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How to have a meaningful career in science

At the 4th annual "Let's Have an Awesome Time Doing Science" symposium, Stanford scientists shared their lessons for a fulfilling career in science.

Here's a recipe for a fulfilling career in science (and in life): Follow your passion, seek mentors you admire, silence your inner critic, celebrate your colleagues' successes, approach deadlines like an athlete in training and keep your challenges in perspective.

Those were some of the tips Stanford scientists shared by with graduate students and trainees last week at the fourth annual "Let's Have an Awesome Time Doing Science" symposium organized by the Stanford Biosciences Office of Graduate Education. The speakers addressed topics such as mentorship, motivation, how to prepare for an academic job interview and resilience.

"When you submit a paper, it's always hard when you get rejected, but... something I always tell my lab: 'What is the worst thing that can happen? You get a rejection. Fine. And you're going to submit again, no?" said Juliana Idoyaga, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, who was one of five researchers who spoke. "You're at Stanford, you have food, you have health... We are very lucky."

Cole Sitron, a graduate student in cellular molecular biology, explained that he brought the half-day event -- which featured talks on the process of research and research careers -- to Stanford after attending a similar symposium at the University of California, Berkeley. He said graduate students often don't get to hear real world advice, like "how to relate to other people... and be productive members of society and not just insulated in this ivory tower."

Idoyaga, who studies the properties of dendritic cells and their role in the immune system, shared the story of her academic career, which she used to illustrate the importance of remaining resilient in the face of setbacks and of setting a goal and working hard toward it.

Idoyaga explained that her career took her from Buenos Aires to Mexico City to New York, all to follow a dream to work with Ralph Steinman, MD, the Nobel-winning scientist who discovered dendritic cells in 1973.

From the moment she first met Steinman at a symposium in Argentina, she said her path was set: "I had to learn everything on the face of the earth that was available on dendritic cells with Ralph Steinman."

But the route she ended up taking wasn't the one she planned. After graduating from the University of Buenos Aires with a degree in biology and immunology, Idoyaga had her sights on the PhD program at Rockefeller -- but she was rejected.

"My whole career was stopped in that moment. I honestly thought that it was the end of my universe," she said.

New York University gave Idoyaga an offer to pursue a two-year master's degree followed by a PhD -- but that route, while taking her to the same city as Steinman, would put her seven years away from working in his lab.

Instead, the young scientist found a PhD program, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, that offered the possibility to graduate in just two years.

"I decided I didn't want to wait seven years to go to Ralph Steinman's lab," she said. "I'm going to find my way to graduate in two years."

She managed to do all her coursework, teaching and publishing and passed her qualifying exam in two years. She had her PhD. The very next day, she moved to New York to join Steinman's lab as a postdoctoral associate. They worked together until his death from pancreatic cancer four years later in 2011.

In 2014, Idoyaga joined the Stanford faculty and now runs her own laboratory studying dendritic cell immunobiology.

"I am convinced that passion promotes excellence," Idoyaga told the audience. "When I get up in the morning, I ask myself, 'Am I enjoying it?' And my answer is, 'Yes, I love this.'"

Photo of Kristy Red-Horse and attendees by Makenna Morck

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