Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Interview with Dr. Angelique Whitehurst, Assistant Professor, Department of Pharmacology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Dr. Angelique Whitehurst joined the faculty at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill in January 2009. Before coming to UNC, she was a postdoc in Dr. Michael White's lab at the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center. Her postdoctoral research, which is published in Nature and Molecular and Cellular Biology, involved using genome-wide siRNA screens to identify genes implicated in survival, proliferation, and chemosensitivity of tumor cells. Angelique received her PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology from the University of Texas Southwestern in 2004.

I spoke to Angelique in early May 2009 when she'd only been in her position for 5 months. She was very generous in sharing her story and advice with the readers of CarolinaBioscience and she invites you to post questions for her if you have them after reading through her interview.

When did you decide to pursue an academic career? "I wasn't sure what I wanted to do for a long time", explained Angelique when I asked her this question. She had seriously considered being an industry scientist, a science writer, and a clinical trials manager – but she didn't set her sights on academia until part way through her postdoc. Two years into her postdoc while working on a high risk project, her hard work paid off when she got an exciting result from a novel siRNA screen she developed to identify genes that control chemosensitivity in human cancer cells (see the Nature article here). As the significance of her work became apparent, she realized, "This would be so exciting to follow up, but I need more people and resources to help me follow it up". Since then her goal has been an academic position and she's now one of the newest faculty members at UNC.

What appeals to you about an academic career? "I really enjoy the academic culture", Angelique explains. "I enjoy working around other people who are passionate about their science, and the fact that you're constantly being pushed." She also likes the independence and the flexibility that she has in academia. To a large degree she gets to determine the size, scope and trajectory of her research program, and she sees that flexibility as key to balancing her scientific interests with the needs of her young family.

Was your choice of postdoc important in your career progression? Angelique credits much of her success to hard work and supportive mentors. Her postdoctoral advisor, Dr. Michael White, fostered an environment of scientific independence as well as openness about the practical aspects of academia, She explains, "My PI taught me about grant writing strategies, funding processes, academic bureaucracy, and how he set up his own lab so I felt that I had some basis for expectations as a PI."

Dr. White understood that a high profile paper and a cutting edge project Angelique could take with her would make her competitive in the academic job market. This was particularly important for getting her paper accepted at Nature. Her advisor encouraged her to be persistent through the multiple rounds of the review process and to continue to address reviewer comments. Angelique followed his advice and the paper was accepted to Nature.

How did you decide when to start applying for faculty positions? "I had gotten a lot of advice about hitting it while it's hot", Angelique explained, and that's just what she did. Her Nature paper was published in April of 2007 and the next month she began applying to 15-20 faculty openings. In the fall of 2007, she received invitations to interview at 7 or 8 universities from which she decided to interview at 3 medical centers. She interviewed in Jan 2008 when she was 25 weeks pregnant with her second child.

So you were 25 weeks pregnant when you were interviewing? Did that raise any eyebrows? As Angelique put it, "I'd only want to work at a place that would support somebody who wanted a family. I wasn't going to hide it. If they didn't like it, it wasn't the place for me." It did help that she was pregnant with her second child at the time so she was not as nervous or apprehensive as she might have been with the first child. The search committee at UNC was willing to work around her schedule and acknowledged that interviewing while pregnant has some unique challenges. The committee's response conveyed to Angelique that UNC would be supportive of her commitments outside of the lab, which in turn influenced her decision to accept UNC's offer.

What aspect of your CV do you think was the most helpful in getting your current position? Angelique credits her first author Nature paper with opening the door to a career in academia. Importantly, the paper was based on a new and exciting technology and provided her with a system and data to follow-up on as an independent scientist. She also credits her Nature article with helping her secure a K99/R00 "Pathway to Independence" NIH grant. The K99/R00 is a funding mechanism for postdocs who are committed to a career in academia that bridges the gap from a postdoctoral position to a tenure track position (you can read more about K99/R00 grants here). Her first application for the K99/R00 was not funded, but received many useful comments from reviews. Her second submission, which incorporated changes based on the reviewers' comments, was submitted after the Nature paper was published. This time her K99/R00 grant was funded, which further increased her competitiveness in the job market and has taken some of the funding pressure off of her in her first years at UNC. Importantly, the process of writing a K99 is similar to that of an R01, so the experience was critical to learning about grant writing.

What has been the biggest challenge in your first months of your position? When Angelique moved into her new office and lab space in the brand new Genetics Medicine Building she naturally wanted to get to work generating data and making new discoveries, but before she could even culture cells she had to purchase reagents, supplies, and equipment. As she put it, "there is so much to do, and it is almost impossible to be productive when you're starting a lab. It was the first time I couldn't just walk into a lab and start doing experiments." She described trying to remember which of the thousands of Eppendorf tubes on the market were the ones she was familiar with, and realizing how hard it is to do any experiment without KimWipes.

