Biophysicists Finding Balance: Father’s Day 2017

June 18 is Father’s Day in the US. In honor of the occasion, we spoke with Biophysical Society member Seth Weinberg, Virginia Commonwealth University, about what it is like to be a biophysicist and a parent, and how the two roles impact each other.


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How many children do you have? What are their ages?

My wife Gabrielle and I have 3-year old twin girls, Hannah and Meredith.

At what stage of your career did you have your children? 

My daughters were born about three months before I started my first faculty position.  It was a very hectic time, finishing up the last few months of a post-doc, moving, and then starting up my own research group.

 Has your career been influenced or changed by your role as a parent? How?

I like to think that my experiences raising twins has made me more patient with my own students. Having become a parent and starting my own lab at roughly the same time, I have thought more about my role in preparing the next generation.  Especially being the father of two daughters, I have become more aware of how important it is to promote opportunities for women in science.

How has your career been influenced by your own father?

My own scientific career has stemmed from my desire to understand how complicated systems work, and much of that desire originates from my father.  My father was a science and engineering teacher, and from a very young age, he encouraged me to make learning and being curious into activities that were fun.

What has been the most challenging aspect of being a biophysicist and a parent?

Being away from my family to attend meetings and conferences is definitely challenging.  As much as I enjoy seeing and catching up with colleagues, it is still difficult to be away from my family during trips.

Have there been any benefits to being both a father and a scientist?

In perhaps a subtle way, my daughters have inspired my interests as a scientist.  My daughters are fraternal twins, and since their birth, I’ve become more interested in ‘nature vs. nurture’ types of questions.  I’m constantly amazed at how different my daughters are, despite their nearly identical childhoods (so far at least).  As a scientist, I’ve become interested in understanding how important randomness is in our biology and trying to understand how one system can generate different behaviors in response to the same input.

Would you encourage your children to be scientists?

I don’t plan to encourage them to be scientists any more or less than other specific careers.  I hope to encourage them to pursue careers that they will enjoy and find fulfilling.  Although, with my own career and my wife as a nurse, I wouldn’t be surprised if one or both pursued some career in the biomedical sciences.

How would your children describe your work?

I asked my daughters what they think I do at work. One said, “Monkey!” and the other laughed.

Any advice for other fathers or prospective fathers pursuing science careers?

Pursuing a science career is challenging – constantly being pulled in multiple directions and never knowing for sure if you are doing things right.  Being a parent is pretty much the exact same thing, so as a scientist, you are as prepared as you can be (which is to say, you are never really prepared)!

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How to Prepare for a Non-Bench Career

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Professor Molly Cule is delighted to receive comments on her answers and (anonymized) questions at mollycule@biophysics.org, or visit her on the BPS Blog.

There is an increasing interest for science PhD students to pursue an “alternate” career beyond the traditional bench research followed by a tenure-track faculty position. The options include marketing, sales, intellectual property, policy, and writing, among others. This article highlights four important steps you can take to prepare for any of these non-bench careers.

  • Do your research: Do not go into another non-bench career just for the sake of it. The career sections of most societies, as well as top journals like Science and Nature have a treasure trove of information on various alternative careers. Reach out to alumni from your school or your lab, as well as to friends and family members, or use social media (Twitter/LinkedIN) to directly speak with people who have made the transition.
  • Along the same lines, make a list of your transferrable skills. These skills could have been built up either as part of your graduate research (e.g., data mining and analysis), or at home or through community work (e.g., did you demonstrate leadership skills through some sort of volunteer work?).  Then note how they align with the careers you are considering.
  • Work on your communication skills: Most non-bench careers involve effective communication, whether it is written or verbal. Two particular skills that will be useful to master include (a) the ”elevator pitch” — a quick summary of who you are and/or what you do and why it’s valuable, and (b) communicating technical information to a lay audience.
  • Gain experience outside of your work: It can be difficult to break into a new industry without prior experience. However, it is possible to gain experience in other ways. If you are interested in science writing, think of maintaining an active blog, or contribute to your school or society newsletters; see if you can volunteer at your institute’s technology commercialization office if you are interested in patent law. Employers also tend to look favorably upon those who have demonstrated a willingness to broaden their horizons beyond bench research.
  • Network: It’s gotten to be a cliché now, but the value of the mantra ”Network, network, network” cannot be overstated. Apart from helping you land that next job, networking will help all of the above — researching alternate careers, communicating, and broadening your horizons!

Cardinal Directions of New Orleans

Hello Everyone!

