Postdoc highlight series: Dr. Linda May-Zhang (#4)

This week on Alternative Postdoc Superheroes I am talking to Dr. Linda May-Zhang, a scientist from the U.S., a mum, and a runner. In this interview, you will read about writing grants, two different PhD programs, and Linda’s thoughts about becoming a mum while being a postdoc.

Enjoy the read!

 Quick notes on Linda
NameDr. Linda May-Zhang
Countries she has academic experiences fromUSA
Linda’s typical day:        Have coffee, Get kid ready for daycare, Breakfast

Go to work Work: 30-50% meetings, email bombards, cramming in work the other 50% of the time,
leave at 4:50 pm to pick up the kid from daycare (my husband and I split the daycare drop-off and pick-up at-need basis, depending on our jobs)

After work: Spend 30-60 min playing with an energetic toddler boy, dinner time, bath time, potty time, put the kid to bed.

Night: Finish any work I didn’t finish during work hours, or take care of chores as our house is always a mess
Contact Linda at:  Insta @justliz83

Hi Linda, could you briefly introduce yourself?

Hi, I am Linda. A pleasure to be interviewed. 

I am a biomedical engineer-scientist who also has interests in writing, distance running, and art.  I have been in academic research for 13 years after college and recently I transitioned to an industry position that ties all my prior experiences together. 

Together with my husband (another PhD scientist) and my 2.5-year-old boy, we are currently living in southern California in the USA. 

What kind of student/pupil were you as a kid?

I was the shy studious type of kid who sat in the back, did all my homework and aced my exams, and didn’t get into much trouble.

Despite being a quiet, good student, I was always daydreaming about other things besides the class subject matter – boys, friends, hobbies, or other curiosities outside of school subjects (like spirituality). To be honest, I found structured school to be quite boring and sometimes a waste of time – although ironically, I continued to “stay in school” for 9 more years post-college and went on to do a 5-year postdoc! 

What did you study in your undergrad program?

I majored in Biomedical Engineering with a specialty in biotechnology and was 1 class short from minoring in Economics. I was good at math and enjoyed creative arts as a kid/teen, plus I had a fascination for medical sciences but did NOT want to be a doctor – so I chose this major in order to combine creativity into math/sciences in order to develop novel technologies to advance human health.

Why and how did you decide to go into a PhD?

I wasn’t ready to “get a real job” after college, so I went straight for a PhD program in Biomedical Engineering in order to learn more. I didn’t feel like my Bachelor’s degree was enough for me to make independent advancements in the field.

However, 3 years into my PhD program in Biomedical Engineering (and after I passed my qualifying exams and all necessary coursework), I decided to quit the program for many reasons. It was a hard decision but retrospectively it was definitely the right choice.

After a “gap year” of exploring my interests, I decided to go back to school for a different PhD program, pivoting from engineering to pure biomedical sciences. My new PhD program was Pathology and Molecular Medicine, which means the study of the molecular mechanisms of human diseases in order to develop diagnostics or therapeutics to treat them.

What was your PhD program experience like?

Since I introduced two PhD programs (the first I’ve experienced 3 years of with no end in sight, the second I graduated within 5 years), I can describe them both.

For one program (in biomedical engineering), we had coursework and teaching assistantships for about 2 years which occupied half our time. Qualifying exams occurred at year 2, which included full comprehensive exams covering different topics of engineering. You can think of it as 5 final exams in 1-2 sittings.

We also had to do a 1h oral exam, which is basically a chalkboard exam in front of a panel of professors. You were given a prompt but the questions they ask can span anything. You had to answer the questions, with a help of a chalkboard. After passing these exams, then you spend a few years (for some, many years – sometimes 7-9 years!) completing research studies that manifest in published papers, a dissertation, and a formal oral defense of your work.

For my second program in biomedical sciences, we had one year of coursework (almost full-time), followed by qualifying exams our second year. Our qualifying exam consisted of writing a National Institute of Health (NIH)-style grant proposal of our dissertation project, or a randomly different project (depending on the program or PI), and an oral defense of our grant application in front of our proposed dissertation committee members.

