen hardships!
One immediate benefit of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it forces us to prioritize our finances. During times of economic strife, we learn rather quickly the importance of designating what we “can’t live without” vs. what we CAN’T live without. Although we may not be “Snatched for the Gods” because we are missing our hair, brow and nail appointments, I bet you are doing just fine.
4. Create innovative ways to engage with your family and friends
We need comfort and support during these unsettling and uncertain times. For the majority of us, our friends and family provide us with the emotional, social, and even financial support that we need to forge through tough times. Right now, we can’t be physically present with our extended family and friends, but that does not mean that we can’t find new ways to engage with them. For example, virtual book clubs, supper clubs, dance-offs (TikTok), and happy hours (#Quarantini) are becoming extremely popular. In fact, many people are actually spending more time connecting with their friends and family than ever before. Don’t allow this period of social distancing to prevent you from being socially connected with your loved ones!
Tip: If you miss going out to your favorite restaurant, turn your kitchen into your favorite restaurant at least once a week. For the first week, you can have your family serve as the waiter and they can take your order and prepare your favorite meal from your favorite restaurant. You can even print a replicated menu. Then, you can flip it the next week and you can create their favorite dish!
5. Create your side hustle or passion project
Unfortunately, some of us will lose our jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On the flip side, now you have more time to focus on your side hustle or start a passion project. If you have been wanting to start a podcast, write a book, launch your catering business, or grow a home garden, then there is nothing holding you back! Many side hustles or businesses are created through loss. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all of our lives to slow down, use this time to invest in yourself by focusing on your untapped talents.
Now that you have created a clutter-free environment and mindset, you are equipped to tackle any challenges that you may encounter as you start your new journey.
I know that these are troubling times for all of us, but we will get through this!
I saw this list on the website:
This list is giving me life right now!
13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do!!!
Mentally strong people have healthy habits. They manage their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in ways that set them up for success in life. Check out these things that mentally strong people don’t do so that you too can become more mentally strong.
1. THEY DON’T WASTE TIME FEELING SORRY FOR THEMSELVES
Mentally strong people don’t sit around feeling sorry about their circumstances or how others have treated them. Instead, they take responsibility for their role in life and understand that life isn’t always easy or fair.
2. THEY DON’T GIVE AWAY THEIR POWER
They don’t allow others to control them, and they don’t give someone else power over them. They don’t say things like, “My boss makes me feel bad,” because they understand that they are in control over their own emotions and they have a choice in how they respond.
3. THEY DON’T SHY AWAY FROM CHANGE
Mentally strong people don’t try to avoid change. Instead, they welcome positive change and are willing to be flexible. They understand that change is inevitable and believe in their abilities to adapt.
4. THEY DON’T WASTE ENERGY ON THINGS THEY CAN’T CONTROL
You won’t hear a mentally strong person complaining over lost luggage or traffic jams. Instead, they focus on what they can control in their lives. They recognize that sometimes, the only thing they can control is their attitude.
5. THEY DON’T WORRY ABOUT PLEASING EVERYONE
Mentally strong people recognize that they don’t need to please everyone all the time. They’re not afraid to say no or speak up when necessary. They strive to be kind and fair, but can handle other people being upset if they didn’t make them happy.
6. THEY DON’T FEAR TAKING CALCULATED RISKS
They don’t take reckless or foolish risks, but don’t mind taking calculated risks. Mentally strong people spend time weighing the risks and benefits before making a big decision, and they’re fully informed of the potential downsides before they take action.
7. THEY DON’T DWELL ON THE PAST
Mentally strong people don’t waste time dwelling on the past and wishing things could be different. They acknowledge their past and can say what they’ve learned from it. However, they don’t constantly relive bad experiences or fantasize about the glory days. Instead, they live for the present and plan for the future.
8. THEY DON’T MAKE THE SAME MISTAKES OVER AND OVER
Mentally strong people accept responsibility for their behavior and learn from their past mistakes. As a result, they don’t keep repeating those mistakes over and over. Instead, they move on and make better decisions in the future.
