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A Nobel prize and the unknown benefits that come from saying yes

Aziz Sancar delivering his Nobel Lecture for his prize in Chemistry 2015. He said yes.

My early morning wakeup on Wednesday, October 7, 2015 began as usual with a, though admittedly not healthy, quick Twitter check. My internet-induced squint widened when I saw that Aziz Sancar was trending. Dr. Sancar had just been named co-winner of the Nobel prize in chemistry for his work on DNA repair mechanisms. Not at all surprised by the recognition of his career achievements, I was, however, flabbergasted because I actually know Aziz Sancar and in no small way, my career is what it is because of his generosity and kindness.

Twenty years ago, I was an MSc candidate studying the physiological ecology of amphibians at Trent University. At the time I was working with Michael Berrill on replicating and testing the findings of a 1994 PNAS paper by Andrew Blaustein and company. This was important work on declining amphibian populations in the Cascade Mountains. They found that these declining populations were characterised by low levels of a DNA repair enzyme called photolyase. This finding was intriguing because photolyase catalyses the repair of the principal form of damage to DNA from ultraviolet-b radiation. Because emerging ozone holes would result in natural populations experiencing an increased amount of UVB radiation, low levels of photolyase might be a “magic bullet” that explained which populations would be in decline in otherwise “pristine” areas.

Intriguing, but I was actually not ready to test it. With a potent combination of naïve enthusiasm, I figured I could simply contact the authors of the paper and ask them to teach me the methods that I needed to know to further their work. I tried email but could not find an address on the department website. So I phoned the Department of Biochemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They explained that Dr. Sancar did not want or have an email address. I asked that the call be connected to his office. When he picked up the phone, I leapt immediately into my explanation that I was an MSc student from Trent University in Peterborough, Canada, and that I was hoping to visit his lab to learn methods of photolyase extraction that I would apply to my system. To my now weathered academic amazement, but, at the time, only to my joy, immediately and without hesitation, he said yes. If I could get myself to Chapel Hill, he would teach me what I needed to know.

Alex Smith with hair studying amphibian photolysase induction and concentration in the late 20th century.

Alex Smith with hair studying amphibian photolysase induction and concentration in the late 20th century.

So on my spring break of 1997, I rented a car (two cars actually – one died, another story) and drove from snowy Peterpatch to the flowering springtime of Chapel Hill, North Carolina to spend a week in Dr. Sancar’s lab. “Lab” didn’t quite cover it. Dr.’s Sancar (he and his wife, Dr. Gendolyn Sancar) had a floor of the building at UNC. Dr. Sancar met me on that Monday morning and arranged for a postdoc and a PhD student to help me all week and ensure that I could extract and purify the enzyme. He even arranged for another lab to give me some African clawed frog eggs to practice on! He met with me every day to see how I was progressing and answer any questions. I remember him encouraging me to take in a UNC NCAA women’s basketball game while in Chapel Hill (Tar Heels!), and I was very impressed that this academic superman was often watching soccer in his office when I arrived (the knockout phase of the UEFA Champions League, I think). A man of many interests! I left at the end of the week and proceeded to apply these methods successfully in my MSc. Three papers (Smith 2000, Smith et al 2000, and Smith et al 2002), eventually came from this project and one of the principal findings was that this enzymatic system could be induced in individuals from natural populations (previously not considered – and something that dramatically affects ones’ estimation of a populations’ photolyase level).

In my paper I was very critical of previous research – and not surprisingly, the manuscript received quite harsh and negative reviews. I had never written a response to reviewer comments before, and I did not craft them elegantly or with appreciation. Dr. Sancar was the editor at the journal handling the submission. He phoned me to suggest how I might better word my response. Connecting the phone call alone was no easy feat considering I was living in my car at the time, couch-surfing amongst friends on the west coast of North America – I’m still not sure how he managed to find me. But the advice was priceless and likely not something I would have come to on my own (let’s say it was something along the lines of…“I can hear that you’re angry by these comments, and they are not elegant – but you can’t say what you’ve said. What you mean is this……..so try expressing it like this….”). I was so appreciative, and now 20 years later I’m not sure I expressed my gratitude sufficiently.

