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I am back from two awesome interview visits – hence my radio silence on the blog front. They were both informative, uplifting, exhausting (!) and surprisingly enjoyable. In academia, bogged down by the minutiae of incremental results, returned grants and endless admin, it can get easy for even someone as ‘endlessly high’ (Dean Ness, 2011) as me to get down. Then I visited two utterly amazing institutions and am delighted to share what I learned.

St Jude Children’s Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee.

View over to Downtown Memphis from Mud Island

St Jude is a Children’s Hospital, dedicated to preventing, managing and curing Children’s cancer. The hospital is beautiful, and being surrounded by the very children you are trying to motivate is the ultimate in motivation for many. Strangely for me (given my previous pediatric clinician leanings), I don’t look at sick children and feel vastly moved and motivated to get back to Science. I do enjoy playing with the children, and of course, am delighted if my Science can help them. But, as someone who got into Science 7 years ago ‘to make a difference to children’s lives’  I am surprisingly unmotivated by the actual children themselves – the Dean of the University Texas School of Public Health has a theory as to why, and that will share later on in this blog post.

Big bridge I walked across. I can't think of a better caption than that...

The people were all extremely nice, and clearly very happy. There was the added attraction that St Jude really wanted me – they loved my work, and my skills and thought it would be useful and a very good fit for the Department. I loved, and probably annot do justice to, the genuine selfless spirit that pervaded all the academics. St Jude are fortunate enough to have a lot of money. Therefore, they have strived to free themselves from some of the constraints of academia, and not focus on grants.


They don’t focus on grants.

(They don’t even require their faculty to get them.)

Any academics may need to reread those sentences a few times.

I was told that some academics will submit grants to NIH, because it is good for your CV, because it is good to get external validation on the usefulness of the research program, because it increases the money available to St Jude for research. But, tenure and promotion is based on the impact of your papers. This leaves Scientists focused on exactly that: what is the best Science that can be done, to help cancer suffers / survivors? It also seemed to create one of the most truly collaborative and welcoming environments I have seen – as people were secure in their job they literally were all just pulling together in the pursuit of that one goal: how can we do the best Science? And clearly, the more people going to towards that goal, and the  more experienced and skilled the actual scientists are: the more likely they are to achieve it.

Lots of cool stuff in downtown Memphis

Interestingly (and perhaps hand-in-hand with this collaborative, Science-focused ethos), St Jude do not talk about individual achievements. They rarely talk about Dr. X’s paper, or Dr. Y’s grant. Or the addition of XX members to the department. When you ask them if their department is successful, they talk in terms of the success of the global fights against cancer – to which they contribute. If you ask if their research is successful, you may hear ‘Yes, because acute lymphoblastic leukemia survival has gone up from 2% to 90-something % since 1960’; or ‘Yes, because XX% of cancer survivors no longer need a full time carer’. It is a humble stance, and a humbling place. It was actually fairly easy to overlook the wealth of ‘traditional’ academic accomplishments contained within the group ( many large grants, huge cohorts collected and maintained, papers in Nature, Science or The Lancet…) because again, their focus was on each Scientific goal. Academia was the world they had to work within, not the world they subscribed to.

Nice downtown Memphis park

That is not to say, as well as impressive achievements, they did not also have impressive facilities. Incredible data, incredible cohorts and a super comprehensive genotyping facility. And they were answering fascinating questions; I discussed such issues as “What are the long-term neuropsychological outcomes of cancer drugs? How can we ameliorate these?” “When is the best time to institute long-term preventative health solutions?”. “How do you stop people who have been treated for cancer, smoking?” “How do you take a cancer survivor, high on their health achievement and keen to move on, to keep on monitoring and changing their health behaviors?” “How do you get a parent, with a 2-year old leukemia sufferer, to still be a strict parent to that child and impose boundaries?”. It was really fascinating.

I described my trip when I got back to UAB, and someone said to me “It sounds like a Wonderland”. I truly believe it is.

University of Texas, School of Public Health (UTSPH)

Sunrise over Houston

This interview was a very different experience, but no less impressive. The position itself is somewhat different: while St Jude  want me to join on projects, and be trained in their field, and feel my way in their Science for a while, UTSPH want something quite different. They are looking for ‘Public Health Innovators’. Individuals with a new paradigm, a ‘surprisingly novel’ research program – usually considered high risk  high reward i.e. this is so new we don’t know if it will work but if it does – it will present a totally new way of thinking within a field.