9. THEY DON’T RESENT OTHER PEOPLE’S SUCCESS
Mentally strong people can appreciate and celebrate other people’s success in life. They don’t grow jealous or feel cheated when others surpass them. Instead, they recognize that success comes with hard work, and they are willing to work hard for their own chance at success.
10. THEY DON’T GIVE UP AFTER THE FIRST FAILURE
Mentally strong people don’t view failure as a reason to give up. Instead, they use failure as an opportunity to grow and improve. They are willing to keep trying until they get it right.
11. THEY DON’T FEAR ALONE TIME
Mentally strong people can tolerate being alone and they don’t fear silence. They aren’t afraid to be alone with their thoughts and they can use downtime to be productive. They enjoy their own company and aren’t dependent on others for companionship and entertainment all the time but instead can be happy alone.
12. THEY DON’T FEEL THE WORLD OWES THEM ANYTHING
Mentally strong people don’t feel entitled to things in life. They weren’t born with a mentality that others would take care of them or that the world must give them something. Instead, they look for opportunities based on their own merits.
13. THEY DON’T EXPECT IMMEDIATE RESULTS
Whether they are working on improving their health or getting a new business off the ground, mentally strong people don’t expect immediate results. Instead, they apply their skills and time to the best of their ability and understand that real change takes time.
I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the 2014 McNair Scholars Banquet at the University of Cincinnati in April. Even though I accepted the invitation, I had some anxiety about whether I was qualified to be a keynote speaker at this stage of my career. After all, this was a banquet where I would be giving advice to undergraduates about how to progress to the next stage of life. Although I am a mentor, I am still very much at the beginning phases of my career. In many ways I remain a mentee because I am constantly seeking advice from more seasoned investigators. After careful thought, I realized that no matter how accomplished we are in our careers, we will always be in the mentee stage. We should always strive to learn something new and we should always seek the advice of people who are more trained in a given area. It is possible to be both a mentor and a mentee and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it is nearly impossible to be a mentor, without having been mentored. I have come to learn that people who give the best advice on what to do in life are those who have been through it, are currently going through it, or wish they had the appropriate advice to get through it. I am happy to share my journey with young students. I am still learning how to balance a research team, teaching, service, writing grants, family life, etc., and that is okay. Keynote addresses are reserved for the accomplished scholar, and rightfully so. Who wants to take advice from someone who has not even made it yet? However, I believe that young people can identify with imperfect people who don’t necessarily have it completely together and are not afraid to express their fears. Greater transparency about “the good and the bad “ of pursuing a career in neuroscience or academia for that matter, is important for the next generation.
I spent some time trying to think of the best message to convey to the attendees of the McNair Scholars Banquet as they progress to the next stage of their careers. I knew that I wanted to impart wisdom to them for not only their professional journeys, but also their personal journeys. As mentors or parents, we spend much time preparing our students or our children for professional success, but we fail to teach them about personal success. We focus on preparing them for what they want to be, not who they want to be. I am saddened when I see successful people who only identify themselves by what they do. The goal of the keynote address was to be motivational, however I also wanted to be honest with both the students and their parents about some of the ingredients for professional and personal success. We often tell students or our children that they can be anything that they want to be, and that simply is not true. When I was a kid I wanted to be the next Whitney Houston and no one could tell me differently. I would sing through the house with all of the passion in the world until my family told me, "Tia, you can't sing, so shut up!" I had the passion, but no matter how hard I tried, I did not have the talent to be a singer, and certainly not the next Whitney Houston. Instead of telling our trainees and our children that they can be anything they want to be, we should tell them to pursue careers that they are passionate about, good at, and feel great doing. The main point that I wanted to express to them was that in order to be successful in your professional life, you must be both passionate and talented. I also told them that passion is internal Gatorade for the soul. Passion pushes you to keep working on a task even when your body is tired! Passion can trump talent, especially when talent won’t work.
