Spotlight on early-career researchers: an interview with Marie Heffern

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Marie Heffern began her independent career at UC Davis in July 2017. In this short Q&A (the first of a new series highlighting early-career researchers), she tells us about her experience as a young researcher and the advice she has for her younger self.

Credit: Marie Heffern

Reminiscing on how I started in my past research labs highlights this concept. When I was an undergraduate, I felt like I was starting research late in college as compared to my chemistry peers. Nonetheless, my undergraduate research advisor, Prof. Richard Brutchey gave me trust and independence that motivated me to take ownership of my projects. When I joined Prof. Tom Meade’s lab for graduate school, I was eager to work on projects at the interface of chemistry and biology despite having only taken one biology course (“Cell Biology and Physiology”) in college. He was not fazed by the fact that I did not know the difference between a western blot and a DNA gel or the structures or names of amino acids. He supported my ambition and applauded my desire to get out of my comfort zone for the sake of pursuing the scientific discoveries that fascinated me. In my postdoc, I had expressed my interest to Prof. Chris Chang in pushing my scientific limits toward researching bioinorganic chemistry in whole animals. While I had never worked with research animals at the time, he did not hesitate to support me in the projects and collaborations that could immerse me in a productive learning environment. These are but a few examples in a broader experience that motivate me to not let where I start diminish my confidence and drive toward what I strive to accomplish in the future.

I would not say that my journey to this point makes me fearless, but rather, it has empowered me to choose the level of influence that fear and worry (which sometimes feel inevitable) have on my self-assessment and decisions as compared to the influence of my own passions, enthusiasm, and curiosity. I started my lab at UC Davis less than a year ago, and it has been exciting to not only apply these lessons to my own career but to also figure out how I can instill these values and confidence in those I mentor.

More specific to being an early-career researcher, a major challenge has been time management. This has less to do with the quantity of items on my to-do list, but rather, not being able to properly assess how long some of those items take. Leading up to my postdoc, I grew increasingly effective in my time management as I gained more accuracy in estimating how long certain procedures in the lab would take. However, when I started my position, there were a LOT of new categories of tasks. Teaching for the first time, I had no idea how long lecture preparations or writing exams and homework assignments could take. Meetings and negotiations with vendors were more time-consuming than I had anticipated. I had to learn the balance between penny-pinching and understanding that time is also money. While I am not sure it is fair to say I have overcome this challenge, I have learned the importance of seeking the support and advice of my colleagues, making deliberate efforts to protect my own time, and realizing that “buffer time” in my schedule is a necessity.

Second, surround yourself with people who you respect, because you can easily become like those you surround yourself with.

Third, do not underestimate the value of a strong network. Beyond my direct advisors and labmates, I have been surprised with the support and influence that I have experienced from more distant connections and advocates.

This interview was conducted by Senior Editor Dominique Morneau

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Morneau, D. Spotlight on early-career researchers: an interview with Marie Heffern. Commun Biol 1, 77 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-018-0057-z

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