Creating a science legacy

White lab coats hanging from hooks at a laboratory

Research leaders often seek to open up areas of research for further generations of scientists.Credit: Getty

Researchers have many ways to establish a legacy, including technical innovation, commercialization and changes to scientific culture. All of these approaches require input from talented people who can generate ideas and execute them. Here, five senior research leaders offer their tips on building a legacy in science.

KRISTI ANSETH: Build long-term collaborations

Professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Building a science legacy requires the willingness to take risks: many problems are complex, and solving them requires innovative, out-of-the-box approaches.

During my postdoctoral research at the University of Colorado Boulder from 1995 to 96, I decided to get out of my comfort zone and investigate the use of soft materials in biological applications. This multidisciplinary risk paid off. Through designing new types of macromolecules and applying photochemistry expertise that I had gained from my PhD programme, I could study stem-cell biology with the goal of promoting tissue regeneration.

Since I became a faculty member at Colorado Boulder in 1996, my laboratory has trained more than 100 PhD students and postdocs in the interdisciplinary area of regenerative medicine — adding scientists to the field and creating a long-term legacy for this work.

Although taking risks can bring rewards, it can feel daunting, especially for early-career researchers. My advice is to surround yourself with good collaborators who can provide advice and help you to minimize the risks. Nurturing and maintaining your relationships with these co-workers often leads to continued innovation through projects, grants and publications. For instance, earlier this year my team published a study reporting sex differences that arise in heart cells in response to biomolecules derived from blood serum1. This was a follow-up to a previous paper2 with the same collaborators on how heart function can be affected by proteins in blood serum after transcatheter surgery to replace an aortic valve.

It is important to be an advocate for those you train. I try my best to support my colleagues and students through nominations and recommendation letters. For example, Jason Burdick graduated from my lab in 2002 and started his career as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. On the basis of his innovative research work, I nominated him as a fellow of the US National Academy of Inventors in 2019. I am so proud of my students’ achievements. When they excel, it doesn’t just amplify the impact of my lab: it promotes the entire field.

Kristi Anseth in the lab

Nurturing strong links with collaborators helps to foster innovation, says Kristi Anseth.Credit: Cody Johnston

LISA KEWLEY: Focus on talent development

Professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia.

To create a top research programme and build a science legacy, it is important to channel the flow of talent, in terms of recruitment, training and the movement of individuals between labs, because these are the people doing the hands-on work that generates impact.

Over the course of my career as a professor, my lab has trained 20 PhD students and 10 postdocs. I also lead around 300 researchers, staff and students as director of the Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3 Dimensions (ASTRO 3D), which started in 2017 with funding from the Australian Research Council. And in March this year, I was named as director of the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, a collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory, both in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

When I hire students and postdocs, I look out for two main traits: a love for science and self-motivation. Being surrounded by people who are passionate about what they do helps to create a positive and enthusiastic working environment. Individuals who are self-motivated can also think about research ideas and execute them independently, and this is an important quality for people who want to become leaders. I rely on recommendation letters from former supervisors to assess the independence and leadership potential of candidates. I also include senior postdocs in interview panels to help me identify candidates who are a good fit for the research group.

Here in Australia, we’re always fighting for international exposure, so I put special value on giving my trainees international experience, and hope that they would consider returning to Australia to lead cutting-edge research. I had my training at the Australian National University in Canberra, the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics and the University of Hawaii in Manoa as a Hubble Fellow. I frequently publish papers and lead projects with my peers and collaborators overseas. Having international collaborators also enables me to swap talented students and postdocs. When my students are looking for positions, I can refer them to colleagues overseas who are working on exciting projects, sometimes even before there are job advertisements. Likewise, colleagues have recommended their talented students to me. It’s a great way to ensure that research from my lab continues to have a lasting impact.

Science legacy is also about what we can do for the broader scientific community. At ASTRO 3D, my team and I achieved a 50:50 gender balance this year (in Australia as a whole, women make up only 30% of the astronomy workforce). When I introduced the idea of gender representation in 2017, there were questions about why it mattered and how we could achieve a fairer balance. Despite the challenges, my team and I persevered because we believe strongly that better representation of all genders and minority groups would improve the range of role models for education and outreach, as well as fairness on committees. When you feel that a cause is worth fighting for, be fearless in pursuing it.

João F. Mano in the lab

João Mano strives to assign projects that are appropriate to his students’ skill sets and personalities.Credit: COMPASS Research Group

JOÃO MANO: Personalize your mentoring style

Professor of biotechnology at the CICECO-Aveiro Institute of Materials, Department of Chemistry, University of Aveiro, Portugal.

A science legacy is created when each lab member can maximize their potential and go on to build successful careers in their respective fields. So far, my lab has generated more than 70 master’s students, 25 PhD students and 40 postdocs, many of whom are now senior researchers in other countries (mainly India and China) or working in industry (mostly in Europe).

