Informational Interview with Professor Elizabeth Mandeville

I had the opportunity to interview professor Elizabeth Mandeville, who is currently a professor in the Integrative Biology department at the University of Guelph. We talked about the possible career paths for someone interested in research in computational biology and tips for students interested in academia.

What does a typical work week look like for you?

“In a regular work week, I spend a lot of time doing teaching-related tasks, but I also spend quite a bit of time doing research related tasks. When I’m not doing office hours or teaching, I’m often meeting up with graduate students in my lab. Those meetings are very fun because we’re developing new projects together. I also do some of my own research, write papers, and do bioinformatics analyses.”

How did you become a professor?

“I started doing research as an undergraduate and decided that this is the direction I wanted to go. In my undergrad, I took an application-based course and got a stipend to do research in someone’s lab in the summer. That made it very easy for me to get into research and I joined an aquatic ecology and limnology lab, which involved a lot of measuring fish, identifying zooplankton, and doing field work. After that, I was looking for field technician jobs because I wanted to keep doing research but I wasn’t ready to go to grad school yet. I ended up getting a job that involved studying trees by looking at pinecones through binoculars and also tracked small mammals using fluorescent powder at night. It was fun, but entirely different.”

“I kept working technician jobs around that university, and then I worked at a restaurant for a little while before getting into grad school in a computational biology lab, despite having no programming or genetics experience. It turned out that I really like programming, which was a nice surprise. I did a PhD on hybridization of Catostomus fishes (also called suckers), which was funded by conservation and management agencies. That was great because it made a difference for conservation and I was able to do some novel analysis on genetics. Becoming a prof is a difficult career path because there aren’t that many job openings, so I was applying very widely to different jobs across the US and Canada. The University of Guelph is where I ended up getting an offer, which I was glad to accept, but at the same time I was applying for non-academic jobs too, and came close to going that direction instead.”

Can you describe your current research in a little bit more depth?

“I mostly study hybridization in fish species. The reason I’m interested in this topic is because hybridization is this evolutionary process that has the ability to affect biodiversity. You can have an instance where two species hybridize and then merge back into one (where you’ll lose biodiversity), or you can have the opposite where hybridization leads to ecological novelty and new species. The Catostomus suckers that I’m studying have a bit of both aspects of that. Right now, we’re mostly worried about the loss of biodiversity in these fish. In general, the more we study evolution, the more it seems like hybridization occurred at many key points, where important traits get passed between different species.”

How do you see this industry changing in the next 5-10 years?

“I’m not sure how to predict how universities will change, but they will definitely change a lot. One thing that I think is a very good idea for people who are interested in continuing in academia is to think of multiple ideas of what you want to do and to diversify your skills. For example, I’ve always wanted to be a professor, but I also had other career paths in mind, such as being a state fish geneticist or a data scientist.”

What other kinds of work can you do in this research area other than being a professor?

“There are lots of applied jobs for government agencies. In Canada, there are fish genetics opportunities with the DFO and a lot of research is done on the Great Lakes species. As well, there are lots of opportunities if you want to work on species of economic importance, such as Atlantic salmon. If you have the computational skills, you can also go more into a data science role. A lot of students in my bioinformatics lab end up working on human genetics in a medical context, which is where most of the bioinformatics jobs are.”

What sparked your interest in doing this?

“I knew I wanted to work with fish because I worked with fish in my undergrad and found them much more interesting than the other terrestrial animals that I have studied. The lab I worked in during my graduate studies was actually in the botany department, but it was a lab that was connected by the theme of hybridization, so people studied all sorts of hybridization in different organisms. So, in this lab, I started working on fish hybridization and have been doing that ever since.”

What kinds of skills and qualities do you think people need to be successful as a professor or researcher?

“You definitely need to like what you’re doing. It is sometimes a frustrating career path and if you don’t like what you do, it will be hard to keep going. It’s also good to not be bothered too much about failures, because the things you do are very difficult and having minor failures along the way is completely normal. You have to really like the problem-solving aspect of things. Ideally, if you are doing some type of interesting research, you have to be pushing some boundaries with science and you should be working at the limits of your own abilities.”

What is the most challenging part of your job?

“One thing I find challenging is managing my time and making sure I have enough time for things that are important, such as helping out the students that I’m teaching in class and also the students that are working in my lab. There just aren’t enough hours to get everything done.”

What is your favourite part of your job?

 “The high value research activities will always be my favourite. That used to be me doing my own analysis and writing up the findings, but it’s increasingly becoming more of talking to my students about trying new things in their projects, and it’s very exciting.”

How do you manage your work-life balance?

“I try to work hard while I’m at work and to have that be enough to get everything done. I also create divisions between work time and not-work time, and to periodically take some time off. That’s been increasingly harder because we are all working at home right now, and I’m getting busier with teaching classes. As well, I always try to make time for exercising because it helps me destress, and I found it’s important for my brain to read some fiction.”

Is there anything you didn’t know about being a professor beforehand that you wish you had known?

“My mentors were pretty open with me, so there wasn’t anything that surprised me exactly. I didn’t quite understand what it felt like to do the variety of things that professors do, such as being on a students committee, then going to a meeting of curriculum committees, then prepare for teaching, and also do some of my own things on the side.”

What is one piece of advice that you would give to students?

“Make sure to distinguish between truly productive work and the small work-related activities that take up a lot of time but aren’t as productive. It’s important to protect some focus time for getting more substantial tasks done. Another great thing that someone told me before is that pursuing an academic research career is like competing in a pie eating contest where the prize is just more pie, so if you’re going to try to win, it’s better if you like pie!”