Saturday, November 28, 2009

Leroy Hood on a career in science

ISBLeroy Hood, the founder of the Institute for Systems Biology, where I've worked for 3 years now, wrote up some career advice for scientists last year. It probably applies fairly well to any professional.

I leave students (and even some of my colleagues) with several pieces of advice. First, I stress the importance of a good cross-disciplinary education. Ideally, I suggest a double major with the two fields being orthogonal-say, biology with computer science or applied physics. Some argue that there is insufficient time to learn two fields deeply at the undergraduate level.

I argue that this is not true. If we realize that many undergraduate courses now taught are filled with details that are immediately forgotten after the course is finished, we must then learn to teach in an efficiently conceptual manner. As I noted above, as an undergraduate at Caltech I had Feynman for physics and Pauling for chemistry, and both provided striking examples of the power of conceptual teaching.

Second, I argue that students should grow accustomed to working together in teams: In the future, there will be many hard problems (like P4 medicine) that will require the focused integration of many different types of expertise.

Third, I suggest that students acquire an excellent background in mathematics and statistics and develop the ability to use various computational tools. Fourth, I argue that a scholar, academic, scientist, or engineer should have four major professional objectives: (a) scholarship, (b) education (teaching), (c) transferring knowledge to society, and (d ) playing a leadership role in the local community to help it become the place in which one would like one’s children and grandchildren to live.

Fifth, with regard to the scientific careers of many scientists-they can be described as bellshaped curves of success-they rise gradually to a career maximum and then slowly fall back toward the base line. To circumvent this fate, I propose a simple solution: a major change in career focus every 10 or so years. By learning a new field and overcoming the attendant insecurities that come from learning new areas, one can reset the career clock. Moreover, with a different point of view and prior experience, one can make fundamental new contributions to the new field by thinking outside the box. Then the new career curve can be a joined series of the upsides of the bellshaped curve, each reinvigorated by the ten-year changes.

Finally, science is all about being surrounded by wonderful colleagues and having fun with them, so I recommend choosing one’s science, environment, and colleagues carefully. I end this discussion with what I stressed at the beginning-I am so fortunate to have been surrounded by outstanding colleagues who loved science and engineering. Science for each of us is a journey with no fixed end goal. Rather, our goals are continually being redefined.

ISB recently topped 300 employees and, as of early 2009, had a budget of $55 million. Dr. Hood turned 70 in 2008.

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