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Dec 18
InterView with Cara Haney

Siva Sankari

Siva Sankari is a new assistant investigator at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research. Her research focuses on understanding the mechanism of action of plant peptides on symbiotic bacteria. She is an assistant feature editor for the MPMI journal.

Cara Haney is a recipient of the 2023 IS-MPMI Early Career Achievement Award. Haney is an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, PA. After a very successful journey with her lab at the University of British Columbia, she recently moved her lab to Pitt, which is in her hometown. Her lab works on understanding the genetic factors that regulate the functional outcome of plant–microbe interactions.

I was very excited to interview Cara, mainly because I love her research questions. These were questions that I wondered about when I started working with symbiosis. What determines whether a symbiotic microbe will become a pathogen, mutualist, or commensal? How does a host plant distinguish between beneficial and pathogenic bacteria? Being a new PI myself, I was also interested in knowing more about the nitty gritty things one should know as an early-career scientist. Our Zoom call was more like a fireside chat rather than a formal interview. Following are some important excerpts from our chat.

I was very curious about why she was interested in her research questions and what led her to start asking these questions in her lab. Cara said,

I first developed an interest in plant–microbe interactions as an undergraduate. I was a plant science major, and my academic advisor suggested I take Plant Pathology, which included a lab component. Isolating microbes from plant tissues opened up an entire world for me. After working in a plant pathology research lab, I then did my Ph.D. on rhizobia–legume symbiosis. Over time, I became more and more fascinated with the microbes that just were there—not the devastating pathogens and not the closely co-evolved mutualists. I was fixated on the idea that these microbiota might hold some clues to why pathogens are pathogens and how mutualists first evolved. During my postdoc, I wanted to develop a system that would let me start to ask questions about the origins of symbiosis. As a postdoc in Fred Ausubel's lab, I started working on Arabidopsis–Pseudomonas as a model microbiome system, which became the model system in my own lab. This system has let us answer questions about bacterial lifestyle transitions and how plants distinguish closely related pathogens and mutualists.

I asked her what an early-career scientist should focus on to be successful in their field. She replied,

I don't think there is just one way to be successful in science, and I think a lot of what academia needs is to rethink and broaden our ideas around metrics of success. I would advise early-career scientists to first and foremost define their own metrics of success, as there are a lot of ways to make meaningful and impactful contributions to science. For me, success is mentoring students and postdocs to reach their self-defined career goals and generating data for field-specific publications that advance scientific knowledge.

When asked what would be her advice for postdocs in particular, Cara replied,

It's essential to find a supervisor who is supportive of your personal career goals and who will be a champion for you. I also think postdoctoral positions should be targeted training for a specific end goal; many jobs don't require a postdoc, or just require a short postdoc, and so I always ask trainees what they want out of their training. Finally, I also think many postdocs with goals of securing a faculty position spend too much time in pursuit of a single high-impact paper and forego developing the depth of an independent research program. I think the latter is much more important for long-term success in academia.

There are numerous commitments that come with being a faculty member, especially in the first few years of starting a lab. I asked how she does it all! She said,

An amazing thing about running a research lab is that you're now not alone in answering questions that are of interest to you. But at the same time, it means a lot of people are depending on you to advance their career and research goals. l try and prioritize the things that are rate limiting for people in my lab—whether it is discussing an experiment, sending an email to connect them to a key resource, or editing a manuscript draft. I'm also not someone who is willing to work around the clock, so I allot specific amounts of time for tasks and do what I can in the time I have to give. Sometimes the result is not to the standard I wish it was, but I have learned to accept 'good enough' in many areas of my job. Finally, I've learned to say no. I recently got advice that for everything I say yes to, I need to drop something else. That has been helpful in making sure I can reserve time for the parts of my job I really enjoy, like the science itself and mentorship.

When asked if she faces any additional challenges being a woman in science, Cara replied very calmly,

I have certainly experienced challenges ranging from tokenism to overt sexism. This sometimes results in the rather contradictory internal narrative where I simultaneously feel like I need to be better than my male counterparts to be taken seriously, and at the same time like I've only gotten to where I am because of my gender. Now ,I prioritize academic spaces, interactions, and collaborations where I feel valued for what I bring. And times where I feel I'm being included just because I'm a woman, I remind myself that it doesn't mean I don't belong.

I thoroughly enjoyed this interview. I have followed Cara's scientific work, yet it was a delight to know her as a person. This interview also led to me borrowing some bacterial strains from Cara, which she happily shared. I hope early-career readers take home a few key points from this interview.​

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