An interview with Professional in Residence Tracy Teal: harnessing community to support scientific research

Tracy Teal, Ph.D. is the executive director of Dryad and former executive director of Data Carpentry and The Carpentries. Teal is joining the QB3-Berkeley Professionals in Residence (PIR) program on March 10 and 11. Graduate students and postdocs may register for Teal’s PIR visit here. She spoke with graduate student Jonathan Liu about her experience transitioning from doing basic research to working in a nonprofit setting to help support and develop improved infrastructure for the greater scientific community.

Jonathan Liu: Can you briefly describe your career trajectory and how you got to where you are today?

Tracy Teal: That’s a bit of a long story! I think it’s important to emphasize that most career trajectories aren’t straight or predictable. That wasn’t necessarily something I appreciated when I was in school, where I had more of the mindset of “go to school, get a job, done!”

Tracy Teal is our next PIR.

As an undergrad, I was very indecisive about my interests — I liked biology, but I also liked math. I just kept taking a bunch of different courses until I got to the end of my junior year and had to pick a major. At the time that was cybernetics, which is usually called systems biology now. It was a combination of engineering and math and biology, which has been a consistent theme in my career. I’ve always been interested in lots of different things.

That led to my Master’s work in population biology at UCLA, where again, I liked the math and biology combination. I also got to work in computational linguistics since my advisor had a project on the evolution of language. That was my first real introduction to programming, which was neat. As an undergrad, I’d volunteered in a computer lab because I didn’t really know anything about computers, and I felt like it was something I wanted to learn more about.

After a while, I realized I didn’t want to stay in computational linguistics, so I ended up in the Computation and Neural Systems PhD program at Caltech, where I eventually joined the lab of Dianne Newman and got to work in geomicrobiology. That was great – I got to do both wet lab work and also do bioinformatics work. One really nice aspect was that people in the lab would work together in teams, which I liked because it really represented how science is done – in teams with support structures, and not in solo endeavors.

JL: What came next after your PhD?

TT: After my PhD, I ended up doing a postdoc in biological informatics at Michigan State, where I later worked as a non-tenure-track assistant professor. While I enjoyed the research, I didn’t like the role itself as much. At the same time, I was getting more into bioinformatics and computing, and found myself getting involved with a project called Software Carpentry. There, I got to work on teaching and developing good programming practices for researchers. This eventually spun into me co-founding Data Carpentry. What I really liked was being able to empower other people to do that work that was important to them.

That started my path into the nonprofit space, where I was a founder and then became the director. We then merged with Software Carpentry, into The Carpentries, which I directed. And a year ago I left to become the executive director of Dryad. Throughout my professional life I’ve always maintained an interest in community building, and at The Carpentries and now at Dryad I get to integrate those aspects into my job.

JL: Was your decision to join Dryad motivated by this interest in community, or was it more a matter of realizing on the job that you could utilize these previous skills and interests?

TT: That’s a good question. In some sense, both are linked. I think one thing to think about a future career is: what do you find yourself reading about? For me, I’ve always enjoyed reading about community, leadership, and communication. So, I think I was looking for that, and at the same time trying to develop those skills along the way. One interesting thing is that as I’ve been doing this work, I think the scientific community’s ideas of leadership and management have been changing. Today’s leadership and management styles are much less authoritarian and more collaborative and human-centered. As a director, I get to choose my organization’s style and think about what our important values are. For me, those include efforts like fostering community inclusivity and building good platforms for teaching.

JL: How was your experience transitioning from a scientific researcher role to a role as a leader within a scientific organization?

TT: I saw a quote once which went something like, “I’m not leaving science, I’m just contributing to science in a different way.” I really agree with that sentiment – there’s not just one way to contribute to science. I do want to acknowledge that this transition can be hard, and I feel that people don’t always talk about the loss of identity associated with leaving a research role. For me, I was both excited for my new job and sad to stop doing research. I think for a lot of researchers, one’s identity is very intertwined with research work, projects, and community. Leaving that behind can be hard, no matter how exciting future prospects may be.

JL: What does a typical day look like for you?

TT: As director, I’m constantly doing a lot of different things. For example, in a single day I could be sending invoices, developing a membership program, writing some code to analyze some statistics, doing Twitter communications, or giving a conference presentation. One thing I can say is that there’s never a boring day – there’s always a lot of different things to do. In some way I would say it’s very similar to being at a small startup.

JL: What’s your favorite part of your job?

TT: On a meta-level, it would be supporting people to do their best work by creating structures and systems that people can rely on.

JL: Do you have advice for PhD students who are interested in what possibilities lie beyond graduate school?

TT: My advice would be: when looking at a postdoc or other post-PhD opportunity, ask yourself what skills you’re going to develop, not just what research or other product you’ll create. On a related note, check if your supervisor will be supportive of you learning those things, or if they only care about you producing output. Because you can do both, and that will prepare you well for lots of different future opportunities.

Dr. Tracy Teal is the Executive Director of Dryad, a non-profit organization providing the infrastructure for and promoting a world where research data is openly available and routinely re-used to create knowledge. Before Dryad, she was a co-founder of Data Carpentry and spent 5 years as the Executive Director of Data Carpentry and The Carpentries, creating inclusive training and community to empower researchers to work with data and code. She was an Assistant Professor in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University and holds a PhD in Computation and Neural Systems from California Institute of Technology. Her work centers on democratizing data, bringing people to data and data to people, with the perspective that we can go further together.

Jonathan Liu is a 5th year PhD candidate in the Physics department at UC Berkeley. His research focuses on investigating theories of gene regulation in developing animals through computational analysis of data obtained from live cell imaging. Outside of research, he is an active science writer, having written for QB3-Berkeley and the Berkeley Science Review. He is also co-director of Beyond Academia, a volunteer group that organizes events to encourage trainees to learn about career trajectories beyond the tenure track.

UC Berkeley graduate students and postdocs may register for Tracy Teal’s PIR events here.