By Morris F. Maduro
I was not sure what I was going to do after college. I had chosen a Math major because that was the subject that I seemed to be good at in high school. Perhaps it was because it allowed using sets of rules to creatively solve problems, and there was a lot of satisfaction in doing that. By my senior year, I had lost interest, and instead found that courses I was taking in Genetics began to hold my interest. After my BSc I applied to graduate school in the same place I had been an undergraduate. I did not get accepted the first try, so I took a fifth year of classes in genetics, including a lab class in molecular biology, and then got in the following fall. (When I look at today’s students who may already have published in journals by the time they apply for graduate schools, it is humbling. I had none of that.)
I started right away in a C. elegans lab and slowly grew my confidence as I learned molecular biological techniques. In those days we did not have a complete genome sequence, and RNAi was still years away. Like many working on worms in the 1990s, my work was to clone and make new alleles of the gene unc-119. The worm community, even in those days, was a supportive community of researchers, and going to the worm meetings was something to always look forward to. Ultimately, I finished my degree and ended up doing a postdoc in the U.S., staying in C. elegans but changing to working in the early embryo.
After five years as a postdoc I went on the job market, towards the end of 2002 and early 2003. There seemed to be a lot more jobs available back then. I ended up at UC Riverside where I still am today.
A job in academia can give you the creative freedom to engage in so many different things besides research. One can put effort into department and campus leadership, for example. Or become a graduate program director. Or serve one’s scientific community by helping to organize a meeting or developing and sharing novel methods. The one thing that I never expected to be involved with, that turned out to be immensely rewarding, was in making a comedy show for the worm meetings.
I’d always been a class clown and found ways to use humor in many things I do. The Worm Show was an idea that fellow wormer and funny guy Curtis Loer (University of San Diego, CA) and I had in fall of 2003, shortly after I had started as an Assistant Professor. We prepared a half-hour comedy presentation for the West Coast Worm Meeting in Santa Barbara, CA that took place the following summer. The reception was positive, so we did it again for the International Meeting in 2005. Fast forward, and over 16 years we did a total of 8 one-hour shows, with the last one in 2021 being virtual as it was prepared during the height of the pandemic. These were a ton of work, as they required integrating comedy writing, video editing, music parody, and making a bunch of PowerPoint slides. Over the years as we incorporated things like interviews with meeting attendees, and on-site music, we found that it was a great way to build community. (I will always remember the standing ovation we got at the end of our first show at the International Meeting in 2005, before a packed crowd of some 1800+ Worm Scientists in Royce Hall at UCLA.)
If you dabble in a lot of things and appreciate taking on diverse challenges alongside other curious, like-minded individuals, an academic job is worth the effort. If you get there, you can make it your own by finding ways to share your unique abilities with the scientific community.