More to science: working as an Assistant Dean for Basic Science

There’s more to science than being a scientist! For the next installment of our ‘Science > Careers’ series, Connie M. Lee, Assistant Dean for Basic Science at the University of Chicago, talks more about this position and how her career journey led her to this role.

Lee_croppedHow did you get interested in science?

As far back as I can remember, biology, math, and music were my favorite subjects in school. I guess I was always very analytical, so science and math came pretty easy to me. I grew up in North Dakota and went to a very small school, so unfortunately I didn’t get to participate in science fairs as a kid.

I think the reason I ended up in science was really due to the process of elimination. I didn’t think I was talented enough to go into music, and I didn’t particularly want to teach, which is what I thought you’d have to do if you went into math, so science it was!

What is your scientific background?

I completed my bachelor’s degree at North Dakota State University. I majored in Biotechnology, mainly because it sounded a lot cooler and more cutting edge than a degree in Biology. After I was exposed to my first molecular biology course, I was hooked, and I knew I’d found my passion.

I also was very lucky in my freshman year to get good grades my first quarter, and so my faculty advisor sent me a letter of congratulations and invited me to work in his lab. I worked there all four years, and it really paved the way for me to apply for—and get in to—graduate school.

I went on to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for graduate school, majoring in Cellular & Molecular Biology, where my research focused on mitochondria and aging in mammalian cells. Already at that stage, however, I knew I’d likely end up pursuing something different with my career than go after the traditional academic track.

I still decided to do a postdoc to keep all my options open.

I still decided to do a postdoc to keep all my options open, and for personal reasons, I wanted to live in Germany for a period of time, so I figured doing my postdoc in Germany would be a great opportunity to check both of these boxes.

For my postdoc I stayed along the mitochondrial theme, and worked on protein import and membrane translocation in yeast mitochondria at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. At that point, I was very drawn to the field of scientific editing since I’d always loved writing, preparing, and assembling my own papers, and thought it would be great to help other scientists communicate their science and publish their papers.

Even though I hadn’t really planned to stay in Germany beyond my postdoc, it was easy to apply for (and get interviews for) jobs there. My first scientific editor position was at the journal FEBS Letters based in Heidelberg, Germany.

After three years at FEBS Letters and two years at EMBO Journal, I decided I was ready to move back to the US. Luckily, Cell was hiring editors, and because I was doing very similar work at EMBO Journal, I interviewed and accepted an offer at Cell and moved back to the US after seven years abroad.

Being an editor was such a great experience for me. The skills one develops—such as time management, dealing with difficult situations, multi-tasking, honing your oral and written communication skills and developing scientific breadth– are skills you can apply to many different positions.

It is also a highly intense position and can be quite stressful and involve a lot of travel, and I decided after 11 years as an editor I was ready for a change.

It is also a highly intense position and can be quite stressful and involve a lot of travel, and I decided after 11 years as an editor I was ready for a change. Luckily as an editor, you get to know many scientists around the world, and thus you have great connections.

Through this networking, I was recruited by some faculty at University of California, San Francisco to help launch a systems and synthetic biology center. They had just received a large P50 center grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and wanted a scientist and former editor to help run the center and build up the community.

They used to half-joke with me that I was hired for my ability and skill to ‘say no’, which for editors becomes routine but for academics is apparently very difficult. For me, it was attractive to move back to a University and to be closer to the science.

I heard about an Assistant Dean position at the University of Chicago with the Biological Sciences Division, which seemed like a perfect fit for a former editor and for someone who had transitioned into scientific research administration.

I was regularly attending lab meetings, and things even went full circle when I was an author again, helping write a review article and a meeting report. The position was initially very challenging in launching a new center, but after three years, transitioned more into a maintenance phase than a growth phase.

Through a friend, I heard about an Assistant Dean position at the University of Chicago with the Biological Sciences Division, which seemed like a perfect fit for a former editor and for someone who had transitioned into scientific research administration.

How do you spend your day in your job?

A dean’s office is kind of like the principal’s office of the Division. It’s where a lot of the strategic and financial decisions of the Division are made, and where faculty go when they have ideas for building new programs (and need money), if they need assistance on various administrative matters, or would like to raise concerns.