And so, fast forward 20 years when I wake to read that the world has recognised Aziz Sancar for his pioneering work in the broad field of DNA repair. It made me think about the often unappreciated or unintended effects that saying yes can have on those around you.

At the end of his Nobel Lecture in Sweden in December 2015, Dr. Sancar showed a slide acknowledging his lab and colleagues. In part, these people and their output are the metrics that the Nobel committee evaluated in awarding him the prize. It was an impressive, but I knew not an exhaustive, list, for Dr. Sancar’s direct effect on my career – and indirectly then on all the students I have worked with in the subsequent years – was invisible to the Nobel committee (and perhaps not even remembered by Dr. Sancar). But these effects are significant and they came from a busy scientist saying yes when confronted with a naïve but enthusiastic student. There were many reasons for him to not take my call, not encourage me to come to North Carolina, not host me while I was there nor mentor me through the review process later on. But he did. He did say yes and it had an immeasurable effect.

I now work with insects in the neotropics and Canada on questions of biodiversity. I don’t work with photolyase and I don’t work as a physiological ecologist. However, by saying yes to me 20 years ago, Dr. Sancar’s act of generosity enabled me to follow this path. In the over-scheduled and busy lifestyle that we lead, it is important to consider this ripple that saying yes can have. There are many intended and measurable outcomes of supervision and mentoring – however there are many, perhaps more, unintended and important effects that kindness can have. As Anne Galloway said on Twitter, “We’re all smart – distinguish yourself by being kind”. The Nobel committee judged Dr. Sancar’s academic output worthy of its highest award last year. They were likely unaware of the affect that he has had in other scientific disciplines through his generosity and kindness.

 

I don’t think I said it clearly enough before. Thank you Dr. Sancar.

 

Dr. Alex Smith
Department of Integrative Biology,
University of Guelph

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Landing an entomological tenure track job: perfecting the practice of academic kung fu

By Chris Buddle (McGill University) & Dezene Huber (University of Northern BC)

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Last autumn there was quite an interesting discussion on twitter among some entomologists in Canada about the ‘job search’ – more specifically focused on the process of seeking tenure-track academic appointments.  Many of us shared our sob stories, and although the time, place and characters varied, the common element was REJECTION.  Those of us who currently are lucky enough to hold faculty appointments remember the rejection to success ratio, and some of us still have stacks of rejection letters.  While most of us really enjoyed the academic freedom that came with working as a postdoc, the job-search process was more often than not discouraging and deflating, and a really difficult time in our lives.

Towards the end of the PhD program, most of us are riding high – our papers are getting published, we are truly ‘experts’ in our fields of study, we are being congratulated, buoyed by our peers and mentors, and we are ready to take on the world.   We found ways to get a post-doc and perhaps traveled to a different country for additional experience, with a sense of hope, optimism, and enthusiasm for the next stage of our careers.

Then, like the world supply of helium, our hopes were quickly diminished.

“I will easily get a job interview at THAT University”.

Nope.  Not even an interview.

“Perfect – that job advertisement was MADE for me – they will hire me.  It’s a perfect fit”.

Nope. A mass e-mail rejection letter instead.

“I’m the GREATEST in my field of study.  Universities will be asking me to apply”

Nope.  That never happens.

I’m sure that I’ll be seriously considered for this position

Nope. The rejection letter came back saying that there were more than 400 applicants for the position.

Even if I don’t get the job, I’ll be able to get feedback from someone on the committee.”

Nope. It’s highly unlikely that, among the 400 applicants, anyone on the committee even remembers you.

There are really two ways to look at this.  It is possible to get discouraged and frustrated, and give up hope OR it’s possible to see that persistence can pay off and eventually the right job will come along, and you will be competitive.  Sure, the opportunities have to be there, but that kind of timing and ‘luck’ isn’t something you can control.

