June 7, 2017: Interview with Mike Inouye, conducted by Kelly Wyres for a Melbourne University early-mid career researcher workshop
What stage were you at when you started your own group? Not in terms of years past PhD but more in terms of experience e.g. with supervising students/writing, managing grants, leading projects etc.
Mike: I had a postdoc fellowship from an independent funding body (NHMRC) that allowed me flexibility and stability in determining my own research direction. I was about 2 years into the 4-year fellowship when I realised that to do the research I wanted to do I was going to have to start an independent lab.
It was a pretty big risk as Melbourne wasn’t really known for genomics or systems biology at the time, but it was a calculated risk as I was supervising an MSc and a PhD student and had just been awarded 2 NHMRC Project grants as a CI. Other mitigating factors were that I had a strong publication record (I had just started publishing as last author) and extensive international collaborations, which were immensely important in supporting me in those early years.
Did you get to a point when you felt completely ready to lead your own group and actively make it happen, or was it more the case that the opportunity arose and you felt confident enough to try?
Mike: Very rarely is anyone ready (or even feels ready) to lead their own group, and I’m no exception.
It was a case of, if I wanted to do awesome research in my field, then I was going to have to pursue an independent career.
I’ve been sitting at my keyboard for 10 minutes since writing that last sentence, trying to articulate what my sense of self-confidence was, what it means to try and fail and get back up again. It’s very hard for me to get past the intense feeling that I had to do this or I had to quit, and that’s it. It was compulsion - sink or swim.
Eventually, an opportunity came along at the University of Melbourne. I inquired and was recruited to the Uni. Ultimately there are always opportunities, both clear and hidden. It’s just a matter of getting out there and being assertive enough to fail… eventually you pull an ace out of the deck.
How did you make the transition in practical terms? e.g. did you move to a new institution/department to take a lab head position, or made a transition in the department you were currently working? Was this spurred on by award of a specific fellowship or grant, or more of a natural progression?
Mike: I moved diagonally to start a lab at a new institution. I got a 1.5 year contract to show that I had what it took, but I also got a startup package. From there it was flat out - the overriding necessity was to produce impactful papers and get grants, but also to recruit good people, set up infrastructure, and learn how University admin worked.
Becoming a lab head really means throwing your abilities into another gear, and fast. For example, in the first 4 years I wrote around 30 grant applications. Early/mid-career academia is brutal and making the transition means finding a new trajectory and constantly pushing it. You’ll learn your limits. It is also one of the most rewarding jobs I can think of, one where there are endless discoveries and insights that really can improve humanity.
What was the most challenging aspect of starting your own group and how did you overcome this?
Mike: The most challenging aspect is the immediate and myriad responsibilities that get thrust upon you. Recruitment, people management, finance, administration, academic politics etc, it all happens very quickly and there is effectively no training for it.
Mentorship is also key. I’ve been unlucky in that my closest mentor passed away and distance separated me from others. That was and is extremely challenging. It’s frequently the case that EMCRs will not be in a good mentorship situation, in which case it’s important to find brother and sister EMCRs to fill in those gaps and create a support network.
What was the biggest surprise?
Mike: I’ve been a computational biologist sitting at my computer doing analysis and coding since 2000, but I found quickly that I very much enjoy the nearly full-time people and writing side of being a lab head. I love my lab - I love talking to my students and staff, solving puzzles with and getting to know them.