What does it mean to be “ready” to apply for faculty positions? In a recent keynote address, Kemi Doll (an associate professor at the University of Washington and academic coach) presented the idea that being “ready” is not a circumstance, or a series of boxes that need to be checked. Being ready, she told us, is a decision. Formulating the situation this way can shift our thinking away from pursuing what we think others will “need” in order to take us seriously (a paper in X journal, Y fellowship or award) and toward a more meaningful “need”: What do I need to be willing to try?
We aim to provide the Fellows with four things: 1) exposure, 2) mentorship, 3) community, and 4) training.
Doll’s keynote was part of this year’s kickoff event for Leading Edge (www.leadingedgesymposium.org), an initiative I started as a postdoc with the goal of increasing gender diversity among biology faculty. Each year, Leading Edge selects about 40 people at all stages of their postdocs as Leading Edge Fellows and supports them through the postdoc-to-faculty transition and early assistant professor stages. Our first cohort was announced in 2020, and we just announced our new cohort in May 2021. This year, we also selected a cohort of New Faculty Fellows to support in the first year of assistant professorship. Of course, there are far more talented postdocs and assistant professors than we can accommodate with each cohort. Therefore, Leading Edge also maintains a directory of women and non-binary postdocs and early assistant professors (www.leadingedgesymposium.org/directory), inspired by the WICB speaker referral list for established faculty (www.ascb.org/career-development/speaker-referral-lists).
Leading Edge stemmed from one observation, and one gamble: 1) that the gender diversity of faculty applicant pools was significantly worse than the postdoc pool, and 2) that postdocs could do something about it. The initial focus was on encouraging active recruitment of candidates into the applicant pool. Certainly, I had plenty of personal experience of thinking I wasn’t a good fit, or good enough, for an opportunity, only to receive an encouraging email from a mentor or sponsor that emboldened me to jump in (sometimes what it takes to be willing to try is a push!). We also know that that many of the proxies used for evaluating candidates (journal names, institution names, PI names, grants and awards) exhibit substantial gender and racial biases. (For those looking to read more about this, the equity reading list on the website of ASCB Council member Needhi Bhalla is a phenomenal place to start: https://www.bhallalab.com/equity-reading-list.)
The Fellows have…created a space to celebrate and cheer on one another as they have reaped many successes over the past year.
Leading Edge provides postdocs with a platform to bring themselves off of the CV page and to present their ideas and vision directly, to help institutions identify candidates to contact and recruit into their applicant pools. The flagship event of the initiative is the Leading Edge Symposium at which the Fellows present their work. This was initially formulated as a two-day symposium to be held at HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic had other ideas. The inaugural symposium, scheduled for early May 2020, was canceled in early March. We transitioned the symposium to virtual, allowing anyone around the world to hear the exciting work of the Fellows either live or through recordings. We cannot wait for this year’s symposium, which will occur every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the month of June—be sure to tune in (https://www.leadingedgesymposium.org/symposium/)!
Our inaugural year profoundly reshaped Leading Edge for the better. We aim to provide the Fellows with four things: 1) exposure, 2) mentorship, 3) community, and 4) training. Confined to a two-day in-person symposium, the initial formulation focused heavily on the first two: exposure through the Fellow talks and mentorship from 10 terrific faculty members. But Leading Edge has come to revolve around the third point: community. Our first cohort of Fellows turned to each other during the challenges of this past year and built a community based on curiosity, honesty, and a fierce commitment to elevating one another. They are remarkable. The 2021 Fellows are now bringing their own energy and perspectives to enrich the community.
The transition to virtual also allowed us to weave others into this community to have more extensive conversations about academia. We have heard from new faculty, established faculty, grad students and postdocs—many of them ASCB members—about the job market, grants, the process of starting a lab, and navigating academia with multiple marginalized identities. These conversations have not only identified actionable steps, but also unearthed a variety of usually unspoken rules (and loopholes) for advancing through a scientific career. Perhaps most importantly, as a result of the willingness of both guest speakers and Fellows to speak candidly about their experiences, I have heard variants ranging from “I had no idea” to “I thought I was the only one” more times than I can count. And it is not all about challenges and vulnerability: The Fellows have also created a space to celebrate and cheer on one another as they have reaped many successes over the past year. The community is an incredible joy amplifier!
Speaking of joy amplifiers, it has been a true gift to build Leading Edge within a broader ecosystem working to support the exposure, mentorship, community, and training of postdocs. Institutions and societies including the ASCB are giving postdocs from groups that are underrepresented at the faculty level resources and community support to navigate the transition, including through the MOSAIC program and the Accomplishing Career Transitions (ACT) Program. Symposia and awards such as the Intersections Science Fellows Symposium and Eddie Méndez Scholar Awards provide incredible visibility to scholars from historically underrepresented backgrounds. NewPISlack and FuturePISlack have exemplified the powers of peer and near-peer mentorship; the BlackinX network of organizations are leading the way in amplifying, celebrating, and community building. Finally, the Community of Scholars and their collaborations with Cell Mentor to compile lists of hundreds and thousands of Black and Latinx scientists are a masterclass in providing exposure, and laying bare the lie of “we couldn’t find anyone.” Many of these programs are grassroots initiatives and have made it abundantly clear that collectives of trainees and early career researchers can be powerful forces for change.
I am grateful to the many supporters and advisors who make Leading Edge a reality, including Janine Stevens and Ron Vale at Janelia; the Tara Health Foundation and anonymous partners for financial support; and Leanne Jones, Iain Cheeseman, Sue Biggins, Needhi Bhalla, Ahna Skop, and Seemay Chou for critical advice and coordination. I am also indebted to the reviewers who guide the selection of the Fellows, and our spectacular panelists (www.leadingedgesymposium.org/panels). Many thanks to Mary Munson, Emily Mace, and Sandy Masur for feedback on this article.
About the Author:
Kara McKinley is the founder of Leading Edge and an assistant professor in the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University. She is an associate member of WICB.