The first step in my academic self-reflection was to get a sense of where I was mentally when I first started this journey. The closest thing that I have to an academic journal are my original blog posts on this website! I needed to see if the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed investigator of yesterday’s past still lived in me today. The answer is NO! When I started my laboratory, I had no real appreciation for how HARD IT WAS and STILL IS to maintain a neuroscience laboratory. I was running a laboratory on hopes, dreams, and PASSION. My passion for science kept me going even when I was mentally and physically exhausted. Somewhere along the way even the most passionate person can lose her/his zest. Life has a way of knocking you around and sometimes knocking you completely out, I mean a bona-fide TKO. Many of us don’t think about how life-altering circumstances can modify our career trajectory, but I am a living testament to the fact that they most certainly can and did!
Changes in our personal lives can impact our research interests
Since I was a graduate student, I had a certain set of research questions that I wanted to answer. I am still passionate about understanding why women are more likely to suffer from stress-related disorders like depression and anxiety and determining effective treatments (non-pharmacological and pharmacological) for these conditions. Recently, I have shifted gears towards investigating the neurobiology of Alzheimer’s disease. This is a debilitating neurodegenerative disease that overwhelmingly occurs more often in women. This new area of research has reinvigorated my passion in neuroscience. To date, I have primarily used rodents to answer my research questions, but my interest in doing primarily rodent research has drastically waned. Don’t get me wrong, I have a great appreciation for rodent research, but at this point in my career I am also interested in doing research that is more personally important to me.
While many people relish in the joy of taking on new challenges and adventures, I was initially terrified to admit that I wanted to do something else. Once I committed to doing neuroscience, I had never thought about doing anything else other than rodent research. In my case, losing a friend both suddenly and tragically, forced me to take inventory of my personal and professional interests. While many people outside of academia often find themselves switching jobs or even taking on a completely different career, this is uncommon in academia. We sort of pick our niche and stay in it. We occasionally dabble in new areas with collaborators, but for the most part we tend to stay in our lane. The thought of having to learn new statistical techniques, new literature etc., seemed like a daunting task. I mean, here I am mentoring students and in the middle of my career, I decide that I want to learn something completely new. I was going to be a student while simultaneously teaching and mentoring my students. It would have been easier for me to just stay the course and do what I know best; however, I did not want to continue to half-heartedly run a neuroscience laboratory that requires 100% effort. Personal tragedies often force us to look at our personal lives (i.e., spending more time with family and friends), but for me it made me question EVERYTHING. Suddenly, the things that I thought I would always be interested in researching were no longer enough for me. I knew that I had to move in a new direction that would bring more personal satisfaction for me, while also helping my community.
Even though I was riddled with fear and guilt about wanting to explore new research endeavors, after careful thought and consideration, I realized that this is MY LIFE, MY CAREER, and MY FUTURE. Who says that we have to stay in one scientific box? Who says that we can’t take on new research interests? I saw a sign the other day that really resonated with me, the sign said “I’d rather die of passion than of boredom.”
I am keenly aware of racial and ethnic health disparities. I want to do research that has a greater impact on my community. Many of the diseases (e.g., depression and Alzheimer’s disease) that I have been passionate about studying at the bench are disproportionately more common in minorities. I want to be instrumental in helping to identify biological and environmental factors that may explain these health disparities. Despite my new research interests, I am not abandoning neuroscience. In fact, my previous training will help me approach these questions from a different perspective. Am I scared? Yes! Is it going to be a lot of work? Yes! Am I up for the challenge? Hell, yes!
I don’t exactly know the path towards answering all of these new research questions, but I am confident that this is the RIGHT TIME TO START THIS ADVENTURE!