Author Archives: Brooke Bruthers

Where Academics Go to Die: Mentorship and “Alternative” Careers in Life Science

Emily J. Johnson
Providence Medical Research Center, Sacred Heart Medical Center & Children’s Hospital, Spokane, Washington

Excess generally causes reaction, and produces a change in the opposite direction, whether it be in the seasons, or in individuals, or in governments. – Plato, Republic

In 2002, mathematician and biologist Dr. Irakli Loladze argued that elemental changes in the earth’s atmosphere could alter the nutrient composition of plants at the base of the food chain (15). The idea was not incredible: reports of altered growth, yield, and micronutrient-to-carbohydrate ratios in rice and cereal crops grown in high-CO2 field conditions had been surfacing since the 1990s (5, 7, 8, 22). A rapid uptick in the pace of these reports has since removed any doubt that base food crops are susceptible to negative effects from excessive exposure to CO2, a prerequisite for photosynthesis (9, 12, 16, 20). It is, literally, an example of total ecological shift resulting from too much of a good thing.

In many ways, this story of excess and its repercussions parallels the recent history of the science job market. It is a story of evolution, market pressure, and adaptation, which all mentors and students must know in order to navigate the new landscape of science jobs.

The Science Bubble

It is no secret that the familiar economy of academia – a vortex that sucks in students and keeps them forever as professors – is struggling to keep up with the sheer numbers of scientists emerging from institutes of higher education. Due, allegedly, to the ever-swelling ranks of their peers, young would-be scientists and professors are increasingly failing to find and keep long-term employment.

Of course, arguing that this is due to the change in our numbers would require accurate tracking of the number of scientists over time, which is nearly impossible. (For what it’s worth, a hand-waving headcount of The School of Athens suggests that the original Akademia housed between four and five dozen scientists, not including Raphael, angels, and cherubs.) Regardless of how one might arrive at a serious baseline estimate, modern academia now has orders of magnitude more scientists. In 2015, U.S. institutions awarded 55,006 graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, topping the previous record of 54,070 in 2014 (1, 2). Meanwhile, the number of academic positions has plateaued. By one calculation, the reproductive rate or R0 of academic jobs tells us that this sector can employ just 12.8% of scientists (14). Put another way, 87.2% of scientists will have to find another home.

The public response to these numbers has been, at best, a little bit glum, and at worst, a dumpster fire of fear and indignation. Why You Shouldn’t Go To Grad School and similar articles reflect deep anxiety rumbling in the ranks of current and future researchers (3, 17, 21). Voices from within the scientific community have tried to counter the angst by arguing that the problem is overstated, inaccurately presented, or even imaginary (18). However, telling students that the only thing they have to fear is fear itself does not seem to be working. The admonition that science is on a kind of employment precipice continues to appear. The New York Times stated the situation bluntly, telling readers, “The United States is producing more research scientists than academia can handle” (13). Even the National Public Radio Science Squeeze program admitted that “most postdocs are being trained for jobs that don’t actually exist” (11).

These data cast a long shadow, and it is not pessimistic to ask questions about the future of science. Are there really too many of us? Will science be smothered by its own success?

As you might have guessed, I doubt it. There are indeed lots and lots of us, but I think the number of scientists itself is a red herring. No matter how you slice it, having too many scientists is not a problem. How could it be? An unprecedented number of scientists is a solution begging to be implemented.

There is another set of data, which receives less attention, and which very clearly points to a different problem. According to these figures, every Tom, Dick, and Harry scientist should have a job. From 2009 to 2015, the same period of time during which the U.S. awarded a record number of STEM graduate degrees, net domestic STEM-related employment grew twice as fast as non-STEM-related employment (10.5% vs. 5.2%), producing 817,260 new STEM jobs (10). Yet, in 2014, the proportion of PhD-trained individuals with “definite commitments for employment or postdoc study” declined, as it had for 4 of the 6 previous years (1). The same trend held for those who received doctoral degrees in the year 2014.

These data show that the problem with the academic job market is not just the number of scientists. The real problem, which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has précised – not without expressing some puzzlement – is that the U.S. has too much of three things at the same time: science jobs, scientists, and unemployment in science (24).

Figuring out how these problems can exist at the same time ought perhaps to be left to economists, who have been conducting naval-gazing evaluations of supply and demand in their own corner for quite some time, asking questions such as, Does the Academic Labor Market Initially Allocate New Graduates Efficiently? (the answer is no) (23). One hypothesis, which uses the analogy of taxi queuing, says that the fundamental problem is timing. That is, the asynchronous appearance of scientists compared to science employers creates bottlenecks that result in apparent oscillations in employment (24).

Regardless of the mechanism, the bottom line is that we are facing a problem that should not exist. Are there too many scientists for the traditional ecosystem of grants and professorships? Yes. Are tenure and grant funding withering? Maybe. But is the number of scientists the root of the science employment problem? No. The root of the problem is that new scientists are not, apparently, very good at getting those 817,260 new jobs.

To me, the solution to this problem starts and ends with mentorship – realistic, career-oriented mentorship. In my opinion, the biggest barrier that mentors have to overcome is embodied in three little words that make every non-academically employed scientist I know say, “Goosfraba.”

The “Alternative” Career

In February of 2017, I left my postdoc for a position in clinical research at a community hospital. I love my new role, which is challenging, exciting, busy, and uses my education. But when I accepted it, many colleagues in academia thought I was making a bad choice by choosing an “alternative” career. “Once you leave, you can’t come back,” the apocryphal mantra went.

To this day, I am still not sure why this prodigal son narrative exists in academia. Calling every non-academic job “alternative” is so simplistic, it is almost meaningless. Imagine if the science of physiology recognized two types of species: zebra fish and non-zebra fish. The distinction is true, but useless for approximately 8,699,999 of the 8.7 million species of organisms on earth. Nevertheless, the idea of “normal” academic and “alternative” non-academic careers persists, and the future of life science may literally depend on how long we insist on approaching careers this way.

My argument is that good career-orientated mentorship is the answer to this problem. Certainly, it is the best chance we have to inspire the 87.2% of scientists who will not get academic jobs to break the industry ceiling.

First, the idea that the private sector is some kind of prison colony for people who are bad at Western blots must go. Obviously, the private sector is chock full of high-caliber scientists, but ex-academics still feel the need to defend against this prejudice.

“Regardless of not having an official faculty appointment, I consider myself a scholar, especially considering my training, my way of thinking, and how I approach and solve problems,” says Dr. Vanessa Gonzalez-Perez, Assistant Dean for Diversity Initiatives in the Natural Sciences at Princeton University. In her role at Princeton, to which she transitioned from a faculty appointment in 2016, Gonzalez-Perez focuses on student access and retention across 13 natural science departments, especially among historically underrepresented and first-generation students. Far from wasting her science education, Gonzalez-Perez feels that she is living her mission as a scientist every day. “I may not be in the lab designing experiments, but I am a still a scientist, and I definitely get to think of the problems we need to solve, design strategies, test them, and analyze the outcomes. I definitely have to use my critical thinking.” And she is adamant in combating prejudice about leaving science. “People think administrators are frustrated people who just ended up in these positions. I had a choice to stay in science or do this, and I chose to do this, and its highly rewarding!”

Ryan Schindler, a Manufacturing Technical Specialist with Genentech whose work spans biology and engineering, agrees that the scientific method does not belong only to academia. Ryan was trained as a biologist and obtained a degree in biotechnology from Washington State University. “My friends in engineering used to tell me, you’re basically an engineer.” But it’s all science, he says, and the application of scientific principles is more important than the specific facts he learned in his biology education. “My education helped me get the job, for sure,” Schindler allows, “but the scientific mentality – the hypothesis testing – is something I apply a lot more often than my knowledge of PI3K signaling.”

Some scientists actually leave academia to find inspiration. Dan Rodgers, founder and Chief Science Officer of AAVogen, Inc., ran a well-funded lab focusing on muscle-wasting diseases, but he left academia for an entrepreneurial venture inspired by his family. “My father died recently from cancer cachexia, and my nephew has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, two disease states directly related to my field of expertise,” says Rodgers. “I personally love the academic mission,” he explains, but eventually he felt that the private sector was a better fit for his mission. “I in no way regret my decision. Academia just wasn’t rewarding anymore – it wasn’t fun. Starting my own business? Now that’s fun!”

Heidi Medford, a technology licensing associate at Washington State University, also left science to pursue a career with bigger impact. “It’s becoming increasingly challenging to successfully fund an academic research laboratory,” says Medford, a previous American Physiological Society Minority Fellow. For a scientist who wants to make an impact on her field, Medford believes, this is discouraging. “It has been my experience that very few scientists make a large impact on their chosen field.” During her postdoc, Medford took a chance internship with her university’s Office of Commercialization, which eventually offered her a permanent position. Far from leaving science, she feels that she has finally found a niche within science where she can make an impact. Besides publishing, she says, “many scientists have a hard time delivering their research to the greater good.” But in her new job, she draws on her education to help scientists “bridge these gaps and deliver their discoveries to benefit mankind.”

