How I Fail S02E08 – Jen Heemstra (PhD’05, Chemistry)

Jen Heemstra is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Emory University. Research in the Heemstra lab is focused on harnessing the molecular recognition and self-assembly properties of nucleic acids for applications in biosensing and bioimaging. Outside of work, Jen enjoys spending time with her husband and two sons, as well as rock climbing, cycling, and running. You can find out more about her and the members of the Heemstra Lab on her website or on Twitter.

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

Hi Veronika, 

It’s great to join you to talk about failure! This is a topic that I know well. From my 8th grade teacher telling me I wasn’t good at science to the grant proposal that was rejected last month, it is a topic that has significantly shaped my life and who I am as a person. The “unofficial” bio is that I’m someone who never thought I could be a scientist or a faculty member, so I still wake up every day in awe of where I am. And, while most people would call me a scientist, at this point in my career, I see myself more as a mentor and leader – science is just the vehicle for me to empower others to build their careers. To that end, my favorite thing about my job is getting to work with all of the students and postdocs who are my colleagues in the Heemstra Lab. People who know me on Twitter also know that I’m pretty outspoken about changing academic culture.

What’s a memorable failure for you?

Probably the most impactful failure of my career was my tenure vote at my former institution. It was not an outright failure (and I did ultimately get tenure) but it did not go as I had expected. It was definitely the most painful failure of my life, as I felt like I had let down my family and my research group members – basically all of the people I care most about. For anyone who hasn’t experienced that, it is a truly horrible feeling. But, it can also be a beautifully humbling experience as well. Seeing how all of those people stood by me in the midst of the struggle ended up seismically shifting my worldview and priorities. It gave me a new view of what academia could be and a fire to make that into a reality. It also made me fearless. This specific failure that I had long been afraid of ended up happening to me. It was the exact thing that I had deeply dreaded, and I found myself suddenly thrust into it and with no choice but to cope and keep moving forward. As I continued to work hard and succeed in spite of that and eventually came out of the situation, I realized that I’m stronger than I ever thought I was and that people’s opinions of me don’t have to define me.

On Twitter you have “embrace failure” in your bio. What does failure mean to you? Is there a story that made you add this line?

This is actually a phrase that I think about quite a bit and I’m not sure if I will always “embrace.” As researchers, we often talk about failure being a necessary part of the discovery process, but at the same time we know that we all need at least some success to move forward. As we’ve gotten involved with research on the psychology of failure, I’ve been able to better understand this dichotomy. Where I land right now is recognizing that failure is not inherently good, but rather being willing to fail can make us more likely to succeed. For example, if we are willing to dive into the hard experiment that might kill a project rather than saving it for the end because we’re afraid of the failure, we are ultimately more likely to advance our research in a meaningful way. All of that being said, the character limit for a bio on Twitter is pretty limiting, so I’m guessing I’ll keep the phrase there.

You are quite outspoken about various problems in academia. Can you say a bit more about how you got started with this? 

People who know me know that I’ve always been outspoken – Twitter and other media have just given me a public platform for sharing my thoughts more broadly. The motivation for talking about academia comes from realizing that early-career researchers should be at the center of all that we do in the context of academic research – after all, we work at institutions of higher education, not institutions of higher productivity. However, we have a reward system that primarily focuses on publications, grants, and awards, and this unfortunately can allow faculty to thrive in their own careers even if they don’t support the researchers working in their groups. I feel a responsibility to address this, not only by growing my own mentoring and leadership skills so that I can create a healthy and supportive culture in my own lab, but also by advocating for wider scale change.

Should everybody share failures, and/or be more open in general? What would your advice be for somebody who wants to be more open, but is afraid of the negative consequences?

This is a tricky one. I think we should have a culture in science and academia where people can be open about their failures without consequences. But, until we get there, I’ll say that our responsibility to share our failures is proportional to the amount of power we have in the academic system. For tenured faculty, when we are willing to share there is very little to be lost, but much to be gained in encouraging and supporting the next generation of scientists. I’ve also found that when other people are authentic about their failures, it actually increases my respect for them, rather than decreasing it.

Is there anything that you are currently failing at yourself?

As we stretch into month 8 of the COVID-19 spike in the US, am I allowed to say “everything”? I know it’s not true, but it’s tough to not feel like I’m simultaneously failing as a leader, teacher, mentor, and parent. There is more than ever that needs to be done, and trying to get all of that done in the online environment is often far less effective. And, the stress of everyday life right now makes it more challenging to show up and be the person that I want to be.

What types of things – successes or failures, big or small – do you keep track over time? Why / how does it help you?

That’s a very interesting question, and it makes me realize that I’m probably not great about doing this. I definitely keep track of my growth in key areas such as communication and leadership, but I tend to celebrate the successes and mourn the failures in real-time, then let them go and keep moving. For me, the more important questions are “did I improve myself today?” and “did I improve the world around me today?” and those are often agnostic to failure or success. That being said, part of my job as a faculty member is to fill out an annual report where I cut and paste every publication and talk into a website to be tabulated and analyzed by my institution, so I guess I do sort of use that to keep track.

Should we be sharing more of such (small, non-traditional) successes and failures too? 

I think this is incredibly important. We tend to define success and failure pretty narrowly in academia – the experiment worked or it didn’t, the paper got accepted or rejected, the grant got funded or not funded, etc. In our education research, we define failure as “not achieving a desired outcome” and that can look like many things – it can be not having a conference talk go as smoothly as you wanted or feeling like you didn’t handle a crucial conversation well. Along the same lines, the successes that we should celebrate are also much broader and we’re missing out by not recognizing those.

What is such a recent, small success for you?

I cracked a joke in an email this morning that made someone laugh. We all need laughter right now.

Are there any resources on failure you would recommend to early career researchers?

The book I most highly recommend is Mindset by Carol Dweck. It’s not directly about failure, but rather about how we view our abilities. However, her research suggests that this deeply impacts how we view failure, and ultimately, how likely we are to achieve success. Even more importantly, I’ve found that her research can hugely impact my happiness and sense of satisfaction in my work, and that is even more important to me than the classical metrics of success.

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

Ten years younger me would think “No way! It is absolutely impossible that you are doing this.” I spent way too much time thinking that I could never have the career that I do, and I’m constantly amazed that I’ve made it here and have the opportunity to help others identify and work toward their career goals.

The advice I would give to ten years younger me is twofold: (1) it’s easier to live with failure than regret; (2) go out and find yourself some leadership skills – you’re going to need them. The second one I say somewhat jokingly, but also being completely serious. We tend to view academic jobs as “research jobs” while at the same time they require skills in people management, budget and finances, conflict resolution, strategic planning, etc and there is little in the typical trajectory that prepares you for that. But, that’s also why I’m writing a book! It will be all of the leadership advice I wish I had when I started my faculty career.

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