Naturally Productive

Part 1

In 1609 Galileo Galilei built the first telescope and lifted his gaze to the stars. For centuries, Ptolemy’s descriptions of celestial bodies and their cosmic dance ruled astronomy. But Galileo’s observations, much like Nicolaus Copernicus’s heliocentric model, changed everything. And so it was that along with the likes of Kepler, Newton, Halley, and many others whose lifetimes span two centuries, Galileo and Copernicus left us an accurate rendering of our tiny cloister in an unfathomably vast universe. As a young girl, I was overcome by the glory of the star-spangled African sky before I ever heard about these men or their exploits. Copernicus had journeyed across the heavens with his imagination—Galileo with his telescope. I, however, dreamed of paying the heavens a personal visit. “I want to be a scientist!” I decided, assuming that “scientist” was a title reserved only for astronauts. But as I grasped that my being a daughter of the Global South made such opportunities almost entirely inaccessible, my dream began to fade. From beneath the African sky to the American heartland, a question traveled with me as I headed to college. What would I dream about now?

My college advisor was an elderly, cheerful professor of chemistry who still used transparency projectors. Having noted how well I did in science courses, he managed to trick (yes, trick) me into pursuing a chemistry degree. His determination to see me succeed was extraordinary, often moving him to galvanize persons and communities to support my education financially. New dreams began to bud in college as reactions I learned about in sophomore organic chemistry remerged in a biochemistry course. I was amazed that cells were essentially labs where enzymes routinely synthesized complex molecules with remarkable speed and specificity. Slowly, my gaze drifted from the sweeping scale of the heavens to the subcellular world of proteins until, at the behest of my organic chemistry professor, I decided to apply to graduate school and further my education by learning more about these microscopic factories. Of course, in those days, I did not fully appreciate the grit and perseverance that research demands. Although graduate school has seasoned me and effectively remedied most of that naivete.

My graduate school journey began with a remark from a professor during one of several orientation sessions. “Look to your right,” he had said to first-year students in the room. “And look to your left. A third of you will not graduate with a Ph.D.” I shall always remember how casually he said it. With a beverage, presumably coffee, in hand and standing by the door as though this evening session was a footnote to his very long day. But his words struck me and stuck with me. I remembered them most on arduous days that pushed me to reveries of quitting. In time, however, I realized that the research was something I enjoyed. I liked working on expanding the genetic code for unnatural amino acid incorporation and characterizing new carboxylic acid reductases for applications in biocatalysis. What threatened, depressed even, was an atmosphere that always seemed to say, “You do not belong.” Making this distinction was a critical juncture in my scientific career. I reasoned that if I left the program it would not because I was pushed out, but because I decided to. But I was too intimidated to challenge my bullies, one of which was a professor who threatened to write me bad recommendation letters if I didn’t do as he bade. So I instead funneled my energy toward blocking out the oppressive atmosphere. This meant replacing musings of escape with a determination to see my work through by cultivating habits of discipline and focus. It was an arduous journey, though at long last, despite my misinformed childhood vocabulary, my wish to become a scientist came true. I published my science, wrote my thesis, and successfully defended it.

Those days are long gone now, but I often think about the energy I spent fighting to belong – energy I could have instead spent on research and time I could have otherwise used for rejuvenation. This was hardly something I alone experienced. I watched other Ph.D. students begin with enthusiasm, only to leave the program prematurely or stay endure severe verbal abuse and favoritism. I remain appalled at the human cost and the wasted opportunities for research and innovation that I witnessed. Since my time as a graduate student, some progress has been made. However, even while many wonderful people are in it, toxic research environments persist in academia. Continued dismissal of the pressing need to envision and implement supportive research environments is, as I write, pushing away trainee and faculty talent, resulting in incalculable losses of potentially life-changing research outcomes. Science can be frustrating, but I do not believe we are losing people because they are disinterested in research or incapable. We are losing them because of an unchecked culture of abuse and neglect, both peer-to-peer and from positions of power. We are losing students because faculty are too overwhelmed with a workload that prevents them from giving their mentees adequate mentoring. We are losing faculty because their work to fund research, mentor trainees, and teach students is underappreciated. We are losing people because expectations are not communicated. We are losing people because we tend to focus on advancing our strong candidates instead of investing in strengthening weaker candidates. We are losing people because we continue to elevate performance over behavior, even though the two are not mutually exclusive. In my view, the need for building more supportive research environments has never been more urgent. What would ideal supportive research environments look like? How can we participate in creating them? Stay tuned for part 2 to read my thoughts on these questions.

