Recently I’ve had time, and reason, to reflect upon what was expected of me during the early portion of my post-doc and what I was able to deliver. It started me thinking: how would I judge myself as a post-doc if I (the me right now) were my own mentor?
My post-doc started 12 years ago and completed when I landed my current job, 7 years ago. I’ve given a short introduction that includes some context; where I was coming from and what I settled on for my post-doc project.
Background: I did my PhD in a structural virology lab in a microbiology and immunology department. I started out solidly on the bench science side then worked my way slowly into image analysis and some coding as we developed methods for analysis of electron microscopy images to get structural information.
May 2001: Interviewed for a post-doc position with Dr. Ram Samudrala in the Department of Microbiology at UW. Offered a position and accepted soon after. My second day on the job, sitting in an office with a wonderful panoramic view of downtown Seattle from tall tower to tall tower, was September 11th 2001.
First idea on the job: Was to develop a one-dimensional cellular automaton to predict protein structure. It didn’t work, but I learned a lot of coding. I’m planning on writing a post about that and will link to it here (in the near future).
Starting project: My starting project that I finally settled on was to predict structures for all the tractable proteins in the rice, Oryza sativa, proteome, a task that I’m pretty sure has never been completed by anyone. The idea here is that there are three classes of protein sequence: those which have structures that have been solved for that specific protein, those that have significant sequence similarity to proteins with solved structures, and those that are not similar to sequences with known structures. Also, there’s a problem with large proteins that have many domains. These need to be broken up into their domains (structurally and functionally distinct regions of the protein) before they can be predicted. So I started organizing and analyzing sequences in the rice proteome. This quickly took on a life of it’s own and became my post-doc project. I did still work some with structure but focused more on how to represent data, access it, and use it from multiple levels to make predictions that were not obvious from any of the individual data sources. This is a area that I continue to work in in my current position. What came out of it was The Bioverse, a repository for genomic and proteomic data, and a way to represent that data in a way that was accessible to anyone with interest. The first version was coded all by me from the ground up in a colossal, and sometimes misguided, monolithic process that included a workflow pipeline, a webserver, a network viewer, and a database, of sorts. It makes me tired just thinking of it. Ultimately the Bioverse was an idea that didn’t have longevity for a number of different reasons- maybe I’ll write a post about that in the future.
Publishing my first paper as a post-doc: My first paper was a short note for the Nucleic Acids Research special issue on databases on the Bioverse that I’d developed. I submitted it one and a half years after starting my post-doc.
Now the hard part, what if I were my own mentor: How would mentor me view post-doc me?
How would I evaluate myself if I were my own mentor? Hard to say, but I’m pretty sure mentor me would be frustrated at post-doc me’s lack of progress publishing papers. However, I think mentor me would also see the value in the amount and quality of the technical work post-doc me had done, though I’m not sure mentor me would give post-doc me the kind of latitude I’d need to get to that point. Mentor me would think that post-doc me needed mentoring. You know- mentor me needs to DO something, right? And I’m not sure how post-doc me would react to that. Probably it would be fine, but I’m not sure it’d be helpful. Mentor me would push for greater productivity, and post-doc me would chafe under the stress. We might very well have a blow up over that.
Mentor me would be frustrated that post-doc me was continually reinventing the wheel in terms of code. Mentor me would push post-doc me to learn more about what was already being done in the field and what resources existed that had similarities with what post-doc me was doing. Mentor me would be frustrated with post-doc me’s lack of vision for the future: did post-doc me consider writing a grant? How long did post-doc me want to remain a post-doc? How did post-doc me think they’d be able to land a job with minimal publications?
Advice that mentor me would give post-doc me? Probably to focus more on getting science done and publishing some of it than futzing around with (sometimes unnecessary) code. I might very well be wrong about that too. The path that I took through my post-doc and to my current independent scientist position might very well be the optimal path for what I do now.
I (mentor me) filled out an evaluation form that is similar to the one I have to do for my current post-docs (see below). Remember, this was 12 years ago- so it’s a bit fuzzy. I (post-doc me) comes out OK- but having a number of places for improvement.
This evaluation makes me realize how ideas and evaluations of “success”, “progress”, and even “potential as an independent scientist” can be very complicated and can evolve rapidly over time for the same person. As a mentor there is not a single clear path to promote these qualities in your mentees. In fact, mentorship is hard. Too much mentorship and you could stifle good qualities. Too little and you could let those qualities die. And here’s the kicker: or not. What you do as a mentor might not have as much to do with eventual outcomes of success as you’d like to think.
How would mentor me rate post-doc me if I had to evaluate using the same criteria that I now use for my own post-docs?