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Jul
23

There’s No Glass Ceiling if you Leave the Room

My friends have been asking me why I resigned from my current job, with no job lined up.

It started when ants found their way into our home. I could see a solid trail of ants determinedly racing towards a destination (turns out someone had spilled soda underneath the fridge).

The ants looked something like this:

Marching in a single file, the ants were focused and targeted on their sugar goldpile at the end of their trail. There were many of them, and they were undeterred. Like in a well-established field of research, everyone raced toward a final goal because they knew the reward was guaranteed.

After we cleaned up the soda, we saw a huge dropoff of ants in our home. However, one explorer ant (“scout ant” if you’re an entomologist) found a fragrant apple, and established a sparse trail leading a few other pioneering ants to our apple. This is akin to finding a promising, new research area. You’re not guaranteed success, but if you do, then many ants will eventually follow.

I have been lucky to be an explorer ant throughout most of my career. I established burgeoning fields and developed disruptive technologies.


The Job I Left Behind

When I started my job at GIS over 7 years ago, my job was funded by so-called “hard money” — guaranteed funding — which allowed me to be an explorer ant. I was given resources and allowed to try new ideas, so I executed some pretty interesting projects. Besides continuing research in genetic variation [1,2,3], I studied whether one could use online drug reviews to measure drug performances [4], created a framework for emancipating facts from papers locked behind paywalls (think SciHub with a legal theory) [5], and even looked at the patterns of Facebook memes [6].

However, the funding model at the institute changed; it started to transition to grant funding. The grant funding scheme was not guaranteed for a PI; funding instead was allocated top-down and focused on directed, big-money topics such as heart disease and cancer.

When I started writing grants, I found myself using buzzwords and adding unnecessary tasks to pad grants. Rather than designing the project the way it should be, I would bloat projects to consume the available funding.

The environment was changing, too. When resources are tight, people’s behaviors change. I looked around and saw certain behaviors emerging as people struggled to survive – this is not what I wanted to become.

Inevitably, I started to change: my science was changing and my efficiency was changing. And I didn’t like this change.

Large projects were winning funding, but I couldn’t be passionate about them because they were not risky or groundbreaking enough for me. Funding agencies were after success metrics like number of patents filed and licensees signed. They wanted a sure win, just like the ants rushing to our sticky soda sugar mine.

However, going into a heavily researched, well-established area? It’s just not me.

I could no longer be an explorer ant, and was worried I’d become:


Choices

I knew what I didn’t want to become, but what did I want to become?

I went through a lot of soul-searching. I applied for jobs, but nothing seemed to click.

A couple of incidents happened around this time.

  1. I heard a female entrepreneur speak, which is rare sight. She was realistic, open, and honest about the challenges in her life. What impressed me was that she had defined her own unique path.

    Instagram: lsjourney

  2. On a long flight, I watched the movie Moana on my dinky little airplane TV. It is about a girl finding her own identity (and saving her village in the process). These are my favorite lyrics in the whole movie:Like Moana, I have “journeyed farther” and have accomplished a lot in my career. My environment may change, but I should not let it change me. I still want to explore, to push boundaries, and to do ground-breaking things.
  3. My partner heard me singing “Moana” so often that he knew the lyrics without seeing the movie. Out of love, or perhaps to salvage his own ears, he suggested I take some time off. The way he put it was “if I didn’t make you happy, you’d leave me in a heartbeat. So if your job doesn’t make you happy, why not take a break instead of holding out for that new right job to come along?”

So I resigned.


The Future

(This is the shortest section because my story is still being written…)

So yes, I am unemployed! I am taking a step back to look at the big picture. I ain’t gonna lie: it’s scary like jumping off a cliff without a safety net.

Instagram adrenaline.addiction

Since my resignation, I’ve been rediscovering me. I have worn many hats: industry, academic, and clinical. I have always been defined by a role; now I will define my own role.

I have a general strategy. I’ve accepted a few part-time consulting jobs that I’m excited about, because it lets me work on exciting projects in new areas with amazing people. I am also very lucky to be a bioinformatician because all I need to continue creating is a laptop and access to cloud-based supercomputers.

 

Being a consultant is like being a tour guide –bringing others to newly discovered areas. I’ll also use some time to explore the unknown.

Most importantly, I’m keeping time for myself. There are some personal things on my bucket list I want to tick off. Some are genomic and disease-related; some are not. But in the end, I want to find something that challenges me and grows me.

Sure, like any explorer, I may fail.

But I’ll never know if I don’t try, right?


References

1. SIFT missense predictions for genomes. Nature Protocols 11:1-9. [siftdna.org]
2. Phen-Gen: Combining Phenotype and Genotype to Predict Causal Variants in Rare Disorders. Nature Methods 11:935 [phen-gen.org]
3. Predicting the effects of frameshifting indels. Genome Biology 13:R9
4. Assessment of Web-Based Consumer Reviews as a Resource for Drug Performance S. Adusumalli, H. Lee, Q. Hoi, S.L. Koo, I.B. Tan, P.C. Ng (2015) Journal of Medical Internet Research 17:e211
5. Enabling Public Access to Non-Open Biomedical Literature via Idea-Expression Dichotomy and Fact Extraction. Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence Workshop on Scholarly Big Data [FactPub]
6. Information Evolution in Social Networks. The 9th ACM International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining

2 comments

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  1. Luanne says:

    Absolutely right! One door closes and the next one will open. When you take the leap, you’ll be rewarded 🙂 Have done it my whole life and it keeps getting better! It’s been a while since we connected. Hope you’re well.

  2. Dale Yuzuki says:

    This is great – thank you for sharing.

    As one who is in-between employers myself (was laid off from a small clinical NGS controls company just last week – wrote it up here. it is exciting to think about all the ways diverse skills and talents can be reassembled.

    Great analogy too on the ant-trails and tour guide to undiscovered regions – plenty of new opportunities at the intersection of bioinformatics, clinical decision-making, and genomics. Best of luck to you!

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