Delivering this keynote address was a good break from the scientific talks that I normally give. In the hustle and bustle of academia, we are often so focused on the destination that we lose sight of why we fell in love with science in the first place. I enjoyed sharing my love of science from a big picture perspective devoid of significance symbols and bar graphs. In the short time that I have become a mentor, my love of science has quickly transformed into the business of science. The business of science includes publishing high impact papers, securing funding and tenure, and establishing research networks. The business of science includes the obligatory benchmarks that signify professional success and garner admiration and respect from your peers. A notable religious figure, Bishop T.D. Jakes said something that was extremely powerful to me. He stated, “It is not the destination that solidifies you, it is the things you learn along the way that solidify you. “You will never be effective if you are in love with the destination.” For many of us in academia, the destination is tenure, it is the R01, and it is the high impact paper and so on and so forth. Those things can bring you notoriety and acceptance in your field and create professional success, but they don’t necessarily guarantee personal success. We have to teach the next generation the difference between professional and personal success. While these two things may be tightly linked in many ways, there should be some divide between the two. Now don’t get me wrong, I am working hard to achieve professional success, but I don’t want to forget to enjoy my journey. My journey includes a mixture of professional and personal benchmarks
Giving frank professional and personal advice to the next generation helps me to enjoy my scientific and personal journey!
I have been doing my best to live by this list (at least most of it) for the entire summer. I hope that I can continue to practice these things until they become part of my lifestyle! I will especially need this list when the Fall Semester starts!
**This is great advice from Paul C. Brunson. I especially find this helpful in my pursuit towards research excellence in neuroscience! However, I believe that it is good to dedicate some time to do absolutely nothing (see tip #7)!
I have spent decades “being educated” – in college, graduate school, numerous professional certifications, and now a PhD program. All of that schooling and training helped shape the person I am today, but at no point in my life has there been a more profound education than my time working for Enver Yucel and Oprah Winfrey.
Enver and Oprah are two extraordinary people. And on top of that, they’re both billionaires. On the surface, they appear to be totally different people. They are in different industries, have different family structures, practice different religions, and speak different languages. However, once you get past their written biographies and dig deeper, you will notice they possess many of the same successful habits.
I had the opportunity to work with both Oprah and Enver for 6 years collectively and those were, hands down, the best professional experiences of my life. I worked my "butt" off for them and in doing so absorbed everything I could.
It’s my honor to share with you what I learned from them. Here is Part 1 of the 20 successful habits I learned working for two billionaires:
1) Invest in Yourself This is a very simple concept, but something you would think someone who has “made it” would stop doing. Not at all for these two. I saw them both spend a significant amount of time dedicating their resources to self-development (whether it be a new language, exercise, social media classes, etc). The moment you stop investing in yourself is the moment you have written off future dividends in life.
2) Be Curious…About Everything What the average person sees as mundane or overly complicated is not viewed the same way with a billionaire mindset. I once had a 30 minute conversation with Enver about the height of the curbs in Washington DC versus Istanbul, Turkey. Billionaires are incredibly curious; what the rest of the world thinks is a problem and complains about — that’s what these people go and work on.
3) Surround Yourself With “Better” People I hope this is why they kept me around :-). Seriously, I never knew my bosses to keep anyone less-than-stellar in their inner circle. There were many times I thought to myself, “Damn, they have dream-teams built around them.” Jim Rohn had it right, “You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.”
4) Never Eat Alone The last time I had dinner with Enver, as well as the last time I ate dinner with Oprah, there were easily 15 people at our tables, respectively. Coincidence? While most of us derive our key information from blogs or the newspaper, power players get their information from the source (other power players), directly. However, just because you can’t call up the Obamas and break bread with them doesn’t mean eating with others in your circle doesn’t carry value. In one of my favorite reads of the last few years called “Never Eat Alone”, author Keith Ferrazzi breaks down how you can identify “information brokers” to dine with you. I’ve seen first hand how enormous the benefits are of this strategy.