We help oversee and interact extensively with departmental chairs of the nine basic science departments, assist with the recruitment and retention of faculty, help oversee graduate education and training with the dean for graduate affairs, manage limited opportunity grant proposals, and interact with several other entities within the Division (Development, Academic Affairs, Budget and Finance, Space and Planning, Animal Resources and Core Facilities, HR, and so on) as well as with the University (Safety, Federal Relations, Vice President for Research, etc).

I spend most of the day either in meetings with faculty and administrators, or in front of my computer, answering emails and working on various reports and metrics.

I spend most of the day either in meetings with faculty and administrators, or in front of my computer, answering emails and working on various reports and metrics. The dean’s office keeps pretty regular hours, and usually all our meetings are scheduled between 9am and 5pm. Most of the other deans and those directly overseeing science and research components (such as cores facilities), are PhD- or MD-trained scientists, while most of the supporting administrators are not.

As a trained cell biologist, I am also very fortunate that I’ve been involved in the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) for many years. Through them, I became interested in science policy and advocacy via their Public Policy Committee, and they appointed me as Chair of the committee two years ago.

It’s been a tremendous learning experience, and has really benefited my career in that I’m much more informed about things like NIH policy and budgets. I interact with Committee members (most of whom are active faculty) or ASCB staffers at least once a week, and recently participated on an ASCCB taskforce on the issue of reproducibility in science.

The leadership of ASCB has been an amazing community to be a part of, and to learn from, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to still be included in this community even though I left the bench many years ago.

I’d really recommend that people who have gone on to nontraditional careers maintain connections in the scientific community, and being a member of a scientific society is a great way to do this.

I’d really recommend that people who have gone on to nontraditional careers maintain connections in the scientific community, and being a member of a scientific society is a great way to do this.

What makes this a science job?

I use my scientific training every day, and my experience as a scientific editor as well as running a NIH-sponsored center have also been huge assets. Helping oversee and advocating for nine basic science departments, core facilities, and being involved in decisions on new research priorities, would all be very challenging without having a firm understanding of the science.

Luckily as an editor, you gain such broad exposure to science, and that is invaluable when looking at the research portfolios of nine departments, ranging from ecology and evolution, to cancer biology and translational medicine.

What do you like most about your job?

Even though it is also the most challenging aspect, the breadth and scope of the position and of the Division are definitely attractive features of the job.

Even though it is also the most challenging aspect, the breadth and scope of the position and of the Division are definitely attractive features of the job. No two days are alike, and there is never a shortage of things to do. However, it is always a matter of prioritizing, which I know can be a little frustrating for the faculty.

Funnily enough, I still remember when I left Cell that I was lauded as having ‘legendary organizational skills’, but here I still feel like I’m never organized enough. I am still learning how to stay on top of everything that is going on, constantly making lists, and experimenting with how our team can stay organized.

As an editor, I think I had developed some skills in dealing with difficult situations, but even with that experience, navigating the politics of a University can sometimes be a mind field.

What would you tell your younger self?

I’ve been thrilled with the way my career (well, two careers really!) has turned out so far, so I don’t think I’d have wanted to change a thing. To be honest, I’d probably never have been able to land a scientific editor position at Cell straight out of my postdoc, as I think I really lacked the scientific breadth.

One thing I’d make my younger self do would be to have the goal of asking one question at every scientific talk you attend.

But by getting my foot in the door and having some years of experience under my belt from FEBS Letters and EMBO Journal, I was able to work my way up to Deputy Editor at Cell. I’ve definitely applied for some positions along the way that didn’t work out, but I think it just shows that one can take different paths to get to the same point.

And especially once you leave the traditional academic career path, there really is no clear path. You just need to be persistent and do your research.

From my academic days, the one thing I was never good at was being brave enough to raise my hand and ask questions. I’m really an introvert, so one thing I’d make my younger self do would be to have the goal of asking one question at every scientific talk you attend. I know a cell biologist who does that at conferences, and I think it’s a great idea.

Where can you be reached if readers want to ask you more about your job?

People can email me directly at cmlee@bsd.uchicago.edu, or reach out to me on Twitter at @cm23lee.


Do you have a job in science that you love? Know someone who can’t stop talking about their science career? Comment below or email me at dana.berry@biomedcentral.com if you’re interested in participating in our series. And join the conversation by using the #moretoscience hashtag on twitter.

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