The Hybrid Academic
Career Story Blog Post By Helene McMurray, PhD, Director of the Bioinformatics Consulting and Education Service of the Edward G. Miner Library and Assistant Professor of Biomedical Genetics
Mythology offers a wide variety of hybrid creatures comprised of bits of other, more garden variety animals. From the Griffin, Chimera, and Sphinx to a horde of other creatures from various traditions (check out this link for a List of hybrid creatures in mythology) to the post-modern Rainbow Unicorn Butterfly Kitten (if you haven’t seen this on social media, run a Google Images search for the name), stories and images of mixed up, muddled up creatures abound. For the past two years, these conglomerations are the entities with whom I most identify. During that time I have developed and run the Bioinformatics Consulting and Education Service in Edward G. Miner Library here at URMC, which makes me a Scientist-Consultant-Educator-Librarian.
One of the most frequent questions that I’m asked is, “What are you? What do you do?” Maybe others get this question regularly, but until coming to work in the library in 2014, I didn’t. What and who I was were pretty clear and simple for all to see. I had trained for a dozen years after college to become an academic scientist, and I had succeeded in achieving the things that came with that role: my own laboratory, a bevy of students, some interesting scientific ideas and a boat-load of work that never seemed to end.
The perpetual-work feeling was largely because I was simultaneously pursuing my research agenda along with developing new collaborative projects and getting heavily involved in educational activities. Moreover, I started my laboratory when my youngest child was just 8 months old, and was trying with all my might to devote as much time to my family as to my work. While I met with reasonable success in these various arenas, I was dividing myself into smaller and smaller pieces.
Noted researcher and author Brené Brown describes the point in her career/life where she hit a wall as her “spiritual awakening”, when she felt compelled to re-evaluate her own life based on what she was learning from her research (she discusses this engagingly in her TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability and her book, The Gifts of Imperfection). In 2013-2104, I had my own “spiritual awakening” and realized that my “lifestyle” was taking its toll on me and all of the people and projects that were so important to me. Doing too much was costing me accomplishing my goals. So, I searched for a way to do things smarter.
In 2014, I was fortunate to start at new chapter in my career and my life that has allowed me to indulge my scientific passions, continue working with my friends in science and to find more balance between my professional and personal pursuits. I’m certainly not perfectly balanced (that would be boring, wouldn’t it?), but I’m closer than I’ve ever been. I was hired by the forward thinking senior leaders in the Medical Center Libraries and Technologies, Associate VP and Director Julia Sollenberger, and Senior Associate Director Donna Berryman, to develop what they had dubbed the Bioinformatics Consulting and Education Service. Having such a service puts us at the forefront of academic health sciences libraries nationally, and has proven to be of tremendous value and utility to our basic and clinical research communities as well as to our clinical faculty. Happily, my time is now more satisfyingly divided between teaching, collaboration and research.
On a day-to-day basis, I’m engaged in classroom and one-on-one education of students, post-docs, staff and faculty on topics that range from basic biology (genetics, molecular and cell biology) to high-throughput biology (genomics and precision medicine) to informatics and biostatistics. I live and breathe “interdisciplinary” bordering on “antidisciplinary”, a term coined by MIT Media Lab member Mitchel Resnick in his paper, “Creative Learning and the Future of Work” (1). He says, “The creative jobs of the future will not fit into boxes as neatly labeled and divided as the professions of today. The positions that involve mastery and the use of powerful technologies will be filled by people who combine a range of different skills from different disciplines. These jobs will require not just interdisciplinary but ‘antidisciplinary’ thinking and doing" (1). He believes that disciplines are artificial walls that won’t serve us well in the work world of the future.
Being ‘antidisciplinary’ has turned out to be quite fun and invigorating for me. Most of the time I get the best of all worlds, with the service-minded approach of a librarian, the domain expertise of my scientific beginnings, the project-based work practices of a consultant and the approachability of all good teachers. It’s just difficult when I’m asked, “What are you? What do you do?”
(1) Schmidt, J.P., Resnick, M., & Ito, J. (2016). Creative Learning and the Future of Work. In Disrupting Unemployment, edited by D. Nordfors, V. Cerf, & M. Senges, pp. 147-155.