Once we passed our exam, we are equipped to revise or write new grant applications as predoctoral candidates and begin more independent studies, which manifest in published papers, a dissertation, and a formal oral defense of work. My second experience was more structured and fast-paced than my first, and so I was able to complete my PhD within 5 years (including a year of coursework), publishing 4 papers (3 first author) and receiving an American Heart Association predoctoral fellowship.

What advice would you give your younger self starting a PhD program?

Find the right mentor, who has experience in graduating students in time, disciplining them to conduct research activities efficiently and timely, and having a strategy in mentoring so that PhD students can manifest their research into publications in a timely fashion.

This is more critical than joining a lab with “cool topics” but the PI may be inexperienced or not particularly good at effectively PhD mentoring. Branding of the university does not matter too much – it’s more about the reputation of the overall research programs and lab track record.

What have you decided to do after your PhD and why?

I did a 5-year postdoc at a reputable academic research institution with the intent of pursuing a professorship and starting my own lab. I was never 100% sold that this was my dream job or the best fit for me, but the more I conquered challenges during my PhD (and postdoc), the more I was motivated to continue. I also enjoyed obtaining scientific results and the typical rewards, such as going to conferences, applying for and winning grants, getting rewarded for scientific exploration and achievements. But the path forward is just becoming harder.

To be competitive, you give up work-life balance or work-family balance. That’s just the hard truth.  The climate now in the US is that you need to compete to win grants, to win your niche in the field, and to make sure competitors don’t step on your toes. In the past, everything was relatively new and undiscovered. Now, you can google just about anything and you will find papers on it.

To obtain a professorship with research space in the US, you need to make sure your research is 100% unique to yourself (and not overlapping with your previous mentors) and you can demonstrate you are able to get independent funding forever. Even once you obtain tenure in the biomedical sciences or engineering, you are expected to fund yourself and your lab through external grants. It is a very hard path.

I was motivated to be on this path for a while, until year 4 of my postdoc where I re-evaluated myself and life interests.

I enjoyed everything I had previously done – even if it took some blood, sweat and tears—but I admittedly didn’t love it.

I even admitted that leaving everything behind would be more of a relief, rather than sadness.

But I didn’t want to quit “science” or leave behind the skills I worked so hard to hone. So I decided to explored other options as career choices while I was also writing grants to move ahead in academia. The path in academia was hard, but there was just something else about academia that never really fit in with my natural personality.

Unlike many academics who like to think or explore deeply about a problem and all its nuances, I knew that I was a restless big picture thinker. I was always looking for the next scientific topic to learn or develop, but once I was 50-75% “there”, I was on the hunt for something new.

I had to force myself to delve into theoretical details and put in the effort to carry long experiments to test hypotheses. I did these things with enthusiasm but admittedly, it was not my thing. I knew I’d rather know a little about everything than know a lot about a few things.

To be a PhD academic researcher, you need to have the personality to want to know a lot about a few niche areas.

It took me a long time to admit this of myself.

I mean, why did I go back to school for a PhD after quitting a PhD program only to realize that I wanted to be a Jack-of-all-Trades? Well, I liked learning and gaining critical thinking skills but that was about it. To be fair, I also wanted to be an expert in everything related to human medicine, from developing therapies as an engineer to understanding mechanisms as a scientist. But I was only happily willing to dig so deep.

Fast-forward, I am currently working as a Research, Science, and Innovation officer of a small cluster of biotech companies focusing on discovering and commercializing nature-based compounds that improve human health and promote longevity.

That sounds so cool!

I took a chance when I accepted this job, not exactly knowing what I’d be doing, and which required a cross-country move with my family.

Now that I am almost two months in the job, I am confident to say that I have landed a dream position that I didn’t even imagine was possible.

