Being a chemistry professor is Jen Heemstra’s dream job. How she got there was a bit of a nightmare. But now she’s running her own team at Emory University and has become a social media celebrity by sharing her experiences and leadership advice on Twitter. She credits her personal tragedy and professional setbacks for making her who she is today. In the latest episode of C&EN’s Stereo Chemistry podcast, we spent two days with Heemstra and her team (shown) to learn more about her and her approach to graduate education. Heemstra’s adversity has not only shaped her attitude but also how she runs her lab. She’s helping her students develop skills that go beyond the bench—things like how to manage motivation, how to develop research ideas, and how to write grants. Listen now to hear more about Heemstra’s journey and philosophy.
The following is the script for the podcast. We have edited the interviews within for length and clarity.
Matt Davenport: Hey Andrea.
Andrea Widener: Hey Matt.
Matt: I am super stoked that you’re cohosting this episode of Stereo Chemistry with me.
Andrea: I’m excited to be here.
Matt: But I do feel a little bad that I got to go to Atlanta for my reporting while you were stuck in the studio. Do you mind if I kick things off by trying to bring you there with me?
Andrea: Go for it.
Matt: Let me paint you a mind picture. It’s an overcast day outside. Drizzly. Approaching 20 °C, or what we would call the low 60s in the States. It was very comfortable for January. I’ve just stepped inside the Atwood Chemistry Center at Emory University to visit one of chemistry’s newest stars on social media.
I’m in the new part of the building, finished in 2015, and it’s huge, open, and it’s got some really cool things going on. For example, the facade of the old chemistry building is built into it, overlooking this wide-open central lobby, or atrium, if you’re fancy.
Across the atrium there’s a cute yet chic little reading nook slash mini library. And it doesn’t just have stuffy science books. I’m pretty sure I saw a Wonder Woman comic in there.
Upstairs are offices that the grad students and postdocs use, and they have clear walls and doors. Their occupants have drawn these amazing pictures on the walls of like Bugs Bunny, Pikachu, and Deadpool using dry-erase markers. It’s really impressive.
Andrea: It kind of sounds like what you’d see at a tech start-up.
Matt: Yeah. And I guess that’s kind of appropriate because I was there because of a Silicon Valley tech start-up—namely, Twitter. I was at Emory to talk to supramolecular chemist Jen Heemstra. And I first met Jen through Twitter.
Andrea: Jen recently moved to Emory from the University of Utah, where some of her group members are still working. The team has a variety of projects using or designing biomolecules for things like imaging and sensing.
Matt: She’s also been lighting up Twitter lately, tweeting about the stuff that a lot of chemists do or should do aside from research but don’t necessarily talk about.
Jen Heemstra: I realized that there’s just all of this knowledge about all of the things outside of science that you need to know in order to do this job successfully. Things like how to network, how to manage your motivation, how to develop research ideas, even how to write papers, and how to write grants.
Matt: Jen’s an academic, obviously, but she wants to share ideas that chemists can use and discuss no matter where their careers take them. Take for example, this tweet from February where she said:
“There’s a huge difference between being busy and being productive:
Being busy = doing lots of things
Being productive = doing the most important things in the best possible way.”
Andrea: That tweet had over 500 retweets and 2,000 likes. And Jen has over 16,000 followers. She’s built that following by talking about the nonscientific skills needed to run a lab.
In this episode of Stereo Chemistry, we’re going to talk to her about why these topics are taking off on Twitter and what experiences have helped her become a sort of evangelist sharing her thoughts in a public forum.
Matt: Jen credits a lot of mentors for helping her shape her message and her approach. So I wanted to learn, How does she think the broader chemistry community feels about sharing and teaching these ideas of leadership and professional development, especially as part of a PhD program?
Jen Heemstra: I think as a field, we’re really excited about it. I think we recognize that students should come away from their PhD with more than a book full of experiments that they’ve run, that there’s so much more to it than that. It should be such a rich experience in developing as an independent thinker, developing as an independent scientist, developing as a leader, as someone who can really go and be driving a research program somewhere else. Be that in industry or in academia. Or who can go and be doing really innovative things in policy discussions or in science communication or in informal science outreach. There’s so many opportunities after a PhD, but I think all of them really involve being an innovator and being a thought leader.