Gonzalez-Perez echoed these sentiments. “I am a scientist, but my motivation in life is to serve others,” she said. Whether she does that by developing new therapies, pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge, or helping students get access to higher education, she is living her goals. In fact, she sees unity between her science education and her current role. As a first-generation college student and a Latina woman, she sees her job as an exciting platform from which she can lift the next generation of scientists.

The private sector also pays well, although this can be an awkward conversation for academia, where a good salary is still something that should be killed with fire. Private sector careers offer a real and viable way for scientists to work in science and also, for example, pay off the average $18–36,000 in student loans that college-educated individuals acquire, depending on their state, by their senior year of college (4).

Failing to communicate this to STEM students is, in my opinion, an ethical issue. In the millennial workforce, a little guilt goes a long way: despite their debt, one of the distinguishing features of the millennial generation’s job search is choosing meaningful causes and inspiration over paycheck size (19). In such a workforce, representing science as a bastion of (unpaid) holy stoicism might do more harm than good.

Even for successful professors, there is a pay gap between academia and industry. “I was a tenured full professor in an undergraduate department,” says Rodgers. “I had a respectable salary and established responsibilities. My job was as stable as one can get in academia. Although I now have much less job security, the prospect for financial success in particular is far greater.”

Although industry definitely has the edge financially, working in private industry comes with less freedom compared with most faculty jobs. Compared with her previous faculty position, Gonzalez-Perez notes that her current job has “a lot of structure, and end goals are less flexible, but there is also room for being creative, innovative, and resourceful.” A high level of individual freedom is one of the unique factors that makes academic jobs different from all other jobs. Scientists can expect a lower level of freedom when they join the industry workforce, where priorities are company-driven, compared with what they can do in faculty positions, she says.

Employees of a company like Schindler’s are expected to function within the larger company mission. There is, however, comparative freedom for an individual like Rodgers, who runs his own company, although such freedom tends to come with risk. As the founder of his company, all decisions rest with him, as does “all of the good and bad credit” for every decision he makes.

Breaking the Industry Ceiling

Whether academia itself is an industry is a touchy subject. “Education is by definition an investment, with short-term costs and long-term gains. It is not, nor will it ever be, a business. Treating it as one debases the academic mission,” says Rodgers. However, he acknowledges that the parallels between modern education and industry cannot be ignored, and the thin green line separating academia from industry is increasingly blurry.

“Both are driven by a bottom line,” said Gonzalez-Perez, “but maybe they shouldn’t be.” Medford is unequivocal about it – when asked if she considers academia an industry, she says, “Absolutely.”

Whether or not one considers academia an industry, since a transition out of academia is the likely career path for most scientists (14), breaking down barriers between academia and the private sector is essential for easing their way.

Mentors are uniquely poised to lead this change. Teaching students practical job-seeking skills, such as writing resumes rather than CVs, or even telling students that other careers exist, are good places to start. “I didn’t know that the industry I’m working in existed,” confessed Schindler.

Aimee Sutliff, a current graduate student in pharmaceutical sciences, expresses similar bewilderment. “During my time in graduate school, very little information has been provided about the variety of opportunities for a career outside of academia,” says Sutliff. “I don’t even know where to start looking for opportunities that are outside of strictly bench work in industry or faculty jobs in academia.”

Discussing private sector jobs with students as a primary option rather than some back-alley alternative, and explaining the incredible variety of these jobs, will also help the next generation of scientists find employment. Encouraging students to seek internships and do activities outside of the curriculum is fundamental for their future success, although this is admittedly hard to do in laboratory cultures where 60-hour work weeks are the norm. In this area, life science could benefit from taking a page out of the playbooks of computer science and engineering, which have always partnered heavily with industry. University-hosted job fairs for life science companies, for example, would connect students with potential employers and smooth the path for private- sector collaborations.

Additionally, although technical skills and publications are the currency of academia, it is critical for students to know that soft skills are just as important as technical skills in the private sector. In this arena, mentors can promote their students’ professional development by encouraging teamwork, collaboration, and communication skills in their lab groups. Above all else, networking may be the number one soft skill that academic programs can help students develop. “Knowing someone can help your resume get to the top of the stack,” Schindler advised. “Networking can be critical to getting a job.”

Networking also helps students stay abreast of market trends and current developments in their fields outside of the university environment, which can help these young scientists break into the private sector.

For students who are dedicated to their bench work, learning how to network can be an uphill battle. Sutliff says she is aware that some “invisible” jobs exist but is unsure how to find them. “I have been told that most people find postdoctoral fellowships through unconventional means—for example, being offered a post that was never even advertised,” she says. This gives the frightening impression that missed opportunities in grad school could ruin one’s chances of obtaining a postdoctoral fellowship.

Including some non-traditional classes in graduate curriculums can also give students a leg-up in the private sector. Indeed, “diversifying a graduate education” is essential in modern science, according to Rodgers. “Running a biotech company requires formal training in a relevant life science as well as business management. Very few universities offer such training (for example, a combined PhD/MBA degree program), although this is exactly what’s needed in the field.” He also argues that students should be trained in practical aspects of non-academic science. “Students interested in a scientific career in industry should include business development and management courses in their formal course of study. Actually, I think this is critical. All other students should be encouraged to do this as well, because one can never predict the future.”

The landscape of science jobs continues to change, but as physiologists, we can be prepared to adapt. By changing our vocabulary about “alternative” careers, reducing barriers in the academia-industry transition, and engaging in partnerships between academic institutions and life science industries, we can ensure that physiology survives and thrives. The stakes have never been higher: if we fail, the antiquated stigma about “alternative” jobs will be remembered as the meteor that killed the physiologists.

Emily Johnson is a scientific writer and project manager for Providence Medical Research Center at Sacred Heart Medical Center & Children’s Hospital in Spokane, WA. During her PhD training in pharmaceutical sciences, Emily was a Graduate Fellow of the National Science Foundation, President of the Washington State University Spokane Graduate Research Student Association, and a trainee member of the American Physiological Society Communications Committee. Emily studied pharmacokinetic natural product-drug interactions during her postdoctoral training from 2016 to 2017. In her spare time, Emily is a freelance writer and illustrator.


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Changing Careers: Are You Ready and What Steps Do You Take?

Megan M. Mitzelfelt
Development Manager, American Physiological Society

Leaving research was, in my opinion, the best step I have taken for my career and life and has been for many of my friends and colleagues as well. A career change might be the right choice for you, too. But how do you know? And what steps do you take? In the following article, I summarize five signs that indicate you may be ready for a career change and provide concrete steps you should take to explore options and position yourself for a new career should you so choose to pursue one. Next, I tell the story of my leaving academic research to pursue a fundraising career and provide an overview of the fundraising profession. Finally, I address the elephant in the room: regret. Changing careers is not necessarily a sign of failure and, as in my case, might be the best choice you could make.

Signs You May Be Ready For A Career Change

The following are signs you may be ready for a career change.

1) Unhappy or Dissatisfied
If you find yourself dreading going to lab each day and you’ve felt this way for a long time – say throughout graduate school, your postdoctoral fellowship, and maybe even your first faculty position – it is likely time for a change.

Even though I loved coming up with new project ideas that I believed would help humanity, I found I was immensely unhappy slogging through day-to-day activities and experiments in the lab – both in graduate school and in my postdoc. This negatively impacted my research productivity and my home life.

2) No Longer Engaged or Interested
If you find you are no longer excited about research and are just going through the motions each day in the lab, it may be time to reevaluate your chosen career path. It may be as simple as finding a more engaging project or lab environment, or it may be that research is not right for you.
I had classmates in graduate school who, although they finished their PhD, were just never fully interested and invested in research and certainly did not want to be continuously seeking grant support for their own salaries. Many ended up choosing to pursue jobs in science-related sales/marketing or consulting and are again excited about their work.

3) Overworked and Stressed Out
If you feel overworked and stressed to the point that it negatively affects your life outside of work, it is likely time for a career change. No career is ever worth endangering your health and happiness.
For example, I had a friend who was so stressed out during his postdoctoral fellowship that he developed gastritis and ended up in the hospital due to stress-induced atrial fibrillation – in his 30s! After this incident, he decided to pursue a non-research career and has been happier and healthier ever since.

4) See No Growth Opportunity
If the job market is tight and you have not had or do not think you will have success moving “up the ladder,” it might be time for a change.
Knowing that after 5 years in my postdoctoral fellowship, there was an 85% chance that I would still not have obtained a tenure-track academic research position and that, even if I did, the chance of my being awarded an R01 was strikingly low, I decided to start exploring other career options and gaining experience in teaching and science writing, just in case.