My job requires all the scientific knowledge I have acquired plus the skills I’ve learned during my PhD journey. I follow all the latest trends in nutrition, food, sustainability, chronic disease therapeutics, nutriceuticals, infant nutrition – you name it. My days are completely unpredictable and fast-paced – but that keeps things engaging and exciting.

I go from performing literature reviews to scoping news articles, critically analyzing academic papers, scouting patents from university databases, writing layman science articles, creating scientific presentations, meeting with internal and external stakeholders, coming up with new ideas that improve scientific or business processes, tackling a scientific challenge, helping design basic science or clinical trials, drafting product development brochures, etc.

I wanted to be a Jack-of-all-Trades and learn everything about human medicine and therapeutics, and here it is, a dream job that I never imagined. I get to know a little (OK, maybe a bit more than a little…) about everything and my job is to quickly identify the next big thing.

I also get to use everything I’ve learned as a PhD, such as critically analyzing data or arguments and developing effective scientific presentations or other forms of communication.

A perk of the job is that I get to understand how to take scientific knowledge and develop it into a solution that everyday people can use. It’s funny – this was exactly why I pursued graduate studies in biomedical sciences and engineering in the first place, so I can understand how to develop practical solutions to improve human health.

What PhD has given you and how you use it now?

For people who do not have PhDs and are interested,

a PhD does not require “genius” or “super smarts.” The journey requires dedication, curiosity, love for learning, the ability to take setbacks or criticism, and grit.

The PhD journey gives you skills for critical thinking, critical reading and writing, and knowing how to formulate ideas/experiments in order to tackle a new question or hypothesis that pushes your field forward. This process takes a long time to achieve, like any graduate program or even expertise that doesn’t require a degree.

In my personal experience, a postdoc experience helped me apply and “exercise” my PhD even more independently, but not every career path or field requires a postdoc to achieve more independence.

Could we go back to the topic of grant writing for a second? It sounds like you have a lot of experience with writing and winning grants, what would be your recipe for success when applying for grants?

While I was successful in obtaining a predoctoral fellowship during my PhD studies, I got to further exercise grant-writing skills during my postdoc. I instinctively knew which topics would manifest in more efficient data collection and probably paper publishing and I knew that I had to plan ahead of the deadline by 6 months in order to turn in a grant application that had a high likelihood of getting scored.

Did you know that most grant applications do not even get reviewed? Why bother wasting weeks or months of your life putting together an ill-planned, poorly thought-out application that won’t get reviewed? You have got to spend the most time on the Specific Aims page, which lays out the foundation and outline for the entire project, get feedback from senior scientists, before moving on. The proposed project also needs to fit into the mission statement of the funding agency plus be doable within the timeframe and capabilities of your mentor’s lab.

In addition, you also have to realize that in a grant application, the science portion (which describes your proposed studies) is only 20-30% of the entire grant. Other portions involve developing a professional training plan, budget, and career objective statements, which inexperienced scientists put off until literally the last minute.

As a result of training, I experienced as a PhD student (note: many PhD students did not have this opportunity. My program was very keen on sharpening “real-world skills”), I was awarded both an NIH Ruth L. Kirchstein postdoctoral fellowship as well as an American Heart Association Postdoctoral Fellowship, scoring top 0.5% percentile on my first try.

My PhD and postdoc experiences taught me how to be strategic, more independent (which means knowing when to say “no” to projects or requested tasks), efficient, as well as highly critical (which is a good thing in science!).

I also learned about time management and project management. And the thing is: these things weren’t really “taught” per se. I often get people commenting: “Oh wow, I wish my PhD program taught me those things!”

Well, we learned the basics of grant writing or writing papers, but honestly, I have to say that these other skills are self-taught. How? Through pain, LOL. It’s literally one of those things when you are just so sick of failing or not having anything manifest, then one day you just try a little harder, think a little differently, read a bit more, talk to more people, move a bit faster. Then it becomes a forward cycle to personal growth.

What are your other superpowers?

A PhD program is an intensive time but somehow I developed a superpower of distance running. I ran my first half marathon during the first year of my PhD program, and ran a full marathon my second year, during my qualifying exam. I had only jogged maybe two 5Ks prior in my life.

