How I Fail S0201: Pedro Leão (PhD’18, Microbiology)

Pedro Leão has a Ph.D. in Microbiology (2018) from UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro). His thesis was named “Diversity of Magnetotactic organisms: New frontiers for magnetotaxis evolution.” At the moment, Pedro is an FSE fellow at the University of Groningen, working in the Groningen Biomolecular Sciences and Biotechnology Institute (GBB). His main research interest is in linking genomics data with ultrastructure characterization. You can find Pedro on Twitter (@Leao_pel), where he mostly advocates about empathy and emotional education in academia.

Hi Pedro, thanks for joining How I Fail! Next to your official bio, could you say a bit more about yourself?

Thank you for having me, Veronika! I’m a Brazilian microbiologist passionate about two things: Science and Sports. I join a research group in my second year as a Microbiology and Immunology bachelor (2010). I end up staying in the same group for the coming 9 years, where I receive my bachelor’s (2013), master (2015) and PhD (2018) titles under the supervision of professor Ulysses Lins. In my second year as a PhD candidate, I had the chance to stay for one summer at professor Arash Komeili’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley.

All my research formation was done on the same topic: magnetotactic bacteria (MTB). More precisely, I analyze the diversity (phylogenetic, ultrastructural, morphological) of this group of microorganisms. I consider myself really lucky to have been “raised” in this scientific community, which is amazingly inclusive and, in general, super friendly and open to collaborations, but especially lucky to have these two mentors along with me through this journey in academia so far.

In the middle of my stay at UC Berkeley, I received a call about my advisor’s death in Brazil. I stayed there for one more month and went back to Brazil and decided to finish my PhD 1 year earlier. Here I am two years after, as a FSE fellow doing some lecture and research work as a postdoc at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands! I’m currently under the supervision of professor Dirk-Jan Scheffers doing research in Bacillus subtilis’ cell wall and membrane structure.

What’s a memorable failure for you?

My most memorable failure is a recent one! Right after I finish my PhD, a position at the institute I had been working during my whole career was open. Not any position, a position to fill the chair left by the premature death of my supervisor – a guy I had worked with for the past 9 years! At first, it did not even cross to my mind to apply for it. Our group was in great hands, led by a young professor who had been mentored by Ulysses also.

Two weeks after the announcement of the position, some friends and professors approached me, telling me that I should apply for it. “You have all the requirements?”, “What can go wrong? It is worth the shot”.

Long story short, I applied for the position with 16 other people, and I did not even pass the first round of selection (which in Brazil is a writing exam). I failed to get the position, but that is OK. For me, the big failure was to not fulfill the expectations of my peers and from myself that I would be at least competitive in this scenario. I was crushed for a while. That impostor syndrome that we all know about in academia hit me hard. In the end, I had a PhD, was unemployed, and my self-esteem was on the ground.

Lucky, a 2-years visiting professor position in the same institute was open, and I was able to be selected for this one. After 18 months in this position, I had to start to search for a new job, but because of significant cuts in science funding in Brazil (as always), no one was hiring. At this point, I gained my confidence back and started to apply for some postdocs abroad.

Do you keep track of failures? Why/why not?

Sort of. I keep track of all applications I made, so I can check some old ones when preparing new ones. Doing this helps me in two ways: (i) I can keep track of improvements that need to be done; (ii) It allows me to travel back to the time I submitted that application. By remembering the will to get these things, the high hopes and plans that I had while applying keeps me ground it. I know that I fail to achieve those goals, but I still here! Things did not go as I wish, and that is OK, I was able to set the route and find alternatives to keep seeking my pathways towards my goals.

I still have a folder with all the 29 applications I made for postdocs while in Brazil. From those, I received 9 (31%) replies and was invited for 4 (13%) interviews. Now I see this as a huge success, but back then, it feels like a complete disaster.

Often people use the words rejection and failure interchangeably, what do you think about that?

I don’t think they are interchangeable. I believe rejection is when we don’t fulfill the standards of someone else. It could be a company, a person, an agency. Failure is something more deep and personal, as we don’t cope with our own expectations. We were unable to reach even what we set as a standard for ourselves. And as always, we are our worst critics, so a failure, in my opinion, always hit harder than rejection.

From my perspective, some rejections can be failures for you – like in my case, not getting the position, and performing way below my expectations.

Is there anything you regret not trying, even if you had to add it to your failure CV?

No. If I really want something I have to try it. I can’t live with the uncertainty of the “what if?”. To have this posture, you have to deal well with failure, because the truth is the chance to fail is enormously higher than the one for you to succeed.

It took me some time to learn this, but maybe it was one of the most valuable lessons I had: failing is fine, as long as you don’t fail to the point of no return. In other words: Crash! Just make sure you don’t crash and burn! How you build this to deal well with failure? Failing and mostly importantly, normalizing failure by not being too harsh on yourself and surrounding yourself with people that support you!

Can you share a success, that traditionally would not be on a (regular) CV?

I think a CV of failure itself. I’m really proud of all the rejected applications I had. It represents how many failures I could handle and still get to the place I’m today. Be proud of your failure is a tough call, but I think all of us should at least not be ashamed of them. They tell more about you than your successes.

Is there anything that you feel you are failing at yourself?

To be honest, yes. I’m in limbo at the moment. The thing is, I had a safe place in my advisor. He was a friend and a mentor who knew me thought all my academic career. I always thought I could do anything if I set a good plan because I would approach him to look for guidance at any point in this plain. Now that he is not here, I sometimes feel a little lost, thinking I’m aiming too high, sometimes too low. I miss the feeling that someone that knows me will keep me accountable in my ambition.

