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Interview with an eminent scientist: Professor Donald Bers

What you need to become a scientist and how to succeed in this path?

Interview with an eminent scientist, Professor Donald Bers Ph.D.,
University of California, Los Angeles

Prof. D. Bers is a world-renowned expert on the intricate physiological factors that regulate cardiac contractions and identifying treatment targets for correcting abnormal heart rhythms. By using unique research models, focusing on quantitative techniques and synthesizing results across biological studies, his work has dramatically expanded the understanding of heart muscle-dynamics. (for more information go to:
Basic Sciences, Pharmacology, Genomics and Cardiovascular Pathology

1. What is for you the most fascinating aspect of a career as a scientist? Is there something that, in your opinion, not many other jobs may offer?

I love my job, and it remains fresh, stimulating and exciting after 35 years on the job. Many of my friends in other career paths (“age-matched controls”) don’t feel that way. Being an academic scientist is relatively unique because you have tremendous freedom to follow your own imagination and scientific curiosity (grant-funding agencies notwithstanding).  I suppose that the other side of that is that it demands that you exert true initiative, more so than in many jobs. That also means that you are responsible for choosing the direction of your research and the tools to be used. When the work is successful, that is rewarding, but if it ends up going nowhere, that can be disappointing. So you have to be an optimist and bounce back quickly from such disappointments. If you are too much of a pessimist, it can immobilize you from doing things, some of which might have been great. You also need self-confidence that your ideas are worthwhile to test, and that help you with the persistence that is often required to get to the really new knowledge. That often takes a long time and many missteps. On the other hand, persistence has to be tempered, so that you are somewhat pragmatic about when to give up on your favorite hypothesis.  The balance of these things is also a fascinating aspect of this job.
Another part of this answer is that for me biology is intrinsically fascinating. Learning new things about how biology works can feed my fundamental physiological curiosity.  This endeavor is filled with both intellectual and technical challenges that are stimulating, like puzzles.   

2. What is your biggest motivation for pursuing cutting-edge scientific work?

Two main things come to mind. One is intellectual curiosity about, in my case, how the heart works –in health and disease (and in detail).  Second is to contribute to the greater good of society by helping to create new knowledge and understanding about cardiac biology.  Part of that is also to help understand cardiac dysfunction in disease and how that might be remedied.  My father died when I was 8 years old, from a fist myocardial infarction. While I don’t think that this was a conscious motivator for my career choice of cardiac research, it was probably a subconscious factor.   

3. What were the key career steps you took to become one of the most recognized scientists in the field of cardiac research?

I did not have a career plan.  I followed my scientific curiosity and worked hard. I did my Ph.D. work in an excellent big lab at UCLA (GA Langer), which was very encouraging. Most of what I did was technically new to that lab, which helped me to develop independence and resourcefulness.  To understand the role of Ca in heart better, I went to Edinburgh University (D. Ellis) to directly measure [Na]i and [Ca]i using ion-selective microelectrodes, a tough approach that was the only method known in those days –before fluorescence methods came along.  So I sought methods to help answer specific scientific questions.  I think it was important to realize that the scientific question should drive techniques, not vice-versa, and that one should not fear learning new approaches.

4. What question should we ask ourselves in order to know if a scientific career is the right choice?

Do you really have scientific curiosity and willingness to work very hard to find the answers to these puzzles (regardless of external rewards or incentives)?  Do you have initiative, perseverance and the ability to focus and concentrate? Are you an optimist?  Are you self-confident and also self-critical? Do you like to write (grants, reports papers)?  

5. How do you measure success in science?

That is tough, the usual metrics (e.g. grants, numbers of papers, citations and impact factors of the journals) are very crude, but they are easy to measure and have some value.  Success, like beauty, is also in the eye of the beholder.  I feel like success is finding answers to challenging questions which I think are important, and of course I feel more successful when those results, tools or working frameworks have impact in the field at large. For your Chair or Dean, grant funding might be the most tangible indicator of success (and one that affects them).  So impact is most important, but is harder to measure than to recognize when you are active in a field.  The h-index is a bit better than the usual metrics above, but it is least relevant for young investigators.  Recognition is also evidenced by awards and invitations to speak, review grants and papers.   

6. If you have to select one piece of advice for a person at the beginning of her/his scientific career, what would you say?

Work hard, but enjoy it.  Seriously, if you know that you have the scientific curiosity, drive and critical thinking, you still have to work hard, and you’ve got to love doing it. Otherwise, it can be frustrating and probably unfulfilling.  I love it, but not everybody will.