August 25, 2020
The Department of Neurology hosted “Research Career Panel: Lessons Learned” with Drs. Michael Alosco, Ann McKee, Marie Saint-Hilaire, Lan Zhou with Ludy Shih moderating.
We heard from Mike Alosco about how changing course on an early career decision turned out to be pivotal for him, following his instincts to pursue a research position with Ann McKee. He also emphasized the commonly shared experience that failures are a very regular part of life in research and that there often many chances to keep trying. He also provided three tips, 1) keep writing, 2) take a biostatistics methodology course and 3) choose wisely who you work with and surround yourself with positive mentors and collaborators.
Marie Saint-Hilaire had her auspicious beginnings as an epileptologist(!), working with the legendary Andre Barbeau, who played a large role in the development of levodopa for Parkinson’s disease, along with Yves Agid in Paris and Stanley Fahn at Columbia, arriving here at BU in 1988. Seeing a lot of patients kept her busy clinically, but she was able to turn clinical productivity into clinical research productivity with the help of research nurse Cathi Thomas and others. She also emphasized the importance of gaining resources and support for research staff in order to successfully carry out clinical research.
We learned from Ann McKee about her start as a clinical neurologist, not initially planning a career in research, but knowing she wanted to “see inside people’s brains.” She recounted having to work with one of the toughest taskmasters in neuropathology, starting her career in neuropathology at MGH, and then learning how to balance raising 3 kids with struggling to be productive. But through it all, she persevered and still finds that both insatiable curiosity and having fun with research are essential.
Lan Zhou, while training in clinical neurology in China, was inspired by the lack of good treatments for neurological disease which affected her own family. She came to the US to get excellent molecular biology training so that she could make a difference in developing better treatments. She had an outstanding Ph.D. advisor at Cincinnati who was an inspiration to her, as he was an MD who ran a lab and attended 3 months out of the year. She got to be a part of a new and growing field of muscle biology while at Hopkins and carved out her own line of work, researching inflammation in Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Determination and resilience have been important strengths she has relied upon over the years.
Ludy Shih added that being open-minded to career pivots can be beneficial. She gained valuable clinical experience learning to treat patients with deep brain stimulation, one of the most exciting therapeutic developments in movement disorders in the last 20 years. She had developed her own clinical research interests but knew she had to benefit from different perspectives. She ventured into biotech to see how “clinical research on steroids” was done. It was a hugely valuable experience, and while few people come back to academia from industry, her move was prompted by the desire to apply learnings to the areas she felt were unmet needs in adult neurodegenerative diseases.
Lastly, the panel discussed how to ask for protected time and resources — an easier thing to do when you show you have made some progress on what you set out to do. Taking advantage of the department’s and the university’s resources for clinical research, such as research coordination and biostatistics consulting, is important, as is asking for help from colleagues on how best to utilize those resources.