Getting a fantastic mentor is the key to success – Part 2 of my interview with Angela Belcher

I feel very fortunate to have had a chance to talk with women from a wide range of scientific areas with such different backgrounds.  I felt this most strongly in my interview with Dr. Angela Belcher, I think because more often it felt like a discussion than a formal interview.  This says quite a lot about her.  Dr. Angela Belcher is a warm and accessible scientist who really cares about her role as a mentor and values the opinions of others.  This is probably what has made her a success, especially in her collaborations.   Her enthusiasm and passion for what she does shows in the second half of our interview.
ME:  Earlier in our interview, you mentioned that you had some fantastic mentors during your PhD and postdoc.  What did advice did they offer or what did you learn from them?
My two PhD supervisors and my postdoc supervisor were completely passionate about their job, about their research. I learned that this was the most important aspect – love what you do and be passionate about it.  And you could tell that for them there was nothing they’d rather be doing than their research, teaching, and mentoring.  I found it very, very inspiring.
There is a whole ecosystem when you do a PhD and so it’s not just about picking the right supervisor for your PhD or your postdoc but it’s also about picking that environment that resonates with you.  It is extremely important because in my case, that set me up for a very collaborative environment.  There was no competition and it was about working together.  I learned a lot from watching and being in that environment.  In addition, I was given a lot of independence as well as room to fail, but also the encouragement to pick myself back up again.  And that’s something else that is really key because if you’re picking problems that you’re always succeeding in then your picking too easy a problem.
ME:  Inorganic chemistry, electrical engineering are not fields dominated by women, were you one of the few women scientists in your field?
ANGELA:  At the graduate level in chemistry, there were quite a few women so I didn’t notice it very much.  But at the faculty level there were definitely not a lot of women in the field of inorganic chemistry and even less in electrical engineering. As a postdoc, my supervisor, Evelyn Hsu, who was a fantastic scientist and a mentor really encouraged me.  She was a great role model and seeing her success was an encouragement in itself. But generally I don’t really think about male vs females, I’ve always been completely driven by the problem. I’ve always been driven by my interest in the problem. I always tell students that the most important thing about picking a research project is that it is something they absolutely love.  Is it something you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about and that you’re looking forward to going in to trying to solve the problem or look at it again the next day.  That’s always been the driver for me.  I was just fortunate to have absolutely fantastic mentors. I’ve never not had a great mentor.
ME:  But I know that you had dyslexia how did you overcome this challenge?
ANGELA:  I’m not sure that I ever overcame dyslexia. It’s still an issue that comes up on a daily basis for me.  I’m not a very good writer and I’m not a very good speller.  It takes me a lot longer to read papers and to write papers. It’s one reason that I like to write short, high impact papers.  I don’t write long review articles because it’s too painful for me.  But dyslexia has given me a different way of thinking, which has proven in the end to be an advantage. In general my philosophy is to focus on my strengths and to try and turn everything into an opportunity.
ME:  What about the challenge of balancing a successful career and time with your family, I understand you have two kids?
ANGELA:  That’s definitely one of the most challenging parts of my life, but it’s also one of the most rewarding. I feel like that if someone asked me what would your ideal life be like, if you had everything you ever wanted.  It would be my life as it is.  I have a job that I love, a wonderful family that I love, I have nice place to live, I have everything I’ve ever wanted.  And so I feel very very fortunate.  That’s the big picture.  The day to day picture is that I have to juggle small things like leaving work today so I can take one child to childcare and the other to a doctor’s appointment. In addition I try to answer emails and do anything else (like this interview) that I can squeeze in.  Although this job is very demanding, the one fantastic aspect about it is there is a lot of flexibility so if things come up I can rearrange my schedule in a way that I can take care of things that are important to me. I think its about structuring your life in such a way that things work for you.  And that’s what I’ve done.  When I’m working I give work 100%, I give the time with my kids 100%. I don’t have hobbies but my life is filled with the things I love the most.
ME:  Some suggest that the leaky pipeline (transition from postdoc to faculty) might be because women leave to have kids, do you think that this explains why there are so few female faculty?
ANGELA:  It may be part of the reason.  It is challenging to have a family while trying to start a faculty position. The question becomes how do you balance or juggle family needs especially when the kids are very young.  One thing that we’re trying to do at MIT is make it a more family oriented. At MIT, the university is putting a lot of effort into having really great childcare on campus and family leave.  I feel like this will make a big difference and will really help our young female faculty succeed. It could also be mentoring – perhaps women don’t have enough mentors.  This seems more like a question for you as a younger scientist, Dilara, what do you see as the reason for a leaky pipeline?
ME:  I think it’s having the right kind of mentorship.  I think one this is to learn how to be collaborative outside the university.  The second is to have a mentor that is really invested in your success and not just paying lipservice to it.    I’m not sure how many women are in a postdoc where the supervisor is conscious about mentoring them.
