By Nicole Gerardo, with input from Gerardo Lab members
“… Your presence in science is important… Your purpose in science is seen.” – Dr. Bianca Jones Marlin, Columbia University
Who We Are
Nicole Gerardo, PI. I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Surrounded by the high desert, I should have been drawn to biology and nature from an early start. In reality, my parents liked going for picnics but were not campers. I liked ballet, wearing dresses and baking. In middle school, however, my school’s required outdoor education program and an amazing biology teacher, Julie Zedalis, changed my life, and I have wanted to be a biologist since I was in the seventh grade. After college, I had two opportunities. One was to join Teach for America and the other was to take a fellowship that would allow me to spend time in the tropics with researchers and conservationists studying tropical butterflies. The former highlights my long term commitment to teaching and the latter my commitment to studying life’s diversity. I took the fellowship and, on the journey, I learned about interactions between butterfly caterpillars and ants that take care of them. I have studied species interactions ever since.
Some aspects of this narrative may resonate with you. Other aspects of my background and goals are likely quite different than your own.
Our Team. We are a diverse group of scientists. We bring different life experiences, interests, goals and skills to our lab community. While we each have different backgrounds and aspirations, we have something in common. We want to do good science, and more broadly, we want to do things that we are proud of.
Much of our research focuses on the ecology and evolution of species interactions. Our research is not pinned to a single study system or single tool set. We try to ask questions using the best system and best approaches available.
- We are a Community. Our default state should be empathy and compassion towards one another. We take care of each other, help each other when we can and provide support when we cannot.
- We ask Questions. Everyone needs to be asking questions about what we observe, how we do things and where we should be headed next. In terms of the practice of science, it is better to ask how to do something than to guess and do it wrong.
- We try to be Resilient. Science is hard. Things don’t often work the first time, or the second, or the fifteenth. To be productive, we must get our work critiqued, and we must fail. We recognize that this is a part of science, and we move forward.
- We are Human. We make mistakes. We try not to do so, but we do. Rather than hide or feel shame, we are committed to recognizing when we should have done something differently, and we are willing to learn from that in order to do better in the future.
- We must Take Care of Ourselves. There are times when science is all-consuming, and that can be exhilarating. However, good science requires creativity and commitment that only comes if we are healthy and well. This requires reflection on our own needs and occasionally stepping back from our work to give ourselves space to take care of ourselves.
Commitment to Diversity
“I try to remind my mentees to maintain who they are as scientists and bring that to the table. Do good science. We’re all scientists, but we’re different, and we shouldn’t forget that.” – Dr. Erica Harris, former graduate student in the Gerardo Lab.
A person’s identity includes how they define themselves but also how they are viewed by the world. Identities are complex, intertwined and not static. Some identities are visible and others are not. You may define your identity based on your race, ethnicity, level of education, career stage, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender, religious beliefs, family status and so much more. We come from different countries and are at different stages of our careers. You are in the lab because you also have a science identity, meaning that you identify, at least to some extent, as a scientist. We will help support each and every member of the lab as they build the skills and confidence to solidify and define their science identity. However, our science identities are just part of who we are, and we will support each other as holistic individuals as well.
We all have biases, many of which come from a lack of understanding of people with identities to which we are not closely familiar. We each will do our best to recognize our biases and go beyond them to support one another. We also recognize that, beyond the walls of our lab, many of our lab members face greater challenges in science and in society because they are judged negatively based on their race, ethnicity or other identity. We will support them and work to help remove these barriers.
Health, Well-Being and Balance
- We have lives and commitments outside of the lab. Whether these commitments are classes, hobbies or relationships, they are an important part of being human.
- For your science to come to fruition, for your thesis to get completed, for your grant to get submitted, you will have weeks that require a lot of work. Because of the nature of school and of science, with some periods requiring substantial time investment, it is best to think of balancing work and life as something that happens over longer time scales (months, years) rather than shorter time scales (days, weeks).
- Sometimes science takes a lot of time, but you are not a better scientist just because you put more time into it. So, don’t judge your success, productivity or committment by the number of hours that you are in the lab. Instead, consider what you have accomplished and what commitment you are demonstrating through your work.