5) Take Responsibility For Your Losses I was working for Oprah during the time she was taking heat from the media about poor network ratings. I was also working for Enver during the closing of one of his prized divisions. What I witnessed them both do in response was powerful. Opposed to covering the losses up with fancy PR tactics, both stepped to the stage and said in essence “I own it and I’m going to fix it” and dropped the mic. Guess what? They sure did fix things.
6) Understand The Power Of “Leverage” This is something that was quite a shock to me. From afar, a billionaire appears to be someone who is a master at everything. But, in truth, they’re specialists in one or a few areas and average or subpar at everything else. So, how do they get so much done? Leverage! They do what they do best and get others to help do the rest.
7) Take No Days Off (Completely) I recall going on vacation with Enver several times, yachting up and down the southwestern coast of Turkey (also known as the blue voyage). Sounds ballerific, right? No doubt we had a great time, but mixed in with all that swimming and backgammon was discussion of business, discussion of strategy, planning and plotting. The best way I can describe this habit is thinking about your business or your idea like your literal baby. No matter your distance, you don’t stop thinking of him/her (and after just having a second son, I can attest to this).
8) Focus On Experiences vs. Material Possessions When you have money, your toys are big. However, the vast majority of money I saw spent on their “leisure” was on actual experiences versus the typical car, jewelry, and clothes we’re familiar with seeing in music videos and gossip blogs. I recall one time at dinner with Oprah, I spotted a table of about 20 girls off to the side. I later found out Ms. Winfrey was treating some of her graduating girls from her school in South Africa to dinner in NYC. Experiences create memories, and memories are priceless.
9) Take Enormous Risks This is another one of those successful habits every entrepreneur can attest to. A matter of fact, Entreprenuer.com created a great infographic outlining commonalities of the world’s billionaires and one of the most prominent was this characteristic: billionaires are not adverse to risk. What intrigues me even more about Enver and Oprah was that even at their high financial status and success level, they still possessed a willingness to risk their most precious asset (their name and legacy) on new and bolder projects. If you’re not taking risks, you’re not making moves!
10) Don’t Go At It Alone Nothing great in life is achieved alone. Especially in business, success isn’t a solo act. This character trait is akin to “surrounding yourself with better people.” It takes teamwork to make the dream work.
What I witnessed from working for Enver and Oprah were characteristics and successful habits that not only apply to business “wins,” but also translate to general life success. I sincerely hope the tips I’ve shared here will inspire you to create (or maintain) great habits for your success.
If someone told me 20 years ago that I would be a neuroscientist today I would have laughed, not because I wouldn’t have believed that I could do it, but because I didn’t even know what a neuroscientist was. I didn’t have a scientific role model or a blueprint for how to become a scientist, let alone a neuroscientist. At that time, my only connection with being a scientist was through television. I believed that scientists were weird (I still do) and worked in a lab mixing solutions and growing bacteria in petri dishes. How do you become something that you have never seen in reality? My mother instilled a strong work ethic and love of education, not by words, but by actions. I could have easily followed the crowd. I suspect that following the crowd may have been easier and perhaps more fun. However, because I believed that education would create invaluable opportunities for me, I followed the proverbial “road less traveled.” Clearly, at that time, I never knew that the road less traveled would lead to a life as a behavioral neuroscientist, but I knew that to become successful at whatever career path I chose, education was the lynchpin.
My Path To Becoming a Behavioral Neuroscientist
I entered college with a strong desire to “fix” people. As such, a career in clinical psychology seemed appropriate. After taking more classes, my interests began to change. Suddenly my career interests evolved from identifying treatment strategies for depression and anxiety to determining why stress made some people more susceptible to depression and anxiety. I realized that a career in clinical psychology would no longer be enough for me. Unfortunately, I didn’t know which career path would be the best fit for me. Most people pursue careers that they have actually heard of or have some level of familiarity. I still had never heard of neuroscience and certainly didn’t know what a neuroscientist did. Two years later, I met the woman (Kim Huhman) who would significantly alter my career trajectory. I was a student in her physiological psychology course and she discussed her career interests with the class. Because our career interests were perfectly aligned, I naturally assumed that she worked with humans. Well, I was wrong. She used rodent models to study stress and depression. My initial reaction was how could rodents teach us anything about human psychopathology? Do rodents even have feelings? There were a million reasons for me to walk away because I was deathly afraid of all animals, but for some reason, I was intrigued. I later learned that a significant portion of her work involved understanding the effects of stress on brain and behavior. In my quest to understand depression and anxiety, I never thought of the brain as a regulator of our emotions. I became fascinated with the brain-behavior connection. I later learned that behavioral (affective) neuroscience was the field of study devoted to understanding how discrete neurons in brain regions regulate emotion. I finally had a name for a career that was perfectly suited for me. I truly believe that I did not find neuroscience, neuroscience found me.