I thought I’d stat off blogging with a little lighthearted information about New Orleans.  I was fortunate enough to spend some time working in Bill Wimley’s lab at Tulane a few years ago and I got used to how to orient myself in NOLA.  For those people visiting for the first time please note that it’s a little funny to describe directions as: North, South, East, and West.  Local directions are as such:

Downtown (where you are likely currently)

Uptown (Where the beautiful Audobon Park is located among many other sights)

Lakeside (Towards Lake Pontchartrain and, in my opinion, very good seafood restaurants)

And

Riverside (Towards the Mississippi, scenic views, riverboat tours and outdoor places to relax)

Hopefully this provides you with a little bit of orientation and ability to interact with the residents of NOLA to determine where you want to go!

Cheers!

GRW

Advice for job seekers: How to get noticed and why the Annual Meeting is a great place to start!

Biophysical Society member Donald Chang defended his PhD thesis last year and found himself in the job market. After consideration about what career path to take, and some searching, he now works as an Associate Consultant at C1 Consulting, a healthcare consulting company. In this blog post, he offers some advice on how to get noticed as a job seeker, and why to take advantage of resources available at the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting. 

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Donald Chang

There is a quote I often like to use when describing the process of job hunting:  “Experience is a hard teacher, she gives the test first and then the lesson.” I certainly had my share of failed tests and learned lessons when job searching.  No doubt many of you are looking for a job and are hoping to network at this year’s Biophysical Society Annual Meeting.  Others may not have started job searching yet, but realize that you will soon face this challenge. Regardless of where you are in the process, by sharing some of my job seeking experiences as a recent Ph.D. graduate from the Biophysical community, I hope other prospective job-seekers may find my advice useful and utilize the career resources at the Biophysics Conference this year to its full potential.

I have been attending the Biophysical Society Meeting every year since 2010.  However, last year’s 2015 meeting in Baltimore was unique for me: it was my last as a graduate student. Before I knew it, the conference flew by, my thesis defense took place, and, with the deposit of my thesis and a few firm handshakes, I was cut loose into the job search.

Unlike some of my peers, I didn’t quite know what path to take after grad school. I considered academia, then industry, and finally, settled on the career path I’m on today as a healthcare consultant. In between, I interviewed and worked at a variety of jobs including a small bio-tech start-up and a research diagnostics lab. In these varied experiences, I learned some valuable lessons along the way that I’d like to share with you.

Manage your expectations.  Just because you have an advanced degree or heavy science background does not mean you are guaranteed to find a high-paying job or even be granted an interview. It is important to set the right mentality early on, otherwise you may feel quite disappointed. Many Ph.D. graduates find themselves disappointed when they are repeatedly turned away from jobs despite being a “doctor.”  I experienced this firsthand as I applied to multiple jobs with none of them giving a call-back.   Recognize that despite your educational background, many companies would still consider you “entry level” albeit with higher performance expectations. What your degree does do is underscore your potential to succeed and back up your intellectual merit should you impress – but first you must grab their attention, which leads me to my second point.

Make your presence felt.  People always say “Go network, utilize connections”, but what does that actually mean?  Let’s try to ground those statements with some real-life actionable items.

An easy entry into networking, is to create a LinkedIn profile, if you haven’t already, and keep it updated.  We live in a digital world where your online resume commands as much attention as your paper resume—if not more.  If you already have one, be sure that it is current and well-designed. If you are unsure how to spruce it up, the Career Center at the Annual Meeting can offer some great advice.  Be sure to visit them and set up an appointment for one-on-one resume review.  I recall spending quite a bit of time on my LinkedIn and resume, asking multiple people to review it.

Another “networking” to-do is connect with colleagues, both former and current, as well as establish new relationships. The Annual Meeting is a great place to start. I didn’t start taking advantage of the meets-and-greets and networking events until recent years, and regret not doing so earlier. The Annual Meeting is a great opportunity to expand your network with minimal effort on your end – just introduce yourself, make friends, and learn to carry a conversation! Trust me, it’s a lot harder to network behind a computer screen at home than to do it in person.

Lastly, stay persistent.  Tying into my first point about managing expectations, realize that this is a long process. As a scientist, you’re seeking a job that will challenge you, tap your potential, and open a path for your career to grow.  These opportunities do not happen overnight.  It is likely you will go through multiple rounds of interviews, lasting anywhere from 1 month to half a year.  One job I applied for had an interview process of over 3 months and over 3 rounds of interviews.  In hindsight it was an appropriate amount of time, but in the moment, each day seemed to drag on forever.  With that in mind, do not be discouraged if you make it to final interview rounds and don’t get an offer. Declined offers, just like failed science experiments, never feel good, but are by no means a sign to give up.  Stay persistent and keep at it.

Please note that there is a lot of advice out there on job searching and this is not meant to be a comprehensive guide.  Rather, the suggestions I shared are just selected ones which resonated the most with me when I was job hunting.  There is not a “one size fits all” formula for getting a job and I would encourage you to spend some time researching other tips or making an appointment at the Career Center at this year’s Annual Meeting to ensure you find the approach which best suits you. I utilized the Career Center last year when I was applying for jobs and the counselors were able to help guide me, improving my resume and advising me on my applicant profile.  Whether you need help getting past that final interview or getting an interview to begin with, the counselors at the Career Center have seen and heard it all and are more than willing to help.

