I’m sure the small town of my youth offered many wholesome social, spiritual, and educational opportunities, but these were just never the things I gravitated toward. Instead, my early years were more often a series of misadventures that were usually long on excitement but short on responsibility. My older brother and I were very close but very different. Minutes after entering high school he set a goal for himself of becoming a grown-up, and ended up being very successful at it. I, on the other hand, took an opposite approach and resisted the maturation process - and you could make a case that I too achieved some measure of success in this regard.
One activity that I was early invested in was football, and I was fortunate to earn a scholarship to play football in college. For four years I majored in physical education and played football, and then landed a job as a high school biology teacher and college football coach. But I wasn’t cut out for small-town life and wanted more career options. I enrolled in a PhD program at North Carolina State in Exercise Physiology, where in graduate school I was fortunate enough to discover the miracles and mysteries of molecular biology. This nascent field of study had a profound effect on me, and it was easy for me to see its potential to change the world. I was hooked. The previously unenthusiastic student that I had once been was transformed into an avid experimentalist and a voracious consumer of the literature.
Throughout graduate school, I spent almost every Friday night in the library catching up on research articles, and as a post-doc I spent a portion of nearly every weekend in my favorite chair in the reading room of the Widener library at Harvard College. Fortunately, I had picked a field of study that was intuitive to me and that allowed me over the years, to achieve some small measure of success. While I’m proud of each of the 150 or so scientific papers that I published, I’m much more gratified by the 25 smart young graduate students who I was fortunate enough to have mentored over the years. Each and every one of them was different and each presented a new and welcomed challenge for me to help them become the best scientist they could possibly be. Although my students knew that I expected a lot from them, I think all of them knew that they were part of a team and that I reveled in their success and really appreciated how hard they worked to achieve it. We were always happy to celebrate our successes together.
Given my convoluted career path, I hardly think that I am the person to give career advice, but I do feel that in order to succeed in this field it is not enough to be talented. You also need to work very hard at your craft. And if you clear these two hurdles, then it doesn’t hurt to recruit talented young students and postdocs who will believe in you and your science and work hard to advance a common goal. Pretty simple.