moving labs and switching fields
Adam Levy: 00:09
Hello, I’m Adam Levy and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Today, moving labs and moving discipline.
This series is all about moves. Whether that move is with a partner, or one that takes you to a new country. Moving labs as an academic can be a pivotal moment.
Well, today we’re looking at what happens when that move is combined with another, sometimes even bolder career shift, moving disciplines.
How can shifting the science you do enhance or exacerbate a move from one lab to another?
For neurologist Ken Kosik, of University of California, Santa Barbara, moving the location of his lab, so that he’s surrounded by a wide range of academics from other disciplines, has transformed the way he does research.
I caught up with him and we started out by discussing how he ended up in such an interdisciplinary location.
Ken Kosik: 01:20
When I finished my neurology residency, I still was not sure what I really wanted to do. I was still searching.
I realized that while neurology and medicine in general is a lot of fun to learn, I found myself a little less interested in actually practicing it.
I think the motivations for these fields are a little different. I really began, toward the end of my residency, to become attracted to research and applied to a laboratory to do exclusively research but remained in a medical school.
After being there for well over two decades I came to give a talk at Santa Barbara. And so another lifestyle, in which the buildings around me were not haematology, gastroenterology, neurology. They were things like music and architecture.
That setting appealed to me immensely. To do research in a setting where there is a much broader diversity of academic disciplines. That does not mean that I abandoned my medical interest. I do a lot of work still related to Alzheimer’s disease.
But I’ve just found that the setting where I am now, which has a strong component of other sciences, physics, computer science, engineering, as well as humanities, is much more conducive to my nature.
Adam Levy: 02:59
The way you describe it, it sounds very natural and very, very normal thing for you to do on a personal level. Did everyone else see it that way? Or were some people a bit surprised by this kind of decision?
Ken Kosik: 03:11
I had achieved the rank of professor at Harvard, and people were a little surprised that one would leave a tenured position like that to go elsewhere.
Adam Levy: 03:22
And in terms of the actual outcomes of this, have there been benefits for your work in being surrounded by people from what might be considered very different disciplines?
Ken Kosik: 03:34
Enormous benefits. I mean, the benefits that I can actually document quantitatively. My impact factors have gone up, you know, for what they’re worth. They’re probably not worth that much.
But I’ve opened up collaborations with chemists, computer scientists, physicists. That has been extremely exciting for me and really has been the key to success in this environment.
Reaching across enormous cross disciplinary boundaries, has really been with most attracted me and has worked out very well.
That’s not to say that that would work at an earlier stage in one’s career.
I made this transition already as a senior investigator, a senior scientist. So I was quite comfortable in my own discipline.
Adam Levy: 04:25
And has this been welcomed on the other side of the divide, as it were? Have physicists also being grateful to, to have collaborations with with you on subjects, which maybe they wouldnt have touched otherwise?
Ken Kosik: 04:38
It’s been incredibly welcoming on the other side of the divide for several reasons. One is that because I am a neuroscientist, I think people in many fields are intrigued by neuroscience.
There’s really an interesting migration that’s going on by many people in physics, for example, or computer science that are really looking toward neuroscience to try to understand deep learning, artificial intelligence, in ways that the brain accomplishes tasks which are similar to what they want to do.
Now, I’ll also add, though, that coming to the campus where I did at the University of California, Santa Barbara. At that time, there was not great strength in neuroscience.
So I think people wanted to get involved in neuroscience. But it was a little difficult on the other side to cross over. So my arrival was very, very welcome. And I’ve just been like, a kid in a toy store there with the opportunities to collaborate.
Adam Levy: 05:42
My next question is, I suppose, a question of identity, do you think this change has shifted you from from considering yourself a biologist? Or is that still very much how you describe yourself as an academic?
Ken Kosik: 05:55
I’m still a biologist, I don’t have any illusions that the esoteric work that’s going on in computation, computer science and physics is something that I can do myself.
I am still fundamentally the cell biologist, the molecular biologist, the neuroscientist, and that’s a reality.
Adam Levy: 06:15
Now, as positive as you’ve been, I’m very aware that biologists and physicists and engineers, we all speak slightly different languages.
So how in practice, do you actually begin to overcome this obstacle and actually communicate across these boundaries?
Ken Kosik: 06:33
Yes, I think there’s a bit of trying to understand what the person on the other side of the boundary can dom what they’re interested in. And if I meet another person who does cell biology, I assume an enormous amount of knowledge and shared technologies to approach a problem together.