Here are a few pointers that will hopefully help you think about that tenure-track job search, and give you a sense of optimism:

  • It will take a huge dose of patience and persistence, but there ARE tenure-track jobs out there for people with Entomological interests, even in Canada. Recently, Manitoba hired an entomologist, and University of Ottawa just hired an assistant professor on the evolution of plant-pollinator interactions.
  • University professors do eventually retire! (…Although it needs to be noted that the reality in the current economy is that their positions are not always replaced)
  • You don’t have to restrict your options to only University positions.  We know of faculty members who worked in private companies, or in government, and made a lateral transfer, eventually, to academia.  Your holy grail may be a tenure-track job, but other opportunities are equally rewarding and could eventually get you a tenure-track job. Or you may find that life “beyond the ivory tower” is much to your liking anyhow. In fact, you may be interested in the advice column at Chronicle.com by that very name.
  • Be creative with your CV.  There are relatively few jobs for entomologists, sensu stricto, but there are jobs for evolutionary biologists, ecologists, or other more ‘general’ disciplines (Look: Concordia recently held a competition for a community and ecosystem ecologist!)  Re-work your cover letters and CV to reflect your potential in these jobs, and that you use insects as ‘model organisms’. And always tailor your cover letter and CV to any job for which you apply. Don’t just send in the same material to every search committee. Search committees are looking for that elusive thing that we call “fit.”
  • Keep your eye on the ball:  to get that coveted university position, the peer-reviewed publication remains the MOST IMPORTANT item on your CV.  Publish, publish, publish. During this stage of your career, keep the focus on that part of the research process. In particular, enjoy the fact that, as a postdoc, you are relatively free to conduct research and publish without many of the other responsibilities (e.g., teaching, administration) that will come with a tenure-track post.
  • Be realistic. If a job ad states that the committee is looking for an acarologist specializing in the mites of toucans, and you are an acarologist who studies toucan mites, then you have a good chance of landing an interview. If the job ad asks for a “terrestrial ecologist working at any scale from microbial to landscape” and you fit somewhere in there, chances are so do a few hundred other recent graduates.
  • When you see something that looks potentially appropriate for you, apply. Rejection is painful but costs nothing; not applying to something that might have worked out is doubly painful.  People who have agreed to write you letters of recommendation will be patient with you (if they are not, perhaps they are not the right people to give you a letter…?)
  • Have another postdoc or your mentor read through your application material. Chances are your mentor has been on a few search committees and can give you useful tips.
  • Every time you apply for a job, consider it a chance to improve your application material.
  • When you do land an interview, prepare for it like there’s no tomorrow. You are a researcher, do your best to figure out everything that you possibly can about the department to which you are applying and, even more, the personalities that make up that department.  Once you get an interview, this means your CV is strong enough, and the job interview is about the ‘fit’.
  • OK, to be fair, there are other tricks to success in academia.
  • Landing an academic position is not always going to be in the cards for everyone. It is best to have alternate plans so that you don’t get stuck in the so-called postdoctoral holding pattern for years and years. At least one of us (DH) committed to himself to start to explore alternate options at the five year mark after walking the convocation stage. Have a plan B. Your Plan B might actually turn out better than your Plan A in the end.
  • Rejection in terms of tenure-track jobs is really just a warm-up to the continual sense of rejection you will feel if you do end up working as a Professor.  You might as well get used to it.  This is not a statement to bring on doom and gloom: it’s the reality.  You must develop broad shoulders.

Rejection is a fundamental and core part of the academic life: The publication process is becoming so difficult that you can pretty much assume that your paper will get rejected the first few times around (check out this paper about rejection rates…).  Funding agencies are cash-strapped, and it’s getting harder and harder to find ways to fund research projects.  High caliber graduate students will ‘shop around’ for the best graduate program, and will often reject your laboratory. Be a practitioner of academic kung fu – use the weight of rejection against rejection itself by learning from it and applying it to your next attempt.

Depressed yet?

Don’t be.  A tenure track has so many advantages, and these far outweigh the annoying stream of rejections. And the other options available to a bright, young researcher are often as appealing (and usually pay more) than being on the tenure track anyhow.  ..but that’s a topic for another post.