Welcome to the inaugural post of “Ask Me Anything.” The goal of these posts is simple: We want to humanize research and science by creating a platform where people from all backgrounds can come together to learn more about the world of scientific discovery from the people who work in it.
How will we achieve this goal? In each post, we’ll hear from scientists who will share their triumphs, disasters, expertise, and advice. We hope these posts will be motivating for those who do science on a day-to-day basis, whether you’re a graduate student, a new principal investigator with their own research lab, or someone who’s been in it for a while. We also hope these posts will be inspiring for people who are scientists at heart. And the best part of all of this is that YOU have a say in which questions we answer. If you could ask a scientist anything, what would you ask?
To kick us off, our first few installments will feature scientists working in the field of mental health. We’ll hear from people who study post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use, and more. We’ll also highlight some of our favorite women in science.
To submit questions, nominate a researcher, or learn about these posts, engage with us on Twitter @ErinDunnScD.
To encourage others to participate, I decided to get in the hot seat first….so here goes. Hope you enjoy this post and all the others to follow.
You study depression. Do you really think depression is something that can be prevented?
Absolutely! In order to identify strategies to prevent depression, we need to better understand what causes it. We know that it’s not just one thing, but a range of things – both within our life experiences and within our biology – that work together in complex ways to make some people more likely to experience depression. As a scientific community, we’re working hard to try to identify those causes. Once we know what causes depression, then we can start to identify opportunities to intervene – both for prevention and treatment. Although there’s a lot of work to do to get there, I have much hope that over the next several years we’re going to make big inroads to help us move closer towards ultimately preventing depression before it even begins.
What is one thing you would change about the field of mental health research?
Funding. I wish mental health research was better funded. I’ve been told that on average, if you’re a scientist getting about 10% of the grants you apply for, you’re doing well. But this statistic is frustrating, because it means that lots of great ideas are routinely unfunded.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out as a researcher?
Cultivate deep and life-long relationships with multiple mentors. Count on them to do the kinds of things that good mentors do: help increase your knowledge/skills in a given area, pay for you to travel to conferences, advocate for you behind closed doors, give you emotional support, introduce you to their colleagues, pave the way for you to access opportunities, etc. Oftentimes we think that one single mentor can do this all, but I think that’s a tall order. Don’t put all of your eggs in one “mentor basket.” Instead, diversify to make sure that you have all that you need from a team of mentors.
What do you know now that you wish you knew 10 years ago?
That some of your success as a researcher is based on factors outside of your control – like luck, random variation, and politics.
That running a research lab is much like running a small business – not only do you need to know how to do science, but you also need to know accounting/budgets, human resources, project management, marketing, and more.
That as your career progresses, you’ll at times spend more time on administration than science.
That even though the work can be hard, it can be even more meaningful, rewarding, and fun than you ever imagined.
Recently there’s been a lot of discussion about imposter syndrome, where people doubt their accomplishments and are fearful of being found out as a fraud. Do you experience imposter syndrome? If so, what are your best strategies for dealing with it?
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I have it. Most of my friends (who are successful researchers) do too. Even some of my mentors have told me they have it. There are probably more people in academia/the world of scientific research who have imposter syndrome than people who don’t. To deal with it, I’ve learned what my triggers are – the people, places, and things that induce my imposter syndrome thoughts. I try to avoid these triggers when possible. But when I can’t, I look at “my data” and ask “Is there really evidence to support this imposter syndrome thought?” Most of the time, the thought doesn’t match reality. Reminding myself of this mismatch is often helpful. I also try to label “imposter syndrome behaviors” when I see them in others. What’s amazing is that when you start to look for it, you see it everywhere. For example, imagine you’re sitting in a meeting. Someone raises their hand to ask a question. Instead of just asking their question, they couch it with the following disclaimer: “This is probably a stupid question, but…”. When I hear this, I smile to myself and think “another member of the imposter syndrome club...I’m totally not alone”.
How do you stay motivated?
In general, I am really passionate about my research so it’s not that often that I lose motivation. But when I do lose steam it’s because I’m discouraged as a result of “cumulative academic adversity” (you know, those times when in a single day you get two papers rejected, a grant rejected with comments that critique you personally, and something else that doesn’t work out as you expect). In those moments, I allow myself to wallow a bit in self-pity. But then I try to quickly pivot to something I’ve started doing even more after visiting the One Mind Music Festival for Brain Health). I think about all of the people in the world who are suffering from depression – and who are desperate for cures. I think about the members of my family who have experienced depression. I also think about members of my family who died by suicide as a result their battles with depression. That’s what gives me the fuel to get up, dust myself off, and get back to work.
If you weren’t a researcher, what profession would you choose?
Party planning. I have a reputation of throwing amazing parties, so I think it would be something I’d be good at. I’d also probably love journalism – I see it as much like science in terms of being able to discover “the truth” with a heavy focus on writing.