Joys and tribulations of an academic science career in 2020

It would be an understatement to say that the last few months have been unlike any others I have experienced. How many times have I said—aloud or in my head—in sheer astonishment at what was unraveling, “Who would have told us a few months ago?” While adjusting to life in a pandemic, I needed to force myself into some quiet introspection, if only to find some inspiration to allow me to write a column for the ASCB Newsletter issue dedicated to Careers. What follows is what I concluded about my own career in science and academia and how it intersects with the careers of others, especially those who are now starting their own.

My job has many facets, and every day is different. I am constantly faced with things that I do not know, so I never cease to have learning opportunities. I am surrounded by intelligent people who never stop questioning how everything works. In my job, people talk, and people listen. They have different cultures and personal histories, come from different places, and may have different accents, but they all feel like kindred spirits to me.1 We have all embarked on the same journey of discovery, facing the unknown, building on each other’s efforts and the efforts of many others before us. And whatever we discover ourselves will help those who come after us. In my job, when I do it right, even my failures can be part of my legacy. And the most magical of all: In my job, I age, but most of the people around me are forever young, ever eager, ever driven, and ever fearless.

Teaching through a Pandemic
Today is a Saturday. It could be any other day of the eighth week of shelter-in-place in the Bay Area, now that week days and weekend days are hard to distinguish from one another. I have just finished teaching MCB110 (yesterday I held my last office hour), an in-depth biochemistry course for juniors and seniors at the University of California, Berkeley, in which we dissect the mechanistic principles behind the central dogma of molecular biology. My section of the course deals with the birth, life, and death of proteins: their synthesis, folding, modification, trafficking, and degradation.

This semester, for the first time, I conducted instruction remotely, a scenario that will likely occur again. My Zoom lectures were recorded and only a fraction of the class attended them in real time. The very first lecture felt really awkward. It was not difficult to imagine that the students, even the teaching assistants, had logged in and then left the room, and that I was alone, talking to several dozen screens that no one was actually paying attention to. Then something came through the chat dialogue. A question! At least one student was listening to me!! Clumsily, I managed to read the question, tried my best to answer it, and then got back to my PowerPoint window, heart pumping, voice a little shaky, as I noticed in embarrassment once I listened to the recording later (big mistake!).

As I continued, there were more chat notices, more questions, more than one listener. Amazingly, time flew by, just like when I give my lectures in the flesh. I wrapped it up and summoned the students, those who I hoped were still there, to join me again in two days. The number of students attending the lecture remained steady through the rest of the semester. I concluded that no one was enchanted by the recordings to the point that they wanted to actually e-meet me, but that at least none of the students attending regularly had gotten tired of the Eva Life. I choose to be content.

Office hours, too, have been a different experience than what I’m used to. Because only between two and eight students come to any one of them, videos and microphones were available to everyone and I could see the students and hear their voices. Let me repeat: I could SEE the students. It is incredible how much something that we take for granted can suddenly gain a special meaning when you have been denied it. I now think that the office hours this semester have been the most enjoyable and meaningful I have ever had. I actually feel that I have bonded with some of those students in a way that had not happened before. There was a special empathic connection that came from realizing that we were all living, together, under very special, challenging circumstances.

Talking about challenges, my students really grilled me. They pushed the boundaries of my knowledge, or what I thought I knew, because they have an enduring capacity to question everything, to see every logical flaw, to detect the missing piece of information, to interpolate and extrapolate from what I, inadequately at times, am able to distill into a 50-minute lecture about complex cellular processes that we still barely grasp. These young people, who are about half my age, are so smart, inquisitive, and alert! They make me really want to rise to their expectations, and this semester, in my home kitchen/office, while dealing with a thousand new challenges brought about by a pandemic, I have worked on my class more than any other year—to the point of forgetting momentarily about COVID-19 (!)—because I wanted to be able to answer their questions, and had to concentrate on little but them until the last day of instruction.

