A profile of Dr. Lesley Weaver in celebration of Black History Month
Dr. Lesley Weaver, an alum of IU’s Department of Biology, has returned to campus as an Assistant Professor after her finishing her postdoctoral research at Johns Hopkins University. This past September, I had the opportunity to interview her about her experience as an early career researcher, setting up her lab, navigating IU in her new role as an Assistant Professor, and how the COVID-19 pandemic shift to online has simultaneously highlighted issues with and solutions to accessibility and diversity in academia.
What are your research interests?
The big question I’m interested in is how different organs talk to each other and what they talk about. Since I can’t look at all of the different organs and all of the different ‘conversations’ between organs happening in humans, my lab research uses Drosophila (fruit flies) and focuses on reproduction to understand inter-organ communication. This is important because many external factors, such as changes in diet, bacterial infections, and exposure to environmental toxins, alter an organism’s physiology through disruption of tissue homeostasis, which could result in infertility. By using the fruit fly as a model, we can gain insight into how some of these inter-organ communication networks possibly act in humans.
How does it feel to be back at IU? What differences are there between being a graduate student and a faculty member on campus?
I’m from Indiana, so that was a major factor for me coming back. I have always been a small town girl, so I love the fact that Bloomington is a small town with a big university. Here, you have the benefit of being in a small community, but you also have a large university for students.
One of the obvious differences between being a student here versus faculty is that as faculty, you get to experience Bloomington both when it’s flooded with students and during the breaks, when the students leave. Another difference I definitely feel is, since I was here last, I’m now considered an established investigator.
What has the process been like setting up a new lab?
When you start a new lab, you need to figure out all of the things you might need and how much it all costs. In most scenarios, you get a start-up package to cover these expenses. As a student, you don’t really see the budgeting aspect of running a lab, just maybe the budgeting for your own research project. And then, there’s the part where your start-up package only really covers about the first three years of research, so you need to figure out if you should get the new equipment coming out that might be useful later – if you can figure out how to use it – or focus on the equipment you’re familiar with. But, even this equipment might have newer models than the ones from your graduate lab/work. No matter what equipment you choose, you also need to stock up on the supplies you need for that technology so that it lasts you as long as possible. In my personal life, I would never spend $500 on something in the same way that I spent $150,000 as part of setting up the lab and getting the equipment that I need for my research. So, I had to switch from “normal life Lesley” to “buying lab supplies Lesley.” I’ve been back at IU for a few months now, and I’m just starting to feel like “Okay, my lab is set up now” and I can get started on the real work. It’s been stressful, but also fun to learn how to do this and what it takes to get a lab up and running.
What role has social media played in your research?
Social media has never been a big thing in my life, but when I was going on the job market, everyone was telling me “you need to get on Twitter, everyone has a science Twitter account.” Since making my Twitter profile, I’ve been invited to give a few talks through Twitter, and I also started getting a few followers who are big names in my field, so I was fangirling a little bit with that. It’s been interesting trying to adjust, since you have to be somewhat consistent with your postings. I tweet at random times, like early in the mornings or late at night. But, I try to limit my time on social media because it can also be a huge time sink.
Another thing is now potential graduate students can contact me through Twitter about applying to the department and I can send them information about applying if they reach out that way. As a graduate student, you don’t always understand what a graduate program search is like. But now, I am on the other side and have a better sense of how all of the inner mechanisms affect grad students, even if they don’t really know about it.
What has been the most challenging part about the shift to virtual academic life due to the COVID–19 pandemic? And, on a more positive note, have you found any silver linings from these changes?
It’s been good and bad. We can invite more people to give talks to the department because there’s not the same budget constraint with traveling; now, they can just Zoom in. I can also attend talks and workshops in completely different time zones and not have to worry about the $600 registration fees. But then, while I’m listening to a seminar, I’m sometimes doing something else (like figuring out how to look up fly stocks), so then my full attention isn’t being given to either task. So, it’s good in the sense that there’s a lot more opportunities to connect with your field virtually, but then there’s the difficult part of not being able to connect with people in person.
What have you learned about accessibility and diversity in STEM from the shift to virtual conferences, networking, and communication?
The shift to everything being virtual has really highlighted how we can make academic events more accessible for everyone. It’s not just thinking about how your travel impacts your carbon footprint and your wallet, which can be a hindrance to a lot of graduate students, but also how to make the events physically accessible for differently-abled researchers. Imagine that a conference was held in a venue that didn’t have a lot of elevators or escalators. To you and me, that would just be a little inconvenient; however, someone in a wheelchair would have to plan their entire day around it. With virtual conferences, it’s easier for them to attend all the talks they want and not have to miss out on some because the venue wasn’t accessible.
And lastly, tell me a bit more about your advocacy for graduate education and diversity in STEM?
So, we know that the academic job market is struggling right now. There’s not enough jobs for everyone who is graduating, so I think it’s important to advocate for the graduate students who may not be interested in academia, but still think a graduate degree would be of value to them in the corporate world or doing strictly research or strictly teaching. A graduate degree shouldn’t just be for the people who want to be in academia; it should be for anyone who wants to learn more and become an expert in a given field. A Ph.D. is a critical thinking degree, and there are a lot of scientific professions that need people who have great problem solving skills.
Thank you so much to Dr. Leslie Weaver for taking the time to talk with me more about her work and experience as an early career researcher! You can follow her on Twitter and keep up with all the latest research at the Weaver Lab here.