Another challenge for new faculty members is that they are completely on their own scientifically – often for the first time – and they are expected to establish a research program from the ground up. Angelique described the roller coaster of emotions inherent in this transition by saying, "People tried to prepare me for this by saying that there would be moments of enormous doubt, followed by moments of ultimate confidence. Being prepared for the oscillations helps to keep them from being a distraction and promotes focus and persistence."

What have you found most enjoyable in your new position? Outfitting a lab from the ground up is an huge challenge – not just the nuts and bolts of getting equipment set up but also pursuing new ideas and experiments. Angelique admits that she is enjoying this period of intensive learning. She has had a number of students rotate through her lab already and just accepted her first graduate students. With excitement in her voice, Angelique described what she considers the most enjoyable part of her new position. "It's a lot of fun inspiring other people to be excited about a project, and then helping them to execute on it. When they generate data that makes them excited, and then when you can share that excitement with them as you analyze the data – it's really a lot of fun. It's also great to be in a new environment with new colleagues pursuing different and exciting scientific approaches. It expands your knowledge base, and then you can apply that back to your own science."

Are there aspects of the transition from postdoc to PI that you didn't anticipate? "The biggest shock for me was how much I would care about the success of the people who enter my lab. I went from seeing everyone I worked with as my peers, to feeling responsible for the success of anyone who comes through my lab. You care about them as if they were your own children…I didn't anticipate that."

What are the external expectations of you in the first year, first 5 years? "In the first year the expectation is that you will get your lab established, begin working on you research program, get people into your lab, and generate data", explained Angelique. Within 5 years the expectation is not only that you have established your own niche in the scientific community, secured outside funding, are publishing, and training successful students and postdocs, but that you're also collaborating with other scientists and contributing to the UNC community by teaching courses, mentoring students, and incorporating new techniques and technology into your research program.

What is the starting salary range for a tenure track investigator? Like all careers, starting salaries for assistant professors cover a wide range depending on the size of the institution, whether it's a public or private school, and whether it's a medical school or not. Angelique explained that the starting annual salaries at top research universities range from $70,000 – 120,000+ for a tenure track assistant professor. In general, smaller universities offer lower salaries, and medical centers usually pay more. Angelique also explained that policies differ between institutions regarding what percentage of your salary is guaranteed by the department and what percentage you are required to bring in from external funding sources. It's important to understand this when interviewing and comparing offers.

What advice do you have for students and postdocs who want to get a tenure track position in academia? Angelique stressed that there are wide roads and narrow roads that can all lead to an academic position. "Don't let anyone tell you that you have to have this or that in your CV to get an academic position." Some things may make the road wider, she explained, but the most important attributes are being passionate about your science and willing to put forth persistent effort.

At various times throughout the interview Angelique spoke about how she sought out successful researchers in all levels of academia that helped her weather the disappointments and tough times inherent to bench science. She acknowledged that most, if not all graduate students, at one point or another have looked over the academic fence and seen what looks like greener pastures on the other side. She advises young scientists who want to stay in academia to find researchers who are established and happy in their careers. Then when you're in a rut, talk to these people so they can share their perspective of academia. In Angelique's words, "You can't be in your own box. You can't do it on your own. Be collegial. Ask for advice and be humble. "

For those who will soon be applying and interviewing for academic positions Angelique encourages you to thoroughly educate yourself about the mission of the institution and the department you hope to join. Look at the faculty's research programs and how they complement each other, then when you interview, present a clear research plan focusing on how your science would fit in and create bridges between other faculty member's research.

One of the challenges of starting up your own lab is that you are immediately thrust into the role of a small business owner. Angelique suggests that grad students and postdocs take every opportunity to learn about grant writing, how to propose, implement, and adhere to a research budget, how to lead a team with different personalities, how to plan strategically, how to motivate others, how to work on professional committees, etc.

Do you have advice specifically for young female scientists? Angelique adamantly stated, "Don't listen to people who say you can only have a family OR a career – but not both. If you want to have children, go ahead – there is never a convenient time! If you have kids and it changes your perspective, listen to yourself and readjust your plans if you need to. I had no idea that becoming a Mom would make me want to be a scientist even more, but it has. Lastly don't be shy about seeking advice from other female scientists with children to learn how they have done it."

If you have questions for Angelique that weren't answered in this posting she invites you to append your questions to this post between now and Tuesday 6/2/2009 at 5:00pm at which point she will do her best to answer any questions that have been posted. If you're unsure how to post a question on this blog, please see the text box at the upper right hand corner of the blog titled, "How do I post a comment or question?".


  1. nicely written and very insightful for female scientists

    Thanks !

  2. Nice thanks for informative post you have a future to be a scientist.