My Break-up Nature Paper
Jun 27, 2013
4699 viewsEvery paper has a story. I’m not talking about the crafted, meticulously organized story of scientific breakthrough (although I like to think of the best papers as beautiful vignettes). No, I’m referring to the backstory. The nitty-gritty. The endless strain construction. Waking up at 6am on a Saturday in order to spend all day in the lab. And then doing it again on Sunday. Failed experiments, re-assessment of the hypothesis, agonizing over data visualization and arguments over authorship are all integral components of publishing a study. I won’t claim that all my papers have the most compelling backstories. Some are simply the result of hard work, persistence and follow-through and as such, eventually fade into the background. But others become so intertwined with the entirety of your life that they become fixed points in your timeline.
I recently published in Nature the discovery of an elusive haploid life stage of the most prominent fungal opportunistic pathogen of humans, Candida albicans, overturning a century’s worth of paradigm. As one might expect, there is a decent amount of drama associated with such a large discovery and publishing in a prestigious journal. Like so many others, my experience is filled with countless revisions, an extensive set of co-authors, one cantankerous reviewer and a passive editor. As I’m sure you’ve already heard of some version of this story before I won’t discuss those details here.
This is a love story.
It begins with a broken heart, as all good love stories do. When I started my postdoc three years ago I was in the process of falling out of love with biology. My dream of a life in academics was turning into a nightmare. My Ph.D. advisor, a woman with whom I have the utmost respect for and received the highest caliber training from, had recently been denied tenure. I was in a relationship with another academic and we were struggling with the two-body problem (I was in Minnesota and my partner had accepted a position in Florida). My first submission for a postdoctoral fellowship hadn’t even been scored. I was drifting between a few of projects in my postdoc lab but wasn’t enamored with any of them – a stark contrast from the genuine love and affection I had for my thesis project. To say that I was full of doubts over the future of my career is an understatement. Fast-forward a year and a half to December 2011. After successfully obtaining an NRSA fellowship and extensive discussions with my postdoctoral advisor, Judy, another woman with whom I have the utmost respect for and genuine pleasure working with, I had decided to continue my work remotely and move to Florida. I had found a lab at the university to host me, given notice on my apartment in Minneapolis, packed my boxes and reserved the moving truck. Only to have my relationship suddenly end two days before I was scheduled to move across the country.
So there I was, heartbroken, homeless, and achingly alone. I had been couch surfing with friends for six weeks prior to moving into a new apartment and not wanting to disrupt my hosts’ lives more than necessary, I spent long days in the lab. During that time I realized that we had an important result in the lab that desperately needed to be followed up on. It’s slightly embarrassing to admit that we had solid, albeit preliminary, evidence for C. albicans haploids for several months prior to this point but nobody, myself included, had made this a priority. I seized the opportunity to distract myself from my troubles and for the next six months threw myself into characterizing haploid cells. Flow cytometry, microscopy, mating assays, evaluating growth, Skyping with collaborators and digging into the ancient literature became my entire world. It was during this intense period of time that something remarkable happened despite, or perhaps because of, the devastating loss I was feeling in my personal life: I found joy in biology again. My heart raced with the thrill of discovery. In my slow descent into cynicism over the state of the field and the realm of academics, I had forgotten that there are still mysteries waiting to be solved. There is still a vast expanse of uncharted territory to explore and being a biologist doesn’t have to be the endless filling-in of minute molecular details that I was becoming bored with. What a refreshing realization! Suddenly my brain was abuzz with questions to ask and directions to pursue and once again I was completely captivated by the wonder of science.
The prospect of presenting this result simultaneously and overwhelmingly excited and terrified me. Judy and I agonized over how and when to break this story and eventually decided that the Gordon Conference on Cellular and Molecular Fungal Biology in June 2012 was the ideal time and place. Luckily, my abstract (written months before to craftily allude to dramatic ploidy shifts in C. albicans) had been selected for a short talk. My performing arts background allows me to thrive when on stage – but for days before I was scheduled to speak my stomach was host to a swarm of butterflies. Aside from the implications and opportunities for my career that this project (and its success) represented, it also had become intimately intertwined with my post break-up recovery. So I shakily took to the stage and had my moment in the spotlight. I’d like to think I did a decent job of captivating my audience. The very first question was appropriately from Christina Hull, who originally identified the mating-type locus in C. albicans, and involved a marriage proposal - much to the delight of the crowd.
The rest is history. I returned to Minneapolis from the conference and spent the next month writing the manuscript and submitted it at the end of July. It took another several months and rounds of revision before it was accepted. Befittingly, the letter of acceptance from Nature came exactly one year later, nearly to the day, from my break-up that instigated the entire journey.
Copyright: © 2013 Meleah Hickman. The above content is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
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