Top Menu

Research Spotlight Profiles

The Early Career Members Committee organizes the Research Spotlight Series.  This Research Spotlight Series is designed to highlight notable members in CPDD and allow them to share their experiences and recommendations on how to be successful in the field of substance use and addictive disorders particularly with members in training or those who are new to the field.

Click on a name below to read their Research Spotlight Profile


Erin McClure

Day-to-Day Work
Where/how do you get your inspiration for your next project?

Some amount of inspiration for new projects comes from reading the current literature, but I get much more inspiration from talking to others one-on-one about their work, discussing exciting next directions and research questions, and potential collaborative possibilities. I draw so much inspiration from my colleagues and collaborators, which keeps me excited about writing grants and pursuing new projects. I’ve learned over the years that it is very important for me to be surrounded by smart and productive researchers and clinicians who have overlapping (not identical) interests. It’s also been important for me to have a close network of collaborators and colleagues who I trust and who can provide helpful, honest, and constructive feedback. Those who are overly negative or seem to shoot down any and all ideas, without being constructive in their criticisms, should be avoided as much as possible. Everyone should strive to have a “safe space” to put potential projects into words without reservations. I also keep a running list of grant topics and experimental ideas that I would like to pursue. I return to that list every few months to consider which ideas I’m most excited about, is the timing right, which projects I want to prioritize, is that still a potentially good idea, etc.

What is your target number when it comes to publishing?

My publication target goal is always shifting. During training (graduate school and post-doctoral training), I would typically shoot for 2-3 publications per year knowing that some years would be more productive than others. The content of those publications did not seem to be as important in earlier career stages, but just demonstrating that you can publish results and can disseminate findings is important. Now that I’m in a faculty role, the priorities have shifted slightly. I would say that the number of publications is less important, but the impact of those papers is now critical and closely scrutinized. Grant reviewers are looking for a content-relevant publication history and evidence of collaboration more so than counting the number of pubs. It’s also important that I am working with trainees and that they are publishing, moving me into a senior (last) author role. I still have several first-authored publications that I am working on at any given time and I am lucky to be involved in a number of interesting projects and work with very productive collaborators. I would say that there are always at least 3-4 manuscripts under review or in the revision process at any one time.

It’s also important to know if your institution has publication metrics. For example, as part of our academic promotion criteria, we are expected to have a certain number of publications since last promotion/appointment with “significant authorship,” which means first, second, or last. If you don’t meet that number, you are not fulfilling that criterion for promotion. Knowing those metrics (if they exist) ahead of time or discussing with your mentor will provide you with a target for each year.

Work/Life Balance
Any tips? The work never ends, so what boundaries do you have in place to protect your personal time and your sanity?

This is a major challenge and a problem that I don’t think anyone has figured out. The workload continues to increase as you advance in your career, so developing strategies early to protect your personal time and have work-life balance is essential. Practice those strategies early and often! Work-life balance is a frequently discussed topic in many professional development workshops and seminars, and I have picked up a few tips from those over the years. First, if you have the opportunity, make time to attend a work-life balance workshop or seminar. It’s hard to carve out time to do this but may benefit you in the long run. If nothing like that is offered to you, ask for it! Request a seminar on that topic or develop your own for a professional meeting. Second, stay organized and prioritize your tasks. This may include having a master to-do list. For example, what are the major projects that you want to get done in the next year or two? And then having a weekly to-do list is helpful. What are the things that must get done this week? What can wait? Third, I’m constantly reminded to “work smarter, not harder.” Being efficient and cutting out unnecessary parts of the workday are helpful. Fourth, don’t say yes to everything. You can’t do that and stay sane. Say yes to some things and be a good citizen, but there is nothing wrong with being strategic in what you say yes to and limiting your commitments. And when you say no to a request, recommend someone else for this role. Finally, when you take a vacation (and you should take a vacation), actually take a vacation. Disconnect and enjoy. The work will still be there when you return.

Overcoming Adversity
Was there a time in your career that you found particularly difficult, and how did you get through it?

There have been ups and downs throughout my career, but one particularly challenging time was the final year of graduate school when I was in the process of completing my dissertation and looking for post-doctoral fellowships. This was an incredibly stressful time and even though I was part of a wonderful and supportive cohort of other graduate students, the whole process feels very isolating. I had to work very hard to stay motivated and tackle the project one section at a time. Like any major project that feels daunting, it was helpful to break it up into smaller, manageable chunks and work backwards from the final deadline. I had also received advice to work on a writing project every day, even if it’s only for a short period of time (~30 minutes). That allowed me to stay engaged in the material and it was easier to pick up where I left off the day before. Though writing the dissertation felt isolating at times, I relied very much on my professional network during this time. I would frequently commiserate with other graduate students during this process, which was incredibly helpful. It’s important to know when you need a break, even if you feel like you don’t have the time to take one.

