10 Tips to Transform Your Career and Science Culture
Pioneering synthetic biologist Pamela Silver drops some wisdom.
Careers are the cumulative effect of many decisions, of what to try and what to avoid, chance meetings, doors opening and doors closing. Meeting Pamela Silver was one of those moments that in retrospect set in motion so many of the things I’ve done in the 15 years since. Not only because she was the first person I heard say the phrase “synthetic biology,” and not only because she provides one template for a successful woman in science.
From her early discoveries in how proteins move in and out of the nucleus of a cell to her pioneering work in systems and synthetic biology—including microbiomes that remember and bionic leaves, among many others—Pam has forged new ground and made space for her students and postdocs to explore and define the science they want to do and the careers they want to have.
These days, when I sit on career panels or talk to young scientists and students and recount my own career path, Pam’s creativity, support, and encouragement to pursue the “nontraditional” stand out as career defining, and extremely rare in the world of academic science. When the panels end and the Q&A starts, one of the first questions I get is: “How do *I* find a Pam of my own?”
So I asked her. How should students go about finding their Pam? Or better yet, how do they become a Pam? What follows are rules to follow when you don’t follow the rules. The way to make a Pam, in Pam’s own words.
1 Don’t make career plans
You have to be willing to take risks, and you have to be willing to go against careerism. When I think back to when I began being a more serious scientist, the difference for me—and I really mean this—is I had no plans.
People say I’m being a hypocrite because, “Oh, Pam, you’re a Harvard professor,” but I really did not have a career plan. I knew I liked science and that was about it. It wasn’t, “Oh, I have to do this during my postdoc so I can get a faculty job.”
When I was a postdoc, I took a risk. I was in Mark Ptashne’s lab, who was working on gene regulation, and I said, “Hey, I have this idea that there will be amino acid codes that target proteins to the nucleus.” Mark just kind of looked at me puzzled and I bet he thought, Oh, she’ll fail at that, and then she’ll be back to gene regulation. It was a wacky risk, even though it doesn’t sound like that in retrospect, but nobody seemed to be working on it at the time.
But in my mind I was thinking, Well, I’m doing this thing and it might fail and I’ll just have to find a job doing something else. With a willingness to take a risk, I had to have the willingness to fail, which is kind of scary.
These days… I get letters from high school kids that say they have this whole life plan, and therefore they want to come work in my lab over the summer. And I just can’t believe anyone would have a life plan like that in high school! What about having fun?
2 Do things that are too hard
I was interested in the so-called “harder” sciences, and I had this propensity to take on things that were probably too hard for me, and I probably wasn’t that good at it, but I would always pick the hardest thing.
Ironically, being the only woman might’ve helped me feel empowered to take more of these crazy risks.
I grew up in the first version of Silicon Valley [in the 1960s]—it was a huge time for science and teaching science in schools and all that. I had this precocious math ability, which at the time was considered unusual because I was a girl. I was just fixated on stuff that was way too hard for me. So I started in math and I moved to physics and finally I landed in chemistry, though I should have gone to biology to begin with!
Being a female—an outlier—was already taking a risk. But looking back it made me feel free to do whatever I wanted. So ironically, being the only woman might’ve helped me feel empowered to take more of these crazy risks.
3 Cancel student debt
Now looking back on my career path, I can see how much of a privilege it is to say I didn’t have a plan, and how now partly that has to do with the times—I didn’t graduate into a terrible recession with this mountain of student debt. I appreciate that this colors people’s worldview about risk-taking.
So people say to me, “Pam, you just don’t get it.” Because even though I knew that at some point I had to get a job and because I had no money it felt ok to start exploring how proteins move into the nucleus and say, “What I’m doing is going to fail and I’m going to find a backup plan.” So to have more innovative science, to have more people willing to take risks on the hard things, we need to change these structural issues that make it impossible for so many.
4 Innovate to build a good environment for all
My first real job as an assistant professor at Princeton was a formative experience of failure and resilience and of having the luck to land at Harvard after failing in my first faculty role. It did help me feel liberated from the fear of failure.
But that’s not the whole story. The truth in retrospect is I didn’t fail, I was pushed out by a toxic hierarchy that prevailed in academia. It’s hard to talk about, still to this day.
I was so lucky to get a second chance at Harvard (of all places!), but there are so many other women and minorities who didn’t get a second chance. And the system continues to protect the harassers. So to have more opportunities for creative and innovative science, you have to change that system.
5 Remove gatekeepers
I see myself in retrospect as a troublemaker in a culture where you’re supposed to be keeping your head down to get tenure. It’s very infantilizing, and it’s sad that anyone would say to young people that you shouldn’t speak your voice and your ideas because you have to be afraid—it’s a form of gatekeeping.
And science has too many gatekeepers—you have to go through the gatekeeper of getting a postdoc fellowship, of publishing papers, getting grants, getting tenure. This creates a profession that is dominated by gatekeepers and rent seekers.
And yet we’re supposed to be innovative and helping save the world! So how do you do that and have this artificial infrastructure?
I do see it changing, but I do look back and say regretfully that there are times where I have conformed, and I wish I hadn’t. There were times when on one hand I was trying to encourage students in my lab and even myself to get into synthetic biology and do hard things. But at the same time, I was still writing plain vanilla NIH grants, which was conforming to the system. I see a lot of the time I spent doing things like that was wasted time in my life. I doubt Elon Musk sat around and conformed to mediocrity.
I regret doing that, and I especially regret if it has continued to entrench these gatekeepers, where students see my path and think they have to conform to succeed. My goal isn’t to make the environment good for me, the goal is make the environment good for young people, and I’ll just take all the shit, and they will be free. And at the same time, people say, well, “Pam, but then they’re not learning the dark side, they’re not learning how to be part of this system,” and so this idea of, Oh my God, I need to get published in journal X so I can go to the next step, persists.
