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Q&A with Margaret McFall-Ngai

by Katherine Amato Jul 31 / 18

This Q&A is part of CIFAR’s series on building a research lab.

Katherine Amato is a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar in CIFAR’s Humans & the Microbiome program, Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Northwestern university and Associate Editor of Microbiome. Margaret McFall-Ngai is an Advisory Committee Chair for CIFAR’s Humans & the Microbiome program, a Professor and Director of Pacific Bioscience Research Center, School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Katherine Amato (KA): Could you start by telling me about your first faculty position and what it was like?

Margaret McFall-Ngai (MMN): I had gone to UCLA as a graduate student – I'm sort of a Southern California girl – and then I did a postdoc in Jules Stein Eye Institute in protein biochemistry-biophysics, and then went back down to Scripps Oceanography and did a second postdoc with George Somero on protein chemistry enzymology. All the way along I’d been interviewing for jobs, and before that I’d been offered a couple of jobs.

And then Ned (Edward Ruby) and I got together. At the end of the day, we wanted to get two positions together. That year we had three job offers. One of them was where he was at the University of Southern California. Southern California was like home to me … but, you might imagine, the problem was Ned was already there. And so I had to go into my first faculty position as a trailing spouse type-thing. I was not terribly excited about this, but it was the best job offer.

It was 1989, and I was the first woman hired into a tenure-track position in the history of the marine section at USC.

Human & the Microbiome program Advisory Commitee Chair, Margaret McFall-Ngai

KA: Wow.

MMN: I was having all sorts of problems coming in under the shadow of being Ned’s partner. It made me crazy because I’d worked really hard on my career to be as close to top of the game as I possibly could.

KA: What was the process of becoming a tenured professor like?

MMN: I was researching something completely different then. I was looking at spectral tuning in rhodopsin, using natural experiments that animals had done with spectral tuning in rhodopsin. Very quickly, within four years, I had an NIH and NSF and an ONR grant.

At the same time I was hired, there were four or five other faculty, junior faculty hired. So the Chair Maria Pellegrini came down and said to me, “You know what? You have to come up for tenure early because you have all these things happening, and I don’t want all of you coming up at the same time.” And so I went up for tenure early and I got tenure. And it was great.

KA: Was getting a tenure position common among your peers?

MMN: About four years into my faculty position, I went to a [Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology] meeting and my UCLA group all got together. We did really well as a cohort, there were about 25 of us who were in faculty positions at that point -- 24 men and me.

The thing that was sad was we had graduated nearly 50/50. I was like, “Wait a minute. Where is everybody?” And it was just for a whole set of sociological reasons. At that point, we couldn’t have the kind of a life that most women want to have.

So that was my beginning.

CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar, Katherine Amato

KA: It really wasn’t that long ago, but it seems like a lot of the issues you might think were starting to be addressed then were not at all.

MMN: Things have changed a lot, but I’ve always felt that if you just tell them what you need and what you want and don’t bargain, you’ll get what you need and want.

KA: How did you move to Hawaii?

MMN: The Squid-Vibrio system was working so Ned and I wanted to move to Hawaii. There was a really great cell, molecular, and development lab called Kewalo Marine Laboratory where they used marine animals to ask basic biological and biomedical questions. It was directed by Mike Hadfield and I walked up to him at a meeting and I said, “Do you have any job openings at Kewalo Marine Lab, by the way?” And it just happened someone was being offered a chair at Harvard. And so I popped into that position, and Ned – there was a guy who was going to open a lab at Berkeley. And so all the stars lined up and we were able to move over here, and I was the first tenure-track woman in Kewalo Lab. 

KA: What do you think was maybe the best advice you received?

MMN: The best advice that I got was when I was a graduate student. The most important thing was to begin to think about who you are and how you fit in. You can be at the cutting edge by being one of two things, in my opinion: You can be a pioneer or you can be a person who jumps onto a field or an area in which your elbows are really big.

I feel that women are very, very good pioneers and very, very good at carving out things and do well on the frontier. When I think of you, I think of you as being the country’s primate microbiome person, I think of you as being a pioneer in that area and the idea that you are carving out a niche for yourself that is unique and where you’ll be at the top of the heap.

My PhD was in functional morphology and comparative physiology, and then I went into protein biochemistry and biophysics. And so what I did was I combined fields and I asked the question, “How do animals live in in the environment in which they live?” and I was asking how they do that biochemically.

At that point there were very few people who did that, and George Somero was the father of that field, and he was my second postdoc advisor. I’d done my first postdoc with Joe Horwitz at Jules Stein Eye Institute, UCLA, where I learned the basics of protein biochemisty and biophysics. It was really great for me because what it did was it gave me the broad understanding of animal evolution, ecology, physiology; and then I had some really deep skills in biochemistry.

KA: What do you think is the most valuable thing you’ve learned about building a research program and a lab? You’ve had a chance to do it a couple times, change things and see how that works as well.

MMN: I would say that one of the principal things is don’t take your position until your lab is completely remodeled. I saw this happen to a lot of my colleagues. The worst one was a guy came in and they didn’t have his lab ready for three years.

KA: Oh my god.

MMN: You want to make sure that your lab is ready for you to hit the ground running when you get there.

KA: What are some of the best ways to recruit good students?

MMN: I am extremely straightforward and honest with them. I tell them that I'm an academic and if they’re undecided about the direction they want to go, I may not be the lab for them. If they’re thinking about industry, or teaching – I'm probably not the best lab to be in because I'm a really hard-driver and I tell them that I will not be happy with their dissertation unless they have three first author publications. And so they know walking in the door what my lab is going to be like.