I spent two years as an undergraduate research assistant in Dr.Huhman’s laboratory. I would later be accepted in the PhD program in Psychology at Georgia State University, where I continued to work for her as a graduate research assistant for five years. After graduate school, my research training increased in ways that I could never imagine as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cincinnati. As a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cincinnati, I gained considerable neuroanatomical (brain) expertise under James Herman. My research training advanced to include molecular and genetic approaches to gain a better understanding of the neurobiology of depression.
Life as a Behavioral Neuroscientist
After 16 years of training (including undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral) I finally have my own laboratory at the University of Cincinnati. I remember the first time that I walked into my laboratory and saw my name on the door, the feeling that came over me was truly indescribable. At times, I still cannot believe that I am leading a research team. My career aspirations have not drastically changed since my days as an undergraduate. However, the tools and techniques that I am currently using to accomplish my research goals have drastically changed.
My Blueprint For Success
The most valuable lesson that I learned during my transition from student to professor is to never be impressed by your emotions. When I started my postdoctoral fellowship, I was absolutely miserable. I was in a difficult situation both professionally and personally. There was no safety net for me and I truly missed “Southern Hospitality” (I am a southern girl). I had to deal with difficult situations that I never had to deal with before. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was not good enough. I went from my comfort zone in psychology to a strange environment (molecular biology). I remember sitting in meetings and feeling like a fish out of water. I remember thinking, how will I ever learn everything that is required of me. Nothing was working for me. I didn’t get the grants that I wanted. I didn’t have the identity that many postdoctoral fellows needed to become an independent investigator. I never felt like I truly belonged.
After three years, I told my postdoctoral mentor that I was going to quit because I was not happy and that I wanted to do something else. His advice to me was to “never take the counsel of your fears”. He said, “If you are leaving because you don’t want to do this, fine”. He was convinced that I wanted to leave because I was afraid of failure. I allowed my environment to dictate my performance. There will be times when you are faced with difficult people and difficult situations that may leave you feeling marginalized. While those things are definitely causes for concern, none of them are justifiable excuses for not doing your job. Never allow external factors to hinder you from getting the job done.
Pay It Forward
At every stage of my career, there was someone in my life to push me forward, especially when I didn’t have the emotional or physical energy to keep going. I know that everything that I went through both personally and professionally was for a reason. Difficult situations, regardless of whether real or perceived, give us the mettle to survive and thrive. One of my favorite adages is “Make your mess, your message.” I want young people to understand that life is not always easy and things will not always go according to plan. You may not immediately have everything that you need to succeed, but you should not allow that to hold you back. I used to believe that the old saying “To Whom Much is Given, Much is Required,” was an inspirational quote. After careful thought, I actually don’t like this statement, because it implies that if you didn’t have much to begin with, then you are not expected to do more. There will always be someone who has less human, educational, and monetary resources than you. As such, there will always be someone who will need your help in some form or fashion.