5) Want a Different Lifestyle
If you want to a different lifestyle than your current career can provide (e.g., more time with your family, higher earning potential, to work from home, to more directly help others, etc.), then it may be time to change careers. Matching your lifestyle preference to your career is the best way to achieve satisfaction.

When deciding whether I wanted to pursue another postdoc, I determined that I wanted to instead have a more long-term position that provided set working hours each week. This was very important to me as a new mom.

Steps to Changing Careers

It might be that only one of the signs above apply to you and you are not certain whether a career change is in the cards. Or it may be that all apply and you are certain that you need to make a change. Either way, the five steps below will ensure that you have options.

Life is ever-changing, and you never know what may happen. For example, you may suddenly have to move because of your spouse’s relocation or a sick relative. Or you may lose your current position due to lack of funding. Either way, you need to be prepared for anything.

So, how do you prepare yourself for a career change?

1) Become an Extrovert

Networking is the key to success. Although many people find it difficult to be an extrovert, it is in the best interest of your career to get out there, talk to others, and make yourself known. But how do you get started?

Present Your Work. Attend as many scientific meetings as you can and submit an abstract for an oral presentation every time (if possible). Your oral presentations will make you known to others in your field and ultimately make it easier to develop personal relationships with those who can and will help you achieve your career goals. You never know who knows who and what relationships will be the most fruitful.

I orally presented my work numerous times at the APS annual meeting and at smaller regional meetings in Florida. These small meetings were particularly helpful to me because they fostered relationships that helped me obtain a postdoctoral fellowship.

APS has several smaller meetings each year. You should check them out because you never know who you will meet and what opportunities may be presented. APS often gives out travel awards to attend these meetings, particularly if you are a speaker.

Explore and Join Professional Associations. If you are interested in a particular field (e.g., science or medical writing, marketing, teaching, etc.) explore the professional associations that serve these fields and find out if you can join. Nonmembers also are often able to attend events, especially at local chapters, so get involved, learn about the field, and develop your network.

For example, I joined the American Medical Writers Association and National Science Teachers Association when I was a postdoc.

Attend Social and Networking Events. Go to any and every social or networking event that has even a smidge of relevance to your current field or one in which you have interest. These might include events held by your institution, local professional networking groups, or professional associations in which you are a member or are interested.

As a postdoc, I became interested in the medical writing field, so I attended some of the American Medical Writers Association local chapter events and presentations. These meetings gave me the confidence to pursue freelance science writing opportunities. Ultimately, I wrote articles for a vitamin magazine and coordinated the publication of a reference text on sex differences in physiology.

Serve on Committees. Explore and apply for volunteer opportunities, especially committee service, at associations in which you are a member. You would never believe the connections that you make through committee service.

My service on the APS Trainee Advisory Committee is likely to be the primary reason I am now working at APS and in fundraising. During my, albeit short, service, I was introduced to APS Executive Director Martin Frank and the rest is history.

2) Be Adventurous

Nobody will ever give you a job just because you want it. They need to know that you have the skills and expertise required to be successful; and the ultimate way to demonstrate this is through experience. So, be adventurous, particularly as a graduate student and a postdoctoral fellow.

Volunteer. Volunteer to train undergraduates and/or new technicians in the laboratory to gain supervisory experience. Volunteer for your institutional postdoctoral association to demonstrate leadership and teamwork skills. Volunteer for a local nonprofit about which you are passionate. One place to find such opportunities is The skills you learn and knowledge/experience you gain can be a great boon to your future career change.

During graduate school, I helped to start a nonprofit that raised funds to support research grants on the mechanisms and treatment of triple negative breast cancer. I gained experience in marketing and fundraising, both of which helped me to move into a fundraising career.

Search and Apply for Jobs. Always be searching for new job opportunities, even if you like your current position. You never know what may become available. You might even be able to find a contract job that provides you with valuable experience.

As a postdoc, I became interested in medical/science writing since I had always been quite a good writer. I applied for part-time writing opportunities and was given the chance to write an article for LifeExtension, a vitamin magazine you will likely find in a vitamin store. Although I did not really enjoy writing such articles, the experience gave me demonstrable writing and marketing skills that I could include on my resume.

Take an Internship or Course. If available at your institution, intern with an administrative office in which you have interest (e.g., technology transfer, communications and public relations, development, research administration, etc.). You might also take in-person or online courses to gain knowledge and skills in a particular area of interest.

For example, my husband interned for the Emory Office of Technology Transfer during his postdoctoral fellowship. His internship was instrumental in obtaining his first position in technology transfer.

If you are worried that these activities will take time away from your research efforts as a graduate student and postdoc, no need to worry. OMB and NIH have clarified that graduate students and postdocs supported by federal research grants are both trainees and employees, and are expected to engage in career development activities. If you’d like to read more about this policy, please see

There is also the NIH Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program. I highly recommend that you check it out at

3) Create a Plan

After you have had a chance to build your network and gain some experience in an area that interests you, it is time to make a plan. But how do you do this?

There is a fantastic resource available to science trainees known as myIDP or individual development plan ( The individual development plan helps you in the following ways.

Determine your skills, interests, and values. These assessments allow you to reflect on what you are good at doing and what you enjoy doing the most. The ultimate goal is to align those two categories along with what you value in life and work to predict which careers will be a best fit for you.
Identify a career. myIDP will predict, based on assessment of your skills, interests, and values, which of 20 different science-related careers will fit you best. Careers include research, teaching, biotech, pharma, marketing, writing, etc.

Make a strategic plan. The IDP program also helps you create a strategic plan for the coming year to achieve your career goals and, if desired, will provide reminders to keep you engaged.

4) Be Flexible

Life does not always work out the way you had planned. That’s what makes it interesting. So be flexible with your career and life plans.

I had no plan to become a development (aka fundraising) professional. Even after my postdoctoral fellowship, I still desired an academic teaching position with a little bit of research included. My husband had no plan to become a technology transfer professional. But we were flexible, took chances, and in the end followed what made us happy and feel fulfilled. You should, too.

My Story: From Postdoc to Fundraiser

In fall 2013, the day before Thanksgiving and 2 and a half years into my postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University, I found out that my husband had been offered and accepted his dream job in technology transfer at the University of Maryland and that i was pregnant. Needless to say, life throws curveballs.

Not wishing to separate my growing family for long, I ended my fellowship after 3 years and moved to Maryland without a clue as to what my next career step would be. I interviewed for a community college teaching position and a postdoctoral fellowship at the NIH, but neither felt right. To stay in academic research, I would have needed to start all over again, and I already knew the struggle that lay ahead had I chosen to pursue a tenure-track academic research professorship. As a new mother, I was looking for something that was stable, had normal work hours, and would still contribute to science.

As luck would have it, a position in fundraising opened up at APS.

I was on the APS Trainee Advisory Committee, and, while attending EB 2014, I happened to speak with APS Executive Director Martin Frank and mentioned that I was moving to Maryland without a clue as to what was next. He informed me that a position at APS for a development officer would soon be opening up and suggested I apply. My first reaction was: “What is development?” So I explored a little further, discovered it was a position in fundraising, in which I had a little experience, and I applied. Although, due to my relative inexperience, I wasn’t chosen for the development officer position, APS opened up a support position in development, and I got the job.

I absolutely love fundraising because every day I work to better society and the world. Even more, because I work for APS, I can remain connected to and support the physiology research and teaching community that I have so come to love and appreciate.

What Do Fundraisers Do?
Fundraisers seek charitable gifts and grants from individuals, corporations, private foundations, and the federal government to support the work of a nonprofit organization. There are many different fundraising activities, including seeking annual gifts, major gifts, planned gifts, corporate sponsorships, foundation grants, and federal grants; managing fundraising teams or campaigns; managing the donor database and performing prospect research; and much more. There exist positions specific to each of these activities, particularly in large nonprofits that depend on donated funds for the majority of their revenue. More general positions, in which you perform all activities, exist in smaller nonprofits and those like APS that have a new fundraising program and/or depend to a lesser extent on donations and grants.

Fundraising is a Profession
Fundraising is a full-fledged profession with academic degrees and research, professional associations, and certifications. The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) supports the fundraising profession just as APS supports the physiology research and teaching profession. Should you have any interest in learning more about the fundraising profession, please visit Opportunities within the field have been and continue to grow as the number of nonprofits and individuals with accumulated wealth have grown substantially over the past few decades.

I chose recently to complete the AFP Diploma in Fundraising Management in which I learned fundraising best practices and used academic research to inform and improve our fundraising practice at APS. I am working toward the Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) credential, a preferred qualification for many fundraising jobs.

