In this interview, V. Craig Jordan (UT MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, TX, USA) provides his top 10 tips for students looking to pursue a career in oncology. To view the full interview, click here.
What advice would you give to someone just starting their career in science?
This is something that I’ve thought about at great length. I have a lecture that I give all over the world that is called ‘my scientific survival suggestions’, it’s for all young people starting off. These were thinks that I might not have even realized I was doing at the time, but they worked.
There are 10 of them:1. Carefully decide on your mentor or supervisor for your doctorate.
This person is going to teach you all you need to know and give you opportunities, if you are working with someone unwilling to do that then you will not succeed. It is something that you’ve really got to get right. I picked somebody that was a great pharmaceutical chemist who gave me the insight into what chemistry could do. He opened my eyes to the possibility of crystallizing the estrogen receptor and finding out how estrogen and anti-estrogen actually worked, 30 years before its time. I couldn’t do it then, but it gave me a path to progress for me to think about.2. Train yourself to ascend in science.
People often start off thinking, ‘oh I’m going to be spoon fed into miraculously developing my scientific way by all of the people around me’; absolute nonsense. When it comes to supervisors, often their own agenda is the most important thing to them and is what they want you to do, whether you are a PhD student or a post doc.
When I finished my PhD, I went to America and suddenly found that I had no supervisor for a post doc, it was a frightening situation; I had no publications, no specific skills and now no direct mentor. They said that I could do whatever I wanted so that led to me getting money from Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) to do the tamoxifen project. The thing was, I wasn’t a cancer researcher; I was from a contraceptive environment having done a PhD on contraceptives. However, at the time I knew more than anybody else because really nobody cared about structure function relationships of anti-estrogens or the possibilities that they could be used in breast cancer. Despite what I did know, I still had to teach myself about breast cancer. I got in touch with various people that I had met who were world famous in the field, Elwood Jensen and William L. McGuire, and they taught me how to work with estrogen receptors. They became my friends. They helped me to succeeded but really, I was self-taught.3. Get documentation that says what you can do.
If you go to an interview and make outlandish statements, you look like an idiot when you have nothing to prove it. You’ve got to get as many pieces of paper that document what you can do and what skills you have. Have letters that support what you’re saying. It is absolutely essential, and I tell that to all my students and mentees, go out and win prizes, go in for scholarships, you have to be able to succeed right from the beginning and get it on paper – show that you are competitive.4. Remember, experiments are a conversation with nature.
If all your controls are correct in an experiment and the experiment doesn’t give you the answer that you want, your idea is wrong. You have to be able to adapt your thought patterns to be able to understand that you have made a discovery. Two or three of the most important discoveries I made were absolutely that, making a discovery because it didn’t come out as the right answer or as expected, but the controls were correct.5. Follow your instincts about what you want to achieve and have a goal.
Lots of people don’t have any direction or focus when they start their career and they just drift from place to place. You’ve got to be able to have a theme of things that you want to do within that area. Write publications that all link together so people can say, oh you’re the one that’s doing the tamoxifen work or you’re the one that discovered this or whatever. With a clear theme you can make yourself memorable.6. Know an opportunity when you are presented with change.
Most people fall apart if the lab boss leaves or they go into an environment where the department seems to be falling apart. You have to be able to spot the opportunity in such a situation rather that worry about what will happen next. In my case, I went to the University of Wisconsin and started a new lab in 1980, within 2 years another faculty member decided to leave. The head of the Department came to me and said, ‘oh Jordan, you know about estrogen receptors, you can direct the estrogen receptor laboratory for Wisconsin, complete all of these clinical assays and here are 10 new staff members to help you’. I turned to my friend William McGuire and said. ‘I’m just not up to this. on Monday morning I have a completely different job description with staff whose names I do not know’. He helped me to understand how great an opportunity this was and that’s what I tell everybody; don’t become petrified and completely frozen when faced with something new, it’s an opportunity to excel.7. Give chances to allow your team members to excel.
It’s not about the individual, it’s about the team. I have tamoxifen teams and these tamoxifen teams contain people who I’ve talent spotted and helped to achieve their goals. It’s important to take a chance on people that you see potential in. When I started leading the lab I met a technician, someone great in the lab but who lacked the ability to have the academic grades needed for a PhD. I took a chance on him, taught him what he needed to know to be up to par; now he is just retiring as the vice president of a section in Jansen pharmaceuticals. I have multiple examples of where I have taken in someone who has been rejected by other labs, people who have gone on to be vice presidents of major pharmaceutical companies, directors of research institutes and founders of biotech companies.8. Understand it’s your responsibility to obtain support for your science.
You have to write up grants and convince people to give you money in order to keep your ideas and your research going. It’s something that I have done for the past 45 years. I have always been fully funded and it has allowed me to continue my research and make the discoveries that I have.9. Science can be distracting but publish or perish.
You have got to publish your ideas. Instead of just accepting that something didn’t work you have to craft your publications, make it an important story that is publishable. You can’t just dump everything you do in the bin because it doesn’t succeed, you have to be able to reinvent it.10. When you publish, your colleagues and competitors will often ignore your landmark research.
In one of the lectures I give I discuss something that I call ‘the evolution of a discovery’. When you start, you do all your research yet when you show your boss they say that it is not practical and it won’t work; or if it does work, it’s irrelevant. So you do more work and it works but then you are told that it’s not important. You keep working on it and finally make your defining discovery, but then they say they thought of it first. It’s important to remember that not everyone will greet everything you have with halleluiah! You have to fight for your place in science.
Profile: Virgil Craig Jordan, OBE, PhD, DSc, FMedSci is a scientist specializing in drugs for breast cancer treatment and prevention. He is Professor of Breast Medical Oncology, and Professor of Molecular and Cellular Oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.