My preparation for UTSPH was somewhat rocky. My first attempt at a talk was on what I had done in my postdoc: developed a new and novel biomarker of insulin resistance, and used it to understand the gene-environment interplay underlying insulin resistance (candidate gene studies, GWAS studies, pharamacogenetic, gene-gene and so on). The talk was OK. My fellow postdocs (and a very kind Assistant Professor) listened and said that it was ‘competent and confident’. Which was kind. But depressed me – that is not what UTSPH were looking for, and not what I believed my potential was. One complete breakdown in Donna’s office (‘Only David Allison has ever believed in me unconditionally’), ONE rebuild from Donna (‘I believe in you! And I know your godparents utterly do. Even if you don’t get this job… you’ll still be you, and I will still believe in you’), and THREE revised talked later, I had what I wanted to speak about. But… it was bold.

The typical postdoc-faculty talk is “I did this, I found that and it was great. I then did this, and I found that, and it was also great. So… employ me and it’ll be great”. My talk was

“Here is Science progresses according to Thomas Kuhn… this is how it mirrors my own journey…. and here is what I think we need to do to abandon the Scientific paradigm I have spent 7 years working in (and by the way… you all [very successfully] work in) and start something new. My support is somewhat limited as no one is thinking about it yet… and I am only a postdoc… but if it worked, it could be utterly awesome. Trust me’.

So I went out on a limb, took a deep breath, and gave the talk. I think it went well. The important thing is that I enjoyed giving it, and feel I did myself justice. I was very impressed with the questions afterwards as well. There were a couple of what seemed like, almost ‘prepared’ or very general questions. It is a good sign to see those, because it indicates a group that cares enough to prepare these. Then, the junior faculty and students came up with awesome suggestions for my research program – things I had not thought about. To me, this said that the UTSPH population was engaged, and committed to the department (it is not easy to speak up after talks) and pretty on the ball – to come up with ideas on the fly. Having wept (and wept) about the talk before I went, it was one of the best parts of the day (but no… I don’t actually know what the people at UTSPH thought about it).

Some of the medical buildings in Houston

As for UTSPH – I loved my time there. There were 3 parts to the day: (1) The dreaded job talk / seminar (which I have covered); (2) The talk with the Dean (Dean Ness is doing the recruiting… onto that in a minute) and (3) the one-to-one interviews. The one-to-one interviews were awesome. I was very impressed with the caliber of questions – I wouldn’t say i got a single easy ride. Almost everyone pulled out my CV and / or my application letter and asked about specific things in it “You say you are going to do X – how?” or “You wrote on your letter that ‘IQ is not a core deficit in ADHD’ – what did you mean? How did you find that”. Or they challenged me Scientifically “Define Heritability… do you think the term heritability is misused today? What is the utility of the term ‘heritability?” or “What are the main schools of thought who would be in opposition to your research program?”. Or they asked questions specific to the role “Can you define creativity? Can you teach innovation? Why are you creative?”.

It sounds scary, but everyone was so nice, and I was so happy there, that I quite enjoyed it. I also warmed to the actual people at UTSPH a lot. I just thought they were lovely. Fun, sweet, positive, smart.

So, on the back of great meeting, and an enjoyable talk, I went to talk to Dean Ness. I had been warned that she was very smart. She was 🙂 She was, like everyone I met at UTSPH, very nice, but very smart and focused. She asked me to summarize my program (my talk) in 2 minutes. She immediately understood it, placed it in the context of the current paradigm and understood the broad implications. Impressive! She nodded and said “Well, that turns the current paradigm into a complete reversal because…” succinctly summarizing way better than I ever have.

Then the best part of my meeting with Dean Ness, was the talk on what makes someone creative, and an innovator. She has conducted quite a lot of research into this and distilled it to four characteristics. (1) Tenacity; (2)Drive to succeed; (3) curiosity; and (4)motivated by internal, not external, factors. This fourth factor explained why I was not motivated by the children at St Jude (as so many are) – my drive to achieve and succeed comes from within. Which makes people crazy because I am often seen to do things I don’t need to do. Or as my husband says – I never relax. I go for a goal, and I make sure I exceed it, and then I don’t simply say “OK, I can relax now” – beating or replicating that success becomes the new goal. I understand some people find it odd, or tiring to witness.