Researchers are Fundraisers
The best part is that you already have experience in fundraising. A huge part of your job as an academic research scientist has been to seek and acquire federal and/or private grant support for your training and research program. Grant writing skills are highly in-demand. Many nonprofits, including academic institutions, hire grant writers to acquire foundation and federal grant support. Also, it is a sub-field of fundraising that has its own certification through the American Grant Writers Association.

Because of my background as a physiology researcher, I brought experience with science-related grant writing and knowledge of the most likely federal and corporate funders (i.e., NIH, NSF, and pharma and biotech companies) to my current position. I also brought knowledge about the key issues within the physiology research and teaching enterprise. My experience and knowledge has been immensely helpful with identifying funding opportunities, tailoring funding requests, and being successful in acquiring support. Yet, I have also had to learn a tremendous amount, and APS has generously invested in my professional training.

On Regretting the Road Not Taken
People often ask me if I miss research. The answer is not really. I do not regret “the road not taken”—academic research—and I would say that most all of my friends and colleagues who have left research do not regret it either.

Regret is a risk that you should consider. I have encountered regret mostly in those who left academic research out of necessity and not choice. They often feel as if they are a failure. If you love research, it is what you should be doing and put all of your effort into making sure you succeed. However, if you think you could be just, if not more, happy in another career, then I am certain it is worth the risk of regret to explore and possibly pursue a new one. It is absolutely not a failure.

For anyone who is considering such a change, I’d be happy to discuss your ideas, answer questions, and address your reservations about changing careers anytime. Contact me at

Megan Mitzelfelt is Development Manager at the American Physiological Society. She obtained her PhD in Medical Science with a concentration in Physiology and Pharmacology from the University of Florida in 2011. Megan completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University under the mentorship of Distinguished Professor and Past APS President, Douglas C. Eaton, in 2014. More details about Megan’s professional career may be found at
You Beyond the PhD: Do You Have the Right Tools in Your Toolbox?

Maria L. Urso
BTG International

This contribution to the Mentoring Forum covers topics that I presented during a “Mentoring for Diverse Careers” symposium at Experimental Biology in 2015. The goal of my talk was to highlight pivotal actions that were made as my nontraditional career unfolded. I opened my talk with the statement, “this is not a story of adversity, but rather a story of opportunity and finding a ‘good fit.'” I opted to be particularly candid in my talk, since, although I always touted that every stage of my career was the best phase of my career, each was not without internal and external conflicts. I felt that the best way to inspire and educate others on these difficult career decisions was to be transparent, since then one would be empowered with the appropriate tools to take on the adversity associated with the path less traveled.

In a nutshell, I had an extremely successful PhD with a fantastic team of mentors, most notably my advisor and friend, Dr. Priscilla Clarkson. One thing that I will never forget about my mentor was that she took a chance on me. I showed up in her lab lacking a lot of the basic skills that one would hope their graduate students would have, which prevented any immediate contribution to the productivity of the laboratory. Dr. Clarkson noticed one thing about me, and that was all it took. Rather than deny me entry into her lab because I had not yet published as a master’s student or because I was not well-versed in the muscle-damage literature, she asked me what I wanted to do and how I thought I would go about doing it. Although I did not have a past pedigree, I had a vision that was tethered to a realistic plan and enough passion to guarantee that complacency would never be an issue during my tenure. Accordingly, I left Dr. Clarkson’s laboratory with a toolbox full of skills that would guarantee a prosperous career if I continued to develop and refine them as I matured. In addition to my full toolbox, I had several publications in notable journals, successful grant applications, molecular biology laboratory skills (that were self-taught following an initiative by Dr. Clarkson to bring our laboratory up to speed), and a direct commission from the U.S. Army.

As any mentor or mentee could imagine, the final aspect of my departure from my PhD created a few waves and hushed discussions among my colleagues and mentors (not to mention my mother, but that’s a different column). However, this was not a rash decision by any means. I had spent my entire research career up until that point doing research in humans related to skeletal muscle breakdown, whether it was a consequence of exercise-induced muscle damage, injury, immobilization, or aging. As I interviewed for postdoctoral positions in notable laboratories across the country, I just could not see myself transitioning away from the line of research that I had established. Additionally, although I had academic mentors providing advice, I was fortunate to have a mentor since the day I was born in my father. He was a physician and spent many years providing medical support in the U.S. Army Reserves. Since I was young, a career in medicine was always something I wanted to pursue. So, I joined the military to follow some life dreams and personal motivations, and to continue to do skeletal muscle research in humans, particularly military-relevant research. I entered the military as a commissioned officer with a military operational specialty (MOS) of 71B, or Research Biochemist. In this role, I would not only serve my country as a scientist, but my research would provide answers to military-relevant problems such as blast injury, rhabdomyolysis, inflammation, and spinal cord injury.

After 7 successful years as a military-scientist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM), I decided to use the skills that I had developed to transition to a clinical research and medical science team in industry. Remarkably, despite the notion that you can only be hired in industry if you have industry experience, the transitions were not only seamless, but I was able to make significant contributions within a relatively short time of being hired. I can only attribute this steady trajectory to the tools that were placed in my toolbox throughout my career: tools that were collected from my mentors, peers, adversaries, and experiences.

Although my nontraditional career decisions tended to be cautioned against rather than lauded, I have continued to grow as a scientist, and each day I am more fulfilled by the opportunities that have presented themselves. I am convinced that the only way to produce fantastic work is to have the right tools for the battle and to love what you do. I want to use this column as an opportunity to highlight the essential tools for the battle that I emphasized in my talk.

Essential Tool #1: Knowing What Drives You
The best mentor in the world cannot give you this tool; this one must be acquired on your own. In an effort to achieve favor while working on our doctorates, the vision of the laboratory becomes your own. As important as it is to contribute to the overall success and productivity of your laboratory, it is absolutely critical that you do not lose sight of who you were before you began this adventure. Many of you are also athletes, musicians, bakers, artists, etc. As best as you can with the responsibilities that you must juggle, do not let your side passions go. To remain creative and productive, you will need something that is yours. The benefit of maintaining something that you are passionate about outside of the laboratory is that it will always give you a chance to do an inventory and examine your current engagements from an outside perspective. When you look from the outside in, ask yourself: Are you still excited? Are you making decisions because they feel good and motivate you, or because you feel pressured to? Have you been pressured to do something that might seem unethical when you look at it from the outside? Are you truly managing your time properly, or are you getting lost in busy-work? Asking yourself these questions is important for not forgetting who you are and sticking to your convictions when making difficult decisions.

Essential Tool #2: Having a Blueprint
A blueprint is essential to your career because it will consistently remind you of your vision, particularly when your plate is so full you cannot look beyond the next 4 months of tasks. Write down where you want to be in 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, and 5 years. Revise your plan as necessary. Do your homework. Learn about other career opportunities outside your laboratory and read career descriptions of the job that you want. Modify what you are doing to obtain the skills and experience required. If others try to persuade you to think differently, you will have a solid plan in place that may help you to navigate difficult discussions.

As a start to some nontraditional career opportunities, here are some links:

Put your plan on paper, do your research, and follow through, despite persuasion.

Essential Tool #3: Honing Your Fundamental Skills
Make sure you practice your writing daily. Clear writing is a skill that should be easy, but oftentimes we are determined to make our writing sound as impressive as our research. This tool is critical in grant applications and manuscript preparation. Your goal should not be to impress the reviewer with your vernacular. Your goal is to clearly explain what you plan to do (grants) or did do (manuscripts) concisely. In scientific writing, you will be amazed at the elegance that comes with simplicity. You should also be able to write or speak persuasively. Although we are scientists and not salespeople, we are always selling something. It may be an idea, a research finding, a proposal, or a hypothesis. Become the best scientific salesperson you can be. When making a transition away from the benchtop, the ability to express yourself and your work clearly is of utmost importance. You will no longer be speaking to like-minded scientists but to clinicians, businesspeople, policy-makers, sales teams, patients, etc.

Essential Tool #4: Your Elevator Speech
Many of you are working on niche projects in a laboratory. You have spent months immersed in the literature and running experiments. It is important to remember that you are now an “expert” in this domain and that others may only have a cursory knowledge of your research area. You will lose their interest if you begin to go into the intricate details of your work. It is always a good idea to prepare a two- to three-sentence overview of what you do. This is not an easy task. You need to make two to three impactful sentences that explain the following: the tissue/organism you work with, the research question you are answering, how you are going about answering it, and why it matters. These sentences should be understood by everyone from your mentor (for accuracy) to the officer at passport control who asks what you do as a scientist. This elevator speech is going to be your first impression as you navigate nontraditional career opportunities, and it needs to be perfect.

Essential Tool #5: Managing Projects and People
We are all going to manage projects and people differently. The key point here is that you devise a formula that is reliable. Having a reliable formula to produce quality work ensures that, when you are part of a team that is in an up-tempo production mode, you will deliver. This is how you become an asset to any team and sought after by employers. Whether your project is big or small, your formula should apply (albeit with a few tweaks). Oftentimes, when you are in a leadership positon and managing people, you will not have the luxury of first devising a plan to manage a task.

