Dr. Kozik will be joining us on February 27th for our annual Post-doc Panel, where four female post-docs from the university will join us for dinner and discussing everything post-doc. Sound interesting? RSVP here!
Tell us a bit about your background. Were you always interested in science? How did you discover/get into your field? How has your research path evolved?
I grew up in a small town in Northwest Indiana. As a kid, I loved any and all school projects. I was very creative and loved to design and make posters and models and things like that. I was also very curious, always asking questions about everything and always reading. I also collected rocks and loved to do mini-experiments like making homemade slime, lava lamps, and growing crystals. The science fair was one of my favorite times of the school year. During my research for a science project in elementary school, I read a lot of books and articles about bacteria and antibiotics, and that was when I first started to really get interested microbiology. In high school, I was on the academic team and science Olympiad, and I used those opportunities to learn more about different areas of science.
When I started undergrad at Calvin College, I had planned to major in psychology and minor in gender studies, with the intent to go into neuropsychology in graduate school. However, during freshman year I had the opportunity to apply to a discovery-based science research course called SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science). The program involves looking in the soil for bacteriophage (viruses that infect bacteria), and teaches concepts of microbiology and genomics through hands-on learning experiences. I was fascinated by phage biology and the hands-on approach to learning. During the second semester of the class, we learned about sequencing and genomic analysis. The phage that I discovered (which I was able to name — Mycobacteriophage Anaya) was a completely novel virus. It gave me such a sense of accomplishment, and showed me that I could contribute to scientific knowledge in a big way. After that, I was hooked. I thought, “Wow, I don’t need to wait until I’m almost thirty and have several degrees to be able to discover something cool or make a difference. I can do that now if I seek out the opportunities!” I really enjoyed the sequence analysis part of the class; it was brand new technology at the time, and the field was changing on a seemingly daily basis. I switched my major to biotechnology, added some computer science and microbiology classes, and started to learn basic programming skills. In graduate school at Purdue University, I decided that microbiome research was where I belonged, and now I am working in the Yvonne Huang lab at Michigan investigating the relationships between the respiratory microbiome and asthma/COPD.
Who were your mentors? Did you have any strong female mentors (faculty or peers) who inspired & supported you?
I have been fortunate in that at most points, I have had individuals who served as mentors for me, even though I did not always recognize it as ‘mentorship’ at the time. First and foremost is my mother, she was the first in her family to earn an advanced degree. She was a music teacher, but when it became clear that science was my primary interest, she invested time and energy into creating opportunities for me to experiment. She bought me my first real microscope when I was 10. She learned how to mount slides so she could teach me. She bought agar so we could pour petri dishes and I could culture bacteria, and she spent hours in the car at the library waiting for me to come out with my huge stacks of books. I also had especially impactful teachers at several stages in middle and high school (all but one of my science teachers were female) who encouraged my curiosity and really inspired me to believe that the sky was the limit. During graduate school, I had two female faculty co-mentors. They had not only carved out a path for themselves, but they also devoted time to initiatives and committees that were working to increase the representation of women in STEM. I was also fortunate to have mentors who were program directors and assistant deans. We had many conversations about the importance of advocacy at institutional and policy levels, which has inspired me to be continually involved in advocacy work wherever I am.
Did you always hope to work in academia, or are you surprised that your career path has led you here? What are your career goals?
I would say that I always hoped to be a scientist. It wasn’t until college that I began to engage with the distinctions between how science functions in different sectors. My long-term career goals are to do great science while also engaging in advocacy and service that uplifts the next generation, and I think that academia is a great space for that.
What were the most valuable lessons learned during grad school and your post-doc so far? What advice would you give to people who are looking for or starting a post-doc?
1) Being resilient doesn’t mean never feeling hurt, and being strong doesn’t mean never needing help. Research is hard, and life is hard. I think that we are socialized to see and value ‘success’ as an end result, without seeing the process of getting there. A poor exam grade, rejected manuscript, or an unawarded grant doesn’t make someone a bad student or scientist. And yet we often avoid those feelings, or refrain from talking about them, because it is uncomfortable and we conflate them with failure. In my experience, it has been incredibly helpful when people acknowledge the reality of negative outcomes, and talk about how they process through negative events. It helps guard against the internalize/isolate cycle that can be so damaging. It is also critical to ask for help when you need it, and to do so without shame. The post-doctoral training period is a time to learn new skills, polish existing skills, and really focus on your development as a scientist, and so I think it’s important to look for positions and mentors that will allow you to really grow in that area.
2) Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. When I was in graduate school, my husband and I decided to start our family. I had our first child during the third year of my PhD program. It was an incredibly stressful time. I had some delivery-related complications that resulted in a long recovery, and I was diagnosed with postpartum depression-anxiety. I felt overwhelmed by instability, and it was incredibly isolating. I did not know any other graduate student mothers, nor did I have a clear understanding of what resources were available to me as a graduate student. After lots of reaching out through emails and meetings, I was able to garner support from our graduate school administration to launch the Graduate Parent Support Network – an organization dedicated to the specific needs of graduate students who are parents. It was the first of its kind on campus. By the end of the first year, we had a thriving community of moms (and dads) in different stages of parenting and training who were able to voice concerns about resources that were needed, as well as support other members, and work towards campus visibility of the parent-scholar population. That experience taught me to be bold enough to speak out when I see a need that isn’t being met. I believe that we all have a responsibility to make academia an inclusive space, and challenging situations/experiences can be the birthplace of long overdue solutions.
How do you approach work-life balance? What has worked for you that helps you maintain a good mental state & stay motivated/excited about your work?
Do what you love. Near the end of my doctoral program, I spent a lot of time thinking about the parts of my research experiences that I loved, and that parts that I didn’t love. Being clear about what excited me allowed me to identify the kinds of experiences and skills I wanted to target during a post-doc.
Have a plan. The individual development plan tool (myIDP) offered by Science has been incredibly helpful for me because it allows you to identify what you want out of your career and then set goals and build a training plan around that. By doing this, you can organize your own schedule from week to week (or monthly) based on your goals and priorities.
Realize that work/life balance is dynamic. There are times when life requires more of my energy/time (illness, child/elder care obligations), and there are times when work is the priority. I have found that If I try to anticipate the times during a given academic year that are likely to be more stressful (conference season, fellowship/grant deadline, etc.) I can plan ahead and make adjustments in other areas as necessary. Additionally, I have found that being fully present in non-work activities (spending time with my family, reading a book, traveling) helps to combat burnout. There are certainly unique challenges to doing this at every career stage, but small steps (like committing to not checking emails after a certain time at night, or set an appointment with yourself to do something you enjoy) can have a big impact in your overall sense of well-being.
Don’t be afraid to seek therapy. The scientific community is starting to have conversations about mental health in academia. It’s easy to feel isolated, anxious, and overwhelmed. Therapy can help you through whatever curveballs life throws your way, but it can also be used to proactively develop individualized strategies for time management, dealing with stress, and finding a network of support. The university counseling office is a great place to find resources.
(Students: visit CAPS for free) https://caps.umich.edu/
Post-Docs: https://hr.umich.edu/benefits-wellness/health-well-being/mental-health-counseling-consultation-services/faculty-staff-counseling-consultation-office-fascco )
What are your hobbies?
Creative outlets are therapeutic for me, so I am often painting, cooking, or baking during my free time. Spontaneous dance parties with my 3 -year-old and playing video games with my husband are also among my favorite activities.
In honor of Black History Month, can you tell us about how your identity as a Black woman in STEM has shaped your path?
My presence as a black woman in STEM is the product of a long, ongoing struggle for equality. In my family, education has always been a priority. As a teen, my grandfather fled the deep south because he was threatened with violence for trying to attend school instead of working in the fields. He escaped with his life. In the 1970s, my mother was the first black woman to earn a master’s degree in her program at the predominantly white institution (PWI) she attended. She endured racial discrimination, a consistently hostile environment, and was even refused service at some establishments near her campus. My parents were very attentive to my education and made sacrifices to ensure that I had access to the environments, resources, and opportunities to envision and pursue my goals. In early childhood, I had black teachers and administrators who taught us that we could achieve anything, and challenged us to defy any narrative that suggested that we were less capable or valuable because of the color of our skin. By the time I arrived at a PWI in middle school, I did not feel threatened by the lack of representation because I had been prepared for it. The foundation that my parents and community worked hard to build has supported me throughout my educational path, through experiences of prejudice and racism, both casual and deliberate. The stories and legacies of my relatives remind me that our freedom is young, and that there is still so much work to do. I am grateful for what I have been able to achieve, hopeful for what is yet to come, and committed to working to clear obstacles from the path of future generations of ‘STEM-sational’ ☺ black women.
Thanks so much to Dr. Kozik for sharing her experiences and post-doc wisdom! Come meet her and three other fabulous post-docs on Feb. 27 at our post-doc panel!