- Time working on projects and writing outside the lab can be extremely productive and important. Time in the lab, however, is important to move forward on research, to receive help from the lab and to be part of the lab community. You will need to find the right balance of time in and out of the lab, but you need to be in the lab enough, during normal working hours, to interact with our community. What is enough should be defined with help from your mentor(s) and will vary depending on the stage of your project(s).
- In general, graduate students, postdocs and technicians should be working about forty hours a week on their research project(s) (and, as grad students, taking classes required for their scientific and professional development). This definitely includes time reading, writing and mentoring others. It also includes time helping with other lab commitments (e.g., lab maintenance, outreach, attending seminars and lab meetings). Because of the nature of science, some weeks will be a lot more than this. Others, therefore, may be a little less.
- In general, undergraduates need to commit to working on their research projects a minimum of 10 hours a week. If conducting research for credit, you are required to work on your project 12 to 16 hours a week. Initially, this time will need to overlap with working hours of those training you. Eventually, you will have more flexibility as you gain more scientific independence.
- Take vacations! Do not feel guilty about taking a vacation or going to see family. These breaks should be planned in advance and coordinated with your mentors. There is oddly no clear standard in academia, but two to three weeks is probably a good target and is aligned with vacation time in other professions. This does include time away over Emory’s winter break.
- Many of us are caregivers for family. We recognize this as a strength of who we are and find ways to be proud of what we do as both scientists and caregivers.
Mental and Physical Well Being: Communication is Key
- Chronic illness, whether mental or physical, is a struggle that many scientists face at some point during their academic and professional careers.
- If you are struggling and need help, ask. We may not be able to provide the direct help that you need, but we can work to help you identify what resources are available for you.
- If you recognize a change in someone that may reflect a change in their well-being, talk to them about it, or, if not comfortable with that, tell Dr. Gerardo.
What is Mentoring?
Mentoring is a collaborative learning relationship. The primary goal is to help mentees ac quire and develop the essential skills needed for their chosen professional path. Mentoring is shaped by one’s own experiences. Each mentee has unique needs, which will vary based on the nature of the relationship and based on individual differences. Mentees will require different things at different times, and mentors will vary in their capacity to meet these needs. A successful mentor-mentee relationship is dynamic and reflective.
Mentoring happens at many levels in the lab. As PI, ultimately, I am a mentor to everyone. Many undergraduates also work with highly committed graduate student and postdoc mentors.
Here are components of what I, and other mentors that you may have in the lab, will try to provide:
- help you define our goals at the outset and at regular intervals throughout your training
- guide you as you take on new challenges
- talk with you about career goals and support your professional development to meet these goals
- discuss personal issues and how they are impacting you, both in and out of the lab
- listen to you about new ideas and possible directions
- provide constructive and timely feedback on your work
- provide support when you are struggling
- Help you meet other scientists and professionals
- promote and acknowledge your contributions to the research.
Effective Mentoring Requires Communication.
Mentoring requires active communication on both the part of the mentor and mentee. Each mentor in the lab should try to build a relationship that allows a mentee feel comfortable expressing their needs. Each mentee must be willing to articulate what they need help with and what challenges they are facing.
Regular meetings are important for communication. I am committed to make sure that everyone in the lab is meeting with at least one mentor regularly. These meetings should be grounded in bidirectional communication.
My Commitment to You
After my family (and myself), my biggest commitment is to our lab. I truly want to support each and everyone one of you to the best of my abilities. While I care about you as an individual, I am not the person who always knows what to say, even when I know something is wrong. I also may not recognize that you need something unless you ask.
- I am willing and want to hear what you need, I will my best, or I will do what I can given my own limitations
- I may not know what to say, but I am willing to listen.
- There are many tracks to a successful scientific career. Regardless of what you want to do next or whether you know what you want to do next, I will support your professional development to the best extent that I can.
- I can’t give you all my time, and sometimes, honestly, I will not have the time that you need. However, I will do my best to accommodate your needs.
- You should be compassionate and respectful towards all members of the lab.
- While mistakes are inevitable, carelessness is not. You should hold yourself to a high standard.
- If something is not working for you, you should say something.
- You should do what you say you are going to do.
- You should follow all safety precautions.
- Take care of each piece of data like it is a piece of gold.