As an example, when I was writing the literature review for my dissertation, I accomplished very little the first 2 weeks. The enormity of the task was so daunting, I avoided it. One day I realized that if I wrote two pages per day, I would have a literature review completed in advance of my deadline at the end of the semester. The rule was that I could not get caught up in small details; I just had to put pen to paper for two pages per day, and I would go back and edit when I was done. Each day I started by writing two pages of text—it was so easy! I found that once I started I did not want to stop after just two pages of writing. I ended up finishing a month in advance of my deadline. My formula is to take a large task with a far-away deadline and break it up into smaller tasks with daily deadlines. I have relied on this formula for everything, from work to house projects.

Essential Tool #6: Accept Challenges and Live Outside Your Comfort Zone
Once you know what you can accomplish when you put your mind to it, start accepting new challenges. I recall thinking my plate was full during my first year of my PhD program. By the second year, I was handling twice as many tasks, and I still had time to do things that I enjoyed. If I accepted the first “full plate,” I never would have taken on new challenges. Allow yourself to fill the plate with more than you planned. You may surprise yourself with what you can accomplish when you take new risks and live outside your comfort zone (n.b., see section below on expecting to fail). Despite the expectations around you, design your own constantly evolving expectations. Say yes and get involved. Ask questions at conferences. When it is your turn to be front and center, give the best front and center that you can give.

Essential Tool #7: Conference Attendance and Interactions
When I attended my first national conference, I did not know a single person there except for my master’s advisor. He had friends and colleagues that he needed to meet with, so I was on my own. I went to symposia, met people at the poster sessions, and exchanged e-mail addresses with people whom I still collaborate with today. When I went to my second national conference, I was with my peers, and we spent the entire conference together. I went home without meeting a single new person. After that, I began to avoid the “conference pod.” Break away from your home team at conferences. Go to the sessions that pertain to your work, but also to those that excite you. Attend the career seminars. Start discussions at the poster sessions. You are much more approachable on your own, and you will not feel pressured to step away from a conversation prematurely. Do not be afraid to step away from the crowd on the small things, it will make stepping away for the bigger things easier.

Essential Tool #8: Get Involved in Professional Organizations
Aside from the “village” that raised me during my years in school, the single greatest contributor to my growth was my involvement in professional organizations. I began by volunteering for small things at regional conferences (e.g., manning registration booths), then national conferences (introducing speakers), then serving on committees. These opportunities allowed me to work on projects with scientists whom I had previously idolized from afar. All of a sudden, I not only had a seat at the table, but we were exchanging ideas on how to bring a new concept to life. These professional relationships will give you a platform for everything from research advice to visibility.

Essential Tool #9: Expect to Fail
Human nature: we all want to earn an A. Nobody takes on a research project or activity with the intention of earning an F. However, it is when we earn those Fs that we learn more. Most of us will attempt the project again in an attempt to turn that F into an A. Others will use that experience as a learning experience for the next project, perhaps refining the experimental design and approach. Take big risks and expect to fail. This will prevent complacency or an inability to start something new in fear of receiving an F. Get the F, learn how to make it an A. In the long run, the failures will shape you more than the successes. Become an expert at uncertainty and build resiliency. One of my favorite quotes is from Arianna Huffington (co-founder of the Huffington Post): “We need to accept that we won’t always make the right decisions, that we’ll screw up royally sometimes—understanding that failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of success.”

Essential Tool #10: Find a Niche
People will tell you to follow your passion. How many of you have just one passion? Following your one passion may be a dead end. It is better to identify which skills you have that may be valuable to others. Once you do this, hone those skills until you have career capital. Constantly determine whether and how you are distinguishing yourself from the thousands of individuals with the same major or degree.

Essential Tool #11: Have a Hobby That Overlaps With Your Career
Once my mentor taught me how to write, it became one of my favorite things to do. I was also an athlete, so I was continually exposed to trends and fads in the fitness world. As a side project, I started writing columns and blogs for different periodicals incorporating scientific evidence and human performance and nutrition. While doing this, I established connections and relationships from industry to private organizations. As my skillset improved, I was invited to serve as a scientific consultant, speaker, and writer for these different organizations. Suddenly, I was getting paid to do something that I considered a hobby. At the same time, I was refining the skills that I used every day in my professional life.

Final Thoughts
As you traverse your career, you will find many more tools to add to your toolbox that you find are essential. The key focus is to never stop adding tools to your toolbox. Build bridges instead of burning them, never pass up an opportunity to be assessed, and listen to what goes on around you. Take chances constantly, but be prepared to accept that not every decision will be the right one. Only you can choose the career that is right for you, and, with the proper planning, you beyond the PhD will be exactly the right fit.

Maria Urso is a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) for BTG Pharmaceuticals, a specialty pharmaceutical company that offers therapies for patients with COPD, vascular disease, and cancer. She received her PhD from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Prior to BTG, Maria was the Director of Clinical Research at Arteriocyte, and a scientist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM). While at USARIEM, Maria served on active duty as an Army Major.

Maria is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, a member of the MSL Society, and previously served on APS’s Women in Physiology Committee. In 2012, she was a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) from President Barack Obama.

Carpe Emeritus: A Physiologist Does Retirement

Gerald F. DiBona
Professor Emeritus
Departments of Internal Medicine and Molecular Physiology & Biophysics, University of Iowa College of Medicine, Iowa City, Iowa

It may seem a bit strange to have an article on retirement in a forum devoted to all aspects of mentoring relevant to today’s trainees at all stages of their careers (graduate, postdoctoral, early career). However, the importance of early planning for retirement is not limited to various financial aspects. An equally, if not more important, aspect is coming to grips with the free time (often 40-80 hours per week) you will have and what you plan to do with it.

Since there are multiple sources for information concerning financial planning for retirement, I will not comment on this aspect. Rather, I will comment on planning for the free time that will become available. This is certainly not meant to be a template or a how-to piece but rather a telling of my own personal experience, which emphasizes some of the steps that might be found useful. To keep things in perspective, I have always considered vacation time as a short-term look at what retirement could be like; I have preached to those who would listen that you don’t get paid extra for not taking all your vacation time. The reader might also consider the fact that, when I told some of my closest colleagues about my retirement plans, some of them said, “How will we know the difference?”

Plan Ahead

“If one does not know which port one is sailing to, no wind is favorable.”
— Lucius Annaeus Seneca

I had known too many colleagues whose work was their sole activity and who had not developed outside interests. They worked hard until close of business on their last day and awoke the next day facing the prospect of having nothing to do. They felt isolated, were bored, and became depressed in the absence of their usual professional activities and interactions. For some individuals, given the dropping of mandatory retirement ages in many universities, a satisfactory solution has been to continue to work under various contractual arrangements. However, at some point, these arrangements come to an end.

My major outside interest had always been sailing, and by retiring at an early age I could enjoy this while physical mobility was good as opposed to a later time when it might not be so good. My plan was that the retirement year would be divided between summers sailing in Maine and winters living somewhere else.

Clear message here: figure out what you are going to do with all the available time when you are no longer working…do it early! For many, the decision about what you want to do can be coupled to where you want to live. This adds another important dimension to the planning activity.

Recognize Opportunities

“If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to it.”
— Jonathan Winters

Sailing summers along the Maine coast facilitated the identification of a harbor town in which we would like to live for part of the year. A chance opportunity during a favorable period in the local real estate market enabled the purchase of a summer vacation home. Lucky perhaps, but luck is a matter of “preparation meeting opportunity” (Lucius Annaeus Seneca).

Some years prior to retirement, a research sabbatical evolved into the opportunity to live and work in Sweden. Initially, this was Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, and currently, Gothenburg University, Gothenburg. This involved teaching renal physiology to medical students and clinical nephrology to nephrology trainees, as well as collaborative research with former trainees and long-term colleagues. Not long thereafter, the university’s implementation of a retirement earlier than age 65, with minimum financial or fringe benefit loss. This permitted a stepwise decrease in effort over a period of 3 years prior to full retirement and allowed adjustment to the increased amount of free time as well as to living and working in Sweden. Currently, the year is divided into a winter period in Gothenburg, Sweden, a summer period in Maine, and shorter intervals between these periods in Iowa, our long-term home.

Pivotal Circumstances

“Circumstances are the rulers of the weak; they are but the instruments of the wise.”
— Samuel Lover

The wishes, interests, and needs of spouses, partners, children, and other family members have a clear bearing on the planning activity and eventual choices. Retirement aspects of a spouse’s or partner’s current employment and both financial and nonfinancial aspects of their retirement planning require careful consideration. Having a partner who is a renal physiologist, a native of Gothenburg, Sweden (where she received her doctoral education), and a long-term sailor and lover of the sea is easily identified as a pivotal circumstance in the final definition of our retirement life.


