How I Fail S01E18: Mike Yassa (PhD’10, Neurobiology and Behavior)

  For this How I Fail post I have the pleasure of interviewing Michael A. Yassa, Associate Professor and Chancellor’s Fellow at the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at the
Francisco J. Ayala School of Biological Sciences. You can find him on the web, FB and Twitter, and the same holds for his lab (web, FB, Twitter).

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

I am a neurobiologist by training, but tend to dabble quite broadly in other related disciplines. I received my undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University in neuroscience where I first fell in love with the brain and studying the human mind in particular. I took a freshman seminar called “Mind and Brain” by the late Steve Yantis, who I came to know and grew close with as a colleague when I started my first faculty position at Johns Hopkins, before his untimely and tragic passing after a hard-fought battle with cancer. The course, and Steve’s fervor in teaching it, simply changed my life. It sparked the interest, curiosity and passion for brain science that I continue to have today.

After getting my PhD from UC Irvine, I started my research program at Johns Hopkins in Psychological and Brain Sciences, where I stayed from 2010-2014. In 2014, I moved my lab, students and staff in tow, to UC Irvine where I have been since. In 2016, I was appointed Director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. Today, my lab studies the neural mechanisms of learning and memory using multimodal imaging, neurophysiology, and behavior. We apply the work to several diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, depression, epilepsy and others. My life is fast-paced and caffeine-fueled, attempting to balancing family, research, teaching, mentorship, and Center leadership with only moderate success.

2. Can you share any of your own memorable failures?

Gladly. There are so many it’s hard to pick just one. Let’s just say I’ve learned to develop crocodile skin from the sheer number of rejections and failures.

One of my most memorable experiences was applying to the DP2 NIH Director’s Initiative New Innovator grant. I applied in 2010 before I started my tenure-track position at Hopkins. Now you have to put this in context a bit. I had helped my PI secure two grants focusing on my research, an R03 and an R01, both funded on the first try.  I somehow managed to luck into a tenure-track position without a postdoctoral fellowship. Needless to say, I had supreme confidence in my abilities to write a grant and get funded through this initiative. I remember checking the review results at NIH Commons with much anticipation. And there it was. Unscored.

I refreshed the page, checked and re-checked thinking this must be some kind of mistake. But it was true. I spent several weeks in a state of confusion. I had just published several papers that I thought were my best work and compiled the best ideas I had into one bad-ass grant that should have been funded. What happened? Then the summary statement became available and the situation became very clear. Before I saw the summary statement, I expected that perhaps there was one critical issue I needed to address or that may be a resubmission can be done quickly for the deadline upcoming in two weeks. It was not to be.

The summary statement was my sudden crash back to reality. The reviewers tore apart every possible aspect of the proposal. It felt like every thought I had was somehow invalidated. It was soul-crushing to say the least. Worse, I came to realize over the weeks that followed that they were right. Every comment had a basis and every critique was substantiated. My ego was knocked down in a big way. And it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I look back on that grant now and credit the reviews with shaping my perspective on granting and writing as well as showing me that good scientists must be humble and persistent. Humility and persistence were my two biggest lessons. I still struggle with both occasionally, but I am certainly a lot better than I was in 2010. This failure, and in particular it happening so early in my career, shaped future successes.

3. You tweeted about your grants folder with several successes but also many rejections. Do you do this with other things as well, for example papers?

I have not thought about posting rejected papers but that’s not a bad idea. Those folders would be considerably longer and I would have no problem at all sharing them, except that I truly have never given up on any writing project (maybe it’s pathological persistence). Papers may take years sometimes to publish, but I don’t have a “unsuccessful papers” folder. It’s simply a “papers in prep” folder… that happens to be quite substantial.

I think that BioRxiv and other venues for posting preprints makes it so that no paper is ever really a “failure”. Papers are different than grants in my opinion. While one can have a failed grant that’s been submitted and resubmitted to no avail, and it becomes critical to shift gears and re-conceive things, papers a little bit different. They can get rejected for a variety of different reasons even in the absence of conceptual flaws. So I don’t tend to think of them as failures but more as works in progress.

