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Wandering off the Beaten Track

For those looking for a niche to develop their scientific career, a well-established, big-name lab or a hot research field may be a tempting destination. But for scientists who aren't afraid of a little risk and controversy, wandering off the well-worn path may be a surer and more exciting road to success. Ricardo Azevedo, a Portuguese scientist now working as an assistant professor at the University of Houston in Texas, is one scientist who has made the most of a high-risk, high-gain strategy.


Early Steps

After gaining a degree in biology from the University of Lisbon in 1992, Azevedo obtained a studentship from the Portuguese government to do a Ph.D. on evolutionary biology--working on fruit flies--at Edinburgh University in Scotland. During this time he published many papers, which he says was made easier by the fact that his lab was prestigious. "Often you have this chance to go to a lab that is very well established, and the advantage is that you can concentrate on your work because everything is set up," he says. Yet, he felt it was more difficult to get individual recognition in this environment: "You have to publish a lot of papers, and if you don't then you are staying in the background."

Getting Away From the Crowd

Azevedo finished his Ph.D. in 1997, but "then I was a little stuck trying to organise a postdoc," he says. "When you are trying to finish what you are doing, it is difficult to see beyond that and plan." After a few months of unemployment, he secured a contract to teach statistics to undergraduates at University College London for 7 months. By then, in 1998, he had obtained another fellowship from the Portuguese government to do a postdoc in evolutionary developmental biology in nematodes at Imperial College in London, which he continued until 2001.

"It was a very interesting postdoc, mainly because it was in a very young lab," he says. The lab had only been established the year before, and Azevedo was his PI's first postdoc. This gave him the opportunity to be involved in setting up a lab and to work closely with a PI who was still very active at the bench. Azevedo felt that it was a very good environment in which to develop as a scientist, even though "a lab that is just starting and doesn't have many resources makes it a little harder to just get the work done." Not having any big names around to endorse your work means your research will probably not have a big immediate impact either.

On the Way to Freedom

"Towards the end of that postdoc, I had the usual problem that one day the money runs out and you feel it is time to move on," says Azevedo. So he applied for a 2-year fellowship from the European Molecular Biology Organisation ( EMBO) at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and secured it. "I argued [to EMBO] that I needed more experience in molecular biology, and it worked quite well," he says. But with his fellowship scheduled to start 8 months later, he had some time on his hands, so he decided to experience what working in industry was like. So he joined the biochemical company Syngenta at their location near London, within a screening and logistics group that needed somebody with nematode research experience. He enjoyed the experience but, he says, it made him realise how important it was to him to have the freedom to work on his own lines of research. Within a company "you are just part of a team, and one component of a bigger organisation," he says.

In 2002, he went off to the United States to start his postdoc at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. But Albert Einstein, says Azevedo, puts a strong emphasis on medical applications, and Azevedo missed basic research and the interdisciplinary set-up he was used to in academia. So 1 year into his fellowship, he decided to accept an offer for an assistant professorship at the University of Houston.

Azevedo had started applying for faculty positions when he was in his first postdoc at Imperial College. He strongly advises other postdocs to start applying even if they feel it is too early in their career. You will learn a lot "by concentrating your effort on trying to sound ready," he says, when thinking about how to make a CV and 5-year research plan substantial enough. You may well surprise yourself, he suggests, and find that you are ready. Even if you're not, going through the experience will make you a more savvy competitor later on. "There are very few cases of people who got offered a job in the first interview," he says. "There is a skill [for it] which you acquire during the interview; the questions are always the same, and you need to practice giving a talk to a general audience."

Keeping It Small

Azevedo became an assistant professor in 2003 and doesn't hide the fact that it is a difficult transition. "You have to develop many skills for which you have never been trained before, such as running a lab, managing people, and doing the finances," he says. Finding the right people to hire isn't straightforward either. "Most labs initially encounter difficulties in recruiting, when their reputation is not that well known," he says. Azevedo currently has just one permanent Ph.D. student; other students visit his lab to work for a few months as part of the rotation system practised by some graduate programmes in the United States.

When becoming an assistant professor, says Azevedo, you also need to be aware that "a lot of your time will disappear" with the additional teaching and administrative duties. This will leave you with little time for research and grant writing, at a time when it is crucial for you to publish papers and secure grants. These new responsibilities could hardly come at a worse time for new faculty, because, in the U.S. tenure system, assistant professors are granted tenure based on their performance during those first years. "In my university, you are evaluated in the first 5 years, and if you don't get a permanent position, you have 1 year to find another job," Azevedo explains.

Azevedo feels the pressure on young faculty--especially at prestigious institutions--can simply be too much. Some of them are renowned for asking young faculty to be among the top three scientists of their field in order to stand a chance of getting tenure. "Requirements are less stringent at University of Houston," he says. "I prefer being in an institution a little less demanding--to both develop my own interests and take some time to get there." He also finds that in an institution that perhaps isn't in the very top ranks, the atmosphere is less competitive. Instead, he feels that the entire institution is driven by a desire to do better, and scientists will support each other to succeed, he argues.

Bringing in the Controversy

Azevedo believes in making space for himself within his research field as well, and the best way to do that--the approach that has worked for him, at any rate--is to adopt a less popular, more personal approach to research. An evolutionary biologist, Azevedo has teamed up with computer scientists to write an algorithm to capture the sequences of various organisms' cell divisions during development. The results--which were recently published in Nature--suggest that biological development (and by extension evolution) is less complex than people believed previously.

"I would recommend not shying away from pursuing unconventional ideas," says Azevedo. He mentions Jonathan Slack's light-hearted book on academic life, Egg and Ego, as a source of inspiration for him. "What really struck me is [the author saying] that there are two ways in which you can approach your career or your research," explains Azevedo. The first is going for a very hot area, with a specific question and using well-established approaches. Although you are likely to work in a big lab and enjoy good funding, the downside of this approach is that it will be more difficult for you to do something that is really novel and will have a big impact. "When you have a good idea, chances are that there are dozens of smart people who have had that same idea," says Azevedo. "You need to worry not only about what you are doing but also what everybody else is doing."

The second option that Slack refers to is going down less-crowded research tracks. Azevedo stresses that, if you believe in an idea, then you should follow that lead even though other people may not think it is worth your while. "The good thing is that if you succeed in any way, then you have made a substantial contribution at the forefront [of your field], and you do not have to worry about being scooped," he says. Of course, this is not necessarily the easiest approach to stick to. "You may become a little defensive because most people will dismiss it," says Azevedo. Getting funding for your ideas may also be more difficult, but Azevedo sees it is as part of the challenge, even though funding bodies seem increasingly ready to embrace highly innovative research.

Like Slack, Azevedo thinks there is everything to be gained from a high-risk (yet sensible) approach in science. "Even if you are wrong, at least you will have fun while doing it," quotes Azevedo.

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