Andrea: Jen’s using Twitter to start discussions about these ideas with people from all over, but her philosophy has also shaped how she runs her group at Emory. Which brings us to why you went down there, Matt.
Matt: Yeah, it’s important to Jen that she’s practicing what she’s preaching. And by going to Emory, I was able to see an example of that firsthand. Jen and her team were spending two days working on grants in a way that was entirely new to me.
Doing chemistry takes money, right? No surprise there. But the process by which researchers get said money to do said chemistry can be full of surprises, especially for students. Sure, most people know that research funding comes from a moneyed benefactor, such as the federal government.
Andrea: And it’s no secret that you can apply for money from federal funding agencies by writing grant proposals. But what do grant proposals look like? And more importantly, what do successful grant proposals look like? It’s entirely possible to make it through grad school without needing to answer those questions.
Matt: Sometimes a PI will handle all the grant writing. So if you’re a student, it’s like the money just appears by magic. That was my experience early on in grad school, but later, I did get to help out with a proposal. And I’ve met students and postdocs who are very involved with grant writing. The level to which that grant-writing curtain gets pulled back can depend a lot on who you are and who you work for.
Andrea: What Jen’s team is doing with its workshop is pulling back that curtain as much as possible for the whole team. And the rationale is that if you’re a chemist, no matter where you end up, knowing how to persuade people to give you money is a useful skill to have.
Matt: Right. So here’s the sort of crazy thing about this workshop, at least to me. The team wasn’t actually writing any grants. They had sort of evolved beyond that. What they were doing now was taking old, well-reviewed grants to different funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation
Andrea: (aka the NSF),
Matt: the National Institutes of Health
Andrea: (the NIH),
Matt: and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency
Andrea: (or DTRA).
Matt: The team combed through these grant proposals sentence by sentence, trying to understand the function and purpose of every line and section. With that understanding, they could then sort of reverse engineer those proposals for specific projects into more general templates for a certain type of grant.
Andrea: So say three weeks or six months or eight years from now, somebody on Jen’s team wants to apply for money from NSF or the NIH, they could just pull up the corresponding template.
Matt: Right. So this is next-level grant writing compared to what I’ve heard of, and that makes sense because this isn’t the team’s first grant-writing workshop. And it’s kind of cool to look back at how this workshop has evolved.
The first one was back in 2015, and it was pretty straightforward. Jen and her team got together to brainstorm goals and preliminary data they could include for a single NSF grant proposal. Not only did that proposal get funded; Jen says it became their best-reviewed grant.
Andrea: Then they added a layer of complexity in 2017, when DTRA put out a call for proposals. And for this call, DTRA said, “Here are 17 different research areas we are interested in.”
So before the group got to proposing how it would do the research, everyone had to come together and agree which of those research areas was the best fit for the Heemstra group.
Jen Heemstra: Actually, probably the best day of my career is when that grant got funded. I’ll never forget. I was out for a run in the morning and came back. It was like 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning. And I checked my email and found out it was getting funded and just jumping up and down in my kitchen and being like, “Oh my goodness. This is the best day of my career because I get to go and share this with my group. It’s not my success. It’s the group’s success.”
Matt: That project is ongoing, and Jen’s collaborating on it with M. G. Finn’s group at Georgia Tech. And like Jen, M. G. really values the professional development of his students as well. So I thought he’d be good person to ask about Jen’s efforts.
M. G. Finn: I’m glad you’re focusing on the Heemstra lab. It’s a great example of one way to team build and get multiple minds working on a single problem. I mean, she really lives this. Jen is much better at this in an organizational way than pretty much anybody I’ve ever seen in the sense that she builds this thing holistically into her operations.
Matt: All right, that brings us up to 2019. Remember, the workshop that I’m at, nobody’s actually writing a grant. Which means that no money will come into the group as a result of the workshop, at least not immediately.
Andrea: But writing future grants should be easier with the templates in hand.
Matt: And Jen believes there are still benefits for the people in her group now, not just in the future.