I built a level of tolerance to failure, knowing how much I could handle. This tolerance was taking into account my support system, and he was a big part of it. I need to relearn what are my limits, or build self-esteem and realize that I can do it with the people I have by my side now.

I feel I’m failing at this. I have some plans that are on hold because I don’t feel confident enough to make a move. I will learn my new limits, one fail at a time, but now I’m afraid to fail, as I hadn’t been for a while ad this is scary and frustrating. Fortunately, I still have great friends and colleagues that don’t know me as well as him but are valuable advisors to help me through this.

Are there any people who have been important to the way you deal with failure?

Yes! I have amazing friends on the field, some better established and renewed scientists, and others growing in the field side by side with me. The exchange of experiences with these people and the openness to talk about failure were really important in understanding that failure is a significant player in our career. Failure is inevitable in science, what you are going to do with it is what decides how healthy your work/life balance will be.

Everyone should have a support group! Dealing with failure on a daily basis is not something trivial. Surrounding myself with people having the same experiences that I was having helped me see that I was not alone, sometimes things go entirely unexpected, not only with me.

Are there any books, podcasts etc you would recommend on this topic?

I cannot recommend enough the book “Failure: Why Science Is So Successful” by Stuart Firestein. I think all scientists should read and reflect on it! It shows failure as an inevitable part of scientific progress, and do it in a fresh why without glorifying it. I love this book.

For me, mental toughness and emotional intelligence are key factors to deal properly with failure. A book that opens my mind to the importance of being educated on this subject was “The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance” by George Mumford. You can virtually interchange the sport’s scenarios for academic ones in this book.

Do you think there are any factors (field, country) etc, that influence how failure is seen?

Yes! In Brazil, it is common to see people saying they are sorry after committing a mistake. Even if what went wrong was completely out of his/her control. I think we perceive failure as always our fault. You can imagine how energy-draining a mindset like this can be for a scientist.

From one side it is good because if the problem is with you, it is easy to fix it, you can work on it. On the other hand, the problem is not always on you, and if you don’t handle this carefully, you can be trap in a self-depreciation loop. That is why it is so important to have a good PI as an advisor and a nice support group.

In the Netherlands, I think it doesn’t happen that often. People are more secure of their skills, and if they fail at something, it is how it is, they try to fine-tune some details, but if it keeps going to a dead end, they just move on to the next one. I’m about to finish my first year here, so this can be just a superficial first impression.

In the US, I believe the extremely competitive and fast-paced atmosphere in academia doesn’t give people time to properly handle failure. Once you fail, your first reaction must keep moving! Put that plan B, C, D in practice to achieve your results. In a scenario where productivity is the goal, this works perfectly, but if you want to form a good scientist, this is a disaster! Ignoring failures deprives you of learning how to deal with them, and once a big failure is inevitable, you have no experience to deal even with small ones. That is a recipe for that “crash and burn” scenario.

What about sharing failures online? Does the perception of people who do this differ? Should more people try to do it?

I understand why some people don’t do it. But my philosophy is simple on this subject. You can choose if you are going to be proud of your failures or not, but you never should be ashamed of them. They made the professional that you are as much as your successes.

Is there anything else we could all do to improve the conversations about failure?

We “baby doctors” (as some of my senior scientist friends used to call me) have a huge responsibility to normalize the conversation about failure!

The battle I picked to fight in academia is the spread of more empathy in our community. All of us are failing in something daily. More than that, all PIs were stressful postdocs with deadlines, all postdocs were insecure grad students, that once were fresh out of college curious bachelor students.

As new PhDs, we are still in contact with memories of the struggles grad students have and are starting to experience some of the responsibilities a PI has to deal with as well. Fight the speech of “Us against them (doctors/staff vs. students)” is essential for us to talk about one of the most important things that put us together: Failing!

If you’ve been a reader of How I Fail last season, what are your favorite lessons from the series?

I really enjoyed Mike Yassa’s episode (S01E18). At one point, he said, “I worry more about the ones who don’t get a sufficient number of rejections while they’re in grad school”. This is the same feeling I have.

He talks about mentoring his students to handle criticism and failure (his bulletproof and crocodile skin concepts). This resonates with my idea of knowing yourself through small failures, so you feel more comfortable each time with the feeling of failing. This comfort would allow you to aim for more challenging things because you can handle the probable failure.

What would a five year younger you think of you now? What advice would you give to that person?

My younger self, 5 years ago, would be entering the PhD program. He would never believe me if I told him everything that happens in these 5 years, and where he would be now! My plans had changed drastically, but not my goals!

I would tell him that it is ok to be afraid. It is ok not to feel prepared for some situations. The worst thing that can happen is to fail, which is not bad, and he can trust it will be people to help him pick up the lessons from these challenges, and eventually, he will feel less scared and more prepared to move forward.

Also to enjoy as much as possible the beach and the sun! They won’t have such things in Groningen! 🙂

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I talked a little about empathy here. If you can take away just one thing from this conversation, that it be to be kind to yourself and others. Failure is part of life and an even more significant part of science. We can only normalize the conversation about failure if we understand we all have them on our past and will keep having them in our future, no matter how successful we became.

*****

Thanks Pedro for joining the series and kick-starting our second season! Enjoy the Dutch sun for now 🙂

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