Home > Editorials > Editorial – A Tenured Professor: an Academic Sportsperson successfully gone Professional

Editorial – A Tenured Professor: an Academic Sportsperson successfully gone Professional

by Daniël P. Melters

Imagine, you just looked through the lens of a microscope. You see only five chromosomes. Not ten, but five. At first you think this must be a mistake, but your postdoc assures you that it is real. There really are only five chromosomes. Your post-doc re-did the experiment and found the same ‘errors’ again. More interestingly, the mutant phenotype your postdoc expected to see was absent. The plants looked normal. As if all of the chromosomes were from a single parent. It daunted on both your postdoc and you that you are looking at a haploid genome. You made a haploid plant. Even better, every now and then one of the offspring will be a homozygous diploid plant. The potential for plant breeding are ridiculous. Now it is theoretically possible to create a mutant of your likings and with a single cross you can have a ‘pure’ mutant plant containing only your phenotype of interest. No need to do a dozens of back-crosses to clean up the background mutations. You have a plant breeding revolution in your hands. Of course this work was published in the top-tier journal Nature. This observation was like winning a gold medal at the olympics.

This is what a success story of a young scientist could look like. Indeed, this is the success story of Simon Chan. His plant breeding revolution in progress was rewarded with a Howard Hughes Medical Institute / Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (HHMI/GBMF) fellowship at age 37. A success story which would have had many more chapters if he had not died on August 22nd, 2012.

The road Simon took to get to where he ended was a regular one; one almost every professor has taken. After college in New Zealand he went to graduate school (UCSF). He joined a well established lab of Elisabeth Blackburn (would later receive the Nobel Price, the equivalent of being inducted into the Hall of (Science) Fame). After completing his PhD, he moved on to a post-doc position in Steve Jacobsen’s lab at UCLA. After four years of post-doc-ing, Simon applied to and was offered a faculty position at UC Davis. Whereas Simon did one post-doc, many of his pears have taken two or three post-docs before becoming tenured faculty. There are some rare occasions, such as Joe DeRisi at UCSF, where someone becomes a professor directly out of graduate school, skipping the postdoc step all together.

Just about every graduate student today is being trained/mentored by a professor who took this very same route.

[College -> Grad school -> post-doc (-> post-doc (-> post-doc …)) -> faculty]

This is not the case for your average professional football player, as they are often represented by a manager. Yet their professional mentors are almost always former professional football players.

Does this mean that these rather different people don’t experience very similar problems, such as the potential for great personal gain or in both cases understudied mental health challenges [sport | science].

Life for the average graduate student (or postdoc or professor) is not that straightforward. First of all, doing research can be very expensive. Of course scientists cannot pay for their experiments out of their own pockets. To fund your research you enter the rat race of grant applications, where the odds for getting funded keep dwindling. Getting a fellowship, scholarships, or grant is like being recognized by scouts. It proofs that you are considered a talent worth investing in.

The analogy with professional sports persons is not that far-fetched. Allow me to elaborate. Say you would like to become a professional football player (or soccer if you prefer that term). You start playing football with your friends on the street and once you are between four and six years old, your parents will bring you to the local football club (or FC). Here you will receive your first formal football training and here you will play your first official football matches. It like you are taking science classes and you are partaking in your first science fair. This would hopefully spark your interest in majoring in science and subsequently apply for graduate school.

Once you succeeded at your local football club, you will move to a bigger club that will further your official football training. Many of the biggest clubs in the world have a player development program. For example, Lionel Messi was recruited by River Plate at age 11 and before he was able to start at River Plate, he was picked up by FC Barcelona. Most of us know that today he broke Müller’s record of 85 goals in one season.

Just like Messi, every aspiring young football player dreams of playing at the biggest stages and be part of the biggest league in the world. In science the biggest league is the United States. At this moment, more money is pored in basic research in the US than anywhere else. This means that it would benefit an individual scientist career to do part of its training in the US, as did Simon.

In football, a single event can make or break you career. Being recognized by scouts at an early age can pave your way to Camp Nou, as it did for Messi. Being recognized by an early career award makes you a more attractive up-and-coming scientist. On the other end of the spectrum, a career of a great talent in football can be broken in a single moment, as in literally broken, as it happened to David Busst. Similarly, in science this can happen. One of the most notorious examples is Hwang Woo Suk who claimed to be able to clone embryonic stem cells. Scientific misconduct is the worst possible offense in science. Although it is not known how common this is, most scientists do not quit the rat race because of it. A scientific career tends to end when you try to move up on the academic ladder of success. (This is also the most common reason for prospective professional football-players quite their dreams.)

In both football and science, a fair amount of leeway exists to make ‘errors’. L’enfant terribles such as Eric Cantona or Nigel de Jong are notorious for their antics, yet they both had and have successful careers. In science a retraction could be seen as an ‘error’. Recently, PLoS Pathogens retracted a paper from the DeRisi lab at UCSF. Although I am not familiar what the effects were for the lead author of the retracted paper, Joe DeRisi didn’t suffer from this ‘error’. The value a particular player or scientist is perceived to have in their respective fields helps them maintain their respective edge, as does their legacy. Established players and scientists simply have more leeway for ‘errors’.

This brings us down to luck. Success in either football (or any other sport) or science depend on luck. Without a well established scout defining you as a future star, your odds of playing for AC Milan or Real Madrid, greatly decreases. The same is true for scientists who made a well-talked about scientific discovery. Of course, you need to be talented and you need to work hard, very hard. Luck is the one factor that no football player or scientist can control. For a scientist just to keep up with the literature, you have to read at least one article per day. That would be the equivalent of say 350 articles per year or 1750 articles at the end of a 5 year PhD. Add to this three-to-five years of post-doc, you could have read roughly between 2080 to 3500 articles before you start your faculty position you aimed to reach. Devoting many hours to your trait helps increase the odds of becoming lucky, but that comes at a cost: less time for non-football or non-science related things.

To be a successful professional football player of scientist, you need to show great perseverance and resilience. Do you have the perseverance and resilience to become the next top scientist?

Stay Calm and Carry On.

P.S. Advised reading: Chapters 2, 7 and 10 from How Economics Shapes Science by Paula Stephan. In Chapter 2, Stephan compares tenured faculty with professional sports persons.

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