Justin Brumbaugh earned a PhD in Biochemistry in 2011, working in the labs of Joshua Coon and Morgridge Institute for Research Investigator James Thomson. He then worked as a postdoc in Boston at Massachusetts General Hospital, building upon the research he had done at UW–Madison and learning new skills. He is now an assistant professor in Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, where the Brumbaugh Lab opened in January 2019. There, Brumbaugh and his team apply stem cell biology to explore fundamental aspects of biology, development, and regenerative medicine.
What is a typical day in the life like as an assistant professor starting a lab?
It’s way more fun than I expected. When you’re starting out, you have a little less pressure and it allows you to tackle projects that you found interesting but never had a chance to pursue. You’re building the lab from the foundation up, exactly the way you want.
The other aspect that I enjoy is building a team of my own. There’s something really thrilling about seeing your name on a lab. It’s also fun to have a voice in some of the decisions within the department and having some influence there, which is very different from a role as a postdoc or graduate student.
What do you like about being an assistant professor? What is challenging?
My favorite part is the interaction with my team. Watching people do science and succeed is a lot of fun.
The challenging part is management. As a graduate student and a postdoc you don’t necessarily have training in things like finances, conflict resolution, or teaching. You’re good at organizing multiple tasks and working through stressful situations but balancing those practical responsibilities is a little more challenging.
What skills from graduate school are the most useful to you in this job?
The biggest thing is independence. In grad school, my mentors were very good about giving me that independence, letting me pursue questions and ideas. I think that was really productive then and it’s really helpful now. The other thing I have found helpful is experience with scientific writing. Being able to write grants, compliance documents, and papers makes it much easier now as I’m trying to start my own lab.
Overall, I feel that the most important skill that I gained in graduate school is a thought process. As an undergraduate, I remember watching my advisor work through scientific questions in her head, and that was impressive to me. That laid the foundation for me in graduate school where I tried to adopt the problem-solving skills my mentors used when they worked through a project.
What kinds of things did you do as a student that you believe made you competitive as a job candidate?
Being able to think critically and find a way to move forward with difficult projects is a huge part of the job and that was a skill that I definitely learned in graduate school. Hard skills and lab techniques – all of those things were important and gave me that ability to do the work I needed to do. All of those practices positioned me to set up my lab with the types of techniques and skills that will help us explore the questions we want to understand.
What advice do you have for current graduate students interested in this career path?
Do something you find cool.
That was my first lesson in graduate school. I walked into one of my advisors’ offices to discuss a spot in the lab, and he said to me “Why are you here?” I think I came up with something like, “Oh, your lab’s really great.” And he said, “No. Why are you here?” The real answer was that science is cool. That was the key to him and it was the truth for me, even if I didn’t articulate it immediately. In the end, to get through graduate school, to get through the things that follow graduate school, you have to have that perspective – science is really exciting and fun to do, and that’s why I want to be here.