Turning point: Soft-skills sculptor

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Career-building skills need not be hard to learn.

The Weizmann Institute of Science

Maya Schuldiner, a yeast biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, won the 2017 European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) Gold Medal award for discovering the functions of proteins that no one had previously studied. She explains how finding her voice helped her to build a productive career, which has included launching and teaching a highly sought-after graduate-level course in soft skills.

What have you struggled with most during your career?

It didn't occur to me as a student that one needs to learn more than how to work at the bench — with the possible exception of how to give an interesting talk. It surprised me when I started my lab and realized that most of the technical skills I knew were not that important in this role. The skills I needed were how to recruit the right people, how to pair the right project with the right person, how to write successful grants and how to motivate my students. I worried that if I asked older colleagues about these, they might think less of me.

How did you find the answers?

I was part of a cohort of 17 people when I started as a professor at the Weizmann Institute in 2008. We set up an early-career principal-investigator group to meet every two weeks and talk through one new skill — from how to write a letter of recommendation to how to fire someone. I started thinking that it would be nice to turn these into lessons for graduate students.

How was the class received?

The first year, I advertised the course on the Weizmann website. Around 120 people registered — half of the PhD students at Weizmann. I restricted it to 30 people to facilitate discussion. I'm now in my sixth year of teaching the course. I've increased the size to 50 students, but consistently get 120 registrants. It shows how hungry students are for this information. In Israel, because of compulsory military training, students are often older and have families with children. A lot want strategies for work–life balance.

What strategy did you use to launch your lab?

There were two things. I decided to work only with people I really like. I've created an environment where there's a strong feeling of friendship and camaraderie. Second, I took time to find my own scientific voice — my own special way of doing things. The first three years were scary because it took a bit more time than average to start publishing and be productive, but I wanted to find out what made me excited and could be uniquely mine.

What do you mean by 'find your own voice'?

It's my way of doing science — what questions I ask, how I ask them and what tools I use to answer them.

What worked well and what didn't?

I made a point of putting my students' and postdocs' needs ahead of mine, to be the kind of person they can trust to promote their well-being and agendas. Seeing that work made me happy and proud. I made some mistakes hiring people who weren't right for me or the lab. So I've learned to trust my intuition.

Do people call you 'Wonder Woman' for having three children and a career?

I hate it when people phrase it like that. It means that they think only a few people can do it. I don't think that's the case. The only reason I can do this is because of my husband, who is an associate professor also at Weizmann. We share every aspect of our lives. It's not as much about how I am, but how we are as a team.

Does the EMBO award validate your strategy?

It gives me a sense that the scientific path I've chosen is one that people find valuable, which is really moving for me. It comes also after a decade in the lab, when I want to enjoy what I've achieved and reflect on what went well and what didn't. If I want to continue doing interesting things, it's important to take a breather and really reflect on what to do in the next 10 years.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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