Advice for Young Investigators
What would you recommend to people who have a fear of missing out on all of the great conferences and presentations? How many conferences a year should one strive to attend?

When attending conferences, you won’t see everything you want to see, so no need to stress about it! Sometimes, the most meaningful part of conferences is to have one-on-one conversations with those who are doing similar work or share common research/professional interests. And that doesn’t necessarily need to be a senior investigator in the field, but it can be a peer who is perhaps a few years ahead of you. Even though poster sessions can be overwhelming, this is a good opportunity to meet specific individuals. I try to select 3-4 posters per session that I will attend, rather than roaming the aisles, which is dizzying to me. Also, there is great value in the hallway conversations at meetings. Some of my most productive conference experiences have occurred when I’m on the way to a talk but run into someone I know or have been wanting to chat with. I may have missed the talk, but the time was well-spent! In terms of the number of conferences, I typically attend 2-3 conferences per year. Consider joining the organization prior to the meeting. That may give you access to a reduced registration rate and organization member meetings during the conference.

Click on a name below to read their Research Spotlight Profile

Amy Janes

Day-to-Day Work
Where/how do you get your inspiration for your next project?

Talking with others and attending meetings is critical to expanding research ideas, but I am most inspired when reading the literature. In reading, I have the time to really think about how new concepts may fit into my work. I am also inspired by the limitations of my own work. When I’m writing up results sometimes I hit a wall where I can’t make a point because I need more data, and the answer is not in the published literature. The exciting part is realizing that this is a place where my research can move in a new direction.

Long-Term Career
In the short-term, we all want to get grants and publish papers, but what do you/did you consider as your long-term career goals? (e.g. tenure, editor positions, directorship positions?)

At the moment, my long-term career goals are somewhat general in that I know the broad things I want. For instance, I want to move the field forward as best I can. I want to work in a collaborative environment, play a role in mentoring, and continue to grow as a scientist, laboratory director, and mentor. How I meet these goals may evolve over time and I try to stay open to opportunities.

Work/Life Balance
Any tips? The work never ends, so what boundaries do you have in place to protect your personal time and your sanity?  

It is easy to get caught in the trap of feeling like you should work all the time, even when important deadlines are not looming. For me, working non-stop is no way to live and work-wise it is not best for productivity. Whenever I feel guilty for not working I remind myself that my out of work goals are important too, and that taking a break will enhance my efficiency and productivity at work. Setting aside time, whether it is a weekend or a quick walk around the block can help me come at a problem with fresh eyes, allowing things to move forward more easily. As for practical tips, one is simply acknowledging that the work never ends and it is OK to leave things for tomorrow. At the end of the day instead of listing all the things left to do, I remind myself of what I accomplished. This shift in focus typically helps me realize that while I could work more, I have already been productive and a break will likely be helpful. Another thing I did a while ago was shut off email alerts on my phone, so I no longer have a list of all the unread e-mail coming in on my lock screen. I would have an email flash up and feel like I had to deal with it right away even if it could wait. Now, I have to make a conscious choice to check e-mail instead of having it interrupt whatever I am doing. The third thing that works for me is that I work on big projects like grant writing as far in advance as I can. While this isn’t always possible, by giving myself enough lead time I have more flexibility in terms of when I work because everything does not need to be crammed into a short time period.

In your experience, when is a better time to start a family? Should it be after you graduate, after completion of a post-doctoral fellowship, after completion of few years of first faculty position, or perhaps some other time?

There is no “right time” in terms of fitting in with a specific career stage. I had my daughter when I was supported by a K01, which was a good time for me, but I know others who have had children at earlier or later stages and they were successful. What worked well for me in terms of timing, was that I started my family when I had a solid support structure at work. The other helpful piece of advice I received, was timing the submission of papers and grants just prior to going on leave. That way, things are still moving forward with reviews and you can hit the ground running by responding to critiques when you return.

Overcoming Adversity
Was there a time in your career that you found particularly difficult, and how did you get through it?

I have been fortunate to have wonderful and supportive mentors who have helped me through each difficult time in my career. Whether I was struggling with a technical problem or something related to career development, I had people I could go to for advice and support. One example of a difficult time was when I began my postdoc in clinical neuroimaging, as this was a big change from the preclinical research I conducted as a grad student. This was an uncomfortable time for me, because I went from being proficient in the preclinical domain to once again needing a lot of training. Becoming a novice again was tough, but fortunately, graduate school taught me both specific skills, and how to seek out help. Specifically, how not to be afraid to ask for help. No matter how much self-learning one can do, the advice and support of others is so critical and good mentors are happy to help students who are invested and motivated to learn.

Advice for Young Investigators
What advice would you give to a new grad student, a senior grad student, a new postdoc, or a new investigator?