Jen Heemstra: So really our goals for this workshop are twofold. As with most of the things that we do in our lab, we really want there to be something that contributes to our group and then something that contributes to each person and their professional development. If each person in the group comes away with a better understanding of what creates a successful proposal and what are the elements of a compelling proposal, then that’s something that will be really valuable both in graduate school and beyond.
Matt (at Emory): So why do it this way instead of just saying, “Here’s a template?”
Jen Heemstra: Because honestly, I think that working together, people in the group could create way, way better templates than I ever could. I think that’s the most important thing is that it will be better if the group does it. I also think that if these are the templates that we’re going to be using as a group, it’s really important that everyone have ownership of that.
Andrea: So did you get a sense of whether the students and postdocs bought into that?
Matt (in studio): You know, I think they did. But don’t take my word for it.
Misael Romero: Well, I really was expecting something different.
Matt: That’s Misael Romero, a grad student in Jen’s group.
Misael Romero: I don’t know. I thought it would be just a boring way of being like, “This is how you write it,” and just go through slides and stuff like that. But the way that we are taking actual grants and breaking them down and learning how to do that is a really important asset to have. And also, at the end, having this time and this outline that will help us to write future grants, it’s amazing I think.
Shayla Shorter: I would agree. Totally.
Matt: That’s Shayla Shorter, who is a science education postdoc researcher.
Matt (at Emory): So good use of two days?
Shayla Shorter: I think it’s a really good—I’m really impressed with the structure and the idea. Like Misael said, it could have been just a boring slideshow type of presentation, but the interactive nature of this really makes it useful.
Matt (in studio): Here’s graduate student Tewoderos Ayele. He goes by T.
Tewoderos “T.” Ayele: I don’t think many labs even within the department even do a similar kind of exercise. So I think we’re grateful to get this opportunity to develop the skills of breaking down a grant.
Matt: I also asked graduate students Arventh Velusamy and Aimee Sanford whether they felt weird or guilty about spending time out of the lab to work on the templates. You’ll hear Arventh first.
Arventh Velusamy: I think research is not just doing lab work. It involves writing all this stuff and performing all the leadership duties and mentoring. So it’s not just getting your results on the bench; it’s also presenting to people, communicating your ideas, and all of this is part and parcel of scientific research.
Aimee Sanford: Yeah, and I guess being relatively new to the group, it’s nice being in that sort of lab. We’re a very results-driven lab. So, that being said, you go in, set up experiments, and when you do have time, you go and you work on writing. You work on these reverse templates. You work on writing the introduction to your next publication or things like that. It’s all about using your time wisely.
Matt: I continued that line of questioning with a final group of students. Here’s graduate student Colin Swenson.
Colin Swenson: Yeah, I think we all see the benefit of doing this grant-writing workshop. I don’t feel as though I’m losing any lab time. I’m glad Jen does these professional development sessions.
Matt (at Emory): So in selecting a lab, was that something you considered?
Steve Knutson: Yeah, I don’t know how you guys felt, but I think you could tell she was a little bit different in terms of management style.
Matt (in studio): That’s grad student Steve Knutson.
Steve Knutson: Even when you’re just thinking about rotations and what labs to potentially join, I think she runs things a little bit differently, and that kind of comes off right away. So it contributed for me for sure.
Andrea: I’m hearing a lot of positive reviews.
Matt: Yeah, basically everyone I talked to said the workshop was great. As an observer, my take was that everyone was into it and determined to knock out these templates. The good vibes and can-do attitude carried into day 2, when the groups reviewed and edited each other’s templates. Then, as a group, they had really candid and productive discussions about those edits.
Which is what makes this next part all the more surprising to me. At the end of the workshop, once the templates were done, Jen had some time set aside just to talk about leadership and how the group was organized. She asked me not to record during that time so everyone would feel more comfortable speaking openly, but we did talk about it afterward. And it didn’t go how she had thought it would.
Matt (at Emory): Where are you at right now?
Jen Heemstra: Where am I at right now? Wow.
Matt: We’re going to follow up on that in the second part of this episode.
Andrea: We’ll also dig deeper into some of the experiences that have made Jen who she is today.
Matt: Stay tuned.
Oh hey. So this is still Matt and we’ll get you back to Jen’s story in just a moment. But I wanted to take a minute to remind you of a very important deadline you’ve got coming up. And I’m not talking about everyone’s favorite US holiday—Tax Day, obviously. Although the deadline I am talking about is also on April 15. And, you know, you really should do your taxes.