Diversity in Science
In almost every area of academia there is a push to increase diversity in the workplace. This is especially true for ethnic minorities and women in STEM disciplines. I learned about the MARC (Minority Access to Research Careers) program almost 17 years ago. Fast forward 17 years later and there still are few minorities pursuing biomedical careers. There are a multitude of reasons why there are so few minorities in science. What many people don’t realize is that some students not only have to overcome significant educational hurdles due to lack of human and monetary resources as children, but also significant internal or psychological hurdles as well. It is difficult to be “the only one.” It is difficult to empathize with this fact, if you are constantly surrounded by people who look like you or talk like you. For many minorities one of the biggest challenges is feeling comfortable in your own skin, pun intended. The fear of being perceived as incompetent or not being tough enough can be paralyzing. As a result, many of us do not ask for help or seek guidance. This is something that I continue to struggle with on a daily basis. I am adamant about sharing my experiences because I know how hard it is to feel like you don’t belong.
Let’s be honest, many of us find it easier to work with people who think, act, and look just like us. However, I want people to view diversity for just what it is. Having a diverse work force increases our creativity, productivity, and awareness of others. I learn so much from my research team; they are the best part of my job, and the hardest part of my job. They enrich my research program because they come from different backgrounds and their questions and approach towards science typically reflect their views on the world. As a diverse unit, we are able to tackle a complex topic with a multi-pronged approach. This is just one instance where employing a diverse staff boosts creativity and productivity. There are so many young people who don’t have the opportunity to witness different careers. I am a behavioral neuroscientist because someone took the time to show me a world that I never knew existed. I want to emphasize that diversity is not limited to race and ethnicity. My hope is that the push for diversity in STEM disciplines continues to be an important topic of conversation, not from a political standpoint, but from a ‘it is the right thing to do’ standpoint. We all win with a diverse workforce.
I officially finished my first year as an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati. I must say that the first year was ROUGH! I am still trying to figure out how to balance teaching, research, managing personnel, writing grants and countless meetings. I became a scientist because I loved being in the lab and I enjoy asking questions and
figuring out the best way to answer those questions. When you become a Principal Investigator, it is extremely difficult to spend time with your first love (SCIENCE). I often asked myself, why would any sane person sign up for this? I thought I was busy before, but I didn’t really know what busy was, until now! I always took pride in being extremely organized and on top of things, but now I know why I was so organized… I was managing my own schedule!! When you suddenly find that your time is not your own and that you are not only responsible for your schedule and productivity, but also others… well, that’s a whole different ball game. Despite my best efforts to stay on top of my “things to do” list, I often ended up having more tasks added rather than deleted from the list. Oh, how I miss the enjoyment of seeing check marks by the accomplished tasks on the “things to do” list. How did I suddenly morph into a fragmented and hurried person with no time to read, write or even think? Is this normal, can’t be?
Now that I have decided that academia is the path for me, I have to find a way to make this new normal of ripping and running, a healthy normal.
Here are my nuggets of wisdom for helping me to navigate through my second year in academia.
1. Find a short term goal and long term goal mentor
I can’t tell you how much time I wasted trying to figure out who does what in the department and the university. My affiliation with two departments made navigating academic life even more difficult. I was determined not to bug people with my countless questions. To my detriment, this stubborn, “I can do it myself attitude”, was extremely counterproductive. Just ask someone who has been there before you; chances are someone helped them too. Most people are more than happy to help you get acclimated to your new environment. I have found a short term goal mentor. This short term goal mentor helps me navigate through the day to day ancillary tasks that are not directly related to helping me secure tenure (i.e., copy code, best time to teach, nicest and most resourceful person in the department). Believe me when you are up against a deadline or you have worked a long day, even the smallest detail like knowing the location of the cleanest bathroom, matters ALOT. Because mastery of these day to day tasks frees up your time to focus on those duties that are critical for tenure, (i.e., teaching, mentoring, securing funding, service) they are indirectly related to the goal of securing tenure.
I have also identified long term goal mentors; that’s right mentors.
I have about 7 people sprinkled all over the USA who have active roles in helping me reach my full potential as a behavioral neuroscientist. My mentors are at various stages in the academic pipeline ranging from the assistant professor to full tenured professor levels. These are the people who help me determine whether I am on the right track both personally and professionally. My mentors give me frank and sometimes brutal feedback about what I should do. The constructive criticism pushes me to step up! I appreciate being surrounded by wise people who are not afraid to hurt my feelings!
