B-SURE: The Underrepresented Researcher’s Guide to the Galaxy
Dr. Kate Flickinger
TRISH Diversity Partner (B-SURE) Mentee
University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine
Earning your doctorate is a wild ride. You spend years of your life studying, writing, rewriting, investigating, learning, teaching, accidentally breaking things, enjoying a glass of wine to celebrate successes, and admittedly, occasionally crying into that wine glass out of frustration. All of this culminates into a presentation about what’s arguably your life’s most important work, your opus one, everything you have done in your academic career has led to this, and then…that’s it. Suddenly, you are no longer a student. Suddenly, you are a doctor.
Though it might be common, finishing my Ph.D. didn’t leave me with the sense of relief I had expected. Instead, I was panicking and overwhelmed. I would even go so far as to say I was having a bit of an identity crisis despite my day-to-day looking very similar to my life while completing my doctorate.
During my Ph.D., I worked full-time managing the Applied Physiology Lab (APL) at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Emergency Medicine. Soon after, I had a post-doctoral project lined up in the APL working under Dr. Clif Callaway, to study the use of induced sleep and temperature manipulation as means for metabolic suppression for long-duration space flight, a protocol we call ‘cold-sleep’, a Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) funded project.
Despite having the post-doctoral project of my dreams, and the unwavering support of my mentors and colleagues, I still felt like I was in over my head. Trying to understand funding sources, and how to best navigate the next steps in my career to establish myself as an independent researcher.
Over the years, I have occasionally been told by nay-sayers that my decision to work while going to school, and to stay in the same department would be a disservice and hinderance to my career. And while working during school and continuing to work in my department was undoubtedly the right decision for me, it also closed a lot of doors to certain networking events and workshops that specifically excluded staff from attending, something I had anticipated, but I was shocked by the extent to which this would be true. Memories of those voices, and the feeling of being left out fueled my feelings of worry and imposter syndrome. But there was one thing that has helped quell some of these anxieties: B-SURE.
Boosting Spaceflight Underrepresented Researcher Equity (B-SURE)’s primary goal is to establish a network of researchers of all levels of experience from underrepresented backgrounds (women, individuals of racial and ethnic groups) that have also been predominantly underrepresented and underutilized in space health research, connect them with mentors, and help train and support them in their venture into the field of space health.
Navigating the field of space health and funding does not come easily and was not something that my mentors or colleagues could really help me with since they are as new to this field of research as I am. Our TRISH-funded cold-sleep project was our first foray into space health research. We were over the moon about getting this opportunity, as it is something we had all daydreamed about for as long as I have been a member of the lab. But knowing what to do next, and how to establish ourselves in this field is novel to all of us in the APL.
B-SURE opened the door to space health for us as mentees. Trying to enter the field of space health is daunting. There is an overwhelming amount of information available, but knowing where to start, and determining what resources are most relevant to you, can make beginning your work feel impossible. B-SURE helped guide me, as well as other mentees, through the process of how to not only establish space health research programs in our own labs, but to also maintain them.
Various mentors taught us how to identify funding opportunities best suited to us, how to navigate the various grant submission portals, and how to get creative when looking for funding during the inevitable times when it is scarce. A particularly useful pearl of information was how to utilize NASA’s Human Research Roadmap to identify the gaps/risks that NASA is currently prioritizing. If your area of expertise isn’t currently a priority, you can and should reach out to other space health researchers that you may be able to collaborate with on a smaller level to stay involved as the gaps/risks are continually evolving.
I especially appreciated that the mentors were honest about the challenges we will face. Being rejected for a grant can feel like personal rejection. Drs. Josephine Allen and Dawn Kernagis put it best, encouraging us to not take no at face value, that no doesn’t mean never, it means not right now. Use rejections as opportunities to reshape and refine your study and resubmit during the next funding cycle, or to another funding source. Dr. Mark Shelhamer reminded us that, “rejection is the price of admission into research.”
In October 2022, I had the honor of attending the B-SURE Foundations of Funding Workshop in Orlando, Florida hosted by B-SURE, along with the Space Health Inclusion Partnership (SHIP), another diversity partner funded TRISH. Both B-SURE and SHIP were created as part of TRISH’s commitment to facilitating underrepresented researcher engagement.
After the workshop, I was given the opportunity to share my personal experience with B-SURE. However, I struggled to find the words that best describe my experience. The short answer is that B-SURE was the thing that I didn’t even know I needed. I doubted my eligibility while applying, as I am neither faculty nor fellow, which is what the application said they were looking for. However, I decided to take a shot in the dark and applied anyway. I am incredibly thankful that I applied and was chosen for the program. B-SURE not only helped me build confidence in myself as a researcher as I transitioned from a Ph.D. candidate and stepped into a post-doctoral position, but it also gave me access to a wealth of information and an incredible network of individuals I now look to as colleagues and friends.
The resources that were provided and the topics that we covered were great. But to me participating in B-SURE is much more than that. The sense of community during those 2.5 days was undeniable, which can’t be said for every conference. In my experience, people generally keep to themselves during workshops. For the record, if you see me at a workshop or conference, I’d love to meet you and connect!
To be able to share your research with scientists from so many different fields of study, from all different backgrounds is a rare opportunity, one that I will cherish. It’s not often that you get to sit in a room of individuals all coming from different backgrounds that are eager to work together. At the B-SURE workshop, we heard about research from both mentors and mentees. Scientists, students, clinicians, and graphics designers alike all had the opportunity to share their projects and receive feedback on ways to improve their ideas, or new directions to explore. We learned about everything from liquid metal cooling vests, nutritional countermeasures to improve musculoskeletal health, augmented footwear for microgravity environments, various mission analogs, biomechanic suits to help support motor sensory connection, and that’s only a small subset of the incredible work being done by the B-SURE workshop attendees.
Not every field of study is as welcoming to newcomers as the field of space health has been. I feel a sense of peace knowing that, at least in TRISH’s eyes, “different” is encouraged, if not celebrated. SHIP’s Dr. Kristina Collins’ message is science is not acultural, that instead, culture influences what questions we ask, and the approach we take to our research. That resonated with me and helped rid myself of a lot of that imposter syndrome I was carrying. It taught me that who I am, combined with persistence, determination, and creativity, is what gives me my unique perspective to science. It will be what drives, not hinders my success as a space health scientist.
I will speak high praise of the B-SURE program time and time again. This opportunity helped me expand my network of collaborators, my views on how to approach the continual search for funding, and the importance of surrounding yourself with people with different views, and from different cultures and research backgrounds. As space exploration continues to grow, so too will the list of problems that will inevitably need to be addressed. Space health isn’t something that can be explored by a small number of labs with limited expertise. It will take immense collaborative efforts from scientists of unique backgrounds and experiences to come together to find the answers we are seeking.
It has only been three months since the B-SURE Foundations of Funding Workshop, but we at the APL are already actively working on proposals and potential future projects with others. Having gained so much being a mentee of B-SURE, I now look forward to the opportunity to one day attend as a mentor myself. I am always happy to talk all things science (including the challenges that come with it). If you would like to talk science, space health, TRISH, or B-SURE, you can find me @Dr_KateFLK and check out what we’re up to in the APL @AppliedPhysLab and our website.