Whereas in turning to someone who’s really completely away from those fields, someone who’s really not even trained in biology, we really have to first recognize that they’re very smart people, and they really don’t need us to explain to them just a lot of the details of biology 101. They need for us to explain to them the kinds of problems we’re grappling with.
And that is, I think, the core to, to success. To pique someone else’s interest in a domain in which they can contribute.
Adam Levy: 07:35
Do you have any tips or, I suppose even warnings, for people who are trying to or hope to communicate across these kinds of divides?
Ken Kosik: 07:45
Try to have a conversation and exchange. It’s, it’s very important that one does not approach a collaboration across such a great divide as an opportunity to give someone else a lecture.
It really is an opportunity to find what will fit within what they do. Which means that you must have some understanding of what an engineer or a physicist actually does.
Then the next question is, well, is it really possible to even collaborate with someone who’s thinking of problems in 11 dimensions?
So there can be common ground, I found, I recently have just begun a conversation with an individual who does a lot of quantum theory.
And both of us are interested in how we can apply a deep learning, machine learning, to our respective fields. And there has been a very interesting exchange that I’ve begun to have with him on this topic.
And this individual brings a sophistication about computation that I could not ever achieve.
But yet he does not really know what the problems are in neuroscience that may require a machine learning approach.
Problems like discerning waveforms in, say, a brain organoid, which is something we’re very interested in.
So I think that there can be common ground with someone as long as you find where the shared interest is.
Adam Levy: 09:17
Now you mentioned that this kind of approach to research might not work for people who are earlier in their careers. Is there anyone else you would say, “Oh, actually, maybe this doesn’t suit your particular approach or your your particular personality so well.”
Ken Kosik: 09:33
It will not work for everyone. But it can work for people that are earlier in their career, but in a different way. I’ll give you an example of a person who came to my lab recently and was able to, I think, do something quite amazing.
This is an individual who did his PhD in physics, and then decided to do his postdoc with me. He had great sophistication in both computation and in instrumentation. And he built and devised some devices for brain recordings, He had no background in biology whatsoever.
So while he was with me, he not only was able to use his skill set, but he immersed himself in the biology of developmental biology, which is something you have to learn when you’re thinking about how and organoid develops, develop sophistication with stem cells, all that kind of thing.
He spent five years in my lab, and just in the last month or two got a job with this dual training, where his dual skill set in two, absolutely very diverse fields was the key attractor that got him the job.
And of course, the goal of every postdoc is to get a job.
Adam Levy: 10:52
Now, who would you say this, this wouldn’t necessarily work out for, then?
Ken Kosik: 10:57
I don’t think it would work necessarily if a person is pretty much able to accomplish their goals and their vision, strictly within the discipline.
It’s not necessarily crucial for everyone to reach across the divide so broadly. But I think increasingly it is.
Because when you think about all the sophistication required in the area of optics, to understand cells, more and more problems with computation to understand cells, that I think this aspect of the biological sciences, where it’s becoming more and more important for us to to reach across boundaries, is becoming more relevant.
And in fact, I see the biologist of the future as being equally comfortable with our home turf as we are with the instruments required to study cells, with the computational techniques necessary to analyze cells.
Adam Levy: 12:10
That was Ken Kosik. As Ken mentioned, this interdisciplinary approach isn’t necessarily for everyone.
And indeed, moving labs and shifting discipline might not be the right move for all academics at all stages of their career.
In the first episode of this series we spoke with Tim Fessenden, who is now a scientific editor at The Journal of Cell Biology. His PhD focused on the biophysics of cells, after which he decided to take the plunge into two unknowns.
Firstly, he was moving to a new lab with a new PI.
And secondly, he shifted discipline to study how immune cells and tumours interact. So how did he find shifting discipline?
Tim Fessenden: 12:57
You know, I loved it. I’m so glad that I know, I got into my alone little corner of immunology. And that’s my disposition, I feel like I’m a lifelong student, you know, I feel like someone who I always want to be the dumbest person in the room.
And this was certainly the case in my postdoc. I recommend it to anyone, just because it forces you into a new way of thinking and forces you to appreciate different investigative tools that a different discipline has at their disposal, and values.
Adam Levy: 13:28
So shifting the field of study can bring a host of pleasant surprises and new learning experiences. But at the same time, a new field and a new lab might be a bit too much novelty to juggle all at once.
