Dr. Matthew Brody (PHD ’13, Lee Lab) reflects on on how graduate school experiences started his “conventional” path to a tenure-track faculty position.
When did you participate in the Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Graduate Program?
Please tell us about your current employment (company name, your title, and your responsibilities).
I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Michigan. I am a PI, so I run an independent research program. My lab is specifically interested in post-translation lipid modifications and molecular regulation of signal transduction in cardiomyocytes. Our research utilizes mouse genetics and molecular, cellular, and chemical biology techniques to interrogate novel signaling mechanisms that control cardiac disease onset and progression. I conduct and supervise research, write grants and papers, think of new research ideas and directions and interpret experimental results, and participate in other academic endeavors (committee service, teaching, etc.)
Could you describe your career path?
I would say my career path was pretty conventional for an academic tenure-track faculty position but also involved some unconventional and serendipitous turns. I got a B.S. in Environmental Toxicology from the University of California, Davis and really enjoyed that curriculum so I was initially more interested in environmental toxicology and chemistry; kind of more “save the whales” type of research. I applied to Environmental Toxicology PhD programs all over the country (and there are not that many). I had a lot of options but felt I should go to a new institution and enjoyed my visit and was impressed with the faculty at UW-Madison so decided to go there. I initially joined a developmental toxicology lab looking at the effects of exposure to environmental chemicals on heart development. That didn’t really work out but I became really interested in heart development so after a year into the program I joined a cardiac development lab where I began investigating the effects of a cardiomyocyte-specific gene on heart development. That project took a turn into adult cardiac biology as the knockout mouse model was viable but developed dilated cardiomyopathy (this work has led to the more recent identification of mutations in this gene in human dilated cardiomyopathy patients). So I became interested in cardiac disease and chose to do a postdoc at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in the lab of a Howard Hughes investigator and one of the foremost leaders in the field of molecular cardiology. In my postdoc I had several projects continuing my interest in cardiac disease mechanisms with a specific focus on protein post-translational processing and trafficking in cardiomyocyte biology. I made several mouse models for these projects and one project that really took off was looking at the role of post-translational lipid modifications in regulating cardiac signal transduction. So the rest of this part of my training was pretty traditional: publications and grants (F32, K99), then I began to apply to faculty positions and the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Michigan was a really good fit for what I wanted to do- equipped with all the resources and collaborators I need for my research program to thrive. So that’s where I decided to go!
What is your favorite grad school memory?
I guess I have no individual memory that stands out but did enjoy going out with fellow grad students to commiserate, talk science, and have fun. Madison is a great place and I think at every career stage (and in every profession) it is important to interact with your peers, some of whom become lifelong friends that you will keep in touch with. I even met my wife in Madison while I was in grad school when I was out with a colleague so that ranks as the favorite grad school memory if it qualifies.
Which aspects of the Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Graduate Program helped you the most?
I’d say just general networking from being in the Tox program and on the UW campus has been very helpful. The faculty in the program are well known and you’d be surprised how some of them or visiting seminar speakers turn up later in your career. I still see several of my thesis committee members at conferences and have kept in touch with them-you need recommendation letters throughout your training (for grant applications and applying to faculty jobs) so it really is helpful to know great scientists that can vouch for you. The Tox Program has great and diverse faculty with a breadth of research interests so when I was interviewing for faculty positions I met with people that knew different METC faculty through their research. I also have family in Madison so I come back a couple times a year and see my PhD mentor and friends from grad school that are still in town. I am also one of 5 new Assistant Professors in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Michigan and we have strong UW-Madison roots- in addition to me another new faculty member did his PhD in Biochemistry at UW while I was in the Tox Program and another did his postdoc at UW. I would also say that my research program wound up involving more and more biochemistry as my postdoc went on and having a background in toxicology was helpful but was also I think a major selling point of my background and training when I was seeking faculty jobs, particularly in a Pharmacology department.
What advice can you offer current graduate students to help them prepare for a career in your field
I would say to work hard and believe in yourself. The odds are definitely against you if you want a tenure-track faculty job at a top-tier research institution, but these jobs do exist and departments across the country are looking for good people. Obviously most PhDs and most postdocs will not get these jobs and there are also great alternative career options. But some do and you just have to work hard and smart, be innovative and do good research, and trust that the good science (your science) will float to the top. Applying for grants and trying to publish research can be demoralizing at times but it is just the nature of peer review so you need to be resilient. But at the end of the day, I think this is one of the best jobs out there. You do something that you are interested in and that you chose to work on- like running your own biomedical research small business, and you get to travel to share research ideas and have friends all over the world that you get to see at conferences (or “vacation” as my wife refers to it) regularly as part of your job. So overall it is fun, exciting, and intriguing and I think worth the long hours and stress that comes with it.