So Many Hats!
Teaching undergraduates is just one part of what I do. And it feels like skiing: difficult (I put on skis for the first time at age 42), but thrilling. I could have written this column about the research in my lab and the interactions with my students, postdocs, and researchers; about the struggles and incredible joys of the research pursuit; about the journey, full of ups and downs, and about the magical moments of epiphany. I could have told you about the joy of attending conferences, when I hear about the latest discoveries, meet new people, and sometimes strike up new collaborations, often in truly beautiful places (which I used to love to fly to and now I am scared to think about).

Or I could have told you about what it is like to be division head and herd over 30 brilliant, but sometimes forgetful, sometimes reluctant, faculty who need to hear from me about their teaching and committee assignments. About how as I prepare their merit and promotion cases, I learn about their scientific breakthroughs, their teaching accomplishments, and the service they do for the scientific community. It’s funny to think that not so long ago I was on the other side of the equation, a starting assistant professor too concerned with getting my own science going to think of what my division head had to do to keep things running.

I could have written about working with other scientists at ASCB or the Pew Charitable Trusts, about advising research centers in three different continents, about the thrill of starting a new company. All of these are aspects of what a long life, lived as a scientist, has brought to me. I joke with people that I am a scientist because I lack any artistic talent (which just happens to be the case), but the truth is that I cannot think of a more colorful and wonderful life. I love my science colleagues—that is the very best part of it. But I even like the adrenaline of the scary parts of being in this business: being evaluated constantly and by everyone—students, peers, reviewers, funding agencies—and being scared of failure and competition, but realizing that even the best among us live under the same fears and that we overcome them.

There are just too many rewards of living the life of the academic scientist to think that they would not come at some cost. To the younger ones reading this column, no matter how stressed and busy we may seem, just ask us and we will tell you this: we LOVE what we do and feel truly privileged.

Into the Future
Beyond the little pains and the many joys of being a scientist in academia, it feels good to believe that what we are doing has a meaning, a purpose, and that it can improve the world we live in. I cannot think of many times in recent history when science has had a more important role to play. The world as we knew it is gone, and we have the opportunity and responsibility of building a new and, we hope, better one. The scientific method and the resourcefulness of scientists around the world, in many disciplines, are needed to deal with the health and social challenges we are now facing, and with the devastating environmental threats that will remain long after we have dealt with the present pandemic. We need to learn, we need to inform. We will be part of the solution. At least I am sure that my most inquisitive MCB110 students and the young cell biologists reading this column will be.

ASCB can be an invaluable ally to you throughout your career. Our Society brings many resources to your disposal to help you navigate, one stage at a time, the challenges you need to face, from learning to present your work in the most effective way when interviewing for a position, to writing successful grants, to understanding your rights as a tenure-track faculty member. Many of you may wish to look beyond academia and into industry, policy making, and the many other possibilities that are within your reach as a well-trained scientist. ASCB would also help you navigate those waters.

In this issue, those interested in academic careers can learn about what it’s like to become a department chair (p. 10). Those interested in other career paths can read about a member in industry (p. 32) and another who works as a lab manager (p. 20). No matter what career path you are on, you can’t help worrying how it will be affected by the pandemic. The Career Navigator (p. 28) and Dear Labby columns address how to get through this crisis and how we might emerge on the other side of it.

Beyond what’s available in this issue of the Newsletter, the Career Development page of the ASCB website ( lists the many career resources the Society offers for undergrads, graduate students, early-career scientists, faculty, and mid- to late-career scientists.

1At the time I wrote this article, George Floyd was still alive. Re-reading this particular paragraph during proofing reminded me of how much I appreciate the differences among us that enrich us, and the goal of scientific truth that unites us. While I decided not to alter the theme of this column, I urge you to read the statement that I and other members of the ASCB leadership signed concerning racial injustice in the United States (p. 13).


About the Author:

Eva Nogales is professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley; Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator; and Senior Faculty Scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She is the 2020 President of ASCB.