Friday, March 8, 2013

On the fear of branching out into a new field

This has been an exciting and emotional week. I am venturing into a new field in biology and I decided to attend a small specialized conference on the topic. I am still trying to determine in my head which projects are going to be the best bets for the new lab and I thought I could look for collaborators to help me branch out.

It is always difficult to go to a conference on your own, but it is even harder to go to a conference in a field you do not know where you know absolutely no one. I am no shrinking violet, but the constant level of attention you need to maintain and the pleasantness can be exhausting. You are trying to figure out who the leaders in the field are, who the movers and shakers are and which topics are trending, while trying to understand exactly what everyone is talking about. I'm at the top of my game with genetics and cell biology, but here surrounded by biochemists, structural biologists and biophysicists I often found myself smiling an empty smile. It had been a long time since I had felt this ignorant...

Overall, I think it went exceptionally well, I was kind of adopted by the best possible collaborators, I was invited to give several talks, I was made privy to interesting unpublished ideas and plans which will help me with directing my projects, yet I feel tired and deflated, and completely out of my depth.
It is easy to do what we know, to feel confident of our expertise, and after you spend so many years to become an expert, it can be daunting to feel like a rookie again. Yet, in chatting with established investigators and asking for advice as I usually do, a picked up a new piece of wisdom: "Don't be afraid to branch out to a topic you don't know". At dinner with one of the movers and shakers I was trying to meet, he told me about his career path and how being at the right place with the right expertise can make you able to answer very exciting questions in a new field.

I guess I have to take this advice and tell myself that I can now rely on people who have the expertise to help me. I need to build on the very valuable contacts I have made during this week.

Image credit: The road not taken by Harvey Robinson via Wikimedia Commons

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