Tim Fessenden: 13:45
I think the most important thing that I would advise, which became really crystal clear for me over the course of my time in the new lab, was that if you’re going to join a new lab that comes with a set of challenges that you should not exacerbate by also switching fields, which is what I did.
So I think things might have gone much more smoothly if I was joining a new lab in the same field that I knew.
Where I knew all the techniques, I knew all the background knowledge, I knew the other big players in the field, where there was some comfort already there, and I could kind of deal with the bumps in the road of the new lab as much more easily.
As it was I needed to learn immunology, and a lot of new techniques. I had never worked with mice before.
So all of those things really compounded the challenges of a new lab. And so I would say do one or the other. Change fields, or join a new lab. Probably don’t do both. I think I’m sure some people do it successfully. But in my case, the advice I would give us to not kind of combine those challenges
Adam Levy: 14:58
We heard earlier from Ken Kosik, who’s got used to collaborating with physical scientists, despite his biological research background.
But what about making the shift the other way round from the hard physics towards the more life sciences?
Well, that’s the shift that many physicists make when they transition to medical physics. Jennifer Pursley is a clinical medical physicist at Massachusetts General Hospital, with an assistant professor appointment at Harvard Medical School.
But her background was more focused on particles than patients. I caught up with her and we started out speaking about what her current job looks like.
Jennifer Pursley: 15:39
Technically, according to my employer, my work is 80% clinical and 20% research. But there’s a lot of flexibility within medical physics in general to choose how you want to spend your time.
And for me, I really enjoy working with students and mentoring. So I would say that my split ends up being more like 50 to 60% clinical, and then 20 to 30% education and teaching.
Adam Levy: 16:10
Now when we talk about clinical work as a medical physicist, what does that actually involve? What are you doing in the clinic?
Jennifer Pursley: 16:17
Yes, so it depends a lot on what type of medical physicist you are.
I am a radiation therapy physicist. So I work in the radiation oncology department. And our job focuses around treating patients with radiation.
So a lot of my clinical duties revolve around making sure that patients are treated safely and effectively with radiation. I also assist with the physicians designing radiation treatment plans.
Adam Levy: 16:47
Now, how did you actually get into this line of work? Your background isn’t actually as a medical physicist?
Jennifer Pursley 16:53
That’s very, very true. My background is a particle physicist. So as a particle physicist, I did my PhD and a postdoc working at Fermi National Lab in Chicago, Illinois.
And about halfway through my postdoc I was starting to think about what I really wanted to be doing with my work.
And I found that I really enjoyed the hands-on aspects of what I was doing as a particle physicist.
I also thought that I would be happier if I knew the work that I was doing had more of a direct impact on people’s lives.
So I started asking questions. I found a few people who had left particle physics. And I talked to them about what they were doing, and a number of them had gone into medical physics.
Adam Levy: 17:44
And how has the experience actually been used?
You speak about these, these motivations, hoping to see the impact of your work more directly, for example. Has that been realized?
Jennifer Pursley: 17:55
It definitely has. Clinical work is extremely satisfying, in that you get to assist with patients every day, even though it’s in a small way.
Often, there’s a lot of times where what I’m doing isn’t directly related to physics, but it’s more about problem solving.
It’s about understanding all of the aspects of everything that goes into a patient’s treatment, and being able to see connections and find mistakes that other people have missed.
And to fix those so that the patient is treated effectively and on time. And that’s extremely satisfying,
Adam Levy: 18:34
Was that at all a cultural shift involved in transitioning from a particle physics lab to, yeah, working often very directly with patients?
Jennifer Pursley: 18:45
There definitely was a very large culture shift going from a national lab to the hospital environment.
For one thing, the hospital is very hierarchical.
So learning the hospital hierarchy, but also learning how to communicate with people from many different role groups.
So at a national lab, everyone has sort of the same background. Everyone comes in with a physics degree or some basic understanding, whether it’s undergrad, grad, all the way up to professor, everyone knows that they’ve got a physics background.
At the hospital that’s definitely not true. Most people don’t have a physics background. And so communication, and learning to communicate science effectively to non-scientists, was really important.
Adam Levy: 19:33
What about, I suppose, those more soft skills when you are interacting, not just with, with other medical professionals, but also with patients?
I mean, physicists maybe aren’t necessarily so famous for their soft skills. And I must confess, I’m a physicist by training as well.