Perspective Piece on “In Defense of Grad school: Let us now praise this much-maligned institution” by Vikrant Dadwala

As I read this article, I noticed how similar Vikrant’s graduate school experience is to mine. Like Vikrant, I was enthused to resume my academic career as a graduate assistant. And just like him, I was extremely grateful for a chance to engage in what I assumed would be ambitious and impactful research projects. Likewise, I too experienced gradual disillusionment – first because I learned that intellectual prowess and virtue are mutually exclusive in a few of the faculty I once hoped to emulate, and secondly because I did not find some of the research to be as impactful as I imagined it would be. This was due in part to the incessant pressure to publish, perhaps even at the cost of quality and impact. Frustrations were compounded by the derisive attitude that permeates some academic cultures, cultures in which being uninviting is almost celebrated. Navigating such a precarious academic journey was helped by an advantageous background the author and I share. We both hail from burgeoning, albeit still developing, countries. Despite the deconstruction of our high expectations from academia and even aspects of Western culture, that academic achievement is highly sought after and widely celebrated in our respective countries has helped us persevere. Taking off the rose-colored lenses through which I once viewed academia was still unpleasant. But perseverance, a focus on why I joined academia, and the friendships I have made within it have neutralized the cynicism engendered by my negative experiences. There were other contributing factors, but it turns out we can endure almost anything when we find a worthy cause

Discipline – THE bedrock of achievement

Discipline is perhaps the most important predictor of success in graduate school and life. Whatever else you may have – talent, charisma, speed – you will not get far without discipline. In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth writes, “Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t. With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive.” [p.51]. In the context of a Ph.D., this means you will have to learn how to make the same kinds of efforts toward the same goals, working with the same types of people every day for [an average of] five years. Inspiration isn’t enough to meet that demand; you need discipline. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your worldview), there are no shortcuts to discipline. It must be cultivated by facing the demands of life with resolve, courage, and perseverance. “So, which comes first, Erome? The chicken or the egg?” I cannot say for sure, but here’s what I know: you will need discipline to succeed, and if you let it, graduate school will help you build discipline. Therefore, I urge you to view your time in graduate school as an opportunity to build discipline. Don’t be discouraged by failure or difficulties. Instead, view them as a chance to learn how to keep going, even when you feel like quitting. If you don’t view difficulties as opportunities, you will leave graduate school bitter and complaining about how terrible it was rather than enjoying how much you’ve grown. Inspiration may have been enough to get you into a graduate school, but discipline is what will get you to the finish, and depending on how disciplined you are, get you to the finish line with style.

When I was in graduate school, I learned two things. First, that graduate school was the perfect incubator for discipline; second, among my cohort, it was not the brightest students who did well but the most disciplined. These were the students who refused to stop trying despite failure. I saw them frustrated and impatient, but I never saw them give up. They worked on a problem until it was solved. They took the initiative to move projects forward. They came to the lab and left at around the same time every day. And when they were in the lab, I saw them do little else but focus on their tasks. These students didn’t take comments about their work personally because they did not see criticism of their work as criticism of their scientific abilities. By observing them, I learned that a graduate student’s success is more contingent on discipline than being a genius. As I continue to emulate them, I have not been disappointed.