Heart of an athlete

I attended the Annual Meeting of the National Postdoctoral Association two weeks ago (and then immediately got so swamped I can hardly breathe). The highlight of the meeting for me was meeting people who walked away from their research careers and never looked back. These are happy people who are redefining “success”.

Exemplifying this was Adam Regelmann, founder of lab management software company Quartzy. Adam is completing his clinical residency as a general intern. He is walking away not just from a research career, but from a medical career, within months of finishing his training. A medical career has become his backup plan if his business venture doesn’t work out! Adam had a table at the NPA meeting and I had dozens of questions for him, about Quartzy, about walking away from a career into which he has invested years, about his story of a mistake in the lab that inspired him to start this company.

He’s finishing his residency and then he plans to walk away. I can understand walking away before you have finished training, even when you have only a few months left. But what could induce someone to plan to walk away just after finishing training? Quartzy has a major investor who made it a condition of the investment that Adam go into it full time. If Adam didn’t believe in it enough to give it his full attention, the investor reasoned, then the investor didn’t believe in it enough either.

The main thing I got out of meeting Adam and hearing some other similar stories is that there is no shame in it. I’ve had a dirty little secret for several years: I dream of going into bicycle advocacy full time. I’m ashamed of having this dream. I put so many years and effort and emotional trauma into becoming a trained scientist, and I would love to throw it away and become a bicycle advocate. How wasteful and ungrateful is that? If Adam had any inner struggles of that nature, he has gotten past them. He is proud, excited, and happy about what he is doing.

That doesn’t mean that I’m about to cut the rope and launch myself into a new career. It means my dream is no longer a dirty little secret. Anyway, something else has happened that is allowing me to realize my dream in a different way. After founding Kirksville Area Motion (KA-Motion), a local bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group, I stumbled into applying for a grant that will fund the group. My scientific training is coming through for me.
A.) Although this grant is a lot different than what I’m used to, it doesn’t intimidate me the way it might someone who has never written a grant.
B.) My experience writing about difficult scientific topics in a way that reviewers will understand is helping me write about something that is a lot easier to explain.
C.) I have realistic expectations and understanding of the level of detail involved in writing a grant.
D.) My expectations are realistic. I’m so thrilled that this grant has a ~25% rate (research grants are about 10% these days). We have a 1 in 4 chance of being funded. But that still means we are more likely NOT to get funded this time around. If we don’t get it this time, we’ll revise and submit again next year.
E.) My scientific training fed right into creating an evaluation plan that is a lot more in-depth than what the funding agency requires. My scientific curiosity and a methodical way of collecting the data to answer the questions played into that plan. It was a bit of an eye-opener at this point when I realized that my training had actually taught me a certain kind of curiosity, a way of looking at the world of bicycle advocacy that other bicycle advocates don’t have.

When I heard Adam’s story, all of this sort of came together and I realized that I am already making my dream happen. As I’ve gone into the details of the grant, which includes hiring a program coordinator, I was a tiny bit jealous of that staff-to-be, because this is going to be a person who will be getting paid full time for bicycle advocacy. But I’m not really very jealous at all, partly because my salary is substantially higher than what we have budgeted for this person, but mostly because I realized that that person is the sergeant here, and I’m the officer. I’m the founder and about to be elected president of KA-Motion (unless someone else wants the job…unlikely…) I realized I’d actually much rather be the president of this group than the manager.

NIH defines “success” as having a tenure track position and holding an R01 grant. NIH considers a successful mentor one who has former trainees who now have tenure track positions. An ongoing conversation throughout the NPA meeting, even NIH Director Francis Collins said it, was that the NPA needs to help NIH change its definition of success. It’s no longer the case that the only successful scientists are those who become tenure track professors and hold R01 grants. Two years ago, the NPA meeting theme was about taking charge of your career. Peter Fiske gave an excellent talk and described several PhD recipients who went on to diverse careers. My favorite was the geologist who turned into a rodeo star!

You define success. Your success is what you say it is. I had a lesson in how we redefine words several weeks ago at a doctor’s appointment. The doctor was astonished at my low resting heart rate. “You have the heart of an athlete,” he told me. I have never thought of myself as an athlete. I’m not strong, or fast, or coordinated. I bike everywhere, and I’ve taken up some other activities as a result of my improved health and fitness. Somewhere along the way I became an athlete. As I became more fit and more athletic, I’d been revising my definition of “athlete” to exclude me. “An athlete is something I’m not,” was a consistent part of my definition. After being told I had the heart of an athlete, I came up with a new definition of “athlete” which includes me. I am an athlete.

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