Jennifer Pursley: 19:51
That’s a very good point. And it’s something that the field as a whole of medical physics is trying to figure out right now.
Historically, we haven’t had that much of a patient-facing role. And if we do interact directly with the patient, we mostly try not to talk to them too much. We try to let the professionals handle that.
But we are seeing the benefit for physicists. In particular there are some patients who are really curious about what’s happening to them, like “What is this radiation treatment that I’m receiving?”
And the physicians can answer some of those questions. But I’ve actually directly interacted with patients who are themselves engineers or physicists. And they want to talk to a physicist about the linear accelerator and about their treatment.
So it’s definitely been a learning experience. And it’s not something that we are currently training physicists to do.
But I think the medical physics field as a whole sees that this probably is going to be an important aspect of our field. And we should start training physicists on how to communicate better.
Adam Levy: 21:04
In this series, we’ve reflected a lot on how to choose what team and what lab, one wants to be a part of.
How do you think that question is complicated when you’re also thinking about changing, changing disciplines and potentially changing disciplines quite radically?
Jennifer Pursley: 21:21
I think the hardest part of it for me was not knowing exactly what I was getting myself into.
I remember actually, the very first day that I showed up, as my medical physics postdoc, I was shaking. Because I had gone from being an expert in particle physics. Or I walked into CDF at Fermilab and I knew everyone there, I knew what everyone’s job was, I knew exactly who to ask for questions.
And I felt like I had mastered where I was. And then I walked into this completely new environment, I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know exactly what I was supposed to be doing, or even what I didn’t know that I needed to know. And it was a real shock.
So not knowing what you’re getting into also makes it really hard to choose the right fit for you. The research project that I worked on as my first project, as a medical physicist, it wasn’t really a good fit for me.
So it’s particularly hard when you’re switching disciplines to know what’s going to be the best fit for you in terms of research or lab or position.
Adam Levy: 22:31
From your experiences do you have any tips on things people should should watch out for or things people should avoid when they are making a transition like this?
Jennifer Pursley: 22:40
Well, my biggest advice if you’re considering a transition between fields is to talk to as many people as you can.
And I tell this to students all the time. What I did was I talked to particle physicists I knew who had become medical physicists.
But in hindsight, what I should have done was reach out to medical physicists nearby where I was in Chicago.
I should have called some of them up or emailed them and asked if I could come and meet them where they worked, and job shadow them for a day or two, and just talk to them about their experience.
And I realized now that physicists are extremely willing to do this, like they’re actually very happy to talk with students or people who are considering transitioning into their field, they’re very welcoming.
So that’s my, like, biggest advice to people considering the career switch now is reach out to a physicist in your area.
Even if you don’t know them, or have a connection to them, it’s very likely that they’ll be happy to welcome you and you’ll get a great experience. You’ll learn more from actually being in the environment than just from talking to someone about it.
Adam Levy: 23:53
Is there anything that you miss at all about the more pure physics (I’m putting that in the inverted quotes) that you did earlier in your career?
Jennifer Pursley: 24:03
There definitely are a few things that I miss about pure physics. At least coming from a particle physics background, I was used to working with a very large collaboration of people. And we all supported each other’s research work.
So we had a common set of code, a code repository, that everyone checked code in and out.
And so any advancements, any improvements that anyone made, were immediately shared with the rest of the group.
And unfortunately, in other fields, that’s not really the way things work in research.
So that aspect, not being able to share research as freely or as quickly as I was used to as a pure scientist, it was a little, a little bit different than I expected.
Adam Levy: 24:49
Is there anything else you’d like to share with people who maybe are considering a transition not just from particle physics to medical physics, but from a more physical discipline to a more life sciences or medical sciences discipline?
Jennifer Pursley: 25:02
Written communication is important. Even though physicists are expected to write papers we’re not really taught how to write.
But having some dedicated courses in effective written communication, I think would be beneficial for anyone considering switching into something like a life sciences discipline.
Adam Levy: 25:23
That was Jennifer Pursley. We’ve got just two episodes left in this series, but we still have a lot left to discuss.
For one thing, we haven’t touched on the explicit disadvantages that some researchers face when moving lab and how these can complicate what is an already challenging decision.
And so in the next episode we’re speaking with three researchers with physical disabilities, about their experiences and approaches.
Until then, this has been Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Thanks for listening. I’m Adam Levy.