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

Dr. Sharon Long is a remarkable scientist. Known for her ground-breaking work on signaling between legumes and nitrogen-fixing bacteria, Dr. Long is a Professor at Stanford University, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a MacArthur Fellow. Dr. Long was one of eight distinguished women scientists invited to speak at this month’s Frontiers Symposium at Cornell University, celebrating excellence in the life sciences. During this event I sat down with Dr. Long to talk about her career path, how she approaches science, and, of course, to pick her brain for pearls of wisdom a graduate student such as myself could use.

What initially inspired you to study science?

As a kid I really liked rocks and minerals. If you look at rocks, sooner or later you are looking at crystals. And, if you look at crystals, you find out that it’s their molecular structure that gives them their shape. This made me fall in love with chemistry and I was lucky to have great math and science teachers when I was in high school. I didn’t actually take biology until my junior year of college.

Given that your B.S. and Ph.D. focused in biochemistry and genetics, how did you end up researching plant-bacteria symbiosis?

As a postdoc I decided to work on bacterial genetics in order to study how legumes nodulate. Many other things in my career path have been serendipitous: What I majored in as an undergrad, my graduate school and my graduate advisor were all partly due to chance. But this symbiosis system was a very careful choice. I made sure that this was really what I wanted to do and I’m so glad I did. I was in love with it-- I still am-- and it continues to be fun.

How did you decide on a career in academia?

I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a professor but when I’ve been faced with major life decisions I’ve tried to pick the choice that left the most options open. For example, the question of whether to go to graduate school or not: If you go to graduate school you can always decide to do something else-- making the decision to go leaves more possibilities available. Even as a postdoc I wasn’t sure if I was cut out to be a faculty member because I couldn’t imagine doing it all. But somehow you do it and things just work out. In my experience it is similar to parenthood; Beforehand, you can’t imagine how you are going to do it; but then you discover the strength when you need it.

What advice do you have for young scientists just beginning their careers?

Always think about the important questions. Not just what you are curious about, and not just what is possible, but what is truly important. What answer would change the way other people do their work? You can’t know in advance what is going to be a great result but you can know what is a great question. If you work to understand a central issue about whatever it is you are studying you will make an impact.

What is a challenge you have overcome in your career?

I used to worry that I didn’t belong. As an undergrad at Caltech there were almost no other women. Everyone else seemed so smart and I felt like I wasn’t. But after a while I realized that I was more or less in the middle. There were people around me who were less confident or less studious than I was and they were making it, so I wasn’t out of place at all. Again in graduate school I often felt discouraged and out of place. I doubted whether I was up to the task. From where I am now I strongly encourage everyone to try and overcome feelings of doubt because I know from experience that it gets better. You may feel like a failure-- but give it some time and it’s going to look better, even if nothing else changes. You don’t have to be perfect in order to belong.

What other advice do you have for graduate students?

I think that one of the most important things that graduate students have to learn is their own dynamic. You don’t have to worry about making someone else’s mistakes; you will make your own mistakes. Something you don’t know when you start graduate school is what those mistakes will be. You only start to learn that when you begin writing your thesis. You can learn other things along the way but it’s when you write that you look back on what you did day-by-day and realize, “this was me making my mistakes!” When you then start your postdoc you can progress rapidly because you know yourself in a way that you didn’t before.

As part of this symposium you are leading a panel discussion “Beyond the lab coat: family and community.” What advice can you give on balancing work and family?

Sometimes women feel that they have to choose whether to have a family or work and they feel pressured to look at work as if it’s something frivolous. Women work for many reasons, sometimes out of need but sometimes because it is so fulfilling. I have a family too, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world, but I’m the type of person who really needs to be engaged and needs to work. I think that whatever a woman wants to do, whether it’s being a homemaker or a faculty member, should be celebrated as long as they are doing what they really want.

From participating in the National Academy of Sciences to acting as a science advisor to President Obama during his campaign, you have had an impact well beyond the scientific community. From these experiences, what advice do you have on scientific outreach?

Choose carefully where you spent your energy: Pick something you care about deeply where you feel you can make a unique difference. Don’t say yes to something if you think you are being asked as a token. No matter how exciting or prestigious it might seem, you aren’t really going to make a difference. Look instead for opportunities where you will be respected.

As an outsider looking over your career, it’s easy to see how all the pieces have come together. Did it feel that way at the time?

Something I know now that I didn’t know starting out is that you can’t make a grand plan or be sure that all of your choices are right. You can’t even be sure that there is a right choice. Wendy Boss, a faculty colleague of mine from North Carolina State, said “You can’t be sure at the time what is the right decision. What makes a decision the right one is what you do after it has been made.” I really like that saying. It’s important to appreciate how much serendipity there is in science and life.