Good luck!  ­

 

How Do I Prepare My Poster? How Do I Give a Talk?

Sections of this article are adapted from the article “Do’s and Don’ts of Poster Presentation,” by Steven M. Block, published in Biophysical Journal, Volume 71, December 1996.

Congratulations! Your abstract has been accepted for the 60th Annual Meeting of the Biophysical Society and your poster has been scheduled in with thousands of others during the meeting. What do you do next? How do you prepare for the presentation? What can you do to stand out from the others? Even if this is not your first presentation, it is important to keep certain things in mind while preparing your poster and presentation.

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First, consider how your poster will look—the size, colors, font, and flow of it. Think of your audience—people walking through the poster hall, glancing around for interesting topics. Most important on your poster is the title. The title of your poster does not need to match the title of your abstract. In fact, it’s best that it doesn’t. Your abstract title is probably long, incredibly descriptive, and possibly laden with jargon. But you are trying to attract people to come over and read your poster, so keep the title short, snappy, and to the point. Make sure someone can get a general idea of your topic just from reading the title – and make sure they can read the font from a reasonable distance.

Once you’ve lured readers to your poster, you want to make sure they can actually read the text you’ve so painstakingly put together. Fonts smaller than 12-point are just too small for a poster—14-point should be used as a benchmark for the absolute minimum font size (think fine print), and the main text should be 18-20 point or larger (the title should be even bigger). If your text doesn’t fit at that size, consider editing your text, not decreasing the font size. While we’re talking about fonts, keep in mind that poster presentations are not the right place to experiment with fun, fancy fonts (save those for e-cards to your Nobel Prize celebration!). Use fonts that are easy to read. If you want to move from the traditional Times New Roman, stick with something equally basic, such as Baskerville Old Face, Century Schoolbook, or Palatino Linotype. Make sure whatever font you choose works well with any equations or symbols you use. Once you’ve selected a font, keep your choice (and size) consistent throughout the poster.

You may want to draw readers to you by making your poster a bright color, or adding patterns or some other loud visual cue. There’s nothing wrong with a little color in your poster, but keep it professional (avoid neon hues, unless they’re relevant to your research), and keep it readable by making sure the colors contrast well—if you want a navy blue background, your font color should not be deep magenta.

Now that you’ve settled on the basic font, size, and color choices, it’s time to lay out your poster. Break your presentation into logical sections that easily flow from one to another, to help your reader follow your research. Start in the top left, moving vertically first, then left to right. Make sure to include any additional authors towards the beginning of your poster and any relevant references towards the end—it is very important to give credit to everyone involved!

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With your poster finished, it’s time to prepare your actual presentation. You’ll want to stick around near your poster for as much time as you can to engage with readers, answer questions, and of course meet and network with other scientists interested in your research. Definitely plan to camp out by your poster for at least the hour that you are scheduled to present. Keeping in mind that most people will only stop for a moment, and even those who linger will only do so for three to five minutes, put together an “elevator speech” with the top points you want to make and practice it! To help develop your presentation, test it out on a colleague or labmate to get feedback on your clarity and delivery.

Engage curious parties in conversation, but be careful to not badger anyone, or to be too engrossed in any one conversation (thus ignoring everyone else). You can always schedule a follow-up with very interested individuals if needed. If you have them, bring business cards (or paper and pen) to share your contact information with anyone interested in follow-up.

If you come prepared with a well-designed poster, a few key talking points, and copies of any necessary ancillary materials, you can hang your poster and then let your science speak for itself!

Does crying at work mean you’re incompetent?

Susy Kohout, Montana State University and a member of the Biophysical Society’s Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women, explores the perceptions surrounding crying in the workplace.

There always seems to be some news story making the rounds about women in STEM and whether they have what it takes to succeed. One of the common arguments supporting the idea that women are not as competent as men is the idea that women cry more often. Crying is often presented as an automatic disqualifier for success in science. If you cry, the thinking goes, you couldn’t possibly design a cutting edge experiment or successfully manage a lab. Instead, you are perceived as weak or overly emotional.

Our society looks down on perceived weakness and crying is definitely considered weak. Women have been called “the weaker sex” for centuries. Really though, crying is a normal physiological response to emotions. Some people cry only when sad or upset; others cry when happy. Crying in a professional setting is often thought of as a career killer. If you cry at work, the perception is that you are unstable or incompetent. In reality, a wide array of emotions may come up during working hours – especially in times of stress. For many people, crying is a normal release valve for these feelings.