The deadline I’m talking about is the deadline to nominate an early-career chemist to be one of C&EN’s 2019 Talented 12. The Talented 12 highlights a dozen brilliant young scientists who are shaping the future of chemistry. And we need your help selecting this year’s distinguished dozen. We’re searching for candidates from all over the world, from industry, academia, and government labs working on any sort of cutting-edge chemistry.
If you know of someone who deserves to be featured on this year’s list, head on over to our ridiculously easy-to-fill nomination form at bit.ly/cen12nominate. Again that link is bit.ly/cen12nominate, and your deadline is April 15 at 11 p.m. (Eastern). Thank you so much for your help, and we can’t wait to meet the chemists you nominate.
Right before the break, the grant-writing workshop took an unexpected turn. We’ll come back to that, but we didn’t actually really get closure on that ourselves until we followed up with Jen a couple weeks later.
Andrea: Yeah, and while you were still down at Emory, we wanted to talk with Jen about what’s motivated her to take this broad approach to running her team and to using Twitter. She credits the hardships she has faced on the way to getting where she is.
Jen Heemstra: I’m not alone in this, but I’ve had some pretty serious adversity over my career trajectory—over my life and over my career trajectory—and those experiences were really, really hard at the moment. But what I found is that each event that I went through that was a really large challenge, I came out of those just feeling so strong and fearless and really just not caring too much what people think about me because I think adversity just has that way of stripping that away.
Andrea: We talked with Jen about some of that adversity, but she’s written about more elsewhere. For example, she wrote an Instagram post for a project called the PhDepression that’s promoting awareness of mental health issues faced by grad school students and postdocs. In that Instagram post, Jen talks about her own experiences dealing with depression, getting fired from a job for being pregnant, losing that pregnancy, and more.
Matt: We’ve shared a link to that post. And reading through it, I totally understand why Jen didn’t want to rehash all of that for this podcast.
Jen Heemstra: I used to think, “Oh, I’m here despite those things. I have all these horrible things that happened. And I overcame them and I made it here despite that.” But it’s really if I hadn’t gone through those things, I don’t think I’d be here, or if I was, I definitely wouldn’t be doing this job the way that I am. And I’m really glad that I am here and doing this job the way that I am.
And the thing that I’ve come to realize about those is that you’re obviously going through these experiences is just horrible. It’s, it’s the worst. It’s gut wrenching. It feels like your whole life is just being stripped away from you. You just feel weak and you feel rejected and you feel like there’s something wrong with you, and it’s incredibly isolating. Something I think it’s really good to recognize, as we talk about mental health in academia, is that, when you see someone struggling, one of the worst parts of that can be how isolating it feels—that you look around and think everyone else is having this perfect, happy life and there’s just something wrong with me that I’m not. And I’m kind of alone in feeling the way that I am and no one else really wants to be in this struggle with me. And that’s completely untrue. It was, it was such a gift that through each struggle I went through, there were people who really wanted to be in that struggle with me and help me through it.
Andrea: As an example of that, Jen told us about Jeff Moore, who was her PhD adviser at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Jeff came up more than once, but we wanted to share this story Jen told us in the context of her struggles with self-doubt.
During grad school, Jen realized that being a chemistry professor was her dream job. But she never told anyone before she graduated.
Jen Heemstra: Even though everyone around me was so supportive, deep down I just thought, “Oh, people would just laugh at me and say that there’s no way you could ever do that. You’re not good enough.”
And so I really just deeply, deeply struggled with that, of this idea of there’s this dream job that I want so badly and it is completely and totally unattainable.
And one of the really defining moments, the one that really stands out to me that I still think about all the time is I was talking with my PhD adviser, with Jeff Moore. And it was a little bit after I graduated, I was working in industry while I waited for my husband to graduate, and I was about to leave for my postdoc, and we had this sit-down and he said kind of casually I think, “Well, what are you thinking you want to do with your career after your postdoc? What’s your goal?”
