Dani Bassett is one of the newest professors in the bioengineering department at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s head of the Complex Systems Group, where she uses her strong physics and mathematics background to study complex systems using the toolbox of network science. She’s worked on predicting the extent of learning from human brain networks, resolving the evolution of the neuronal synapse via genetic interaction networks, and determining bulk material properties from mesoscale force networks (check out more here). Currently, she’s focused on network neuroscience, specifically dynamic networks. She’ll apply the analytical tools and mathematical models she’s working on developing to better understand and treat diseased states of the brain (so pretty much she is a super hero engineer, in every sense of the word). This week, she was recognized for her creativity and originality of thought in a HUGE way by receiving a MacArthur Grant (a “Genius Grant”—read more here, here and here).
Dani didn’t always want to be a researcher.
“In fact, I didn’t realize I would end up here,” Dani tells us. “Some people think ‘I’m going to be a professor’ when they are little. But I didn’t. At each stage of my career, I simply asked what was most interesting to me. And that mantra has brought me here.”
I didn't realize I would end up here. At each stage of my career, I simply asked what was most interesting to me."
(Read more here about one of the awesome ways Dani is keeping her life varied by starting an art/science fusion program here and stay tuned for an article about the program by Megan.)
Shortly before applying to grad school, Dani started dating her future husband, whom she met in a physics class (aaawwwww!). She says: “By the time we were applying to grad school, we’d only been dating a couple of months. Neither of us were ready to follow each other unconditionally, but we were hoping we could keep the door open.” They both received fellowships to pursue physics degrees at Cambridge (not too shabby!) and so the door stayed open.
Although she wasn’t yet certain she wanted to become a professor, she and her husband applied to postdoc positions at the same time. They each sent out over 40 applications and ended up choosing between three positions that were great for both of them. While working on her postdoc in Santa Barbara, Dani pursued some projects that she knew how to do from her graduate degree, but all along she was “editing and adding things” to what she was able to do. She also worked on applying her skills to solve different types of problems in the fields of granular materials, social systems, and genetic systems. She received an external grant for the last two years of her postdoc that allowed her intellectual freedom to pursue the problems she found most interesting and to make the transition to the more mature research required of faculty members. Around this time she decided that she wanted to be a professor. (And she and her husband became parents! More on this later.)
She tells us, “I actually think that going out the year before for a few jobs was really helpful. I wrote the research and teaching statements that year. Then the following year when I went out on the market more fully, I went back and looked at those statements and saw several immaturities. ‘I think I could make my story more cohesive if I spun it this way’ I thought. Sometimes it can take a year to really formulate who you are, what you bring to a university, what you really want to devote your life and research program to. Most of prior experience relies on questions that your graduate or postdoc advisor thinks are really interesting. When you move to a faculty position, you are given the opportunity to do whatever you want to do. You haven’t necessarily been trained to answer the question: 'What would you do if you could do anything?' This journey takes time.”
When you move to a faculty position, you are given the opportunity to do whatever you want to do. You haven't necessarily been trained to answer the question: 'What would you do if you could do anything?' This journey takes time."
“I think it was harder to explain who I was. What I do is not traditional physics, traditional math, or traditional neuroscience – it’s a complex welding of all three. Traditional departments couldn’t really tell where I fit. On the other hand, I am sure the package looked unusual, and kindled curiosity. I’m not sure exactly what the search committees thought.” (We all know what the MacAarthur committee thought… :) )
We ask Dani a bit about how she decided which university was the right fit for her. Because her research is so collaborative in nature, we wonder if she was more interested in finding universities full of faculty members she was interested in working with, or universities where she could find her niche.
“That’s an interesting question, because I did both. My work is very collaborative, and I was definitely looking for a place where possibilities for collaboration were both broad and deep. That was a huge consideration. There were also one or two universities where I had to ask myself, ‘Am I going to be competing with this other faculty member for graduate students because their research interests are close to mine?’ But because what I do is unusual, there weren’t very many places where that was a serious consideration.”
“People have wide-ranging views on sharing personal details during the interview season. Some people take their wedding ring off when they go for interviews. I left mine on. Some people disclose that they have a significant other in their application package cover letter (it’s a package deal!). We did not. We wanted to be judged as separate entities. As far as children – people on the faculty search committees are not allowed to ask you about children (I interject ‘It’s kind of illegal, right?’). Completely illegal. But the topic often comes up anyway, and faculty want to highlight the good schools in the area, etc.. Many people seemed surprised when they found out I had kids, but it didn’t seem to affect their opinion of me: they were obviously interviewing me because of my research success, and whether I was attaining that with or without kids was neither here nor there. In my second visit to schools after the initial interview and during the negotiation phase, I did purposely start conversations about the typical work-life balance in the department. Does anybody have kids? Does everybody wait until they are tenured? What is the social environment, what is the expectation going to be? I knew that I was just going to do what I was going to do. But at the same time I wanted to know if my chosen path was consistent with or very different from those who I would be working with. That was a serious consideration at that very last stage before signing.”
Many people seemed surprised when they found out I had kids, but it didn't seem to affect their opinion of me: they were obviously interviewing me because of my research success, and whether I was attaining that with or without kids was neither here nor there."
“No. In his experience, they didn’t offer any information about school districts or discuss children. I’m not entirely sure why.”
As far as the decision of when to have children goes, Dani tells us: “When we moved to Santa Barbara, we started to think about having kids. We didn’t know when the right time was, and we talked to lots of friends to get opinions. Everybody said that there really isn’t a particularly good time – You are really busy as a graduate student, you are really busy as a postdoc, and you are really busy as a faculty member. We felt like it was the right time, so we had our first at the end of the second year of my postdoc. The timing worked really well: I had a very supportive supervisor and was able to work strange hours to juggle baby care and scientific productivity. It was definitely the right decision because it is a very special time in your child’s life and I had time to enjoy it. After a few years went by, we looked at each other and asked, ‘Ok: are we going for #2?’ We had always planned to, so we did.” And Dani is now 6 months pregnant with her second child.
“It’s hard in a sense. You have two jobs that you love. When you are spending time at work ,you think, ‘I wish I was playing with my kid’ and when you are spending time with your kid, you think, ‘I have a deadline, and I really need to be working.’ There will always be a tension, but we try to create a balance where we’re being good parents and also succeeding at our jobs. We had to realize that we might always feel this tension.”
So, what’s next for Dani as a new professor? We ask her about her scientific goals, and she tells us:
“About every three years I get a little bit bored with what I’m doing. I have a big idea and then I think about it and write papers about it from different angles. Then, I think , ‘Ok, I’m ready for the next idea. Where am I going to take it next? What tool am I going to bring in, or what’s the different disease state I’m going to focus on? ‘ Right now, I’m about one year into the next idea, so the focus for the next two years is to flesh it out in several papers. I imagine that in a few years I’ll be thinking, ‘What’s next?’”
It is so refreshing to me to hear such a successful researcher say those words. Talking with Dani has inspired me to follow my intellectual interests at each decision point and to not feel like I have to stick to (or even have) The Plan.