How I Fail S01E08: Darren Boehning (PhD’01, Cell Biology)

How I Fail: Darren Boehning (PhD'01, Cell Biology)
For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Darren Boehning, who is a professor at the McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. You can find out more about him on his blog or on Twitter

 1. Hi Darren, thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

I got into science somewhat accidentally. I was going to go to medical school, but decided to take a year off. I quickly learned that it is difficult to find a job with a BS in Biology, so the only position I could get was as a research technician at a university. I loved it so much I didn’t submit my medical school secondary applications and applied to graduate school. I did my Ph.D. in the same lab I worked as a technician. I then went on to a ~4 year post-doc before taking my first tenure-track faculty position in 2005.

 2. Could you share some failures with the readers, and why those failures were memorable to you?

Like most scientists, I fail on a daily basis! Failed experiments, rejected manuscripts, and triaged grants are all part of this profession. This really bothered me as a graduate student, and at some point I felt like I would never graduate and should just quit. I had a great and productive post-doctoral experience, but applying for faculty positions was the single most stressful experience up to that point in my life.  I don’t know how many positions I applied for, but it must have been upwards of 100. I even saved some of the rejection letters!

Of course as a faculty member, getting grants is probably the single most important and stressful thing in my career. I got my first NIH R01 grant one month before my startup ran out. My renewal of this grant was in a no cost extension and the first submission was triaged. The revised (A1) version received an excellent score and was funded. Being close to the brink of closing your lab due to the inability to get funding is demoralizing. Unfortunately the funding situation at the NIH, NSF, and other US funding agencies makes this job extremely undesirable for the next generation of scientists.

 3. Do you in general keep track of your failures? Why / why not?

I do not. I look forward to future successes, not revisiting past failures.

4. What do you think of the “CV of Failures”? Is it a good trend or are there also some caveats?

I do not see a benefit personally, but maybe others do. I can see the benefit for students/mentees, but I can’t imagine having a section on my professional CV describing my failures.

5. In your “Failure is an option” post you write “We all have to get used to failure, because it will happen often in our careers. This does not make you an imposter” Can you elaborate on this?

I have felt outside of my league many, many times in this profession. As a grad student it was learning electrophysiology, as a post-doc it was essentially teaching myself neuroscience and of course the awful experience of applying and getting rejected many times for faculty positions. As a faculty member, the evisceration of my grants has been very disheartening. I don’t know if I have fully overcome these feelings (which I would presume are perfectly natural), I just keep trying to do my job to the best of my ability.

6. You mentioned you wrote about “your mediocrity” before in your “Working class scientist” post, where you rank yourself against your field / career stage. Is this something you’ve done throughout your career?

I think everyone aspires to be the best, but there is always someone better. This is true in any field or profession. I think the point of this post is that I am perfectly fine with this, and I am happy both personally and professionally.

7. In this same post you conclude you survive by “working your ass off”. This is a positive message in a sense that “everybody can get there with hard work”. But to be honest, I think it might also encourage imposter feelings – for junior researchers who are worried they won’t be able to work hard enough to keep their heads above water. Have you considered this?

Let me counter with this post.

I FULLY support work/life balance both personally and with my trainees. Importantly, I put no pressure on others in my lab to work long hours, and allow them to make their own schedule. Personally, I have four children and a wonderful wife who, frankly, are much more important than my career. Actually, the flexibility of my schedule has allowed me to spend much more time with my family compared those close to me in other professions. I hope others don’t come away with that impression from the working class scientist post.

 8. Are there any opportunities you regret not trying out, even if they might have ended up on your (hypothetical) “failure” CV?

I still wonder what my life would be like if I went to medical school. My wife jokes that I teach so much in the med school I have probably already finished the didactic requirements!

 9. Can you think of something you did that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t generally find on a CV?

I have volunteered quite a bit and I also have also participated in a program similar to Big Brother Big Sisters of America. These experiences have been incredibly rewarding. Also, I think my wife and I have done a good job raising our four kids, which is a much harder job than academia.

10. How about something that’s typically on CVs, but doesn’t feel like an accomplishment?

There is so much bias which comes into play when being invited to give a talk or seminar. You have to take this section with a grain of salt.

11. What do you do when you receive a rejection? Do you have some process/ritual of dealing with failure?

Depends on how catastrophic the failure is! Having a nice dinner with my family and going for a run does wonders to calm me down.

12. What about when something is successful?

Interestingly I don’t think I do much to reward myself. If I get a grant I usually take the lab out for some activity because my grant success is due entirely to their efforts. The same thing applies to papers. I don’t think I did anything for my promotions.

13. Is there something we can all do to improve how failure affects others in academia?

Be supportive mentors.

14. What is the best piece of advice you have received in the past?

Submit every round.

15. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

I have no major regrets. Having a family has enlightened me to what are the truly important things in life. Professionally, try not to sweat the small stuff.

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