My friends: changing your career path is okay. It really is. What you wanted at 21 may no longer serve you at 41. It’s okay.
Some people always know exactly what they want. Most people don’t. It just changes – that’s all.
I’ve been mulling these thoughts since earlier this month when Dr Kathy Weston, formerly of University of London, published a perspective entitled, “Falling Off the Ladder: How Not To Succeed in Academia,” for Science Careers. Therein, Dr Weston speaks of closing up her lab at the university on winter night in 2009 after a career that didn’t quite meet her own expectations having earned a PhD at the renowned Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge followed by a successful postdoc on this side of the pond with Nobel laureate, J. Michael Bishop.
Weston, now a medical writer, really did everything right. She found a great niche in her field, earned tenure, started a family, learned to ride horses and play cello. But somehow, that life just didn’t meet expectations for someone with more lofty aspirations. Other bloggers and twitterers have discussed that the system failed Kathy but I took a different message from her essay, one that was at least partly shared by blogger Curious Wavefunction: She lost the passion for the conduct of science when she found other things in life that were enriching. Indeed, there were other factors related to being a woman in science – and just not finding motivation for self-promotional schmoozing – but those issues seemed more to follow the main catalyst, the academic scientist’s lifestyle lost its allure.
Kathy Weston. I knew that name. While in Bishop’s lab, she demonstrated that the proto-oncogene c-Myb was a transcription factor, as detailed in this 1989 paper in Cell. A few years later when I started my own lab, I became interested in Myb as a potential transcriptional driver of DNA topoisomerase IIα, an enzyme essential to cellular proliferation by permitting chromosomal segregation after DNA replication. Kathy had constructed some really nice tools to tease out Myb-regulated genes and made an active, dominant negative expression construct whereby Myb’s DNA-binding sequence was fused with the transcriptional repressor domain of the Drosophila engrailed protein. Not only does the encoded chimeric protein compete away cellular Myb from binding its transcriptional response element, but the engrailed domain further represses basal transcription.
When I read her work, I simply knew I must have this nifty tool. Kathy generously provided me with this construct, as did others in what she rightly describes in the Science Careers piece as a cordial group of international researchers. In fact, I’ve never since found such uniformly nicer people than those who worked on Myb. Our work led ultimately to this 1997 paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. When I looked back at that paper a couple of weeks ago, I was flooded with my own recollections of where I was, where I am, and how differently I view science in my life.
The first author on the paper was my first graduate student, now a happy mom and equally happy away from the bench. The second was my first technician who went on for his own PhD and a stellar career at the European headquarters of a major pharmaceutical company. The next was a PharmD valedictorian who has returned to her native southern Arizona to serve her bilingual community as a diabetes clinician. The next went on for her MD and became an academic vascular surgeon. The next-to-last was my ex-wife who worked for a satellite facility of a large biotech company. Lots of people’s lives and dreams are represented in that work, work that makes me quite proud to revisit today – one of the best papers from my group.
I didn’t quite have Weston’s pedigree so Cambridge or UCSF were never in the cards. But I was full of piss and vinegar and certainly thought nothing other than fulfilling my dream of being a good researcher and great teacher, and living in a fabulous part of the country with the freedom of being in a double-income, no-kids relationship.
But life changes. My Dad died the very week our Myb paper appeared in JBC. I realized that I wasn’t quite all that happy – what would I have to show for if I were to die at such a relatively young age? (He was 58.) I was coming up for tenure, had scored an NIH R01 and American Cancer Society Research Scholar Award, and all looked rosy. But I was just empty. Right when things were going the best for my career – or as it looked like it should go to be “successful” – I was lost and drained.
After a couple of years of soul-searching, I ended up staying in science and still have a small lab. But it’s 1600 miles away from the Rockies. I married a brilliant and beautiful physician-scientist with whom I was compelled to mix DNA. Today, I cannot imagine life without my daughter, the PharmKid. I like writing about science – for me and for you people. My research is still important but it’s now far more of a vehicle for helping others launch their careers. Scoring an educational career development grant for my undergrads and master’s students at a historically-Black college just seems more important to the world than my own personal notches on the career ladder.
I haven’t stopped climbing. It’s just changed a bit. And it’s okay.
And whatever comes next is okay, too.
And, Kathy, I hope you’re okay, too.