ANGELA:  I agree completely with that. I remember the first couple of weeks I was in the empty office of my first faculty position and I called up my supervisor and said thank you.  They did such a great job mentoring me and I didn’t realize how hard this job was and how much there was to it.  But I really was lucky that I had all kinds of great mentorship because it was the key to my success.
ME:  A second reason is that the academic environment does not seem to encourage a healthy work-life balance, especially at my current academic stage where I’m now looking to get a tenure track position.
ANGELA:  Yes, it’s not easy. And I completely understand where you are coming from.  The first couple of years as a faculty member, the road that I took included very, very long hours. But I was always driven by passion, by my interest in the work.  And after I figured out how to do the job, I had a lot more flexibility.  I appreciate that now because I can have lunch with my eldest son several times a week and I teach in his class.  My baby is in childcare on campus and so I can spend a lot of time in his classroom.  Once you get to a certain stage, the hours are completely flexible.
Another example I can give you is with my teaching schedule.  Teaching is important to me.  But I also have the flexibility to double teach in the fall so I don’t have to teach in the spring.  This frees up my time in the spring so that I can spend that time in my kids classes helping to teach at their school.  So there is this wonderful aspect of flexibility to the job.  It’s not an easy job, but like I said it’s so rewarding.  For me it’s everything I’ve ever wanted – I feel very fortunate.
ME:  We’ve talked a lot about mentorship, how do you mentor grad students and postdocs?
ANGELA: It’s always interesting to read what is written in your students’ dissertations and to learn what they say about you after they have left.  I don’t have a formal mentorship philosophy, but there are some comments that seem universal — I pull more than I push. I give a student’s a lot of freedom to develop their own ideas and a lot of encouragement.  And I encourage them to communicate the science by sending them to present their work in talks and posters at conferences. I try to teach them how to do work that is high impact.  That’s a big philosophy of mine. Do something that really matters. Don’t reinvent the wheel.  If you’re going to do science, do science that is important and that matters.
One of the ways that I teach that is I encourage my students to have multiple projects.  Although I don’t design their projects, I try to help them have one homerun project and then one medium project. But they usually work on multiple projects at the same time. Mainly I just try to be very encouraging with whatever they choose and that includes career choices.  My first few graduate students came to me saying, I know you’re going to be disappointed but I don’t want to be a faculty member.  I told them that I don’t have any preconceived ideas about what you should do. And that I don’t believe that being a faculty member will make you a better scientist.  In the end I hope my students will find a job that they really want and that it will be a place whether its in a company, government or policy-making, that makes them happy and where they can continue to do high impact work.
ME:  Wow.  That’s so supportive.  What advice would you give to a grad student or postdoc looking to become a faculty scientist?
ANGELA:  In terms of getting a job, graduate school is different in different fields and I know that in my field high quality publications are what really matter.  Also strong letters of recommendation are important. That means in graduate school, you need to work on building relationships with people who understand your work, know who you are and your work ethic, as well as how your ideas might be different than your graduate supervisors idea or your postdoc supervisor’s ideas.  Although search committees are hiring you for what you did in graduate school and in your postdoc, they expect that you won’t follow the exact same path.  It’s really important a young faculty member bring elements of graduate and postdoc work but take the research in a different direction to show that you are separate and independent from either your graduate supervisor or postdoc supervisor. Doing exactly what you did in your postdoc or graduate school doesn’t show independence.
Once you get offered the position – I’d ask questions I’d ask about your lab space, ask to see your lab space, ask about graduate student funding, office space for your students, ask about the core facilities. Ask about childcare, family leave, teaching assignments.  Try to get the same teaching assignment a few years in a row so that not only are you learning how to teach a class but you are learning how to do it well.  Tell them you want to teach it 3-4 times in a row before you give them your class.  Before you sign the offer, find out as much information as you can about the place before you make your final decisions about the place. Don’t be shy about what you’re looking for and how to structure it because when someone’s hiring you they’re making a huge investment in you and they want you to be successful too.  Think about it as a partnership that is working to make your start successful.
Once you get the tenure-track job, it’s important to seek out mentorship within the department, within the school, and outside the school.  Get advice on how things work.  Learn about all the young investigator grants. These are key to get in your first couple of years because they are usually less structured and so if you change your mind and you start working in a different area you can still use that money to fund your new idea.
ME:  Thanks so much Angela for that really excellent and specific bits of advice.
ANGELA:  It’s a tough job, but it’s a job that’s is so fulfilling more than you could ever imagine.
ME:  It was a real pleasure to meet you and talk with you.  Thanks!


Next up:  Dr. Jane Lubchenco a prominent marine biologist and director of NOAA.

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