“Success is the sum of the details.”
— Harvey S. Firestone

One needs to consider the basics of financial management and oversight as well as health status and care. Most of these issues can be managed electronically or during the short visits to home or by making suitable arrangements in the other living place. Similarly, developments in caretaking and property management provide peace of mind and security when we are living in different places.


“Life is like a sewer: what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.”
— Tom Lehrer

While not knowing exactly how this would all work out, it has played out to be much better than anticipated. Initially, I thought I would be challenged by having to adjust to living in three different locations, one international, and all very different from each other. Aside from adjustment to time-zone change, this has not been a major issue. Would the teaching and collaborative research involvement in Sweden (part-time by the clock) be sufficiently fulfilling and stimulating? Far more than expected as these enjoyable activities replace the time that was previously occupied by some of the less-enjoyable activities of academic life. Learning Swedish and being in a country where the natives speak excellent English has made adjustment to a different society and culture relatively easy and pleasant. Sailing has always been a free time endeavor. Previously, some of my best experimental ideas came while at sea, whereas now I enjoy the luxury of endless reading time. The time in Iowa provides an opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues as well as manage regular health maintenance and financial activities.

When I am asked what would I have done differently, I say I would have done it sooner. The initial plan was to fully retire at age 60, but an unexpected (but most gratifying) election to APS Presidency (a 3-year commitment) delayed this plan. One might put this event under the above category of Pivotal Circumstances.

Currently, career and family issues are likely the dominant ones for most of the readers of this article. View this article as a plea to consider various aspects of retirement planning along the way. This will serve to ensure overall flexibility at the time of retirement rather than being confronted with a situation constrained by many factors that could have (should have) been dealt with earlier.

Gerald DiBona received the AB from Harvard College and the MD cum laude from Tufts University School of Medicine. Following training in internal medicine at University of Pennsylvania and nephrology and renal physiology at Harvard Medical School/Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, he moved to University of Iowa College of Medicine in 1969. Rising through the ranks, he served as Professor and Vice Chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine and Chief, Medical Service, Iowa City Veterans Administration Medical Center from 1977 to 2001. From the APS, he received the Starling Lectureship Award, the Walter Cannon Lectureship Award, the Robert Berliner Award, and the Ray Daggs Award. He served as President of APS from 2000 to 2001. From the American Heart Association, he received the Dahl Award and the Novartis Award. From the Veterans Administration, he received the Middleton Award. Following retirement, he has served as Foreign Adjunct Professor at the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, and Guest Professor in Renal Physiology at Goteborg University, Goteborg, Sweden.


What They Neglected to Tell You About Classroom Practice in Graduate School

Harold I. Modell
Physiology Educational Research Consortium, Seattle, Washington

As a postdoctoral fellow, I had a conversation with my mentor about teaching. He told me that you couldn’t be a good scientist if you were not a good teacher. His justification was that if you couldn’t communicate your research results to others, you couldn’t make a meaningful contribution to your discipline. At that time, teaching, in most faculty’s view, was synonymous with making a good presentation. “Good” classroom teaching was synonymous with “telling the story” through lectures and answering questions from students seeking clarification.

In the mid-1970s, the view of the classroom learning environment began to change. Research focused on how we learn and what “learning” means began to appear in the literature (1). As a result of this and ensuing research, the focus on the classroom environment changed from a teacher-centered, passive learning environment to a learner-centered, active learning environment. Terms such as cooperative learning, collaborative learning, and problem-based learning entered the education vocabulary. The list of terms has continued to grow and now includes team-based learning, flipped classroom, and case-based learning among others. With this classroom evolution, the role of the instructor has changed from being a provider of information and learning opportunities to a facilitator of learning within a learning community. Unfortunately, most graduate programs do not include specific training, other than being a teaching assistant in student laboratories, for this role in the classroom.

So, if I were to enter the classroom as a new instructor today, I would have a number of questions for which I would seek answers to help give me direction for preparing for my classroom experience. I will discuss each of these questions from the perspective of a physiology educator with over 40 years of experience working primarily with medical students. For each question, take a moment to reflect on how you would answer the question before reading my answer.

Question 1: What Kind of Learning Should I Try to Promote in My Classroom?
Many students seem to equate learning with acquisition of information. The goal of their studying seems to be memorizing and recalling information. It is interesting that they take this approach to learning only in school, whereas outside of school they approach their learning in a very different way. In school, their goal is passing exams, which, traditionally, have focused mainly on recalling facts or retelling a “story.” Outside of school, their goal is to use information to solve a problem or complete a task. They engage in what is called “meaningful learning” or “learning with understanding” (3).
If you ask students why they are in school, most, if they are in pre-professional or professional programs, will tell you that they want to be nurses or doctors or other healthcare professionals. Those students taking your course to satisfy distribution requirements may tell you that they want to understand how their bodies work so they can be informed consumers of healthcare services. Notice that each answer describes how they intend to use the information. In my experience, I have not encountered a single student who wanted to acquire enough facts to be a successful contestant on a television game show! If, in fact, the student wants to learn so that she/he can apply the information to solve problems, she/he should be focused on engaging in meaningful learning.

Question 2: How Do Students Engage in Meaningful Learning?
Think about something you learned to do outside of school. It can be anything (e.g., driving a car, learning to knit, buying a house, learning a language, playing a sport, playing an instrument, learning to navigate around a new city). What was the process that you went through to learn this? When faced with this question, students and faculty alike report a similar process. They have an idea (mental model) about what they are trying to learn, either without prior study or with prior study (e.g., reading instructions, doing some background reading, or viewing a video). They then try to do the task (i.e., solving the problem). Based on the success or failure of the trial, they seek additional information or clarification of their knowledge, revise their ideas, and try to do the task again. Students and faculty report that they learned whatever it is by “trial and error.” By calling the process “trial and error,” these learners do not seem to acknowledge the important step of revising their ideas (mental models) based on the outcome of the trial. This is the process by which they have learned to solve problems in their daily lives since they were born (1). We describe this process as building, testing, and refining mental models. It is the process described as “the scientific method.”

Question 3: What is the Instructor’s Role in the Meaningful Learning Process?
We cannot learn for our students. They must do the learning, and they must take responsibility for their own learning (10). So, if we want meaningful learning to occur in our classroom, is it sufficient that we provide resources (information) and learning opportunities (e.g., exercises, workshops) for our students, or do we have more to offer? As physiologists, we have advanced training in making sense of physiological mechanisms and solving physiological problems (e.g., through research). However, there are many instructors of physiology who do not have advanced training in physiology, but these instructors have advanced training in other science disciplines and are, therefore, familiar with the scientific method as a way of knowing. Thus we have much more to offer students than just providing resources and opportunities for learning. Indeed, our classroom can be learner-centered, in which our job is to help the learner to learn (3).

Question 4: What Must I Do to Help the Learner to Learn?
Changing your mindset from providing resources and opportunities to helping the learner to learn changes your whole approach to classroom practice. The focus changes from someone who “instructs” to someone who facilitates. To be a facilitator requires you to interact with the learners to find out what kind of help they need. In some cases, they need some basic information. In these cases, you should provide that information. In other cases, their current mental models may be faulty. In these cases, your job is to first help the student make their current model visible, then help them confront the limitations of their model, and, finally, help them engage in the process of revising their mental model (2). In other cases, students may need help testing their mental models. Again, your job is to model the process of testing their mental models. When fulfilling this role, you become a diagnostician as well as a mentor. You must ask yourself questions like, “What led the student to come to this conclusion?” and “How do I make sense of this mechanism?” Finally, “What question can I ask that will help the learner recognize the limitation of his/her mental model?” This is an iterative process (3). In this process, it is important to help students begin to think about how they think (i.e., engage in metacognition). In doing so, you, as a mentor, model the process of building models of physiological mechanisms and solving physiological problems.

Question 5: How Should I Design Learning Opportunities for My Students?
Physiology is a discipline concerned with mechanisms. As noted earlier, meaningful learning focuses on applying information that is being acquired. The overall goal of a physiology course then is to develop models of physiological mechanisms that can be used to solve physiological problems. The difference between an introductory course and an advanced course is the complexity of the problems to be solved. When designing a course or a learning opportunity, it makes sense to first ask, “What is the problem or problems that the learner should be able to solve at the end of the course or learning exercise?” Stated another way, “How should the student be able to use the content at the end of the learning session?” Thus the first step in designing educational resources is setting educational output objectives or performance goals (3, 5). We can think of the performance goals as the destination for a learning journey.

