When I started my laboratory in 2012 one of my biggest fears was whether or not I would get enough students who would be interested in joining my laboratory. Now, almost 30 students later (direct and indirect mentoring), my laboratory has been a mecca for undergraduate and graduate students alike. Over the past 7 years, there have been ultra-highs (e.g., tenure) and some lows (e.g., no R01 yet), but I manage to keep it all in perspective. After hooding my third doctoral student in three years, I decided to take some time to self-reflect on my academic journey. This academic self-reflection at this stage of my career is largely due to the fact that I am an avid journaler. I have been journaling since the 7th grade and every so often, I spend a weekend reading all of my journals. ‘Journal binging’ is a great way to do a mental tune-up because it allows me to see if I am repeating unhealthy patterns or becoming stagnant in any aspect of my life (i.e., spiritual, health, interpersonal, career). I am amazed at how the things that mattered so much when I was younger are not even on my radar in my mid 40’s. In addition, I am amazed at how the things that I should have cared MORE about in my youth (i.e., proper sleep, exercise, spending more time with family and friends) are now critically important for my well-being.
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 alter our career trajectory, but I am a living testament to the fact that they most certainly can and did!
Our personal lives can impact our academic passion
Losing someone who was extremely close to me last year made me question not only my personal life, but also my professional life. I knew that I needed to do more of the things that truly mattered to me.
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 started to shift gears towards understanding 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. While many people outside of academia often find themselves switching jobs or even taking on a completely different career, this is not very common in academia. We sort of pick our niche and stay in it. We dabble in new areas with collaborators, but for the most part we tend to stay in our lane. I didn’t want to look like I was not committed. 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 half-heartedly run a neuroscience laboratory focused on rodent research that requires 100% effort. The thought of letting my mentors down was terrifying to me.
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?
As a black woman, 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 minority communities. I want to be instrumental in helping to identify biological and environmental factors that may explain these health disparities in my community. 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!