In response to questions from our readers, we have interviewed stem cell research pioneer and MacArthur Fellowship Award-winner Dr. Sally Temple in an effort to provide information that will be helpful to up-and-coming and future stem cell scientists. Below is the transcript of the interview.
StemCultures: Dr. Temple, you are a pioneer in the field, someone who has really watched it evolve over time. Can you share your thoughts on the present state of stem cell research and where you see it going?
Dr. Temple: The stem cell research field is growing by leaps and bounds. We are at a very exciting time, where the basic research is beginning to be translated into clinic. We now have a great understanding of many different kinds of stem cells, and we can start to use them to positively impact the lives of human beings. I believe this is the beginning of many great things that are coming as a result of stem cell research.
StemCultures: What can we do as scientists to connect with the general public about what we do and how it benefits society? How can we enact positive change in the general public’s perception of scientists and science in general?
Dr. Temple: This is one of the best questions I have heard from a stem cell scientist. I think about this often myself, because as a scientist you work really hard doing research with an ultimate goal of doing good in the world and positively impacting others. We work tirelessly trying to broaden our understanding of stem cells and how they can provide huge health benefits to human beings. The work is both exciting and stressful, and unfortunately many laypeople don’t understand it and often refer to us as ‘crazy scientists.’
The fact is that as a research community, we need to better communicate what we do and the results we have achieved with laypeople, because they are ultimately the people who allow science to happen. They must understand that the remedies their doctors are prescribing to them come from science; if they don’t, it’s our fault.
The first step in doing this is to talk about what you do with people as often as possible. If you can’t explain to a layperson what you are doing, then you probably don’t have a clear understanding of it yourself. Speak to them at every opportunity, and speak to people of all ages. In the recent past, I have visited a fourth-grade class to talk about stem cells, as well as a convent, a senior citizen community, and my own temple. You can have fun with this too. I showed the fourth graders how to observe cells under the microscope.
Beyond just speaking with people, blogging and writing about science can also be extremely helpful in communicating what we can accomplish and have accomplished with the support of others. Social media outlets are also making it easier to reach more people today with our message.
StemCultures: Dr. Temple, we received a lot of questions for you regarding finding employment as a stem cell scientist. One question focused on how to move from academia into private industry. Another question was: “As a post-doctoral fellow, I’m in competition with many others to obtain an assistant professor position. I was therefore wondering, what is the best way to differentiate myself?” How would you answer these scientists?
Dr. Temple: First of all, I encourage the idea of moving from academia to private industry and vice versa. It is good for the industry to have scientists experience research in different environments.
With regards to differentiating yourself from others, I would offer two pieces of advice.
First, and most importantly, to stand out, you must find a question that is truly significant to work on and then answer that question, or at least start to. However, you must have the courage to go after BIG questions—don’t shy away from them. You only have one shot to make your mark as a scientist, so tackle the biggest of questions. In doing so, you must remain simple in your approach to answer the question. Many scientists believe that if they are trying to answer a big question, they must have a complicated approach. In fact, the opposite is usually true. It is easier (not easy) to solve a big problem with a simple approach. This will help you to stand out.
Secondly, when you are trying to get a job as a stem cell scientist, you have to show that you care about being a colleague. Look for connections between the work that you have done and the scientists at the prospective place of employment. How can your work help them? Scientists want to work with colleagues who will enrich the overall environment that they are working in. Be able to explain how you working somewhere will enrich the entire environment. Do not just promote yourself; remember, science is a collaborative effort.
StemCultures: Along those lines, do you see stem cell research as a viable future career choice?
Dr. Temple: Yes! The industry is really growing and people are interested in stem cell research globally, so there are opportunities for scientists all over the world. However, as a scientist, you must be able to cope with failure and rejection; they come with the job. Some of your research projects will fail and your papers get rejected, but don’t take it personally. Use the advice from these experiences to improve your future endeavors. I wish all of you stem cell scientists out there the best and hope you will answer the biggest of questions in your careers.
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