We now have a learning destination, but what is our embarkation point? We must recognize that students come to our courses with preexisting knowledge (mental models) and that, as they acquire new knowledge, they build on their current knowledge base (1). Aspects of these preexisting mental models may correctly apply to the topic being learned, whereas other aspects may be “faulty” with respect to the current content and accepted models (that is, misconceptions may exist). We can think of this student’s embarkation point as the “input state” (3). So, in our design scheme, our next step is to assess the input state. To do this, we must provide students with a task or ask them questions that will help make their current mental model (ideas) visible to us. In doing so, we also help students make their current mental models visible to themselves. An example of such a task may be to have them close their eyes and focus on their breathing. After several breaths, ask them to describe what they felt and what caused air to flow into the system during inspiration and gas to flow out during expiration.

We now have beginning and ending points for the journey; what remains are the transition steps that will help move learners from where they are to the performance goal. These steps may be a logical progression of questions that lead students to develop a model of the mechanism in question, a task that results in a causal diagram (flow diagram) of the mechanism, a concept map, or other visual organizer of the elements of the mechanism, examination of the system from a particular vantage point (8), a roleplay, or other active learning activity. Finally, we must assess the learners’ ability to carry out the performance goal. One way to do this is to present a perturbation of the model and ask the students to predict the results of the perturbation. (Will a variable value increase, decrease, or not change?) They must also be able to explain the basis for their prediction. Once the students are able to fulfill the performance goal, this destination becomes the embarkation point (input state) for the next performance goal (output state). This iterative process continues until the end of the session or course.

It is important during this process to help students recognize that we learn by building on previous knowledge and that many physiological mechanisms share common principles (4, 7). Hence, because life is cumulative, one question that students should be encouraged to ask is, “Where have I seen this before?” or “How is this like something that I already know?”

Question 6: How Do I Get Students to “Play the Game?”
The “helping the learner to learn” mindset requires the instructor to engage the learners in an interactive dialog. In addition, for students to engage in meaningful learning, they must engage each other in intellectual discussion (i.e., explore each other’s mental models). The challenge is to create a learning environment in which students are willing to share their thoughts. In general, students are reluctant to participate in such activities for a variety of reasons that include the following:

  • Based on prior experience, their expectations are not consistent with the meaningful learning experience; “Just tell me what I need to know to pass the course!” “I’m in competition with my peers.”
  • Contributing factors may involve self-confidence; “I don’t feel comfortable talking in front of groups.”
  • Fear may also play a role; “If I answer a question in class, it must be the right answer. Otherwise I may be ridiculed by the instructor or my peers.”

If the goal is to help the learner to learn, steps must be taken to address the reservations of the students (6). My approach to this challenge is to build a learning community within the classroom (9). Building community promotes a safe learning environment, encourages collaborative learning, provides emotional support among community members, and helps build long-lasting relationships among students and faculty. Although there are many approaches to building community, the necessary steps include the following goals: getting to know the community; setting community learning goals; setting community behavior guidelines; and reinforcing community spirit. All of these steps require discussion within the community. Some faculty argue that using class time to engage in such discussion is not advisable since it takes time away from “delivering the content.” However, the emphasis of community learning is on process (problem solving) rather than information acquisition. Once the learner is familiar with the process, acquisition of new information and incorporating this information into the framework of existing mental models is more efficient than it was in the earlier classroom model.

When time permits, small groups (groups of 4-6 students) develop a mission statement for the course, set learning goals, and set behavioral guidelines. This small group activity is then followed by a community discussion to reach consensus guidelines. When time is at a premium, the course syllabus may include suggested guidelines for community discussion. The following excerpt from a course syllabus illustrates such a statement:

Enrollment in this course entitles you to become a member of a learning community focused on developing the necessary skills and knowledge base to build a foundation for further study in physiology. Membership in this community carries certain rights and responsibilities. Make sure that you read the following statement of Community Rights and Responsibilities. By attending course activities, you agree to be a contributing member of this community.

Statement of Community Rights and Responsibilities
Members of the learning community have the right to expect a supportive learning environment in which they may reach their maximum potential for engaging in meaningful learning. The community should provide academic as well as emotional support for its members in an ethical and professional manner. Members of the community have responsibility for adhering to the practices and guidelines listed below.

  • Each member of the community takes responsibility for his/her individual learning as well as for contributing to the collective learning of the community.
  • Each member of the community arrives to course activities on time and prepared to engage in the topic(s) of the day. Note: Habitual tardiness will be interpreted as showing disrespect for the community and may compromise successful completion of the course.
  • Each member of the community shows respect for other members of the community and for the community learning environment by
    1) using cell phones responsibly during course activities; this includes using phones for texting, viewing e-mail, and accessing the web during breaks only
    2) using computers for engaging in course activities only
    3) refraining from using technology for activities that distract (individually and/or collectively) from the community focus
    4) providing encouragement for all community members to take intellectual risks
    5) sharing ideas and confusion about the topics being discussed
    6) being accepting of and sensitive to community members’ viewpoints
    7) being supportive when nonacademic stresses impact community members’ learning
    8) keeping potentially distracting side conversations to a minimum
    9) sharing concerns regarding the learning community
    10) keeping a sense of humor

Question 7: How Do I Know Whether it is Working?
One advantage of adopting the design scheme that I have described in a learning community setting is that the learning is driven by a series of performance goals (learning outcomes). Because each class period includes the instructor interacting with the learners, the learning environment has a built-in formative assessment component. During the course of this dialog, the instructor continuously assesses the progress of the “journey.” Thus the learning progression is monitored and redirected as needed on a daily basis.

The performance goals also provide the basis for summative assessment. Examinations should be focused on how well the student can do the performance goals. Exam questions may ask students to make predictions about how system variables will change when the system is perturbed and explain the basis for the prediction. Other options include asking students to solve a problem (e.g., predict what will happen to cardiac output, total peripheral resistance, cardiac contractility, and heart rate if mean arterial blood pressure falls suddenly), predict the results of an experiment (e.g., predict how the resting membrane potential of a neuron will change if the relative permeability of the membrane to potassium ions increases), or analyze a case description (e.g., a patient shows signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism; explain what tests you would run and what the expected outcomes of the tests would be to determine the site of pathophysiology in this patient). In each case, the students should be required to explain the reasoning behind his/her prediction. The emphasis of all assessment should be focused primarily on the how the student applied her/his mental model and secondarily on what information has been acquired.

Final Comments
A final advantage of adopting this mindset is that your classroom becomes your laboratory. By being a reflective practitioner, you can gain a wealth of information about how students learn, how they think about physiology, and what challenges they face as they build, test, and refine their mental models. As a result, new research questions come to mind. I encourage faculty to pursue these questions by becoming active in the educational research community. Design experiments that you can conduct in your own classroom or share your ideas and develop collaborative efforts through participation in the Teaching Section of APS, the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society (HAPS), the Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER), or similar educationally focused organizations.

My goal for sharing these thoughts is to provide some direction for young faculty who are willing to adopt a “helping the learner to learn” mindset. Although I have not included many specific examples of how to accomplish the goals related to each of the questions that were discussed, specific examples may be found in the appropriate references listed. I invite you to contact me if you seek additional examples or answers to related questions.

Bransford JD, Brown AL, Cocking, RR (editors). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School (Expanded Edition). Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000.

McDermott LC. How we teach and how students learn. Ann NY Acad Sci 701: 9-20, 1993.

Michael JA, Modell HI. Active Learning in Secondary and College Science Classrooms: A Working Model for Helping the Learner to Learn. Mahwah, NJ: Routledge, 2003.

Michael J, Modell H, McFarland J, Cliff W. The “core principles” of physiology: What should students understand? Adv Physiol Educ 33: 10-16, 2009.

Modell HI. Why am I teaching this course? Setting educational objectives for course activities. Ann NY Acad Sci 701: 27-35, 1993.

Modell HI. Preparing students to participate in an active learning environment. Am J Physiol 270 (Adv Physiol Educ 15): S69-S77, 1996.

Modell HI. How to help students understand physiology? Emphasize general models. Adv Physiol Educ 23: 101-107, 2000.

Modell HI. Helping students make sense of physiological mechanisms: the “view from the inside.” Adv Physiol Educ 31: 186-192, 2007.

Modell HI. Steps for building a learning community in a medical physiology course (Abstract). FASEB J 29: 541.4, 2015.

Rogers C, Freiberg HJ. Freedom to Learn (3rd ed.). New York: Macmillan College Publishing, 1994.


Harold Modell received his PhD in Physiology in 1971. He soon became interested in physiology education and active learning. This interest led to his developing computer-based simulations of respiratory physiology for student use (1975) and involvement on a national level in activities aimed at improving classroom practice. In 1985-1986, he was instrumental in establishing the Teaching of Physiology Section of the American Physiological Society, and, in 1988, Modell was named the founding editor of Advances in Physiology Education.