2. Hire for personality, train for talent
I can’t say it enough, I LOVE my laboratory. My laboratory is EVERYTHING! I am very big on creating a nurturing and positive environment where students enjoy learning. Yes, I have put much thought into where I want to place certain signs and equipment to create the perfect scientific ambience, but I have also put just as much time into who I hire. Many times people hire for skill, but being highly skilled is not necessarily my top criterion for a job candidate. Don’t get me wrong, I get why people hire solely based on skill. If a person is highly trained then the odds are that productivity will increase! I don’t care how talented a person is, if that person has a personality like battery acid, then what good is he/she for your research team. A bad personality can be a cancer to your lab which is counterproductive! Luckily, I have assembled a talented and friendly research team. In a hectic academic world, my laboratory is my safe haven and my safe haven needs to have friendly, talented and hard-working people.
I once heard a hip-hop artist say that "hard work trumps talent, when talent doesn’t work!" I believe that if a person has a strong desire to learn, is willing to work hard and possesses a high degree of intrinsic motivation then he/she can succeed.
3. Harness your emotions
This needs no explanation! We have to learn to be good stewards of not only our time, but also our emotions. When people constantly look to you for guidance, you must act like a leader who can function under pressure! This does not mean that you will not have your breaking points; you just have to know the appropriate place and time to have those “breakdown” moments!
4. Learn to say NO!!!!!
I had to figure out quickly that if I said yes to everything then I would not be able to maintain sanity. Junior faculty are considered “fresh meat.” “Fresh meat” means that you are pure and haven’t been seasoned. In other words, you are vulnerable! I was asked to serve on countless committees and invited to give many talks. At first, I felt compelled to do everything, but you can’t do everything and be on the right track for success. I say no more often now and if I don’t feel comfortable saying no, then I have mentors who are more than willing to say no for me!
5. Allow people to do their job
The University of Cincinnati is stacked with talented people who have been doing their jobs for a long time. I don’t need to worry myself with trying to do their job and mine. You have to trust that people know what they are doing and are going to look out for your best interest. Again, most people are more than willing to help you get acclimated and genuinely want to see you succeed.
6. Don’t lose your scientific mind
I literally thought that I was going to lose my mind, my scientific mind. Every time I checked my email there were at least five new duties for me. None of these duties were beneficial to my research program. It is very difficult to engage in the process of strong inference and design experiments when your mind is cluttered with all of the other tasks on your “things to do”list. I had to designate days that were solely devoted to my research program. Unfortunately, those days are few and far between, but I am determined to not lose sight of why I pursued a life in academia. Luckily, I have an understanding spouse and we have worked out a deal where I will have at least three days a month (I know that is not a lot of time at all) that are allowed for my “ work vacation.” On my “work vacation” I get to do only science stuff (i.e., writing papers, designing experiments, writing grants), no cooking, no cleaning and no talking! I get more done in those three days than I do in two weeks at work. These “work vacations” ensure that I maintain some semblance of scientific normalcy. It is critical for young faculty to establish their research program in the first three years. My husband is very understanding of this, so we know that for the next three years, I am on the grind.
7. Know why you were hired
I felt the need to take on tasks that were not directly related to why I was hired. I was trying to figure out how to balance a budget for my research program, and one of my mentors said “you were not hired to do that, that is not your job!!!” She said, “Quit trying to do someone else’s job!” Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of things that you will have to do that are not directly related to why you are hired; but don't allow those things to preclude your ability to complete your primary job responsibilities. If you are hired as a teaching faculty, then you need to make sure that you excel at teaching and do everything to ensure that this happens. Likewise, if you are hired as a research faculty, then establishing and maintaining a thriving and well-funded research program should be your top priority. No, this does not mean that if you are a research faculty member that you should neglect other duties (i.e., teaching, service etc). However, knowing why you are hired can help you to determine how you allocate your time.