The reason I took on this “superpower” is that I felt myself getting physically lazy during my PhD and sometimes mentally down.

I needed an exercise regimen that requires dedication and time commitment to keep me focused, healthy, energized, even if it’s time I didn’t have!

During my PhD and postdoc, I think I completed 8 marathons and 15 half marathons…

The running and exercise boot camp only stopped once. I had a kid and therefore could not even squeeze in extra time even if I wanted to. Marathon training is a part-time job so having a toddler to chase around took away that time.

Another hobby I have is art.  I actually wanted to be an artist as a little girl but my traditional Asian parents who immigrated to the US to give our family a better life (very typical story lol!) told me NO. So I chose science and kept art as a hobby. As a scientist, although I didn’t have time to do much art, I did try to create a few pieces every year to submit to art shows or auction off for charities.

Runway Chicken -art by Dr. Linda May-Zhang

Although my love is art, I also realized that I did not have the patience for art day in and day out.  All my work is in the form of sketches, doodles, or 3h max projects. Maybe it was good for me to keep art as a hobby 🙂 My restless personality is quite revealing in this interview.

If you feel comfortable, could you say something about your experience of being a mum in an academia?

If you want to know my honest answer, being a mom in academia is probably easier than being a working mom elsewhere, despite all our challenges with just being an academic. It took me a while to gain that perspective.

First, for anyone, there is never a good time to have a kid. I had a kid in the middle of my postdoc, which was much more fast-paced and harder than my already challenging PhD program.

The higher you go in your career, the more responsibilities you have and the transitions always have a high learning curve.

Having a kid during school is hard, especially financially (if you need to put them in daycare in order to attend classes or do work), but it’s not easy for anyone – academic or not. If you think about it, many working people have kids! PhD, schooling, or not.

Second, even though academic moms go through their own set of hardships, at least there is freedom in academia to leave “lab” or “work”, then come back.  It’s not like other jobs, where you are expected to be at work from 8 am-5 pm and you need to ask permission from your manager to take time off, which is accounted for by Human Resources (HR).

When our kid’s daycare has school closings (or closed due to COVID), we can more easily take time off or work at home half-days. However, outside of academia, you typically need permission from HR and need to take time out of your 10 granted vacation days.

I will say, academic mamas on tenure-track who find themselves working at nights or weekends to catch up with writing grants and papers have a hard life. Some situations may be impossible, such as someone who cannot financially afford daycare, does not have family support, and are single parents.  However, that is hard for anyone, academia or not.

Not all careers will fit everyone’s personal needs and situations, and sometimes certain things will need to be sacrificed – such as finances, career choices, or the ability to continue medical school.

It’s just important to realize that there are options and not all situations in life are permanent.

You might need to move closer to family, or network to find friendly neighbors who can offer discounted or free childcare, or take a few years off work/school. If you have a spouse, you might need to discipline them to be more hands-on with the kid (if they aren’t naturally as hands-on as you.)

Being an academic researcher for 13 years post-college, I was only surrounded by academics and their challenges. However, none of my family or friends are actually academics, and I realized they have kids too. Some of them commute 1.5h to work and some work two jobs.

Now that I’m not in academia anymore, I have to request permission from HR to take a few hours off from work because my son’s daycare is closed. I realized that being a parent in academia isn’t so bad compared to other situations. It is all about perspective. Having a kid as a graduate student after coursework or mid-postdoc are probably the best times for an academic to have kids.

What are your future plans, upcoming projects, what is next?

I am loving my current job and hope to develop into a leadership position within the next 2-5 years.

In the far future, I would love to be a Chief Science and Innovation officer and carrying out responsibilities on a global scale.

I also intend to have a second kid at some point soon 🙂 We have no family around where we live, so we have been paying for a nanny a few hours a week to give us some more free time, even for chores.

Where people can find you?

@Insta – JustLiz83

Thank you!

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