07/19/2018: Throughout the past year we have been privileged to interview a wide variety of academic experts in our special mentoring section of our blog. No matter what challenges were brought up, the fascination for science was undeniably present in all the stories. This is also true for this week’s interview with Jason Shepherd, Assistant Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah, outdoor-lover, photographer, science communicator and world traveler. Jason’s passion for science emerged early, but despite acknowledging the challenges in academia, his fascination for science remains unshaken. In his interview he shares valuable early career insights, but also highlights that next to achieving your goals, mental health is an important and non-negotiable point to remember.
How did you get into research?
Research was a natural road for me, as I have always been curious about how the world works. I initially started the MD route in New Zealand, where entry was at the undergrad level but ended up doing one elective in neuropsychology and got hooked on the brain.
Do you still remember the first time you were fascinated by science?
I was incessantly asking my parents questions about the world. I remember once asking my mom (an English teacher) why the sky was blue and she made up a story about fairies to humor me. Apparently, even at 5 years old, I wasn’t convinced and told her this explanation was nonsense. Luckily, I had parents who allowed me to explore on my own and supported my forays into the library. I never felt constrained or told that my curiosity was a bad thing. I find it sad that as adults, we often lose that sense of curiosity for the world.
Shortly described, what is your focus?
We are focused on understanding how information is encoded, stored and retrieved in the brain at the cellular and molecular level. We are also interested in how these processes go awry in neurological disorders.
What is it that fascinates you about research and science?
Science is a process, a successful one, that attempts to explain and understand the world we live in. To me, there’s nothing more exciting than being the first to discover new knowledge that adds to our understanding of reality.
What are the biggest challenges?
There are many: at the systemic level, obviously funding is the biggest challenge. In the US, the funding rate for my area of research is around 10-15%. This makes obtaining grants very competitive. There’s also challenges in publication and getting your work out. Peer review is still the gold standard, but there’s inherent bias and issues with how it is carried out. The good news is that there’s a movement to change and improve the system; from open access journals to preprints where the work is put online prior to submission.
If you could improve something about the academic system – what would it be?
In an ideal world, scientists get the freedom and resources to follow their curiosity. When funds are low, metrics and tangible “products” become the method of distinguishing who’s “better” or more productive. This stifles innovation in my opinion. Other than increasing funding, the solution to this isn’t obvious. I do like the idea of moving towards funding the person, rather than a particular project. Much of science, despite it being hypothesis driven, is exploratory and it’s hard to predict where the new break-throughs may come.
If you were to start over with your academic career tomorrow, would you choose it again? What would you do differently?
Yes, despite the challenges and sacrifices. I can’t think of anything else I would rather be doing. My career has taken me to places that are far from my family and this can be tough. I’m not sure if I would redo anything, hindsight is 20/20, but I’m looking forward to the future rather than looking back.
What does it mean to be a scientist? Which abilities are most important to bring along?
A scientist is someone who does science, which seems obvious, but this can take many forms. In its purist form, you are doing the experiments yourself but science can also involve pure theory. In running a lab, I rarely do the science anymore. This is a big quirk of academia, we are trained as experimentalists but running a research lab requires skills more suited to a small startup; managing people, balancing budgets, and writing grants.
In terms of abilities, you have to be motivated in science. It’s an inherently self-motivated profession. This also requires persistence and “grit”, in that you have to grow a thick skin. Science is 90% failure! Experiments may not work, results may not be as expected and then there’s the rejection you have to face in funding/peer review. Beyond these intangibles, good skills to have include: organization, writing, communication in general and logical thinking.
What is the most important thing you would tell…
…a student interested in doing a PhD?
Get as much research experience as you can before applying to do a PhD. Make sure this is the right road for you. Then make sure you find the right place, where you can maximize the chance of studying a problem you’re going to want to solve.
Perhaps even more important than your PhD lab, finding the right postdoc lab is key. Make sure the PI is supportive of their trainees both during and after they leave the lab. Find a lab that fits your research goals, but also where you can thrive as a scientist. The group dynamics are critical, ask blunt questions of the current postdocs/students and see if they are happy with the lab environment.
…an early career scientist?
Persist! You’re going to face an incredible number of hurdles to get everything up running. Things are much slower than you’re used to, but don’t get disheartened. Be picky with your first hires/students…they set the tone for the lab. Find supportive faculty and mentors at your university. Don’t feel like you have to do everything on your own…ask for help.
As a scientist, is there room for hobbies?
Of course! In fact, I highly recommend having outlets outside of science. Having hobbies can help with your mental health, and even help with focusing your science as you can avoid getting burnt out. For example, I love the outdoors and recently got into landscape photography. It helps that Utah is full of amazing parks and beautiful landscapes!
Are there responsibilities of being a scientist that you think should receive more value?
Yes, mentorship. Frankly, good mentorship is often not rewarded and this needs to change. The “human” element of science is real and mental health issues are common. Some of this can be offset by good mentorship. I would love to see good mentors rewarded and a system that disincentives bad mentorship.
How do you plan for your science to impact society?
Not all science directly impacts society, but it often does. Scientists should think about how their research could potentially impact the world, whether for good or bad. Part of this is directly communicating with the public, which scientists often don’t do.
How can science be taught to children and is there a point of doing so?
Everyone benefits from an educated and well-informed public. This starts early. I think the biggest issue with science education is that it’s mostly taught in a way that emphasizes facts but doesn’t allow children to understand HOW we got those facts. The process of how science is done should be taught first. Give children those critical thinking skills early, and they will run with it.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I think this goes without saying but enjoy the journey. It can be tough and the world can seem like it’s beating up on you. In the end, if you love science, it is an incredibly rewarding profession.
To read more about Jason Shepherd’s research, see also:
And some more of his amazing photography can be found at: https://www.instagram.com/blindsight_photography/