And I finally thought, “Ok, I have to just admit this because it’s getting time to when I can’t put this off any longer what I wanted to do with my career.” And I just broke down and said, “Jeff, I so desperately want a career in academia. But I just look at what you do and I can’t do that. I can’t come up with research ideas like you do. I can’t write proposals. I can’t write papers. I can’t run a lab like you do.” And he seemed about, you know, he seemed to balance it all so incredibly well, but I just thought that’s because you’re so brilliant and I am not. And I could just never do what you do. And he looked at me and he said, “Of course you can’t. Of course you can’t. Not right now.”
He said, “Neither could I when I was a graduate student or postdoc or even an assistant professor.” He was, you know, maybe 15 years into his career at that point. And that was just so illuminating for me. And it really didn’t, like, totally decimate the self-doubt, but it it kind of gave me a framework to work from.
Andrea: Now, of course, Jen is running her own research team at Emory. She’s in a position where she’s equipped to share what she’s learned from her mentors as well as her own struggles. And she’s able to do that with her team by doing things like the grant-writing workshop, by creating time to talk openly about the nonscientific things that are important to doing science.
Jen Heemstra: All of these things are so important, and the way that we usually deliver that knowledge to students is kind of these occasional one-on-one conversations, and that’s not great because it’s really inefficient and it’s actually really inequitable. We probably deliver more of that knowledge to some people than others. Actually, social science would tell us that we probably tend to deliver it more to people who look like us than people who don’t look like us.
Matt: And that’s where social media comes in. Twitter allows her to share wisdom and advice more publicly. It helps get around the limitations of the old way of doing things.
Luis Martínez: There’s an entire generation of graduate students, an entire generation of young early-career faculty for whom the way things have happened are no longer acceptable.
Matt: That’s Luis Martínez, an organic chemist who is the director for Trinity University’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Luis Martínez: Now instead of making molecules I get to help create companies.
Matt: That generation of chemists he was talking about now includes more students who have had fewer opportunities to get professional advice from mentors. Students who are women and people of color and also students interested in nontraditional careers.
Luis Martínez: There used to be the sort of model of 60, 70% of all chemists went into industry and there were, like, stable industry jobs. And then the rest of them went in academics, and there were stable academic jobs. And basically those were the two flavors that you had. And I was part of that sort of second wave of alternative careers or said, “Hey, look. Something else is out there.” You can sort of begin to explore those things like management consulting and law and business. But now we’re at the point where there’s all sorts of other sort of industries and businesses and opportunities that exist that it’s disrupted obviously the kind of marketplace for scientists and chemists, but also the way in which we do science as well that I think is a factor that’s led to somebody thinking about sort of leadership and thinking about this.
Andrea: A lot of chemists are thinking about the same things Jen’s tweeting about, judging by the interactions on Twitter.
Matt: Jen’s a bigwig on Twitter now, but she got into it by accident.
Jen Heemstra: I started my account in 2014. Actually I didn’t even start my account. One of my friends started my account for me in 2014 trying to win a crash pad at a climbing gym competition thing.
Matt: I had to look up what a crash pad was, and I think it’s basically what it sounds like: a big pad that can break your fall if you’re doing a smaller climb when you can’t, like, set up all that safety rope business. But back to Jen’s Twitter account that was set up by her friend.
Jen Heemstra: She got this really cute photo of me with my then one-year-old wearing a hard hat, and so she’s like, “We have to try and we need this crash pad and you have to tweet it.” And I was like, “I have no idea what that is.” And she said, “Don’t worry, I set up an account for you and tweeted it.” And I never won the crash pad, but I had this dormant Twitter account then with like one post to it that I think is now gone.
Andrea: Jen says she didn’t actually log in again until the fall of 2017. Her group was looking to hire an education research postdoc. This was a new direction for the team, and Jen didn’t know the best way to advertise the position. So she tweeted about it.
Even though her account had been dormant since 2014, Jen had still managed to build up a following, consisting largely of other chemists.
Matt: So Twitter let her share news about the position with this network of chemists. And although she doesn’t think the tweet itself drove in too many applications, she does think that sharing the information helped her learn where she could post that job where education researchers would be looking for it.
