What it means to be a staff scientist: new skills, perks, and challenges

In a #WhyIScience Q&A, Julian Avila-Pacheco talks about his post-PhD career path and how he has tackled imposter syndrome as a minority scientist.

Julian Avila-Pacheco (All photo credits: Allison Dougherty)
Julian Avila-Pacheco (All photo credits: Allison Dougherty)

Growing up in Colombia, Julian Avila-Pacheco loved baking. He once experimented with fermentation, placing sugar and yeast in a bottle that he then kept in his bedroom. He had unknowingly sealed the bottle and, inevitably, it blew up. Avila-Pacheco remembers admiring the explosive power of microorganisms, but his mother was far less pleased with the sticky mess.

The mishap put him on a path to studying microbiology as an undergraduate at Universidad de Los Andes in Colombia. He thought he would one day work in a cheese or dairy factory, but classes in molecular biology and biochemistry changed his mind. He pursued a doctoral degree in biochemistry at Texas A & M University and a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington, Seattle, before joining the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard as a research scientist in the Metabolomics Platform, where he works under the mentorship of senior director of the platform, Clary Clish. 

In a #WhyIScience Q&A, Avila-Pacheco spoke with us about his staff scientist career path and the challenges he has faced as a scientist from an underrepresented minority group:

Q: What is it like being a staff scientist? 

A: As a staff scientist in the Broad’s Metabolomics Platform, I actively collaborate with other scientific groups within Broad and its partner institutions. I serve as a liaison between the platform and these groups, helping researchers figure out how to plan an experiment, execute it, and analyze the data once it is generated. 

The Metabolomics Platform relies on technologies such as mass spectrometry to measure and study small molecules in a variety of samples. Today we can analyze up to tens of thousands of molecules in a single sample. Researchers nowadays are not just looking for known biochemistry. They are also empowered with metabolomics to find out about an additional universe of molecules that may have never been characterized before. 

As a staff scientist, my job is to help researchers design the right experiments when they come to our platform so that they ultimately find answers to the scientific questions they have. 

Q: What do you like most about your role? 

A: When I decided not to pursue the PI-career path and instead become a staff scientist, it was liberating to know that I wasn’t going to be limited to a single project or area of expertise. 

As a staff scientist, I am always encouraged to learn new skills, to become a better scientist, and keep advancing my career. Being a staff scientist here at the Broad has also taught me better time management skills, and I am able to maintain a great work-life balance.

Q: What would you say to early career researchers and trainees who may be interested in becoming a staff scientist?

A: During your doctoral or postdoctoral training, you may get used to your work getting labeled as “your project” or “your first doctoral paper.” But that culture shifts when you become a staff scientist. You work with a bigger team, and you contribute to a bigger story. To do that successfully, you need specific skills -- you need to be good with people, you need to know how to collaborate and negotiate. You need to know how to present and how to explain complex things. You need to have the ability to learn new things very quickly. You have to function with minimum supervision and sort out your own projects. You should be agile, think on your feet, and come up with solutions to problems. 

Q: What are some of the most significant challenges scientists need to deal with today?

A: Technology is emerging so rapidly that scientists need to be versatile and learn and adapt quickly. 

It has also become evident that scientists need to be aware of not only the techniques and the research they are conducting, but also the repercussions of their research. Scientists must understand that they are not working in a vacuum and what they do has real impact on the world. They also need to appreciate the importance of communicating with people who are not scientists.

Q: Have you faced challenges as a scientist from a minority group?

A: I am a first-generation college graduate, immigrant, Latino, and gay. So yes, I have faced challenges. Every time I made a transition along my career path from graduate school to postdoc or from postdoc to my current job a considerable imposter syndrome would kick in. That feeling of “maybe I am not good enough, or the work I am doing isn’t enough” was always hard to shake off. That feeling is like baggage you carry around with you, and it takes up a lot of mental capacity. 

The second challenge was the transition from Colombia to the United States, where I didn’t have any family and had to adapt to a new culture. That’s a challenge that stays with you throughout your life. In Latin America, families are really close, and I keep wondering if I am selfish by staying so far away and being gone for so long. How do you reconcile that with the decision to do something you are very passionate about and are really good at, while you have your family that lives far away?

Q: What would your advice be to aspiring scientists from underrepresented groups? 

A: This question reminds me of my experience mentoring a summer trainee from Puerto Rico a few years ago here at the Broad. He reminded me a lot of myself. He was very talented and yet he believed that he wasn’t good enough. I was constantly telling him that he was doing really well. 

Many aspiring scientists from underrepresented groups come in with this mindset that they have to prove themselves. They almost need to have a voice inside their head that should constantly be telling them, “You are good enough. You got this. You can do it.” 

My advice to them will be to build up the confidence and that positive voice in their heads. Challenges will come up, but if you have that confidence it will carry you through.