 The beginning of your career is exciting and challenging because the majority of tasks require you to both learn and do at the same time. So do not take on too much too quickly (remember you still need to plan for taking breaks too!) Focus first on the very specific tasks you need to do to be successful. Things will eventually become easier once you have the basics down and that is when new challenges can be added. As with any job, there will be aspects you like and some you don’t. Work on figuring out ways to spend more of your time on the parts you like, whether it is research, writing, teaching, or mentoring, and the rest of your career will naturally unfold along that path. Finally, I see a lot of very early career students feeling a great deal of pressure to publish and write grants. While these are real pressures, try to refocus on answering an interesting question that you care about, or telling a clear and compelling story about research findings. This will keep you focused on where you need to go – the grants and papers will follow, but the path to getting there will be more fun if you let your passion lead you, and you’ll be much more effective at achieving your goals if this is the case.

Click on a name below to read their Research Spotlight Profile

Kelly Dunn

Day-to-Day Work
Where/how do you get your inspiration for your next project?

I like to attend conferences/talks from outside of my direct field of research to learn about new perspectives or experimental methods that I can adopt. Following preclinical work is especially important to me – much of my current research was inspired by exciting outcomes from animal studies.

What is your target number when it comes to publishing?

A prominent senior scientist once told me their goal was to always have a paper under review. That was somewhat difficult to achieve as a postdoc/trainee, but that advice stuck with me and became easier over time, and now I think it’s a nice concrete goal to work towards.

Long-Term Career
In the short-term, we all want to get grants and publish papers, but what do you/did you consider as your long-term career goals? (e.g. tenure, editor positions, directorship positions?)

My long-term career goal is to be in a stable position that provides me ample flexibility to pursue different research ideas. I’m not yet sure whether that will be as tenured professor or in some other position- our field is very dynamic and I don’t want to focus so heavily on one long-term goal that I overlook other potentially fulfilling opportunities.

Work/Life Balance
Any tips? The work never ends, so what boundaries do you have in place to protect your personal time and your sanity?

I firmly believe you have to set boundaries for yourself. When I first became a postdoc I pushed myself like I was working on my dissertation- I kept thinking I would work really hard “temporarily” until I accomplished the goal of finishing all my work. But work kept accumulating, and I ended up feeling burned out and like I was failing. All of my efforts to work as hard as possible actually caused my productivity to suffer. Eventually, I decided I would only work at work and would reserve nights/weekends for myself (except for extreme circumstances), because 99% of things are not so urgent that they can’t wait until tomorrow for me to respond/ work on them. I continue to follow these rules- although I may check email, I rarely respond or do work unless I am in my office during the workweek. Since I stop thinking about work for a few hours each day, I no longer feel burned out and I am more productive when I am working. I also think it really helped to have established these boundaries early in my career because my colleagues have come to anticipate my schedule (I no longer receive large requests on the weekends) and I have only gotten busier over time, so developing a work-life balance early helped me to maintain it as the demands on my time increased. Also, once I acknowledged that I wouldn’t ever be “finished” with work, I learned to pace myself better so I don’t feel overwhelmed by my workload.

In your experience, when is a better time to start a family? Should it be after you graduate, after completion of a post-doctoral fellowship, after completion of few years of first faculty position, or perhaps some other time?

I only recently started my family, but I suspect this decision will be different for everyone. I view my personal and professional lives as being very separate, and I decided that I would start a family when it was the right time for me to do that personally. There will always be more work to do. And since our careers advance through productivity, anything that decreases that (like a baby) can be easily deprioritized, which means there will probably never be a “right time” as far as work is concerned. My personal opinion is that you should pursue a family when that is the right choice for your personal life and then adjust your work expectations to accommodate your new “normal”. You probably won’t be as productive at work for a while, but that is OK because your personal life deserves as much attention as your career.

Advice for Young Investigators
What advice would you give to a new grad student, a senior grad student, a new postdoc, or a new investigator? 

I have two thoughts. The first is that when you feel like a task cannot be accomplished or have guilt from not meeting goals, it is important to evaluate whether the goal is something you set for yourself and whether it was really achievable. I frequently set goals for myself that are very ambitious (e.g., submit two grants next cycle), and then as I feverishly work to meet the goals I forget that I was the one who set them. Many times when this has happened, I have felt pressured to sacrifice the quality of my work in order to complete them or just felt incredibly stressed. Now when I start feeling this way, I make myself step back to consider whether the deadlines are real or something I created. Most of the time, I imposed them on myself, and when this happens I force myself to acknowledge that my plan was probably too ambitious to begin with and to set new, more reasonable goals (e.g., submit one grant now and another at a later cycle).

The second is to say yes to as many new opportunities as you can without sacrificing your ability to manage everything. Everything you do becomes an area of expertise on your CV and I have watched many colleagues become inspired enough to change career paths or receive unexpected job offers simply because they spontaneously agreed to contribute (often in a minor way) to a project that was outside of their wheelhouse and may even have been perceived as an extra burden on them at the time. This includes new research skills as well as professional opportunities (e.g., reviewing journal articles, participating on committees, etc..).

Click on a name below to read their Research Spotlight Profile