Students have to have a certain GPA or GRE scores in order to make it into the graduate program; but I have not found any correlation between scores and success in the lab at all. In fact, I find that it gives me pause if the person has a 4.0 and perfect scores on their GREs because that means to me that they’re great book learners, and that worries me. And so I always look for people who love to be in the lab.

KA: How often do you go out to the field to collect?

MMN: I'm now in Hawaii but when we were in Wisconsin, we went three to four times a year. And when we were at USC, we would come to Hawaii three to four times a year.

KA: Is there anything special there in terms of skillset or personality that you have to take into account for people working in your lab group?

MMN: There are some people who really enjoy being in the field, and there are some people who really want to be in the lab, so there’s that tension there.

I think it’s not a good idea to force people to do things they don’t like to do, but it’s very important that everybody go in the field at least once – because they do need to get an appreciation for that dimension, how critical that is and how much of an effort it is.

KA: How big is your lab on average?

MMN: One of the things that you will find is that for you there’s an optimal size.

In other words, you want to keep a lab size that you can manage. Some people do really well having a group of postdocs that help the graduate students, and then they don’t have so much to do. Because each person in my lab has a very different project, everybody has something really different – it’s not so easy for that sort of dynamic. I find that it’s more effective for me to have a smaller lab.

I’ve found for me, when I was in the lab all the time, six to eight people; and now that I have an administrative position, I have four people in my lab – two postdocs and two graduate students.

...going in and saying, 'You should give money to a squid,' is a bit of an art.

KA: What’s your approach in the lab?

MMN: I have to say that all in all my students and postdocs are very independent. And I do that kind of purposely. They each have their own, very different projects. And I think it’s because of the way I was raised in that I was responsible for being the expert in that area. So, to give you an example, at the moment I have a postdoc working on epigenetics. And we’re one of the only groups, because of the nature of our symbiosis, i.e., being a binary one and one in which you can culture the bacteria, we can study epigenetics in the bacteria and know exactly who’s influencing or what’s influencing these bacteria.

KA: That’s cool.

MMN: The squid-vibrio system is so broad that they can take something with them, and Ned and I won't be competing with them. So this June we had the 30th anniversary of the squid-vibrio system. It was a big party at Scripps Oceanography in La Jolla, where it all began. And there are now 15 or 16 labs that work on different aspects of it. We have this annual meeting so then everybody knows what everybody’s doing and nobody steps on anybody’s toes because it’s not necessarily. You can do ecology, you can do evolution, you can do biochemistry, you can do whatever.

KA: Have you done a lot of industry collaboration?

MMN: I have been approached many times to do industry collaboration, and it largely has to do with a reflecting protein that my lab discovered. I just don’t have any interest in doing that, but I’ve fostered interaction. There’s a young guy, Alon Gorodetzky at UC Irvine, who has taken the reflecting protein commercial. It’s making all sorts of products with these stable biodegradable biological molecules.

I just love the basic science. Now, that makes it very hard thinking about grant writing and all that kind of work. Ned and I have been very lucky, and I personally have been extremely lucky because Ned is a phenomenal grant writer. He somehow knows what people want to hear and he can see the problems with a grant. I'm more about, “You know, why don’t you just give us the money? We’ll do good things with it.”


You just have to fight and fight and fight and make sure you do all the right things to make it happen and not settle for anything....Obviously, I'm a fighter.


KA: Yeah, right? So, what was your experience like with grant writing?

MMN: I’ve had big grants on my own, and in collaboration with Ned and other people. You ask three really good questions – one you’ve got so much preliminary data that it’s almost done; you have a second one that’s very feasible, a very exciting question; and you have a third one that is ‘pie-in-the-sky, i.e., a bit risky, but you can show that it’s very doable.

Ned and I have been very lucky. We’ve been NIH and/or NSF-funded almost the entire time. And let me tell you, Katherine, going in and saying, “You should give money to a squid,” is a bit of an art.

What I think you have to do with your grant is figure out compelling questions, and what you do that’s unique and innovative that nobody else can do.

You’re really selling a concept and you have to think about where they’re coming from and what they want to hear.

KA: Should you aim for large grants or smaller, more accessible ones early on?

MMN: Well, here’s my opinion. The average age of the first RO1 is 43 –

KA: Yes, which I refuse to accept, even though that is a fact.

MMN: That is a good attitude. It’s important that you get in the game as soon as possible. The head of the marine section when I came in to USC, not Maria Pellegrini, who was department head, would bring me grants that were specifically for women on a regular basis. One day I turned around to him and I said, “I will not go for these grants, and I’ll tell you why - because any time that I spend on going after a grant that’s specific for women, I am not in the principal arena in which I'm going to have to be competitive.”

And so my feeling is that at first, as a beginning investigator, you will have a chance to go to both NSF and NIH with the same idea, and you should do it.

KA: Do you have any other grant writing suggestions?

MMN: One of the things you want to do is have somebody who you can give your grant to review. If you can find a very high-quality person in your field who would be willing to look at your grant and say what you will need to do in order to make it competitive, I would strongly recommend doing that.

Trying to go in by yourself when you’re junior is really, really tough because of this. You can't be clairvoyant. You can't know the culture without having somebody to help you put it together.

KA: Is there anything that we missed that you’d like to tell new faculty?

MMN: The only thing I can say is to hold your head high, to not be timid. I have some postdocs right now – they seem a bit scared. Why are you scared? You don’t have to be scared. You know, get out there and fight like a dog. In other words, if this is your dream, you’d better fight for it. You fought very hard to get this far and there will be people who will fall away because they don’t fight hard enough. And you just have to fight and fight and fight and make sure you do all the right things to make it happen and not settle for anything.

Don’t settle for anything, in my opinion. Obviously, I'm a fighter.

KA: I love that about you, and I like that sentiment, so I’ll take it.

Read more articles in the Building a Research Lab series