As mentoring is important for the career development of my trainees, I try to personalize my style because no two students are the same. I try to understand the personality and ambitions of my students, and assign projects that I think will be appropriate to their skill sets and personality types.

Developing good mentoring skills cannot be rushed, and you need experience to know what to say to students and how to recognize their potential, and help them to realize it. As a PhD student, I did not have much personal experience dealing with failing experiments. However, when I became an assistant professor, I started seeing students struggling with experiments that weren’t going how they wanted and feeling defeated when they couldn’t deliver results. I know that students’ morale can be worsened if I, as their supervisor, am unwilling to admit that my initial hypotheses might not be right.

What I will typically do is to deconstruct the project into smaller steps to make the scope more manageable. There have been times when I’ve changed a project’s direction entirely because I’ve trusted that my students have tried their best to repeat experiments, and have accepted that my hypothesis just wasn’t correct.

Alumni who are doing well are testaments to the high-quality training that my lab is providing. They also serve as important contacts when my current students are looking for career opportunities and international exposure. With the success and support of alumni, we move closer to building a scientific legacy in our research field.

MUMING POO: Create safe spaces

Scientific director of the Institute of Neuroscience at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai, China.

To make groundbreaking discoveries and secure a research legacy, I’ve created safe spaces for my students to make mistakes and be comfortable with setbacks. This is important because, in my field of basic neuroscience research, the greatest impact is often made through unexpected discoveries, and there are bound to be ups and downs along this journey. With safe spaces, students can make mistakes and learn from them without affecting their confidence.

I give students three tips to minimize or avoid the wrong kinds of mistake, however. First, they should master techniques so that if an experiment fails, it is not because of poor technical execution. Second, they should learn a variety of techniques to equip them for different experiments. Third, and most importantly, they should embrace surprise findings that are consistent but that do not agree with the hypotheses being tested. These simple tips have helped me and my students to stay focused on answering our hypotheses and not waste time troubleshooting avoidable mistakes.

An effective supervisor should not shy away from difficult conversations. When I started my career, positions in academia were not as hard to get as they are now. Things have become much more competitive and I estimate that less than 20% of graduate students and postdocs in neuroscience go on to become independent lab heads. I remember having to advise students to consider career paths other than research. During this conversation, it is helpful to give students practical advice, such as how their skills in problem solving and teamwork are transferable to other jobs, and to provide them with connections to job openings in teaching and industry, for instance.

The extent of a person’s legacy is very much influenced by their career ambition and how they seek opportunities to maximize their potential. I have been extremely mobile in my career and was already a full professor at the University of California, Berkeley, before heading to China to lead the Institute of Neuroscience (ION), where I now work full-time. Whenever I’ve been weighing up a move, I’ve asked myself whether my absence would make a difference to my current institution, and where my contribution would be most effective.

The move to ION was a big career change and I think it is paying off: we have started an initiative that uses non-human primates as a model for studying higher cognitive functions and for drug discovery. We hope to train the next generation of scientists interested in this field.

DAVID MOONEY: Give credit when it is due

Professor of bioengineering at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A science legacy is created through the efforts of many lab members, and it is only right to acknowledge their contributions. This is important because when each lab member is doing well, it creates a virtuous effect, and the lab becomes a talent magnet.

Those acknowledgements can be made in various ways, but one of my favourites is to include in my presentations cartoons of the trainees who have performed the research in question. This personalizes the work and puts a face to the name for the audience. It can also help other researchers to find and approach the trainees when they meet at conferences. Obviously, lab heads should also acknowledge contributions in the form of co-authorship on papers and co-inventorship on patent applications.

As an assistant professor, I was able to attract great PhD students by promising them the adventure of building a lab and starting fresh lines of research. When setting up a lab, it can be difficult to attract postdocs, because they need to consider what move would best enhance their career. But, as the visibility and reputation of a lab grows with the success of the initial researchers, it will begin to attract talented postdocs. I am extremely fortunate to have trained 120 PhD students and postdocs so far.

Another way to credit your lab members is through the use of media communications. Good science speaks for itself, but media teams can be helpful in reaching a broader scientific and lay audience. Here at Harvard University, and at its Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, where I am a faculty member, we have excellent communications teams that produce media content for the public to help them understand cutting-edge science. This also helps the lab to gain visibility to attract other talented students. Start-up companies that bring technology from the bench to the market are often key to realizing the potential of new ideas. When science is commercialized and benefits society, its impact can outlast your career and help you to build a legacy. My lab has spun out five start-ups, including Immulus in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which uses advanced materials to manufacture T cells for therapy. The company was started by two of my former PhD students, and it was a wonderful experience, both professionally and personally, to work closely with them to realize our ideas and bring this technology to people who would benefit from it.