Interview with Dr. Kennan Salinero, about her discovery, her non-profit and her TEDx activities
500 Poppies is taking off pretty well, and I am excited about that. I am a member of the leadership team at the San Francisco / Northern California pod of 500 Women Scientists (read my introductory post here). Find us in twitter (@500WS_SFBay) and Facebook.
For today’s post, I have interviewed Dr. Kennan Salinero over email since August. She is a scientist and the lead co-founder of the non-profit ReImagine Science. You will realize reading through her interview below that she is a powerhouse of activities, juggling so many things from research, to being an executive director of an organization, to seeking out ‘new thinkers’ as a part of her job. How cool is that!
We get to read about her extensive work for TEDx events. You will get a feel of behind-the-scenes of TEDx and the round-the-clock hard work that it involves.
She intermittently continues with her research on novel inheritance patterns in bacterial genomes — a discovery she made during her past research on Bacterial Genomic Data. She wishes for more time for this.
Salinero’s thoughts are deeply philosophical on issues of science and society. She talks about her past research as a faculty in Georgetown University, her research at UC Berkeley, then about her co-founding of non-profit organization ReImagine Science in 2008. That’s 11 years of leading an organization!
We also get to read about her deeply personal loss leading to her single parenting, and why she left the academic world behind. Her story and scientific journey is one of inspiration — and is deeply contemplative at every step.
She poignantly points us to her organization’s recent newsletter where she has written about her #MeTooSTEM experience in academia, experiencing misuse of power and how the system is failing to support our women scientists within academia. Here’s a screenshot from the newsletter article (reproduced with permission):
So here’s Dr. Salinero’s interview.
Q1. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.
I am a traditionally trained biochemist. My PhD is in chemistry (biochemistry focus), and my thesis work was the determination of the disulfide bonds, and also carbohydrate linkages, in the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor. I moved into cell biology for my post-doctoral studies, as I was fascinated with the question of how proteins are exported across the rough endoplasmic reticulum, which is a considerable challenge to physics (its controlled and ‘gated,’ but must accommodate the huge array of varying biophysical properties — basically, all of the diversity of amino acid polypeptide sequences that pass through for all membrane and secreted proteins). I left a faculty position in the chemistry department at Georgetown University after the unexpected death of my husband. I found that particular environment did not have the necessary supports for a single mother dealing with all of the needs of grieving children who had lost their father, just as I had lost my life partner. I was very lucky to immediately get a job with Celera Genomics (via a message from a recruiter on my voice mail, when I hadn’t even applied for the job). I worked as a scientific specialist explaining the highly controversial, but ultimately highly effective, whole genome shotgun sequencing methodology they used for sequencing the human genome. The job opened my eyes to two things: that, though I was on 30% travel, I had more time with my kids than I had as a faculty member at Georgetown. And though my role was not inherently research-based (though I did get to do beta testing of platforms and data analyses), I was able to spend more clear-headed time thinking about, and in specific ways contributing to, basic questions in science than I had as an over-worked faculty member with a research lab of my own.
Celera had moved me to the West Coast (where I had initially met my late husband, so we had a community here), and then shut down much of the company once the human genome was completed. I was delighted to get a position at UC Berkeley and the Joint Genome Institute, completing and annotating the genome of a soil microbe. I loved the science, and the opportunity to bring the sophisticated tools I’d learned about at Celera to a genome project I could do hands-on for myself (soil microbes have much smaller genomes than higher vertebrates such as homo sapiens!). But I did not love the misdirection of energy and lack of ethical behavior I found in the academic setting I was in. This turned out to be a recurring experience for me, at more than one academic institution I have worked at — and I have since learned that I do not seem to be unique in this experience.
It’s for that reason, and the realization that we would not be able to figure out the many complex issues facing humanity if we did not learn to collaborate, that I recruited Florence Davidson, Connie Mays, Richard Stafford and Linda Jean Shepherd to found ReImagine Science with me. We were called ‘Yámana Science and Technology’ when we initially incorporated. I discovered the word Yámana from Paul Hawkens’ book Blessed Unrest about the rise of the non-profit sector. Yámana means ‘highest form of living, life, to be alive.’ Somewhat painfully, I learned later that the Yámana tribe still has living members, and use of the name might be a form of cultural appropriation. After much deliberation, we chose a new name — the one we now have. Our current name ‘ReImagine Science’ was the genius of Dan Shoenfeld, a much-beloved team member who passed away at a young age due to unexpected heart failure, but who left us with years of his great wit, wisdom, and amazing work capability and tech know-how (all as a volunteer!).
At ReImagine Science we convene various stakeholders to explore new ways of doing work (many of them from the tech and engineering sector), to create the conditions for a paradigm change in how we ‘do’ science.