If you are crying at your lab bench every day, it may be a good idea to think about why that is, and consider seeking help from a mental health professional. We are all human beings first and scientists second. As human beings, we sometimes need help. There is no reason to be ashamed of asking for it from an expert, just as we go to our colleagues who are experts in other fields when our research takes us in new directions. More commonly, crying at work is a result of normal stress or frustration. Getting upset at failing experiments or interpersonal conflicts is completely normal.  We have all been there. Remember, those tears are not a sign of incompetence.

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So, what should you do if there are tears at work? I have been the one crying and I have been on the other side, watching as someone is crying in front of me. Neither side is comfortable. In my own experience, acknowledging the situation is a helpful way of moving forward for both parties involved.

While in many cases, someone crying in the workplace would like nothing more than for their colleagues to ignore the tears, ignoring the situation is not always the best course of action. I prefer acknowledging the tears, particularly if I’m in a conversation when the tears start. I ask whether the conversation should be rescheduled. If the person crying says yes, then I postpone the conversation. If they say no, then I proceed with the conversation without the added concern of the elephant in the room. That acknowledgement and offer of a reprieve often goes a long way to helping the person in distress calm down. Acknowledging—without judgment—a person’s need to express his/her feelings can lead to a more positive outcome than leaving them to cry in silence, assuming their colleagues are judging them as weak or overly emotional.

The next time you encounter someone crying, acknowledge the crying as a natural emotional outlet rather than a sign of weakness. You’ll be surprised how your own reaction can improve an uncomfortable situation. The next time you find yourself becoming emotional and crying at work, recognize that it is a normal response and don’t berate yourself for it. Instead, figure out the cause, address it and ask for help if necessary. Empower yourself.

A Young Scientist’s Guide to the Annual Meeting

The 60th Annual Meeting of the Biophysical Society is coming up this February, and I’m planning on being there. It will be my 10th scientific conference as a graduate student, and my 3rd time attending the BPS annual meeting. I’ve been to several different conferences and even organized a couple, but the BPS meeting is undoubtedly my favorite. The diversity and volume of sessions, the career guidance and networking events, and the various extracurricular events have all contributed to the tremendously positive experiences that I’ve had at the annual meetings. It’s also a great place to reconnect with former colleagues and foster new friendships and professional contacts. Of course, everyone has his or her “first time” attending the annual meeting, and it can seem daunting to a young researcher. Don’t panic! I once felt the same way, too. Remember that you are there just like everyone else is: not just an attendee, but a participant in a five-day smorgasbord of biophysics, and what you have to share is important, too.

20131002-Satchal_Erramilli-001At past meetings, I’ve presented my work both in the platform and poster formats, and found both experiences to be extremely enriching. The poster sessions are well organized by topics, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by other researchers who share your interests. This provides an excellent opportunity to get feedback from – and network with – other people who are in the trenches with you. I spent my assigned time at my poster, and used the additional time that day to wander around and converse with the others presenting in that area. One bit of advice that I’ve received – and I’m sure it’s ubiquitously doled out – is to have different versions of your research talk prepared, in 30 second, 2 minute, 15 minute, and 45 minute formats. The “elevator speech” is particularly useful to have down cold before getting to the meeting. Even if you’re not presenting your work, preparing for a meeting is important, and this is a big part of that preparation. No doubt someone at some point during those five days will ask, “So what do you do?” Be ready with a good answer!

In addition to the elevator speech, planning ahead is critical! There are concurrent sessions and tons of interesting things going on all day long, every single day. The schedule is released months in advance, giving you ample time to plan your days. I’ve found the mobile phone app (“BPS 360”) to be helpful, especially since I’m not fond of carrying things around with me. I would also say that it’s totally OK to move between rooms during concurrent sessions to catch talks that you’re interested in. I always felt guilty doing this and tried to skulk out of rooms unnoticed, but I realized it’s a totally normal thing to do. Just plan ahead! One other bit of advice that I’ll pass along to grad students: email someone whose talk you’re interested ahead of the meeting, or ask a question or approach them after a session. This is an easy way to network. Remember, you go to meetings definitely to learn new and exciting things, but also to meet people and have new people meet you. The BPS annual meeting is a great venue for that.

Staying current on social media is another great way to follow the meeting and network with fellow-participants. The Biophysical Society Blog (biophysicalsociety.wordpress.com) is an excellent resource for proceedings from the meeting, in case you missed out on a talk or workshop. Twitter is also a great venue for discussion – be sure to set up an account! This can be a rewarding extension to your professional self, if used properly. In addition to following the society’s official Twitter account (@BiophysicalSoc), simply following the hashtag for the meeting (#BPS16) will yield hundreds of Tweets from participants. The updates are often entertaining and frequently useful, and it’s another great avenue to network with those who share your interests. At the least, you’ll get to find out where (and where not) to go for dinner!

–Satchal K. Erramilli, PhD Candidate, Structural Biology and Biophysics Stauffacher Research Group Department of Biological Sciences Purdue University