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Jen Heemstra on the importance of relationships in science

Your career is as much about the people as it is about the research

by Jen Heemstra
October 12, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 40


An illustration of a woman standing in an empty lab.
Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN/Shutterstock
Surround yourself with good people.

I’m standing alone in an empty lab. No reaction mixtures stirring in the hoods. No pipettors lined up on the benches. No glassware on the drying racks. The movers have just finished packing up the last of our things as we complete the final stage of our move to Emory University, and I want to do a walk-through to make sure we’re leaving our old space as clean as possible. I expected to feel a lot in this moment, but I’m still shocked when the realization hits me: the last time I stood here looking at this empty lab was 9 years ago, when I was a brand-new assistant professor on the first day of my independent career.

In a flash, I’m transported back to that day—feeling so incredibly thankful to have a job and, specifically, to have that job. I wondered about the students and postdocs who would soon join me in that lab space and hoped that I would be a good mentor to them. I envisioned what we would accomplish together and what our research program would become.

It’s almost disorienting to stand in the balance, feeling like a brand-new assistant professor again while also carrying the hard-won wisdom, accomplishments, and responsibilities of a midcareer faculty member. I feel a deep sense of pride and warmth as I reflect on what has taken shape from the hopes and dreams that I felt on that first day and the amazing people in my research group who made all of it happen. And I’m overwhelmed with excitement about what the future holds for our group. This moment highlights something that I’ve felt for a long time but that we too often miss: the idea that this job is as much about the people as it is about the science.

In deciding where to start my career, I focused on the resources I would need to be successful. This included lab space, core facilities, and start-up funds. But I knew that it was even more important to focus on the people I would surround myself with. I wanted to be somewhere I could recruit motivated and creative students and postdocs who would be excited to drive our research forward and ambitiously grow their knowledge and capabilities as independent scientists. I also wanted to be in a place where my faculty colleagues would be invested in my success and provide me with the mentoring I would need to navigate the unexpected responsibilities and situations that come with faculty life. I was extremely fortunate to find a job that offered both sets of people—motivated students and supportive faculty.

As I progressed in my career, I had the opportunity to collaborate with researchers at my university and at other institutions across the country. These collaborations always started with the science, as we recognized that tackling complex and interdisciplinary projects would require the combined expertise of multiple faculty and research groups. However, any good collaboration involves spending time sharing data, troubleshooting challenges, and brainstorming about future plans. What I didn’t necessarily expect is that these times also provided an opportunity to share what was happening in our lives—that together, we would navigate the excitement and anxiety of the tenure process, celebrate the birth of children, and mourn the loss of loved ones. Through these interactions I built deep friendships that have lasted long after the money was spent and the projects were over.

There is no place where I have come to have a greater appreciation for people and relationships than in my research group. The reason we all show up every day is to do exciting research with the goal of publishing papers and continuing to secure federal funding. But we also recognize that while individuals have their own goals, we cannot accomplish them without teamwork and collaboration. Together, we have created a culture that defines our group and is built on trust and the idea that we are all colleagues and peers. This set of values was most evident when we decided as a group to move across the country to Atlanta, a decision that involved a complex calculus of research environment, department culture, and the effect on our personal lives. While this was a stressful time culminating in a big move, it drove us to define our priorities with increasing clarity and brought our group closer than we had ever been.

There is a good chance that the science is what drove you to choose your current career or degree program. But take a moment to appreciate the relationships that you’ve built because of science and the richness those bring to your work and everyday life. And, even if you find yourself standing in an empty lab, remember that you won’t be alone for long.

Jen Heemstra is an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at


Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.




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