Q2. You are one of the founders of ReImagine Science which is a non-profit organization. Tell us a little bit about what the organization does and the community that you have built.
We began with Science ‘UnSummits’ that were the think-tank part of the USA Science and Engineering Festival, the brainchild of Larry Bock. I notice a theme here — Larry passed away shortly after Dan died — but he left a huge legacy from his enthusiasm not only for starting up large biotech companies (according to Wikipedia Larry was involved in financing or starting up more than 50 companies in the life sciences, with a combined value exceeding $70 billion) but also a love of science. Larry felt that if we celebrated science as much as we do rock stars and sports figures, we would attract more kids to it. He felt there was a dearth of good applicants for the bench-science positions at his many companies. Yet another enigma in the systems of science…. ReImagine Science is very focused on the surplus of PhD scientists! What a difference a PhD makes. And not in the way expected.
We’ve built a very large network of individuals from across many parts of the scientific world — the various scientific organizations (NSF, NIH, AAAS, etc), several top research institutions (Stanford, UCSF, SUNY, University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, to name a handful), but just as much in the systems-change community, and additionally our real seed-corn, the tech sector. We believe that the tech and engineering sector somehow figured out, before we have in science, that diverse, high-performing teams are good for the bottom line. I suspect it is because the feed-back loop is a bit tighter in the software and engineering worlds, vs complex areas like cancer research; in the technology arena, the advantages of true ‘teaming’ seem to be more visible.
We have been learning-by-doing, discovering key insights and developing strong relationships.
We also have a penchant for the TED and TEDx stage, as it outperforms any other venue we know of for spreading ideas and information that can change people’s lives via ‘aha!’ moments of clear insight. I think the clear narrative format helps people who hope to see their way forward in areas they’ve been grappling with. Uri Alon is a systems biologist, in fact, who gives a TED talk about ‘being in the cloud’ (wandering in the unknown) as a prerequisite to get to deeper, more impactful insights. Uri is one of the contacts in our network, and even gave me a letter of recommendation for my participation in TEDActive in 2015.
We’ve hosted several TEDx events (both in Livermore, CA and salon events in the Crescent Park area of Palo Alto, CA), and are currently exploring questions on how to distinguish science from pseudo-science with the TEDx community. It is a key question in this time when hard-core science is identifying issues with reproducibility and uncertainty at the core of ‘pure’ domains such as physics and math, not to mention pharmaceutical trials. I also believe that some areas currently labeled ‘pseudo science’ are only missing the sanctioning from the scientific community, and new ways of assessing and measuring, to be made ‘real.’
Our work can be completely encompassed in the elegant, though complex, theories of Nicholas Maxwell (philosopher of science and author From Knowledge to Wisdom, along with many other books). Basically, in my reading of his work and some brief discussions with him, he sees that we need to take a step back from believing the universe to be both comprehensible and homogeneous, a priori believing that the universe follows simple rules of physics. He suggests we study nature and the universe as if it were comprehensible, but allow that it may not be. This allows us to see and register (and keep) non-conforming data, which current studies in cognition have shown to be at risk of being ignored, for the convenience of comprehension. John Ioannides (Stanford University) has unpacked how the convenient ignoring of inconvenient data has led to the so-called reproducibility crisis in the pharmaceutical community.
The other construct in Nicholas’s assertions pertains to the future of humanity itself. Starting with his first edition of ‘From Knowledge to Wisdom,’ Nicholas saw an unraveling of our natural systems back in the 80s, identifying such things as the impending crisis of rising CO2 levels, among many other issues, as requiring an upgrade in our quotient of wisdom vs just knowledge. He posits that a scientific community that behaves as if science is a disinterested and non-biased arbiter of truth, without considering values, is dangerous. In spite of our beautiful experimental designs and hypothesis-driven research methodologies, in an ironic version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, we ARE part of the system. From the get-go, what we study is driven by what we think is important, our preconceived notions (e.g. where the very hypotheses come from), and our values. If we do not recognize and honor this — our being very much part of the design of the questions themselves, and what we are questioning — then much danger ensues. What we learn and invent can be put to nefarious purpose as our desires to make the world a better place may be high-jacked. I believe this is evident right now, in some places.
Q3. What does your average day look like?