Anyway, Dean Ness was kind enough to say that I had the four characteristics in abundance – she is a very sharp woman to draw such conclusions so quickly. I said that she was kind, where she says ‘tenacious’ most people say ‘stubborn’. Or where she says ‘curious’ my mother says ‘the girl who wanted to know what happened if you put something other than a tape in the VHS, so rammed a jam sandwich in there’ or ‘the girl who wanted to explore other ways of making grilled cheese sandwiches, so tried the iron. And broke the iron’. Ahem. Dean Ness acknowledged that all these qualities were double edged swords – they could be positive or negative, and in an academic environment innovators could struggle to thrive. They tended to have excellent CVs – more publications / grant apps than others at their level, but were not truly happy. Her goal was to create an environment where successful, but creative Scientists could explore their Science in their own way, free from some of the usual academic constraints.

It is an exciting, and amazing opportunity. Now I just have to play the waiting game to see what is offered to me. And visit other interviews, starting with the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, to explore their opportunities. How exciting.

In the meantime, I have some very informal:

Interview tips

  1. Wear comfortable shoes. The amount of walking about is incredible. You may be standing for your seminar. Don’t hold people up by tottering.
  2. Bring snacks. My two interviews involved breakfast at 7, lunch at 12 (0r 1) and dinner after 6. I was so glad I had snacks I could gobble up between meetings (Zone Perfect bars are my favourite as you get a sugar rush, but they are low GI, and do not taste too sweet).
  3. Be prepared for opposition (but don’t take it to heart). I encountered some very challenging questions, including someone who, as I walked in, said “What is this CV? It’s Psychology and lipids and all sorts. What is it? What do you want to do?”. But, this person gave me lovely feedback to the chair. It was just a personality thing, not a personal thing. So be prepared to be challenged, but don’t take it as a bad thing.
  4. Ask in advance for coffee. I have coffee every day at 3. If I don’t get it at 3, I get heachey and / or grumpy. It is what it is. No one has minded when I have emailed in advance and asked for a coffee for my 3 O’clock meeting.
  5. Practice your talk. But don’t over practice it. I have found my optimum is one near-perfect run through, 2-4 days before the interview. At St Jude I got to this state, and then tried to practice the talk the night before. It was getting stale and boring, and I slipped up and it was a mistake. I try to get my talk as I want it before I go, and then leave it alone until the day. It is hard, but it works for me.
  6. Find your passion. At both interviews I got to a place where I knew what I was deeply passionate about, and what I wanted to do. This served me no end.  I guess it meant that I didn’t mind being challenged, because I wanted to defend my view. It also gave me a confidence going into my talks – even if I was a bad speaker, I honestly felt people needed to know the information I had to share – so I could go at it with gusto.
  7. Try to arrange to get there a little early the day before. I always picked the earliest flights. It let me regroup, settle in, chill.
  8. Don’t kill yourself with exercise. Exercise helps me relax, and destress, and feel I have achieved something positive. However, both interviews were both so tiring that there is no way I would do intense (e.g. extreme HIIT, or full body dropsets) the day before. I will exercise, but either walk, or use the elliptical, or swim. I would also NEVER exercise the morning before. Maybe this isn’t true for everyone – but by the end of the day I definitely needed extra energy reserves (exercise can also make me voraciously hungry… which I need to avoid). I look at the whole thing as a chance to cross train and recover / repair.
  9. Enjoy it. I am serious. Do whatever you can, or whatever you need to, to enjoy the experience. I employ both psychological and physical wizardry. I use positive visualization and talk my research up to myself before I go, so that I can feel confident and enjoy the Scientific discussions. I take a bunch of bath stuff and order a glass of wine and spend the night before in a nice hotel, with bubble bath and trashy novels and utter ‘me’ time. (Which I rarely stop for otherwise). I put my ‘Out of Office’ autoreply on and just do what I need to do to get the most out of it. I think of all the wonderful people I am meeting. All the wonderful things I am learning (in the broadest sense) and what a great opportunity it is to travel.

I genuinely enjoy the process and am looking forward to the next 🙂

Image credits