Meet the Mentor: Tara Sander, PhD
Assistant Professor of Pathology, Pediatric Pathology, Medical College of Wisconsin
Scientific Director of Molecular Diagnostics, Children's Hospital of Wisconsin
Dr. Sander received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the Medical College of Wisconsin. From there she moved to Harvard Medical School as a Research Fellow at the Children’s Hospital Boston (2000-2003). She then returned to the Medical College of Wisconsin where she ascended from assistant professor to principal investigator to scientific director. She is currently involved in clinical and translational research in molecular pathology and laboratory medicine. More specifically, Dr. Sander works to identify genetic variations that cause congenital disorders with the goal of translating these discoveries to the clinic for the development of diagnostic tests for the pediatric population.
What advice would you give a graduate or medical student when contacting a faculty member like you for a position?
I would advise them to send their CV, along with a brief description of why they are interested in the lab and how it fits into their long-term career goals. A copy of recent publications would also be helpful. If funding is currently available, or will be in the near future, serious consideration will be given to their application. I would also advise them to contact the faculty member far in advance (at least 6 months) of when they are looking to start the position. If they are a strong candidate, it gives sufficient time to make all of the necessary arrangements within the department.
What experiences or qualifications impress you about graduate students or post-doctoral fellows interested in working with you? Technical skills can be learned with time, but it’s hard to teach enthusiasm. So, while I am impressed with laboratory experience and technical skills, I am particularly interested in meeting with candidates and getting a better idea of their goals, interests, and who they are as a person. I’m looking for evidence of their excitement in science, dedication to a project (especially when experiments fail), eagerness to learn, and ability to communicate well with others.
You did your graduate work at the Medical College of Wisconsin and then returned there as an assistant professor. Was this move necessary for you to advance your career or do you think you could have stayed in Wisconsin and been as successful?
For me, doing a postdoc at a larger institution, different from the Medical College of Wisconsin, was very important and vital for my career. It gave me the opportunity to experience a more diverse environment with different resources, expertise, and academic scholarship. The most significant impact of the move was that it gave me confidence to establish my own lab, because it allowed me to test my skills in a different research environment. I could have stayed in Wisconsin and been successful, but not at the same level of independence and experience.
Do you have any advice for women with respect to balancing work and family life?
My advice to both men and women is to listen to your gut. When you start to feel “off-balance” and unusually stressed, take a break and determine what you can change to get back on track. Maybe a simple vacation or walk around the park will suffice. At other times, it may require more drastic changes like delegating some of your responsibilities, saying ‘no’ to more things, hiring someone to help with daily chores, modifying your work schedule, or maybe even looking for a new job. I encourage you to discuss drastic changes with your closest mentors, friends, and/or family to help you through these big changes.
Why do you think that you have been so successful?
My scientific career has been like a rollercoaster. There have been many high and rewarding moments, but even more challenges and disappointments. It’s during the lowest times that I have learned the most and come out a better person and scientist. So, I think success is a matter of endurance and staying the course that God has planned for you. I also attribute my achievements to my supportive husband and family, excellent mentors, and everyone that’s worked in my lab. I couldn’t have done any of it on my own.
What factors should an individual consider when choosing a post-doctoral or faculty position?
When choosing a postdoc, you want to find a laboratory that fits your future research/clinical interests and career goals. The research supervisor is also very important, if not more so, than the science of the lab. Ask yourself whether you want to work in a small or large laboratory. It is also important to assess the quality of the institution and academic program. Other factors to consider include salary, benefits, book and travel allowances, holiday time, meeting time, sick time, maternity/paternity leave, benefits and health insurance. Discuss with your potential supervisor expectations for working hours, working weekends, publishing, teaching, and grant writing.
When looking for a faculty position, it is important to make sure you have the equipment, supplies, resources, technical staff, and administrative support that you need to succeed in your program and to work for at least three to five years without external funding. Factors that should be considered and negotiated when appropriate include salary, start-up funds, benefits, research support, lab space, and core support. Have a clear understanding of your promotion track and the percent effort expected for teaching, grant writing, clinical and administrative responsibilities. You also want to look closely at the environment and infrastructure of the department to determine if support exists for mentoring, grant writing, and promotion.
What is some of the best career advice you have for trainees of our Society?
I think the best career advice I can give trainees of ASIP is to utilize the many resources that exist within our society. If you’re not clear what they are, search the ASIP website, talk to your mentor, or contact me and I’ll be sure to let you know. Some examples include the annual meeting at EB, trainee newsletter, awards, special interest groups, summer research internships, courses, and career development resources. ASIP is an excellent society that will jump-start your career if you’re willing to take advantage of these existing opportunities.