6 Find people who open your world rather than close doors
The gatekeepers tell you to focus on one problem for your whole career, it’s built into the structure of grants, the way tenure works, and what success looks like—being the big fish in your small pond.
So there I was, beavering away on my generic work on nuclear transport or whatever, expanding into small-molecule screens and cancer drugs—but overall I was working on this problem that was very narrow.
At the time Jeff [Way] was at the Molecular Sciences Institute at Berkeley and met Drew Endy, who was fresh out of grad school, and he was working there, and they kind of began to conceptualize synthetic biology. And then when Drew came here to be at MIT, he was living in our basement for a while and we would just sit here in our kitchen and talk about the future and ideas and this and that.
It was so different from traditional science, which seemed so rigid and narrow. Drew brought me into the synthetic biology working group at MIT, which included Tom Knight and Randy Rettberg, Drew, Jerry Sussman, and a bunch of people from MIT computer science and bioengineering. I was really the only molecular biologist—again, the outsider—and a real feeling that women were included.
That group and that experience opened my eyes to so much. The engineering mindset was so different from my colleagues in biology. They were asking what can we do with biology? Let’s make stuff that is actually useful. And the engineering mindset of cheaper, faster, more predictable really resonated for me.
7 Make mentors more like equals
The other eye-opening thing at MIT and the synthetic biology working group was we were saying, Well, we don’t know exactly what synthetic biology is, but let’s have the students invent it.
And there was the first group of students who are now the founders of Ginkgo. And they were our students, and we said, “Go invent it.” And they spearheaded iGEM and everything else. That’s very important to me in academia, that we set things up so everyone’s equal—that it’s not, I’m the professor up here and you’re the student down there. We’re all in this together. It’s us against nature. I don’t know more than anyone else.
There’s this idea that mentors are supposed to guide you through the gatekeepers, tell you what to do and how to navigate the system. I would prefer that the students are mentoring me, that we are equals trying to create something new rather than me shepherding students through the old formulas.
8 Be a nucleating site for community
Jumping into synthetic biology I was surrounded by this amazing community that was actively supporting me, while I felt that others within biology were pushing me away. They were telling students not to join my lab because they shouldn’t do synthetic biology because it’s not basic science, it’s not hypothesis-driven. That it was a bad career move.
That view turned out to be short sighted because they were telling kids not to engage in some of the most important and exciting science happening. There was a lot of negativity from my colleagues and sexist [comments]—The crazy woman who does the crazy stuff.
We know so much about how nature works and we’re going to use it to fix the world.
The reason I survived it was because I had positive reinforcement and support from the people around me, the students and postdocs and other colleagues in the synthetic biology community. What’s wonderful about it is it was full of rebellious young people who were willing to be very accepting of essentially anybody. Nobody in the synthetic biology community was ever saying, “She’s crazy.” That was so different from the traditional science that I had been doing before.
And what’s wonderful is this great positive feedback that happens, where smart people find me because there were other ones that didn’t fit the mold in my lab and they can say, Oh, look, here’s a home for you.
That’s also how we can solve big problems. When there’s an unsolved problem and we don’t know where to go next, now because of the internet, we can actually find somebody who might know and bring them into the fold. We can say, Hey you, person working on an obscure development thing, come help us build something. And that’s how new people become synthetic biologists.
9 Invest in the future
Twenty years ago, I couldn’t quite think about how to approach some unsolved problems yet. We were thinking, for example, How do I build a switch or a counter? But we were building on a deep understanding of how gene expression works in bacteria, which we knew really well at the time. And now we know 20 more years of how cells work. So now we need to capitalize on that.
We know so much about how nature works and we’re going to use it to fix the world. I really believe that. And I try to project that everywhere I go, every talk I give.
I’m incredibly excited about the Innovation and Competitiveness Act (or whatever its final name turns out to be), what started out as the Endless Frontiers Act, which is going to give billions of dollars for science and innovation. That kind of investment in science was transformative for my upbringing, I got to benefit from that investment so much.
And I do think it’s happening. The stuff that I get really excited about these days is in solar utilization and increasing photosynthetic efficiency and carbon capture by nature. That is a thing that we should do, and there’s plenty of cool ways for people to participate.
Another exciting area is, how do we make new kinds of materials? Why can’t I have clothes that repair themselves? Why don’t stains clean themselves? These things should be doable. Why is my house made of something that can’t repair itself? I think we’re closer to being able to think about living materials more seriously than we were 20 years ago. The reason is because of the more than 50 years of investment in understanding the basics of chemistry and biology.
10 Take the road less traveled
Writing my first NIH grant, the subject was how do proteins get into the nucleus. At that time, I remember I had almost no references to cite because there were so few people working on it. Being able to find that space where you’re not encumbered by tons of other people working on it, it’s really a special place to be.
What are the moonshot projects? What about photosynthetic clothes, you know, or photosynthetic materials? Like our paper with the photosynthetic fish. But to succeed at moonshots we have to be open to ideas from unexpected places and going down unexpected paths, like the work we did with Neri Oxman on combining synthetic biology and design.
That was one of the coolest things we ever did. And that was all because of a grad student who happened to be in a bar and met some people in Neri’s lab. And that has to this day been one of the most fabulous collaborations.
Many times, these new paths that have been so defining for my whole career were something I was encouraged not to do. It was something I was told by many of my mentors: Pam, you should focus on one problem for your whole life and solve that problem. Maybe it’s lack of focus, but there was also the feeling of, What good’s that going to do? because if I focus on that problem, someone else is probably going to figure it out also.
So why not do something that potentially you can either inspire other people to figure it out, or maybe you will actually do something that no one else has done.
Editor’s note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.