The first year as an assistant professor was indeed a roller coaster of lows and highs. What we have to remember is not necessarily how we started out, but how we finish. If you are determined to finish strong, then you can do just that! I can say that I am getting adjusted to my new normal!!
It has been officially six months since I have opened my laboratory at the University of Cincinnati. There is no better time than the start of the New Year to write my first scientific blog entry. I think it is safe to say that the beginning of the journey was not
easy. Despite several warnings about the difficulties of starting your own laboratory from others, nothing could have prepared me for this. I remember on a Friday I was still working under my postdoctoral mentor seeking his advice on a number of different projects and then on the following Monday, I suddenly became the mentor. It truly was an out of body experience. I had to fight hard to resist the temptation to run down the hallway and ask for his advice, now I have to trust my decisions. Gone are the days when I can do experiment after experiment on someone else’s dime. Now I have to ask myself do I really need to do this experiment. The fun of science just became the business of science.
My passion has always been to understand how stress impacts our mental and physical health. Being a behavioral neuroscientist afforded me the opportunity to look at the underlying mechanisms by which stress induces pathology. All I ever wanted to do was to spend time in the laboratory and observe behavior. The one thing that I didn't quite grasp was when you leave the role of a postdoctoral fellow and enter the new role of a Principal Investigator, the thing that you love most about science becomes the thing that you have the least amount of time to do. I lived for designing and running experiments. You began with a hypothesis, you tested the hypothesis, and then you determined whether or not the data supported your hypothesis. The crowning glory came in the form of graphs because they are the culmination of your idea from start to finish. No matter how many experiments that I have done, and believe me there are too many to count, there is still such a joy that comes from graphing your data.
Now that I am a Principal Investigator, I have the opportunity to see that joy in the eyes of my trainees. When I walked into my laboratory for the first time, the feeling that came over me was truly indescribable. I do not take this task that has been placed before me lightly. Having your own laboratory is a gift and an honor. I wish that more people shared the same sentiment. As scientists, we have the ability to transform young minds. The quality of our interaction with the people who choose to work with us can either turn them "really on" or "really off" to science. When people enter my laboratory there is a sign above my door that says "Friends and Family Gather Here." I chose that sign and others for my laboratory for a reason, words have power. I believe that my laboratory is my company. With that being said, every company has to have a mission statement. As such, I developed a Laboratory Creed that is placed on the center wall to set the foundation for how the laboratory will run.
Creating a nurturing and positive work environment is everything. I subscribe to the philosophy that great scientists are made, not born. Now certainly there are some individuals who come out of the womb with minds that are deserving of the title "Genius," but those individuals are rare. Being a great scientist comes from hard work and from being exposed to great mentors. Again, there are serendipitous findings all the time, but that is, well... serendepity. If you establish an environment that is conducive for learning, then good ideas will flow and your students will not only learn, but they will want to learn. Many times we focus solely on securing money and building up our name that we fail to establish the foundation of our laboratory. Don't get me wrong, I understand that securing money is critical for our success. After all, if you don't secure funding you can't run your lab. However, we need to care about the culture of our laboratory and the well-being of the people who work with us on a daily basis.
As scientists we are not necessarily trained to work with others, we live in our world of petri dishes and incubators. The canonical view of the mad scientist who lives inside his mind in isolation from the world trying to come up with the next big idea is not sustainable. We must realize that what pushes the field forward is our interaction with others. The others are our mentors, our graduate students and postdocs, and even the undergraduate who enters our laboratory with such eagerness to learn because they have not yet been battered and bruised by the rigors of academic life, which can leave all of us feeling creatively disenfranchised. The point is that as owners of our company, (Principal Investigators) we must spend more time in our laboratory with our people. Yes, we have meetings, grants to write, talks to give, and classes to teach. However, it is important not to forget what made you want to become a scientist in the first place. I have been fortunate to have mentors at every stage of my career who have poured their time and energy into making sure that I get to the next level and I am happy to pay it forward. I am excited to be starting this new chapter in my career and I am even more excited about having the opportunity to share the journey with others.