UB scientist Gail Seigel publishes memoir, shares her journey as a biomedical researcher
UB researcher offers advice to students
Gail Seigel remembers when her scientific curiosity first took hold of her. She was walking to kindergarten and saw a coin in the dirt. She moved the coin to the middle of the sidewalk, wondering if it would be there the next day.
Now, as a principal investigator at UB’s Center for Hearing and Deafness, Seigel reflects on that experiment as the first of many adventures in her scientific career.
“Of course [the coin] was gone,” she said. “But I learned something.”
Seigel traces her scientific adventures – which range from having her hair pulled out at a zoo to surviving qualifying exams in graduate school to shipping retinal cells across the world – in her memoir, Academania: My Life in the Trenches of Biomedical Research. Her memoir was released on Jan. 15 and is available only as an e-book.
Seigel said in her book she aimed to strike a balance between sharing entertaining anecdotes and scientific prose. The lessons in her book – such as how to deal with bad news, develop resilience and negotiate – are relevant to students and professionals across all disciplines, she said.
Seigel currently researches retinoblastoma, a cancer that originates in the retina and affects children under the age of 2. Children with retinoblastoma appear to have white pupils in photographs, she said. Treating the cancer often renders the patient blind.
Last year, Seigel began working with stem cells, which were – unlike other cells she has worked with – extremely uncooperative.
“They’ve been giving me fits,” she said. “If you look at them the wrong way, they die.”
She said research is not for students who expect instant gratification and advises aspiring researchers to speak with people in the field and keep an open mind.
“See what it’s like,” she said. “It’s not for everybody … if you see [failure] as a setback or get uptight about it, you won’t last in the field.”
Richard Salvi, director of UB’s Center for Hearing and Deafness, agrees with Seigel and said one of the most common misconceptions students have about science is experiments will routinely produce exciting results.
“On television, you see the crimes are solved, the scientific discoveries are made in a week,” he said. “Most of the time, a month is about the time you need to barely get started.”
It takes years – and sometimes decades – to complete a research project, and it’s important to develop resilience and keep the long-term goal in mind, Salvi said.
Like the majority of researchers, Seigel relies on grants to fund all components of her research – including her salary.
Universities provide start-up money for laboratories but do not provide much financial support afterward, according to Salvi. He compared being a researcher to running a small business inside a university.
Seigel typically receives one of the 10 grants she applies for each year and earns approximately $50,000 per year in grants.
“Basically we have to do what we can afford to do,” she said. “You watch your salary go up and down.”
The ability to communicate clearly and effectively is essential to receiving grants, and writing is both the first and second most important skill in science, according to Salvi.
Seigel initially planned to write a memoir when she retired but found that, once she started writing, she couldn’t stop.
She also supplemented her income for six years by working for a biotechnology company in Rochester, New York. Working in industry, however, didn’t offer her much freedom and flexibility, Seigel said.
“At the company, from the top, they tell you what to do,” she said. “When you run your own lab, you’re the one who decides.”
Keeping an open mind
Salvi, like Seigel, likes the discovery-geared nature of research. As an administrator, he enjoys helping students complete their first grant proposals and publish their first papers. Above all, he enjoys reading articles and knowing there are always unanswered questions.
Salvi encourages students to study texts outside their discipline because, often times, those texts may influence their work.
“Never be complacent,” he said. “You never know enough.”
Likewise, Seigel advises aspiring researchers to keep an open mind and remember that science can be taken in many directions. In high school she knew she wanted to run her own lab, but she didn’t imagine herself being an author, assisting in the analysis of a murder case or working in biotechnology.
“You think there’s a straight line between where you are and where you want to be,” she said. “But it’s never straight.”
Seigel advertised her book on her Facebook page, “Academania, the book” and through her Twitter account. She doesn’t plan on publishing a physical version unless it goes viral.
So far, her e-book, which is available on Amazon.com for $3.99, has reached approximately 60 readers. Among them is Robert Barbuto, a retired criminal defense lawyer in Georgia.
Barbuto suffers from diabetic retinopathy – a condition that renders him nearly blind. He said Seigel’s Twitter handle – @eyedoc333 – and the title of her memoir intrigued him.
After enlarging the font and inverting the colors on the page, Barbuto was able to read Seigel’s memoir. He praised Academania for its easy readability and balanced approach to informing and entertaining.
“It’s not a scientific treatise,” he said. “I came away with a new view on the adventures research people go through.”
He said Seigel’s memoir gave him an insider viewpoint on the difficulties of earning a Ph.D. and funding research. Barbuto plans to share his new understanding in a presentation to more than 150 people in his community and urge them to persuade their congressmen to increase financial support for research.
Seigel said students who are interested in impacting the world of research should begin working in a lab early in their undergraduate careers. It’s important to get a feel of the research world before diving into it, she said.
Salvi also said students should find a mentor – someone who is passionate about research and who can guide them at the beginning of their journey.
“Find someone that wants to get something done and is in a big hurry to do it,” he said. “That’s the person you want to work with … both of you together are going to move forward.”
Seigel has developed research skills well beyond the ones used in her first coin experiment as a child. She said she is eager to pass those lessons on to students who are interested in gaining an insider perspective on the challenges and rewards of pursuing a research career.