Jen Heemstra: And so it was a really useful thing, so I started tweeting because of that. Then I don’t know what flipped a switch. Just I think along the way I got pulled more and more into the community, and I would see dialogue or issues facing students or faculty and just feel like I’ve got something to say on this and I want to say it, this thing that’s in my head. I’m just gonna go for it.
Andrea (in interview): I mean, whatever you’re saying seems to be really resonating with people. Are there particular topics that you think really are drawing people to you?
Jen Heemstra: I mean that’s just its own crazy thing. I think there’s so much randomness to this, like, I think I could probably have posted the same stuff in an alternate universe that I would have 100 followers. So I don’t know. I don’t know how reproducible it is and how much of it is just luck.
This job as a faculty member is really in large part, it’s definitely a science job. Obviously it’s a science job, but it’s also a leadership and a management job. And you know, this idea that how you get into this job is by working at the bench and being really, really good at running experiments and publishing a lot of papers. But then all of a sudden you’re in this job and it’s like what your job duties are now is to manage a group of people, help people stay motivated, make strategic decisions, mediate conflicts, and help people who are dealing with family emergencies or mental health crises. It’s all of these things that none of us get trained for. And so we find ourselves in this job where we’re constantly facing situations where we just feel utterly unprepared to deal with them.
But the good news is that there are a lot of resources out there, right. I’ve gotten addicted to reading books and listening to podcasts, and you listen to this advice that I think is really standard for a lot of people who are in management positions in other industries. But to me it’s like revolutionary.
Matt: And we’re excited to say that we’ll be offering one more resource for chemists this spring. On April 1, you’ll see Jen’s first monthly column for C&EN, called Office Hours.
Andrea: In the first installment, Jen will be fielding some questions from C&EN’s staff, but going forward, she wants to answer the questions you have.
Matt: You can send Jen your questions by visiting Office Hours">cenm.ag/officehours. That’s cenm.ag/officehours. So Andrea, did you have a chance to preview Jen’s first column?
Andrea: I did.
Matt: Pretty good, right?
Andrea: Oh yeah.
Matt: So definitely look for that in your April 1 issue of C&EN or on our website at cen.acs.org.
Andrea: And if you happen to be traveling to the ACS national meeting in Orlando, C&EN will be hosting a live Q&A with Jen on April 1 in the expo hall at 1 p.m. (Eastern).
Matt: So before we close out this episode, I just want to go back to Emory really quick. Before the break, I mentioned that at the end of the grant-writing workshop, Jen had set aside some time to talk to hear group about organization and leadership roles. And that part didn’t go as Jen had expected. We followed up with her a couple weeks after the fact, after she’d had some time to think about it. And I want to share her thoughts on it because I think it’s just a great example of the sort of insight, mentality, and self-awareness that I’m willing to bet you’re going to see a lot of in her column.
Jen Heemstra: I’m going to make a confession that that was one part of the retreat that didn’t go super well. And that’s OK. I kind of thought about some things that I could have done much better as a leader.
And while of course it’s a little disappointing that that two hours didn’t go how I wanted it to. But I think again the lessons that I gained from that and the things I think about what I would do differently next time are so valuable. And then it’s totally worth it because in this job, as we advance our careers, the stakes just keep getting higher. So if you learn the lessons now, they can really help you later on.
Matt: So if you too want to learn some lessons now, send your questions to Jen now at cenm.ag/officehours.
Andrea: Or tweet them. Jen’s @jenheemstra and I’m @AWidenerCEN.
Matt: And I’m @MrMattDavenport. You can also keep up with what Jen’s team is working on by following @HeemstraLab.
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Next month, we’ll be celebrating the International Year of the Periodic Table by peeling back the table and sharing a few of the most interesting stories we find. You don’t want to miss it.
The music you’re hearing now is “May the Chords Be with You” by Computer Music All-stars. We kicked off the episode with two tracks by Komiku called “School” and “Mall.” During the middle of the episode you heard “Blind” by Meydän, as well as “The Confrontation” by Podington Bear during the part about our Talented 12 nomination form.
Don’t forget the deadline is April 15, so nominate now at bit.ly/cen12nominate.
That’s all for this episode.
Andrea: Thanks for listening.
“The Confrontation” by Podington Bear is licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0.
“May the Chords Be with You” by Computer Music All-stars in licensed under CC BY 4.0.