I nearly failed kindergarten; I was recruited to teach Biomedical Engineering to Yale juniors. How?
The answer is simple, but not easy. I’ve become inadvertently impressive in the academic realm, without feeling overwhelmed, just by:
- Making space
- Asking for what I wanted
- Following my heart and my gut
- Showing up as my best possible self
- Being patient and having faith
- Recognizing when I needed to work hard and getting it done
- Surrendering to great opportunities, saying yes even when I was not confident at the time
- Slowing down to enjoy the ride every now and then
- Surrounding myself with people and practices that give me energy and confidence
OK, so what does this actually mean?
Many people in the spiritual realm talk about making space. Once you make space by eliminating things that don’t serve you, even those things that look great on paper and keep you busy and feeling productive, opportunities and people that are more aligned with your strengths and values can come in.
After I defended my thesis in February 2015, I was lucky to receive several attractive job opportunities (without applying – turns out your reputation can reach people around the world who are looking for people like you). The jobs spanned my interests, ranging from patent law to biotech startups to pharma (and several of them entailed tempting salaries), but just like when I got job offers my senior year of college, none excited me enough to pursue them, and I knew that I needed to do what I’d done before and create some space and have faith in myself and the universe that things would work out.
At that moment, I knew that I was not finished exploring science in the academic realm, and I wanted to challenge myself in a new lab setting with intimidatingly impressive bosses. For the past few years, I’ve been tracking and admiring three professors at Yale: Ruslan Medzhitov, an immunologist who WILL get the Nobel prize, Akiko Iwasaki, another very famous immunologist who has a reputation of being an outstanding mentor, and Andre Levchenko, a decorated Biomedical Engineering professor who was recently recruited to Yale to found the Systems Biology Institute. Though I didn’t think I was nearly qualified enough to work with such high-level people, I decided to act the way I wanted to feel and started telling people that I wanted to work with Andre Levchenko. I wasn’t shy about this farfetched dream to work with someone I’d only seen from a distance and followed online, and within a couple weeks of my ‘coming out’ with my desired career path, I got an email from his assistant to schedule a meeting with him. After my initial exuberance, I was incredibly anxious for the days preceding that meeting, because I had no idea what he had heard about me, from whom, and what he thought I wanted. Could I just go in there, knowing nothing about his field of expertise, and ask for a job?
I nervously drove to his brand new research building, arriving 20 minutes early, and proceeded to wait nearly 2 hours to see him (busy professors often have an alarmingly long queue of people). Fortunately, my experiences in grad school have made me an expert in waiting patiently, and I kept my spirits high by chatting with the admin, drawing out research ideas, and reading (I always have reading material on hand!). When Andre burst out of his office and saw me, he briefly introduced himself and apologized for having to run to another meeting and asked me to reschedule, which I did. The next meeting went similarly, but after my long wait outside his office, I had earned some face-to-face time with him, and he told me about the far-reaching, innovative research his lab has done and is doing, and then we started science freestyling (one of my favorite activities). At no point did I give him background on my expertise or interests or motivation for meeting with him, and after we had ideated for 20 minutes, he stopped me and said “look. We’re both busy. If you’re interested in working together, I’m interested. I want more people in my lab who think like you.” I nearly fell off my chair and enthusiastically thanked him and accepted this soft offer.
Over the next few months, we met in person and drafted research plans, and I was heartened to see that he approached experiments the way I did, receiving a big idea that I wanted to test and then drawing out on paper (with many, many arrows) experiments to being answering pieces of the question. He mentioned that Ruslan, one of the academic rockstars I’ve had my eye on for as long as I’ve been fascinated by immunology, was giving a seminar that might interest me, and why don’t I come, and maybe he’ll introduce me? I know to clear my schedule when an invitation like that comes along, so I went to the seminar (barely holding my mouth closed while my mind was blown by Ruslan’s chalk talk about the grammar of cellular communication), and afterwards Andre very briefly introduced me to Ruslan, and I was so star-struck that I mispronounced my own name.
A week later, Andre’s assistant emailed me saying that Ruslan wants to work with me too. I read the email a few times to ensure I wasn’t hallucinating, before I pounded the keyboard with another enthusiastic affirmative reply. Meeting Ruslan, one-on-one, to talk about science was one of the most exciting and mind-blowing 30 minutes of my life, and before I knew it, Ruslan and Andre wanted to co-advise my postdoc research fellowship and give me a two-year contract.
While all these unexpected and encouraging developments were happening, I knew that I needed to create space to decompress from my PhD experience and do many of the things I had put off (I literally had a google doc for “post-PhD life”), including spending quality time with many people I care about in a relaxed setting. So even though the standard postdoc practice is to start asap, especially if you have the chance to work with unequivocal leaders in the field, I asked to start in September, giving myself a three month funemployment break. To my relief, both Andre and Ruslan agreed, and I embarked on a marvelous summer of funemployment, starting with backpacking the top of the Applachian Trail with my adventurous boyfriend.
