A series of graduate student conversations with leading women biologists, at the Women in Science Symposium at Cornell April 2-3.

At a recent event celebrating the achievements of women in the life sciences at Cornell University – Frontiers in Life Sciences – there was a lot of talk about how to become a successful female scientist and how to have a better retention of females in the sciences. Honestly, this couldn’t have come at a better time for me. Being at my wit’s end with my graduate research due to many failed experiments, my advisor recently sent me a link to a blog post that highlights what it takes to be a successful PhD student.

The last thing I wanted to be told was that to succeed in graduate school, you should be willing to fail – day after day, week after week, month after month, and sometimes year after year – until the moment when it all comes together.

In light of that, I wondered how science retains anyone at all, not just females. It is pure masochism, and yet the sciences are inundated with excited and enthusiastic people. I was fortunate enough to interview one of these enthusiastic scientists and learn that the road to the success is not paved in gold – and may at times be more like finding your way through a thicket of thorn bushes.

As scientists, we’re taught to work through nature’s puzzles empirically (trial and error), so naturally we would apply this methodology to our personal lives. Being a scientist isn’t simply a career choice; it’s a way of thinking, a way of life.

It comes as no surprise then that Dr. Nicole Dubilier, a speaker at the Frontiers Symposium, made it to where she is by empirically determining what works for her. Nicole Dubilier currently leads the Symbiosis Group at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany, where she mentors nearly a dozen PhD students and juggles several projects, yet still manages to balance all this with a family at home.

Nicole highlights that although she feels lucky, she did not arrive at her success through luck. At a young age, she heard an interview with Freud where he said “love and work” were the keys to a fulfilled life. His words resonated with Nicole and stuck with her over time. Her goals were to find a man that she could love deeply and forever (and that would love her equally) and to find work that would satisfy her at the same level.

Her path to reaching these goals was peppered with tough decisions. As a young girl, she dreamed of being a ballerina, and when she realized those dreams were not going to work out, she pursued the only other thing that she felt equally passionate about – the ocean. She recalls always feeling a very emotional connection to anything marine, but she struggled with biology. She even claims she was not a “natural born scientist”.

Like many people interested in marine biology, she wanted to study dolphins or whales but after investing time talking to researchers she soon discovered that there were three options for this kind of work – (1) investigating the neurobiology of the animals, which she thought was ‘ok’ (2) working with seriously depressed animals in zoos, which she did not enjoy or (3) studying them in the wild, which at the time was centered around audio research and required a strong physics background – which she had no interest in tackling.

Then Nicole learned of animals that can survive for long periods without any oxygen, sparking her love of extreme environments and her fascination with the idea of evolution of life without oxygen. She did her PhD in zoology at the University of Hamburg on marine worms that are highly tolerant of low oxygen and high sulfide conditions.

Although Nicole loved the system, she found herself frustrated with the slow pace of physiology research, and the need for seemingly endless replication of experiments. Nicole struggled as a PhD student and recounts that while she worked very hard, she just did not feel very passionate about her research. There were several times she was ready to quit her PhD, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she did. In retrospect she is very happy she persisted.

As a postdoc in Colleen Cavanaugh’s lab at Harvard, Nicole fell in love with symbiosis research and the instant gratification of molecular biology, because she felt like “…you can move forward in a much faster way.” Ultimately, Nicole Dubilier danced her way to success, albeit a scientific ensemble, and now she heads the Symbiosis Group at Max Planck where she spends her days studying exactly what she loves and what excites her, life at hydrothermal vents.

Amidst empirically finding research she was passionate about, Nicole found a man to love and who was willing to support her in her goals. As a dual career couple they have worked together to create a well-balanced family-work life.

Nicole notes that there are many challenges in pursuing a career or in starting a family, and so taking on both is a fine balance. When she decided to start a family, someone told her pick three things she loved. She said she soon understood why only three things – there just was not enough time nor energy for much beyond career, family, and single hobby. Nicole also said (and I think most people would agree) to remember to take some time for yourself: it’s important.

To students, Nicole will be the first to admit that it’s not easy to discover what it is you are passionate about, but she encourages every student to keep trying until they figure out what works for them, empirically. Jokingly she equates this to relationships; “You go through lots of men (or women) until you know who the right one is.”

As for female careerists, she recommends Sheryl Sandberg’s eloquent TED talk. This talk suggests a three point strategy for women to be successful in their career: (1) Sit at the table – meaning never take a back seat to men, specifically the seat in the back of the room or in the second row seating around a board table (2) Make your partner a real partner - one that will support you in what you’re doing and (3) Keep your foot on the gas pedal– meaning don’t decide to stop moving forward in your career because someday you want to have a family.

Nicole says these are the best things women could keep in mind when pursuing careers and families. If she could add anything to this, it would be to “feel comfortable in demanding support from your partner – be ok with saying ‘this is what I want.’ Females have to be stronger and clearer about what they want from their partner and not compromise. Be assertive and don’t give up.”

To mentors, Nicole discusses how she has empirically honed her mentoring skills through practice and by taking management classes and workshops. Nicole notes that we aren’t taught how to be a mentor in academic training. She suggests that everyone can benefit from taking a management class or workshop. She strives to help her students understand their strengths and weaknesses in a constructive manner, and to show them how they can accentuate or improve these qualities. She believes it is important to not coddle females and treat them with the same rigor as one would males.

Some of the best things a mentor can do for their mentee, she says, is to continually push them towards conferences and networking, nominate them for awards, and keep them as active participants in their scientific community. This helps create a name for them in the field as well as encourage the flow of scientific ideas. In addition, she feels it is important to show students that there are options other than academia beyond their PhDs.

As a graduate student, I would say I’ve been motivated by some phenomenal mentors. If I were to add to Nicole’s suggestions of what makes a good mentor, I would include passion and excitement. As I interacted with Nicole, what fascinated me the most was that she had a candid curiosity about everything. She asked a lot of questions and even had a wide-eyed excitement about the enthusiasm and passion of the other symposium speakers. I believe it takes that sort of passion and excitement to be a good mentor because it is contagious! So although Nicole may attribute her mentoring skills to practice, I believe that part of what motivates her students is the excitement that she exudes; driving home the point that it’s important to find work you are passionate about.

As my time with Nicole wrapped up, we wondered – why are only women discussing how to balance a career and family? If this were a general conference, these topics would not even have been discussed. But inevitably there are men out there that are thinking about these things. In talking with Nicole Dubilier and others at this symposium, an important point remains that this discussion needs to be opened up further. We should be engaging men and women alike in these discussions, especially for those who are looking to create dual-career families.

If I had to sum it all up, Nicole Dubilier believes that communication is key. To be a good scientist – communicate! To be a good mentor – communicate! To build a successful family – communicate! To create a successful career – get out there and communicate! And none of these strategies are successful unless you empirically discover what you love, determine where your balance is, and hone in on your skills. Even communicating takes practice…

Previously in this series:

Serendipity and Science: 30 Minutes with Dr. Sharon Long

The Co-Evolution of Insects, Plants and a Career