I am still quite new to sharing about failure to be honest. And I was not sure I was ready for the response. Now that I’ve done it, I can tell you it has been extremely rewarding, especially to hear from others who have had similar experience or junior scientists who were somehow inspired by it. It was certainly a risk and in fact some colleagues reached out in disbelief. I did not regret it one bit. My highest priority at this time to mentor and inspire a new generation of scientists.

I think sharing for me stems from the fact that I been witnessing worrisome trends in the field, among junior scientists especially. Some feel discouraged by the relative paucity of jobs, funding, and opportunities in general. While I don’t deny that any of that is true, there’s a certain mindset that allows some to thrive and be successful. Those individuals tend to treat failure as growth opportunities. They wear those badges with pride and recognize that there is no success without failure.

4. Have you always been this open about failure or is it something that developed throughout your career? Were there any mentors that influenced this?

I’ve always been open about data, tools, sharing and collaboration, but perhaps not as open about failure outside my lab. Within the lab, however, we are very open with each other about rejections, revisions, writing and rewriting. The complete openness we have now came with time. As my lab got bigger, and as my daughters got older, I increasingly felt the need to be more open about what it takes to succeed.

In terms of mentorship, I’ve had excellent ones, too many to name, over the years and they’ve all modeled terrific handling of failure and shown me that rational thought in the aftermath of a grant rejection is critical for growth. This is one of the reasons why I think modeling this behavior for my students and for junior scientists in general is important. I had that opportunity and it shaped who I am as a scientist.

5. Is this something you actively discuss with your lab? Do you think this affects how your students approach submitting grants, papers?

My lab has seen the few days following a grant that goes unfunded, especially one on which we all worked very hard. The beard grows, the mood stiffens, and everything is tense for a little while. But it resolves quickly and we get right back to writing and doing research. That period of “grief” has become much shorter in recent times (as short as an hour for some very recent ones).

But every rejection still hurts. How can it not? We are all human after all and rejection is something we all detest. The key is to get over that basic human emotion quickly and recognize the growth opportunity that is available. It is of course much more difficult to see this perspective when the fate of a lab depends on that unfunded grant.

When we get paper reviews back, the first thing I do is send the email with brief comments to the student who took the lead on writing the paper. We may exchange a few words about “Reviewer number 3” but ultimately, we recognize that we could do better. We craft a plan to improve the paper, set a new timeline for resubmission or revision and take steps forward. Handling rejection becomes a part of the graduate student experience. It is critical for growth.

I worry more about the ones who don’t get a sufficient number of rejections while they’re in grad school. We do the same with talk critiques. No one needs constant pats on the back. Everyone could use constructive criticism, so that’s where we focus. We have two buzzwords in the lab, “bulletproof” and “crocodile skin”. My aim is to make each of my students and postdocs bulletproof when they give a talk or write a paper or submit a proposal. This is the first step. The second step is learning how to handle rejection well.. what I call, “having crocodile skin”.

6. Do you or your lab have any traditions associated with failures or successes?

Ha! Yes, we do. We have a paper pony (literally a small stuffed “My Little Pony” doll – don’t judge). The pony remains in the possession of the graduate student or postdoc who most recently got a paper accepted while in the lab. There’s a formal handing over of the pony from one student to another to celebrate each other’s accomplishment. We typically do celebrate new papers and new grants together in the lab. We do not have traditions associated with failure yet, but it’s never too late.

7.  I noticed in your Twitter bio you are passionate about science communication and open science. Do you think these things and being open about failures often go together?

I believe those two are highly interrelated. Being passionate about science communication necessitates that we are honest about the process. Failure is part of that process and weighs in much more heavily than success. I strongly believe we should be as open about it as we are about success.

8. Do you think that there is a more negative attitude towards failure in academia than in other fields?

It depends. If we are thinking of feelings and attitudes towards one’s own failures, I’ve certainly seen this affect people, including myself, in different ways. In some cases, it can lead to despair and in some others, it is brushed off quickly. It depends on the magnitude of the failure and the consequences for a laboratory’s research program. I don’t think it’s any more negative than other fields. Certainly, the same is true for business enterprises, perhaps even more so.

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

Given what I know now, I would tell my past self to get over failures more quickly and move on. I spent too much early in my career worrying about failure and wallowing in self-pity every time I failed. That time could have been better spent learning from those failures and planning the next endeavor based on what is learned.

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