This is re-posted from Andrew Hendry's Eco-Evo Evo-Eco blog. By Jessica Abbott.
Since Andrew Hendry was kind enough to
write a guest post about his
career path to date, I was invited to return the favour. As with most
researchers I know, my career path has been considerably influenced by chance
events. In fact, now that I think about it, you can see this effect pretty much
as far back as you want to go. Andrew started his story with his MSc work, but I’ve
decided to put a bit more focus on the things that got me started on the road
to research. I regularly give lectures for high school students, and one of the
things they’re often interested in is how I decided to become an evolutionary
biologist. Besides, all you have to do is look at my CV to get an idea of the
things I’ve done during and after my PhD.
Some people you meet in science ended up
there despite the fact that it was never their childhood dream. Others always
wanted to be researchers. I fall into the second category. Ever since I was a
kid I was interested in science, especially biology and astronomy. I first
became interested in evolution when I read a book about it in 6th
grade. At that time I didn’t really realize that you could be a professional
evolutionary biologist, though, so I never really considered it as a possible
the end of high school I had settled on marine biology as an interesting field.
But I didn’t want to work with dolphins! At some point I’d seen a lecture by a
local researcher from Trent University, who talked about the development of new
cancer treatments from naturally-occurring chemicals (for example taxol, which
is derived from yew trees and can be used to treat ovarian cancer). She also
mentioned marine sponges, and how they might be a promising subject for similar
research since they have effective but relatively non-specific immune function.
This sparked my interest as a way to combine research in marine biology with
some practical applications. I therefore decided to study marine biology at the
University of Guelph during my undergraduate degree.
|Suberites domuncula, by Guido Picchetti. Charismatic, no?|
It was my first-year introductory zoology
class that really made me start thinking about evolutionary biology. Ron Brooks
taught the class and basically seemed to completely ignore the material that
was supposed to be covered in the course, at least judging by the information
we covered in the labs. Instead he talked a lot about evolution and told
everyone to read The
. I was a good student, so of course I read it. And it made me
realize that this was the sort of thing that I really
wanted to work with.
I also wanted to broaden my horizons on a
personal level, so I applied to go on an international exchange for my third
year. My destination, Lund University in Sweden, was pretty random. I had
originally applied to go to Aberdeen or Sydney, because they were the only two
places that had marine biology programs (at least among the universities that
Guelph had a reciprocal exchange agreement with). But because both these
locations were highly popular (meaning only one semester abroad was allowed) and I
wanted to go for a whole year, the exchange office suggested some other
options. Lund seemed to have the most interesting selection of courses, so
that’s where I decided to go, despite knowing basically nothing about the
country or the university.
|Lund is lovely in the spring.|
Once I got to Lund, I really liked it. The
classes were small and the material was interesting. Swedes were hard to get to
know, but nice once you knew them. It was fun learning a new language. And of
course I met my future husband. So rather than go back to Guelph I registered
as a student in Sweden for the next year. And near the end of my second academic
year in Lund I started a master’s project with Erik Svensson. My choice of
project was also somewhat random. Because I was interested in evolutionary
questions in general, I wasn’t so picky about the type of study organism. I
asked around to find out who had a project that needed a student, and just went
with the one that sounded most interesting. That’s how I ended up working on Ischnura elegans. When the opportunity
arose to continue working with Erik in the same system, I took it.
As I neared the end of my PhD I
started thinking about what to do next. I was never especially enamoured with
field work, so I thought it would be fun to try working with a lab-based
system. I was interested in the evolution of sexual dimorphism (I’d done a bit
of work on sexual dimorphism during my PhD), but also in genetic conflicts. I’d
run across Bill Rice’s work on intralocus
sexual conflict (then often called ontogenetic sexual conflict) which
combined both of these things, but at that point there weren’t so many people
working in that area, so it wasn’t really on my radar. Then I went to ESEB in
2005 and saw a talk by Russell
Bonduriansky about intralocus sexual conflict. It made me realize that this
could be a viable option after all. I therefore got in touch with Adam
Chippindale to see about doing a postdoc with him.
Adam’s response was a pretty typical one –
he’d love to have me as a postdoc but didn’t have the money to hire me himself.
But he was happy to help me out in designing a project so that I could apply
for my own funding to go to Queen’s University. I applied to both NSERC and the
Swedish Research Council (VR), and was successful with VR. That’s how I got
started working on experimental evolution, and Drosophila, a method and a system which I still use today.
When we moved to Kingston we had hoped to
stay longer than the two years of my VR fellowship, but when I applied for an
NSERC postdoc again (my last chance) I wasn’t successful. The choice was
between returning to Sweden with a new repatriation fellowship from VR, or
being unemployed and living in my parents’ basement. I think you can guess
which was the more attractive choice.
That’s how I ended up in Uppsala, working
with Ted Morrow
took my fly populations with me and continued the stuff that I’d done at Queen’s
I liked the fact that there were a bunch of
sexual conflict people in Uppsala, and I liked working with Ted. When my
one-year repatriation grant was up, I was lucky enough to be offered a one-year
postdoctoral stipend by Klaus
Reinhardt, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. During that period I
continued to work in Uppsala, but on a collaborative project with Ted and
Klaus. The stipend kept me going until I was successful in obtaining a Junior
Researcher Project grant from VR.
Macrostomum lignano mating, by Lukas Schärer.
The Junior Researcher grant let me start up
my own small group, and start work on a new study organism, Macrostomum lignano. (The story of how I
decided to do a project on Macrostomum is also interesting and much influenced
by chance events, but I won’t go into details here. This post is long enough
already.) Although I considered staying in Uppsala, in the end I decided to
move back to Lund, both for personal and professional reasons. I liked having a
lot of people that shared my interest in sexual conflict in Uppsala, but the
downside was that it meant that I was just one of many, and that I wouldn’t
necessarily bring anything new to the department. Lund was also closer to old
friends and my husband’s family. I’ve been working here since 2012.
Looking back, it’s clear that both chance
and direction have played a role in my career path. In many ways, I’m exactly
where I had hoped I would be at this stage, when I imagined my future as a
teenager. I imagined myself working at a good research university (preferably
abroad), in a good relationship (maybe kids – not essential), combining
research, teaching, and popular science in an enjoyable mix. These things are
all true (that’s where the direction part comes in). However exactly what I’m working on and where I am are different than what I
expected (that’s where the chance part comes in).
It’s also been a lot harder than I had
expected it to be. It’s not like I thought being a researcher would be easy. But being a postdoc with no option
to plan long-term, no job security, and a family, was much harder than I had
expected. A common theme when senior scientists talk about their career paths
is “I just worked on whatever I thought was most interesting, I never tried to
think strategically”. I know that PhD students and postdocs can find this a bit
frustrating – even if this approach is perhaps a necessary condition for
success, it’s probably not sufficient. There’s probably just as many people out
there (or more!) who followed their hearts but didn’t get that tenure-track job or key big grant, as the ones who
did. I can understand this frustration, because “just do what you think is fun”
is not very helpful advice. However, one can also look at it another way. It’s
good to have long-term goals in mind (direction), so that you can take the
right opportunities as they come up (chance). But if you’re not really enjoying
your work while you’re working on it, what’s the point? Don’t spend a lot of
time doing things you don’t like just because you think they’re strategic. You
might get hit by a bus tomorrow.