“So I told you about this chemistry research, and I act more or less like everything worked--well, you know that’s not the real story, right?” If this doesn’t sound like an ordinary chemistry seminar, that’s because Emory Professor Jen Heemstra is no ordinary chemistry professor. She has gained a large following on Twitter for her daily inspirational musings and is widely regarded as something of a self-care guru.

Heemstra visited the University of Michigan recently to talk a bit about her research designing DNA biosensors and a lot about her perspectives on failure, self-care, and how being an academic is a little like being an athlete.

Heemstra completed her B.S. with Prof. James Nowick at UC Irvine before moving on to a Ph.D. with Prof. Jeff Moore at UIUC. After a postdoc offer was rescinded because she was a woman, she spent two years working in the pharmaceutical industry before beginning a postdoc with Prof. David Liu at Harvard. Heemstra started her independent career at the University of Utah in 2010 and achieved tenure in 2016. She moved to Emory University in 2017. On top of her chemistry research on nucleic acids for molecular recognition and self-assembly, she works on undergraduate education research as part of the steering committee for the Failure as a part of Learning: A Mindset Education network, better known as FLAMEnet.

Alongside her impressive research track record, Heemstra has distinguished herself as a gifted science communicator. Her essays have been published in Editage, Nature Careers, ChemBioChem, ACS Central Science, and since March 2019 she has written a monthly advice column in C&EN, “Office Hours”. Perhaps what she is most known for is her Twitter, which has over 44,000 followers who eagerly like and retweet her thoughts on mentorship, overcoming challenges, and her hopes for a healthier culture in academia. In her free time, Heemstra loves running and rock climbing, which she says helps her think through problems and clear her head.

The first of several speaking engagements lined up for Heemstra at U-M was a research talk. After giving an overview of her biosensor work (see below), Heemstra told the story of how FLAMEnet came to be. In 2014, while she was still at Utah, she came up with an idea to research how undergraduate students learn the all-important life skill of coping with and learning from failure. However, she first had to cope with a failure of her own--failure to get funding for education research. This initial setback led to bigger and better things once she moved to Emory and was able to use start-up funds to get the failure project off the ground with much more creative freedom than she would have had if the original grant had been funded. Now, FLAMEnet is a nationwide network of STEM, education, and psychology researchers working together to figure out how to curb fear of failure and instill college students with the resilience they need to tackle big challenges.

"Self-Care is not the Enemy of Performance"

Prof. Heemstra also gave a seminar for students entitled “Self-Care is not the Enemy of Performance.” She began by saying that “There are two competing narratives out there: there are scientists that are successful, and there are those who are healthy.” She set out to prove that qualities of being healthy and successful do not have to be mutually exclusive. Heemstra explained that every Tuesday night, she runs a physically taxing track workout. Working hard on the track is not easy, but no one would argue that it is bad for her health. She’s getting stronger, is releasing mental stress, and will see progress in her speed and resilience over time. She drew on this love of running as an analogy for her academic performance throughout her talk.

“We want to be able to do great work,” she said. “Working hard makes us stronger, better. It’s fun to drive yourself and see what you’re capable of, but the key is not to drive yourself so hard that you get hurt.” She noted that in order to work hard in a controlled way, athletes must rely on using the right team, practice preventative care, and deal with injuries as they occur. Just like on the track, in the lab scientists must approach their work in the same manner.

Prof. Heemstra drew parallels between an athlete’s coach and an academic trainee’s advisor, committee, and mentors -- and discussed that they should be encouraging, telling you when to push and when to recover, noticing injuries and the importance of form, and coaching team members in their own ways. “You want to choose the mentor that you want to work for on your worst day,” she said. Furthermore, to minimize “risk of injury” or burnout, Prof. Heemstra noted that eating, sleeping, and exercising well are crucial. “Are we really at our best when we aren’t doing those things?” she asked. Burnout correlates with lack of enjoyment in work rather than hours worked, so planning times of rest to completely unplug “every day, week, and season,” keeps a scientist wanting to go back to the difficult work.

In a smaller setting after her seminar, Prof. Heemstra asked students what academic faculty and administration could do to support trainees’ mental health. She recognized that many mental health issues are systemic and asked how she could help students using her platform and position. Students in attendance mentioned the usefulness of awareness events and support groups but were in agreement that leadership starts from the top. “If departments support faculty, the faculty won’t feel the need to put intense pressure on students,” one postdoctoral fellow said.

Additionally, having concise, clear guidelines for issues such as mental health or extenuating circumstances should be laid out and accessible for all trainees in a lab or department. Equitable distribution of these guidelines actually helped students open up to mental health struggles with their advisers. “It can be really hard for a graduate student or postdoc who is facing intense personal demands to even just show up to work every day,” Prof. Heemstra said. “Having lost both my father and best friend during my graduate studies, I understand that life isn’t just put on hold when you are getting your Ph.D. or performing postdoctoral work… life is bound to happen,” she explained. For this reason, she has a section of her lab manual dedicated to personal and mental well-being, allowing students to take time off. Additionally, the lab manual encourages the pursuit of a well-rounded lifestyle not at the expense of lab success, but in order to achieve research productivity in the lab. 

In the end, according to Heemstra, self-care comes down to knowing your mental health needs and making sure you’re in an environment that offers the support to meet those needs. Struggling with mental health “doesn’t mean you can’t be an amazing scientist--just like anything it’s something you want to accommodate.”

Want to know more about Heemstra’s Chemistry research?

Life as we know it depends on DNA’s ability to selectively bind specific complementary sequences of DNA or RNA, so it follows that DNA is very good at molecular recognition. Heemstra and her team took advantage of this property to design sensors that use DNA molecular recognition to rapidly measure the relative amounts of small-molecule stereoisomers made by an enzyme. The sensors are based on two complementary single strands of DNA, each of which is selective for a different stereoisomer of the target molecule. Each strand is attached to a different fluorescent tag that is activated when the DNA binds to the target. Heemstra and her team can then measure the ratio of stereoisomers in the sample by comparing the fluorescent signal from each sensor. She envisions putting this method to work for high-throughput screening of stereoselective enzymes.

Heemstra Lab: https://www.heemstralab.com/

Heemstra Twitter: @jenheemstra , @HeemstraLab