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Sep 20

No. 46: My Research Career - Lessons Learned: Paula Trief

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My Research Career: Lessons Learned

Spotlight on: Paula M. Trief, PhD
State University of New York, Upstate Medical University
Professor of Psychiatry
Professor of Medicine
Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Faculty Development

How did you get into research? What motivated you?
As a psychologist, I did mostly clinical work involving consulting to patients who had diabetes, and I became interested in studying that more extensively and pursuing the research around it. I made a good contact who was an endocrinologist, and we teamed up.

I found this work interesting and stimulating. I liked working with bright researchers willing to share their expertise in diabetes.

There's also increased attention to clinical research at our academic medical center, so the leadership here encouraged me and others to pursue research.

What was the smartest career move you ever made?
Coming into an academic medical center and joining the faculty.

Tell us about the best mentor you've had and what they did for you.
My best mentor was more of a colleague or peer. I never had a senior mentor because I basically worked by myself. But Dr. Ruth Weinstock (Chief of Endocrinology, Joslin Diabetes Center) took my interest in research very seriously. She respected my expertise. We each brought different knowledge to the table. Working with her has helped create new opportunities for me.

What's the first piece of advice you give a new post-doc joining your staff?
When someone asks you to do something, say that you can do it. I find that many women will say, "No one ever trained me to do it," while many men will say, "I can do that." My psychology training has taught me that even if you weren't specifically trained for a particularly good opportunity, you still should seize it. Don't be afraid of challenges. "Sure, I can do that," is always the right answer if the role is in your best interest.

Name one or two managerial, ethical, or personal principles that have helped you succeed.
Surround yourself with a really good team — one that complements and strengthens you in areas where you may be weak. Be reliable and responsible. Always follow through on your commitments.

If you could start over, what do you wish someone had told you?
I didn't know how to negotiate. I wish someone had taught me those skills earlier. I've noticed that women in particular are more likely to reason, "They're not going to give me that, so I'll ask for this" — because they don't want to appear greedy or for some other reason. Now I'm not afraid to ask for what's needed, and that's what I teach my post-docs.

What was your toughest funding challenge?
I've just been funded for my first five-year grants. The challenge was getting started. There were no funds for pilot work. It's difficult to pay for statisticians when you don't have funding. You need to get those first subjects and the statisticians, but it's hard to find people to work for free. So a lot of hard work was required. I was copying and collating, without assistants or staff. It's a huge issue for junior faculty.

Is there anything a scientist can do to enhance his/her creativity? Can creativity be forced or hastened?
I don't think you can force creativity, but I think you can create opportunities for it to blossom. Most researchers are already creative, but you can get caught up in mundane tasks that tend to dampen your creative edge. Surrounding yourself with good, creative people you trust and with whom you communicate well fosters the creative spirit in all.

Where did you grow up? Where did you earn your undergraduate degree?
New York City, the Bronx. The University of Rochester (N.Y.).

Is there a moment from that time that stands out?
Yes, that's when I became interested in psychology. I was a participant in someone's dissertation project using undergrads as social therapists for long-term mentally ill patients. We were in recreation groups for these patients. The therapists studied the patients and they studied us. I don't recall the results of the study, but the research team won an award for it.

What do you read — to stay informed in your field, and for pleasure?
Mostly I read the major journals and annals of behavioral medicine, because my field is health psychology. I also read Diabetes Care. For pleasure, I read a book a month because I'm in a book club. I also like The New Yorker and the Sunday New York Times.

Do you have any other advice or thoughts to share?
Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs is an opportunity I never thought would come my way. That and my two grants have given me a sense that I'm still growing, and that good opportunities can still happen even when we're far along in our careers.

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Comments (10)
written by Mid-Career P.I., September 19, 2010
Congratulations on this new type of item in your ezine. And thanks, Dr.Trief, for your candor and helpful comments!
written by Sister Scientist, September 19, 2010
I'm stuck in a department where the senior attitudes toward female researchers probably hark back to Pasteur and Einstein. Who knew? Can you recommend a good book to read for encouragement and advice?
written by Merlin, September 19, 2010
Oh jeez. Do we have to drag in the male-female shtick? Let's concentrate on the very useful advice Dr. Trief has given--and leave gender out of it.
Junior Colleague
written by Appreciative , September 20, 2010
Thank you for the candor and the thoughtful advice.
written by Greybeard, September 20, 2010
Grad students of both sexes please note: Brains are not inconsistent with being attractive or good grooming.
Professor Emeritus
written by Vince , September 20, 2010
I'm sorry Merlin, But I read your comments about a "male-female shtick" as "Shut up and let the old boy network crap on the women as they always did". As an academic I've seen it first hand for over 35 years.

There are both Sexist attitudes and Gender discriminatory structures throughout the academic research establishment. My mother in law was a world famous biochemist, My wife a research physician, My sister in law a PhD biomathematician and my daughter is dong a PhD in Molecular Biology. All have run into a variety of situations that required intervention.

I have personally seen and heard some of the most disgraceful comments from senior male colleagues. I've chaired science Promotion and tenure committees were some members were openly scornful of research areas because they were of interest to women.
There is also specific career hostility to "parents" which routinely affects women more than men.

written by Victor, September 28, 2010
""Sure, I can do that," is always the right answer if the role is in your best interest."

So, you basically encourage lying in ordet to get what you want?
written by Dr. Growth, October 07, 2010
Just came across Victor's excuse for career stultification. Wake up, doctor, Reach for the stars, then work like hell to accomplish your mission. Prof. Trief is only asking for the "chance"; she knows she has to deliver the results. "Sure" is indeed the right answer for success.
@ Dr. Growth
written by Victor, October 11, 2010
This may be not exactly on topic (of what Dr. Trief exactly meant), but this has everything to do with recent penetration of "marketing" values and manners into science. What if the person is genuinely not qualified for the task? When is it appropriate to acknowledge one's own limitations? How do you measure success in science?

Noble aims is no substitute for knowledge
Industriousness is no substitute for order
Enthusiasm is no substitute for skills
written by Paula Trief, November 12, 2010
Thanks for all of the feedback. Of course, I'm not suggesting that you should agree to do something that you're not qualified to do. In truth, it's rare that you would be asked to do that. I wanted to emphasize that we're often asked to do things that we're not specifically trained for, but that, given intelligence, willingness to learn and creative energy, you will be able to do and do well. Most PhDs and MDs have learned how to learn the knowledge, order and skills they need. We need to know our limits but also have confidence in our abilities to learn and take on new challenges. And yes, gender still does matter.
Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts.

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