Finding Your Way in Academia: An Interview with Dr. Valerie Horsley

Oct. 11, 2017

Dr. Valerie Horsley is an Associate Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at Yale University. Her academic career has been extremely successful, and she has made numerous contributions to the fields of wound healing and stem cell biology. She is also vocal about equality in academia and keeping a positive lab environment, which was highlighted in an episode of Yale's Spectrum Podcast. The podcast inspired this interview below, where she talks about navigating academia and mentoring students in the lab.

What was your path to your current position?

I've been interested in science since I was 12 years old and knew that I wanted to do biology. In college, I enjoyed helping peers learn about their classes and became interested in teaching at a small liberal arts school. During my first year of graduate school at Emory University, I realized that I didn't have much research experience or an in-depth molecular biology background, but I had to do a research project and teach simultaneously. This further solidified my interest in teaching-I liked how you can learn about biology by explaining it to other people. I also developed an interest in research because I liked discovering new, exciting things. I wanted to run my own lab and teach so I did a postdoc at Rockefeller University and then got a job at Yale to do both. 

My lab is working on tissue homeostasis and regeneration. In particular, we are interested in the cellular and molecular mechanisms that control the maintenance and repair of epithelial tissues like the skin and mammary gland. We are determining the function of stromal cells, the cells supporting epithelial cells in these tissues, and also studying the role of immune cells and adipocytes in the regeneration and homeostasis of epithelial tissues.

What does it take to be a successful academic scientist?

It takes a lot of resilience. You begin to build this resilience when your experiments fail every day. Once you have your own lab you fail at bigger things like grants and papers, so you need a lot of stamina and personal strength to keep going. You also need to recruit and mentor people who are good at doing science and are also resilient.

A successful investigator needs to learn how to balance multiple roles and prioritize. As a postdoc, you spend most of your time doing research. But when you run your own lab, you wear many different hats: you are building a research team, mentoring, writing grants and papers, and sitting on committees. You need to use multiple skills that you don't necessarily practice or have training in before you start your lab. It's imperative to be proactive in asking for what you need and to get advice from experts in different fields.

What should trainees who wish to pursue an academic career path think about?

I tell my trainees that "you have to focus on what is most important at your career stage"—for example, as a graduate student or postdoc you need to publish papers, otherwise you won't have a career in academia. At the same time, you should think about your career options outside of academia and explore them to find your true passion and see if you can create a path that is independent of research. I tell my trainees that "you can't prepare yourself if you don't know what it's for." If you enjoy another career more, then you shouldn't go into academia. Through it all, remember to maintain a balance between your research and outside activities by folding other things into the downtime between your experiments.

Networking is also important, and doing it at different events is not very time consuming. You should get help from other people. For example, think about how you might get advice on mentoring people as a junior faculty. You would meet with other people who have been doing it for a while, talk to them about it, and over time you will get experience in that area and become an expert.

How do you mentor graduate students and postdocs?

You have to find your own mentoring style. When I first started mentoring, I asked myself "Can I be like this or that mentor?" and compared myself to my previous advisors. I realized that I couldn't pull off certain things my previous mentors did and wondered whether that was "the only way." I also wondered how I could motivate my students, especially given all the issues involved in doing research (including failed experiments)? I've been very inspired by Uri Alon, who said that when you are going into an unknown (like research) and don't know the answers to questions, you feel afraid—”but that's where the magic happens. He called it being "in the cloud," and this is where we should be supporting people instead of being critical of them (which also applies to research). This is different from what people usually experience in science. But it is also in line with my personality, which is very optimistic and positive.  

Every project has a process—first you have to be critical about what the question is based on, and then you start exploring. You have to pick the right experiments and do the best science, and this is the stage where people need more support than critique. This is where the philosophy of being more supportive "in the cloud" comes into play, where teaching them to think about why something isn't working, rather than criticizing them for it not working. When you are writing manuscripts, you again have to be critical of the data, the story, and the conclusions.  

There is a historical hierarchy in science that I don't agree with. I treat the people in my lab as future colleagues and show them respect by how I interact with them. I do step into the mentor/boss role if necessary, but that's less needed if I think of them as colleagues from the beginning. If they are not fulfilling my expectations, it could be a mismatch between them and the lab culture or my mentoring style, or they may not be inspired by the work we do in my lab or by research in general. They might be more interested in other things, and in that case, they shouldn't be doing research. I don't take it personally, and I help them be successful in another environment. Scientists are not trained to think about why people aren't doing well and how to help them find something better.  

How do you keep a positive atmosphere in your lab?

I am selective about the people I allow to work in my lab. I only want people with a positive impact, and I ask what current lab members think about potential lab members. During one-on-one meetings, I practice the supportive process, "in the cloud," and try to be a cheerleader instead of being negative and critical. In lab meetings, we have activities to help us plan career priorities and positively think about each other. We also have events every year, like a gift exchange in December, rope climbing, kayaking, and lab lunches to build a team culture in the lab.

What do you enjoy most about academia?

I enjoy the flexibility of making my own schedule and deciding what to spend my time on. I enjoy doing service work like sitting on committees that address diverse, university-wide efforts like improving child care at Yale. I also like working with students and seeing them grow into independent scientists. I enjoy building something from scratch—starting with an empty lab, building teams/projects, gathering data, publishing, and giving talks on my work.

How can we improve the environment in academia?

We have a culture problem in science, and that includes harassment and intimidation. There is the idea that if you don't have certain experiences, you won't be successful, but what does that really mean? The idea that you have to work 100 hours a week to succeed in academia adds to the intimidation factor but is a myth, because the number of hours worked is not a reflection of success. There are also a lot of subtle cultural things, like the idea that you need to be mean when critiquing others, but you can ask the hard questions in a respectful way. Also, there is the notion that academia is a golden star that everyone should attain causes unnecessary stress and tension. There are other careers that make people happy, and they need to know what the options are.

We need to help people not be afraid all the time. I try to change the culture in my lab, and hope the people I train will incorporate some of the things I teach them. I help students at Yale by doing seminars on resilience and not being afraid. A lot of the cultural changes at the university have to come from faculty and leaders. Trainees can also impact the culture by creating innovative programs or participating in mentoring groups. We also need more community building, and it's sometimes harder for trainees to approach faculty members about these issues.

We also need to make science more attractive to women and underrepresented groups by providing support. I initiated the Women in Science at Yale (WISAY) postdoctoral mentoring group, which is dedicated to promoting the interests of women in STEM, supporting women scientists, and advocating for gender equality in all fields. There is a lot of evidence that building positive relationships can have an impact on people and make them feel they aren't alone, so I would recommend having monthly meetings with faculty members and other postdocs. Simple things like happy hours, coffees, or any other way to bring people together to talk about science or nonscience issues helps.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in science today?

Definitely funding, because it impacts what you do, the culture of the lab, and the stamina of the people in the lab. Constantly getting rejections can affect the amount of innovative thinking you can do. Science funding was at 30% when I was in grad school, and now it's very different. The amount of time and effort I spend writing grants is different, and don't think it's necessarily helping science even if it's essential for doing research. I also feel like I can't get enough money to do all the science I want to do, and that's very frustrating because I could do more research with more money. Like with anything, I will continue to be resilient. 

Email us if you would like to share your career! 

Author: Adriana Bankston, Ph.D.

Adriana Bankston, Ph.D.
Adriana Bankston is a Principal Legislative Analyst at the University of California Office of Federal Governmental Relations in Washington, D.C.