Institution: University of Pennsylvania
Career Stage: mid-career investigator (assistant professor)
Research Focus: bone metabolism, stem cell biology, osteoporosis, growth plate development, and signal transduction
What has been the most memorable moment of your career thus far?
There are quite a few moments in my 20-year career that I still remember vividly. But one in 2005 was simply indelible. It really played a role in deciding the direction of the path that led to where I am today. I was, at the time, in the fourth year of my postdoctoral work in the bone field. Like many other postdocs at this stage, I was thinking about my next career move. Should I find a job in industry or stay in academia to compete for faculty positions?
I talked to several friends on both sides, as well as my mentor Dr. Nicola Partridge. After weighing the pros and cons, I still could not decide which way to go. So I prepared for both. First, I submitted a K01 grant application proposing my first independent investigation of the anabolic action of PTH on bone; then I started to look for jobs in industry. One day, after a few rounds of interview and site visits, I got a phone call from a pharmaceutical company; they offered me a job with a pretty decent package and asked me to respond in two days. I was elated.
Yet, as I thought more about what I had to give up – the bone research I really liked and devoted so much of myself to – the excitement gradually gave way to hesitation. The night before decision dayI stayed up late in the lab surfing the web for information, trying to convince myself that I was making the right choice in taking this job. At around 10 pm, an email appeared in my mailbox—it was from NIH. My K01 application got an excellent score. In disbelief, I screamed and jumped up from the chair; I got out of the office and hugged everyone I could find on the floor. At that moment, I realized what I had always wanted to do. I have not regretted it since.
If you knew at the beginning of your career what you know now, what advice would you give yourself?
Do not pick the low-hanging fruits. In an orchard, the fruits that are higher up on the tree are usually larger, riper and often tastier; but they demand much more effort from the person trying to pluck them. By contrast, low hanging fruits are much easier to pick, but more likely to be bruised or damaged. When developing new research projects, picking the less challenging ones is often easier in terms of publication. But it seldom moves the research into a new, or paradigm shifting direction. Looking back, I think it would have been much more rewarding to be braver and take on greater challenges. My advice is to identify the fundamental problems in the field and design innovative approaches to tackle them. There might be more obstacles, but one could also be rewarded in a more bountiful and sustainable way.
How has membership or leadership with ASBMR helped you in your career? Why would you encourage others to get involved?
I joined ASBMR in 2001 when I started my postdoctoral fellow training in bone biology. In the past 12 years, ASBMR greatly helped my career development and supported my research at each step of my career. I was awarded the Young Investigator Award in 2003, which sponsored my trip to the 25th Annual Meeting of ASBMR in Minneapolis. After I established my own lab and began my tenure-track position at the University of Pennsylvania in 2009, I have been fortunate enough to obtain research funds from ASBMR, including the Career Enhancement Award and the Junior Faculty Osteoporosis Basic Research Award. These awards have supported various research projects performed by my group. Two of my postdoctoral fellows have also received the Young Investigator Award in the past several years.
Another major benefit of becoming an ASBMR member is the opportunity to attend its annual meetings. My favorite sessions are the poster sessions and meet-the-professor sessions. During those sessions, I have the opportunity to learn the latest and most exciting research findings and state-of-the-art technology by discussing them with people in detail. Many of those I talked to later became my friends and collaborators. In recent years, attending ASBMR annual meetings has felt like going back to my scientific home with friends and mentors that I can’t wait to catch up with.