At the beginning of January, I received an invitation to speak at the annual meeting of the Northern California branch of the American Society for Microbiology (i.e., NCASM 2017). I was really excited about this opportunity because I particularly enjoy branch meetings. My first branch meeting was as a graduate student in 2013, and while I don’t remember any of the talks (including my own), there was one lasting impression that I’ve carried with me over the past four years-the amazing, safe, supportive environment for students. I wish that my first experience giving a scientific talk was at a branch meeting (instead, it was at a joint Keystone meeting in a room with two screens and 1000 person capacity!). In my experience, branch meetings are the perfect place for students to hone all sorts of skills-speaking in front of an audience, networking, and brainstorming-in a relatively safe environment. The meetings are small, and those who attend are always happy to chat with students to give them advise and help them learn to think critically about their own work as well as others’ work. I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule (there always are), but I haven’t experienced any and I count myself fortunate because of that.
A very interesting thing occurred to me at this meeting-the first branch meeting I’ve attended after obtaining my PhD. It was the evening reception hour, and I was eating some appetizers at one of the exhibitor booths with a great friend of mine, when we were approached by a young woman. She said, “My friends told me not to come ask you, because they said you would say no since you are celebrities, but I wanted to see if you’d be interested in eating at our table with us.” We immediately answered, “of course!” A mix of emotions hit me. First, I laughed on the inside. I found both her bravery and her friends’ timidity, as well as the thought of me being a celebrity, humorous, in a cute sort of way. I felt a bit of nostalgia because I knew exactly how she felt-it wasn’t that long ago that I myself was a student at meetings, nervously approaching Rob Knight or Curtis Huttenhower-some of the biggest names in microbiome research. Even stronger than those feelings, however, I felt a desire to make an impact on these students and show them that interactions with them are some of the best conversations “mature” scientists have! My friend and I joined the table and the first thing we told the students was, “talking to you is the most enjoyable part of a conference for us! ALWAYS approach scientists to chat with them!” We had a wonderful conversation; the students asked me a lot of questions about how I got where I am today and any advice I could give them, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I felt like I made a difference, and I was able to provide to them something I didn’t have until much later in my journey to becoming a scientist. It made me feel good knowing that I was able to play what might end up being a key role for the future success of one or two of those students. Who knows-perhaps one day one of them will be a Nobel Prize winning scientist! So, if you are a student, here are a few things I want to say to you:
1. I am incredibly passionate about education and training up the next generation of scientists. I went to a small high school and had no idea what research was until I was an undergraduate. Even then, I had to actively seek out opportunities-they weren’t obvious. Because of this, I am very motivated to do everything I can to inspire and encourage budding young scientists of any age (the younger the better!) YOU are the future-established scientists would do a disservice to the field by not investing in you, and while I can’t speak for everyone, in my experience, most of us feel this way and we want you to talk to us!
2. Get out of your comfort zone and actively search for opportunities to connect with and engage even “famous” scientists! The reason I am where I am today is due in large part to a single conversation that I had at a small conference in 2012. I approached Rob Knight (and I was terrified), who was sitting alone at a table drinking coffee and on his computer, to ask if we might be able to collaborate on research on human decomposition and the human microbiome. He asked me to get in contact with the postdoc in his lab leading that research. I did, a collaboration was established, and the rest is history! Talking to established scientists can be scary, but it is so important to get out of your comfort zone and just do it! You never know where those connections may lead you one day. If I hadn’t approached Rob that day, I may not have ever ended up managing the American Gut Project, visiting the White House for the kickoff of the National Microbiome Initiative, or achieving the honor of a Forbes 30 Under 30 Scientist-and thinking about that makes it obvious that acting in the face of my fear was SO worth it!
3. I am not a celebrity. Once day someone will call you a celebrity, and like me, you’ll chuckle and think it’s cute. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way at all-please don’t misunderstand me. What I mean is that I am a scientist just as you are. Not that long ago I was in your shoes, and I remember what it was like. I certainly don’t feel like a celebrity, and I don’t want to be! What’s important to remember is that we ALL have the potential to make big discoveries that can change the world. It is my goal to remain humble and approachable. I don’t know it all, and as my friend emphasized at the table of students that day, it is often the students that give us the ideas that get us out of a rut. Different minds and new perspectives lead to the best scientific discoveries-and the student is just as important a component as is the mature, established scientist.
4. When you have reached celebrity status as a scientist, please remember what you felt like as a young, scared student. Remember to remain approachable, to encourage students to talk with you, and to make a deposit in the worthiest bank in existence-the next generation of scientists!
Are you a student who wants to pick my brains? I want to hear from you! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!