I thought I’d relax by doing nothing besides yoga, meditation, juice cleanses, and all those ‘standard healing practices’, but after three days of doing very little, I realized that I relax by doing things that give me energy. Therefore, I applied to be a scientific writing editor, something I’ve been doing my whole life anyway but might as well get paid for, and followed up on other interesting employment opportunities passed along by friends. One was being a Resident and Teaching Assistant (RA/TA) for a math and science camp for underprivileged public high school students, in which they lived at Yale for a couple weeks and took classes, worked on college essays, and learned essential life skills. Another was on-ramping new Chinese grad students to life in America through conversations in English and quintessential cultural experiences (like throwing a football and navigating New York City).
Oh, and I tried my hand at Uber driving. I definitely want to write separate posts on each of the lessons from these out-of-the-box employment experiences, but I think it’s time to answer the original question: how on earth did this randomness manifest into my teaching a required course for Biomedical Engineering (BME) juniors at Yale?
At the end of August, I got an email from the department chair of Yale BME about teaching opportunities for undergrad BME Lab, which at first irked me because I thought he was asking me to TA. “I’m so over that,” I thought, but then when I read it more carefully, it seemed like he was asking me to be the instructor and that I would HAVE TAs working with me. That seemed strange, but intriguing, so I surrendered to his ask and set up a meeting.
What followed was what seems to be a consistent theme: conversations unfolding better than I could have expected, creating a semi-out-of-body experience during which I said ‘yes I’d be happy to teach, but only if my postdoc bosses are okay with it, and I want to push my postdoc back a month so I can concentrate fully on teaching in September.’ What anchored me to reality was the department head glancing suspiciously at my Chaco sandals and confirming that I knew to dress properly for teaching.
Again, Andre and Ruslan pleasantly surprised me by agreeing to push back my postdoc start date, and I was now in charge of leading all BME juniors through a lab that is notoriously difficult and frustrating. Perfect.
When faced with challenges, I often come back to the lesson imbued in the misquoted “give me 6 hours to cut down a tree, and I’ll spend 4 sharpening my axe.” In this case, I was determined to maximize the tail-end of my funemployment, the 3 weeks left before classes started, to prepare to teach. I obtained all previous course materials, including lab protocols, and set up meetings with previous instructors, TAs, and other lab support staff to run through every lab. Long story short, I replaced equipment, soldered cables, rewrote protocols, debugged code, and cleaned up the lab, and I did my best to prep lectures in advance and upload them to the course site.
The most surreal moment was getting an email from a student a few days before class started (serendipitously, the first class was on my 28th birthday, Friday Sept. 4) that said “Dear Professor Siefert” and then an ultra-polite request to leave class early in 3 weeks. After I typed my reply (resisting my initial urge to write ‘haha no problem!’), I spent what felt like an eternity deliberating over how to sign the email. Should I go with Dr. Siefert, Professor Siefert, Prof. Siefert, Prof. S, Alyssa, A….?
I ended up going with my initials, which happen to be a deadly disease (ALS). I then emailed other professor friends to see how they sign their emails, ultimately concluding that my choice to use my initials was the worst possible one. Oh well.
I was so nervous for my first lecture, but I allayed my fears by picking out a nice bright dress with a trendy blazer (it helps to have a fashion designer sister with overflowing closets) and proofing my powerpoint too many times to count. I was determined to show my authority and feared that the students wouldn’t take me seriously because I was substantially younger than the next youngest BME professor (he’s 36), and I felt totally unqualified. In the typical way that the universe laughs at me when I take myself too seriously, the first student who came in thought I was the TA as I made awkward conversation with her, and another student point-blank asked me how old I was. I went through my lecture on a wonderful surge of adrenaline, not remembering the details of what I said, but I made them laugh a couple times, and once they filed out, I sat in the classroom for about 10 minutes feeling amazed and so grateful for the opportunity to teach at such a high level so early in my unintentional academic career.
The semester is nearly over now, and teaching has gotten exponentially less nerve-wracking and even more fun. After a few lectures, and especially when we started working through the complicated lab procedures, the students and I have gotten much more comfortable with each other, and neither of us takes each other too seriously. I’ve learned, time and time again, that being authoritarian doesn’t equate to being intelligent, and even though I joke around and feel very casual with them, they continue to respect me and even tell other professors how much they like me. I think my gifts for teaching are that I genuinely care about each student and want them to not only understand and enjoy the course material, but also take their passions and interests to the next level. I changed the course curriculum, asking them to reflect on why they chose BME, and when I recognized that many of them had anxiety about what they’ll do after graduation, I organized panels of students in MD, MD/PhD, PhD, and MPH programs so that juniors can ask their real questions about their next steps. I’ve reached out to contacts in industry to help them get internships for the summer, and a couple students have initiated meetings with me to ask about my path to grad school and beyond.
We’ll see what happens when the course evaluations come in, but I have really enjoyed this semester and have been lucky to have an excellent TA team to help with lab work and grading (though I must give myself credit in that I have been very deliberate in managing them effectively and graciously). And I started my postdoc in October and am loving both Andre’s and Ruslan’s labs; I feel like I’m drinking from a firehouse of knowledge, and ideating and doing experiments in new fields has been challenging but energizing. Oh, and Akiko Iwasaki, the other professor on my wish list, initiated a collaboration with me, so I had a [nerve-wracking but amazing!] meeting with her to work on mathematical modeling of her data.