In 1989, he gave up bench science research in Respiratory Physiology in favor of educational research and development aimed at improving physiology education at the post-secondary level. Activities in this realm have included research, materials development, and faculty development in local, national, and international settings. In 2004, Modell received recognition for these efforts by being named the Claude Bernard Distinguished Lecturer of the Teaching Section of the American Physiological Society. He continues these efforts as Director of the Physiology Educational Research Consortium, and, until his retirement in 2015, was a faculty member at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington.

On Mentorship, Perseverance, and Generosity

Ormond A. MacDougald
John A Faulkner Collegiate Professor of Physiology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan

My approach to mentorship, lab management, and career development reflects not only my ideals but also the influence of many individuals during my training, and lessons learned from my trainees. The most significant figure in this regard was my postdoctoral advisor, M. Daniel Lane. As detailed in an In Memoriam written by Lane lab trainees (Mandrup et al. In memoriam: M. Daniel Lane, 1930-2014. Trends Endocrinol Metab 25: 437-439, 2014.), “Dan was a fantastic mentor who set a great and inspiring example as a scientist and leader, and who took exceptionally good care of his trainees from the minute they arrived until long after they left his lab.” The lab culture he created, along with our devotion to him and his wife Pat “glued several generations of alumni together as a large extended family, a legacy that will last for years.” He was a unique example of how to be a highly successful scientist, while also being universally recognized as a kind and caring man.

Why Do We Mentor?

I think of mentorship as a personal relationship in which I use my experience and knowledge to help others by providing guidance and promoting personal development. It is important to note that mentoring is not strictly an altruistic act—as researchers we create new knowledge and trained personnel, and to optimally train personnel requires more than just providing lab space and a supply budget. The thought and energy put into mentoring students and postdoctoral fellows often pays dividends back to the research enterprise and helps with recruiting new lab members. In addition, skills such as active listening that are honed while becoming a better mentor also transfer to other parts of our professional and personal lives. My experience has been that, when I put the requisite time and energy into mentoring, it ends up being among the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of my day.

How to mentor is a more difficult question to address, and what follows are a few of my thoughts on this subject, some of which I hope will resonate with you. Although I’ve written this essay in the context of running a lab, most of the suggestions are applicable to broader contexts. When I think about the skills and habits associated with mentoring, many of these can be attributed to common sense; however, it’s a little like my experience reading books on financial planning or time management—simply reading about them periodically and having them in mind helps to keep me doing the right thing and from slipping into bad habits such as getting “too busy” to spend time with my trainees.

Although it would be great if we all had the mentoring skill set of Dan Lane, each of us has our own specific limitations in this department. Thus we soldier on with our given personality and emotional quotient. As with many challenges in life, we do our best to play on our strengths while working furiously to shore up our weaknesses. One factor we do have control over is actively thinking about our trainees and considering what we can do to help them develop and achieve their goals. It also helps to view these relationships as lifelong, which adds a layer of commitment and endurance that demands focus and respect. When all is said and done, the interactions we have had with trainees, although more difficult to quantify than many other aspects of our professional lives, may be among the most important accomplishments of our careers.

Be Transparent

In any relationship, it’s important that there be trust, and an important foundation for trust is transparency. Set the stage by discussing very early on what your expectations are of your trainee. Give honest and regular feedback, and not just in areas that need improvement. Don’t be afraid to cheerlead their successes to them, as well as to others! Discuss and debate ethical and responsible conduct of research, and be open about the problems of fraud and irreproducible results within science as a whole, and how these may be relevant within your lab.

The relationship also requires active and open participation from the mentee, which will help both of you determine whether the path the trainee is on is consistent with his or her skills and goals. Sometimes you need to have tough, open conversations, and even if the results of your discussion hurt, the process itself does not need to be hurtful. I was fortunate to have mentors who were forthcoming about their prior professional and personal life experiences, and I emulate that approach. Although I try not to give unsolicited advice, my hope is that my mentees will learn both from situations I have handled well and from mistakes I have made.
I also think it is important as mentors to be transparent about the reality associated with a life in academia—the challenges of research and running a lab, the shortage of time, the vagaries of grant funding, and the demands ongoing elsewhere in your life. How can they learn about lab management if we don’t discuss the budget? We don’t do our trainees any favors by shielding them from some of the less desirable aspects of the job—they need to go in with their eyes open. Having said that, I feel the competitive job market and tight NIH grant budgets have created too much angst and negativity toward careers in biomedical research, and I continue to stress what a privilege it is to be in that small part of society whose job is to create new knowledge and to train the next generation of scientists—and to note the many perks of a life in academia, where you are paid to be surrounded by bright and interesting people, have the opportunity to travel the world, and where you have tremendous flexibility in your work schedule.

Be Realistic

It would be great if all our trainees became biomedical researchers at major institutions and went on to win Nobel Prizes, but that obviously sets the bar more than a little high. Every trainee has a unique skillset and his or her own ambitions, and it’s really important for trainees to get on a path through life that is right for them. Although it’s not always easy, I try to meet them where they are at and where they are headed. This takes careful listening and not simply projecting onto them what my hopes and dreams are for their role in my lab. It becomes easier as I get to know them better, and I try to take an active interest in what is ongoing in their life. As faculty, we are professional decision makers, but, in the case of trainees, it’s important to suspend judgment and give them space to figure out their own path. It’s also unrealistic to think that you can serve as a mentor to all. For some individuals, the “fit” or “chemistry” is such that you simply aren’t the right person to serve as a mentor—and that’s okay.

Keep the Long View in Mind

Although micromanagement is a perfectly viable approach to having a productive lab, I don’t feel that it’s the best training approach. It’s tempting to take the easy road out and tell our trainees what to do, but that is only good in the short term. Empowering our trainees to make and take responsibility for their own decisions will help them become independent in the long run. We all learn by making mistakes, and a period of “chasing butterflies” is often critical for trainees to hone their instincts for what experiments will work and which are unlikely to succeed—for balancing decisions of risk and yield.

In addition to the mentoring advice above, I would also like to share two additional thoughts with you.


When I first started at the University of Michigan as a young assistant professor, my chairman assigned Christin Carter-Su, a former winner of the Bodil Schmidt-Neilson award, to be my official departmental mentor. In my first meeting with Christy, she asked me, “What does it take to become a full professor at the University of Michigan?” After stammering something about the importance of recruiting, hard work, creativity, strategic planning, and other stream-of-consciousness, she replied, “Yes to all those, but what it really takes is perseverance.” She warned me that there would be bumps in the road—rejected papers, grants not funded, lectures gone awry—but that those happened to everyone and shouldn’t be taken personally. Christy also told me that how I handled those bumps would be the difference between success and failure—don’t let them get me down, view them as challenges to be met, and learn from them rather than give up. It was great advice that I share with my trainees and which I am happy to share here.

In addition to those challenges mentioned above, you may encounter someone—could be your boss, a colleague, or perhaps even a trainee—with whom your relationship is intractable, despite your best efforts. Although this could be an excellent opportunity to work on your diplomacy, patience, and people skills, sometimes this is a situation that you just need to persevere through. If serious enough, it may even be necessary to extract yourself from the situation. The reality is that we often learn just as much or even more from negative situations than from positive ones. Thus even difficult relationships can be formative and positive if you carefully note which behaviors you choose to emulate.

Be Generous

One of Dan Lane’s great traits was his generosity. Some of my fondest memories from my time in his lab were the times spent in his home—the celebrations for trainees when they graduated or got jobs, the warm ambiance and atmosphere of his Christmas parties, or the time at his kitchen table going through my fellowship application. I have tried to emulate Dan’s generosity by opening my home to those around me. And, like him, I also try to be generous with my time. Consistency of behavior and ample time spent with mentees are important for developing a relationship and trust. Students and fellows also benefit tremendously if you are generous with your professional and personal network, since this will help them open doors and achieve their goals.
I have benefited tremendously from people in my life who have given freely of their time, energy, and finances. Although I can’t in many cases pay them back directly, I try to pay the debt forward to the next and future generations. If you feel similarly, please mentor those coming up behind you and also give what you can to financially support their education and research opportunities. In these uncertain times at the NIH, philanthropy is becoming more and more integral to our funding of biomedical research and all stages of education.

Many thanks to my former and current trainees, as well as Christy Carter-Su, for their editorial and other comments.

Ormond A. MacDougald, Ph.D. is the John A Faulkner Collegiate Professor of Physiology at the University of Michigan.  After receiving his B.Sc (Agr) from the University of Guelph, he obtained an M.S. and Ph.D. from Michigan State University, and postdoctoral training with Dan Lane at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Biological Chemistry. His long-standing research interests have centered around adipocyte differentiation and metabolism. Ormond is a previous recipient of the Henry Pickering Bowditch Lectureship from the APS. When not in the lab Ormond spends time with his wife and four children, and loves to putter in his wood shop.