My days vary quite a bit, which is something I like very much, since I am like most scientists — very inquisitive and curious. I like variety. My work is very project-driven. In our early days, I was immersed in both networking and putting on conferences in a way that was exhausting and immersive. I still do both, but I am currently doing less of the convening work (which can be very demanding). However, I have noticed something very interesting. When I am the one making the decisions about my time in a way that is driven by the needs of the actual project, I don’t mind working around the clock when needed (I only do this when the project demands it). They say that you are likely your own worst boss. But being my own boss makes my work more organic, and I think more responsive to what I have decided are the actual logical needs of the project. So I don’t mind. But since I’ve been in this business for 11 + years now, I notice I wait longer between big projects, and I network more with other groups so I don’t have to carry the weight as much myself. And, my children are now grown, so that makes a big difference (I am delighted, and partly surprised, that both of them have ended up in some domain of science and/or scientific education).
My days can look a lot like when I was a faculty member, in that I am checking emails, sitting on grant review panels, participating in conferences for scientific organizations (veering much more toward new ones on the scene, like the Science of Team Science and Advancing & Evaluating the Societal Impact of Science — both of which legally formalized their organizational structures just this past year), and publishing (very rarely!). However, the majority of my time is spent seeking out those ‘new thinkers’ that have been experimenting with novel models for getting work done, evaluating the results, and bootstrapping as they go.
Q4. Tell us more about your transition experience from the academic world to the startup world.
Paradoxically, it was both abrupt and the proverbial frog in the pot of heated water. The abruptness came with the clean break from my last research-based position at UC Berkeley and stepping full-time into being the lead founder of a non-profit. The frogness comes from me not believing nor accepting that I have left basic research ‘forever.’ I’ve done research (in Finland, and via various accesses to large data processing) since I founded ReImagine Science, and I imagine a future where I will bring my current research interests to fruition. But the ReImagine Science work is very compelling, and sits squarely on my schedule most days/weeks/even years. The research, btw, is a novel inheritance pattern in bacterial genomes, which I believe is core to stochastic evolutionary events, and which I discovered when doing Hidden Markov Models on bacterial genomic data.
Q5. Have you faced any hardship or problems in your career as a female scientist that you would like to share?
Huh. Yes. Do I need to say more? (I did, recently, writing about #MeTooSTEM in our Summer 2019 newsletter).
Q6. Do you want to spread the word about any cause or upcoming/recent-past events to our reader community?
We are currently recruiting leaders from the scientific community who are interested in joining a leadership/good citizenship learning cohort. Bringing together leaders with specific expertise from across the tech and change-agent sectors, this cohort will be creating a training program that can subsequently be leveraged and evolved to train our next generations of scientists at the future-leader stage (PhD and postdoctoral scholars). Anne Heberger Marino, a lead program manager and the evaluator for the recently sunsetted NAFK program, has just completed a review of a wide range of leadership and entrepreneurial training offerings in academia. We are using this comparative list to help us develop our unique offering. We are also looking for scientists interested in vetting proposed TEDx talks, to help in the evaluation of proposed talks with scientific subject matter. Last, but most important, we are hoping to influence science policy by staging Third Space events to make visible the crises in the life sciences for PhD awardees (the lack of suitable employment, to be specific). We believe that giving visibility to the problem will create the pressure needed to spark courage to lead through policy change.
Q7. If you have one piece of advice for the budding scientists, what would that be?
Know that you have value — and so does the rest of humanity. Quoting her own book, Dare to Lead, Brene Brown has recently tweeted “Do not shrink. Do not puff up.” Stand your sacred ground.
Know that your curiosity is a gift. It doesn’t make you better than others, but likewise it shouldn’t make you question your own value. When you need encouragement, or even vision, look out at how amazing and wonderful our universe is, and how lucky you are to be able to study it. Don’t let anyone dominate you, and don’t dominate others (it takes self-awareness to be able to approach that goal — I work on it for myself, and likely will to the end of my days).
Q8. And the last question. What do you consider to be your greatest-great achievement within the last one year?
There were two. I hosted a Discovery Session at TEDSummit in Edinburgh Scotland in July. I put a lot into the 90 min experiential workshop I led, exploring the line between science and pseudoscience. We used the methodology of Social Presencing Theater 4D mapping (something similar to improv and group inquiry). The participants were very involved, and the result was very interesting to me, and I had hoped, to them as well. But I pushed the envelope too far, from the feedback I received. The other was a Third Space event at Stanford [in March], hosted by the Complexity group, where I co-presented with an expert in self-management in business (Doug Kirkpatrick). We explored the underlying principles for the company he co-founded, which has been run as a ‘flat’ organization without bosses for over three decades, vs the hierarchy that is present in academia. That conversation dove deeply into ethics and what drives individual decisions, the structural/systemic reward systems and the culture that drives those decisions.
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This interview was lightly edited for clarity.
Dr. Promita Chakraborty is the founding editor of 500 Poppies. She is a scientist and founder. Find her on twitter.