preLights talks to Amanda Haage

31 August 2021

Amanda Haage is an Assistant Professor at the University of North Dakota, where she is on the education scholar track, combining her own research program with an emphasis on undergraduate teaching. She did her PhD at Iowa State University before moving to the University of British Columbia for a postdoc. Her research focuses on the microenvironment regulation of neural crest cells, but she is also passionate about the culture of science and science education. She joined the preLights community when it was launched and authored the very first preLights post on the website. We spoke to Amanda about her research, academic culture and how we can make science more inclusive and accessible.

Can you tell us why you initially decided to pursue a science degree?

To be honest, it was almost a default that I ended up studying science! I’m a first-generation college student, and to my pre-teen mind the most professional and successful woman I knew was my high school biology teacher. I think having her as a role model drew me into pursuing something in science; she was a great teacher and really encouraging.

I ended up doing my undergraduate at Wartburg College, Iowa as a dual major in secondary science education and biology for the first three years. For my senior year I switched to a full year of O-CHEM (organic chemistry) with the aim of getting into graduate school.

You went to graduate school at Iowa State – what did your PhD focus on?

I joined quite a small interdisciplinary programme in molecular, cellular and developmental biology, which came with quite a range of classes. I ended up joining a lab in the department of chemical and biological engineering, under the supervision of Dr Ian Schneider. The lab had a slant towards tissue engineering, cancer biology, but also mechanical biology and microfluidics, so the project I started on was to design a FRET-based sensor for matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) activity based on quantum dots instead of the usual fluorescent dyes. I am not an engineer, so we were collaborating with an engineer in the department who was making the quantum dots, and I was involved more in the cell testing side. My first paper came from this project but in the end I switched to a commercially available sensor to investigate the link between MMP activity and cellular contractility. The classic Dennis Discher paper, where he showed that stem cells can differentiate based on stiffness alone, had come out when I graduated high school, so that was really informing where cancer biology was at that point.

I had a great mentor during my PhD, and I ended up doing it in four years which is really quick for the traditional US graduate programme – and not something I’d necessarily recommend. The nice part about my project was that if I used fast-growing cells, it was down to how much time I put in. I didn’t sleep for a while, but it was not a bad environment by any means.

Your current role has a big teaching component. How much teaching experience did you gain during graduate school?

Yes, I was a teaching assistant (TA) for a full year, and I also gained a graduate student teaching certificate as a kind of minor alongside my research. I took extra graduate level education classes and lectured for a whole undergraduate cell biology unit alongside the traditional TA experience. With the switch from doing high school teaching in my undergraduate degree to research at graduate school I was always looking to come back to a teaching-focused higher education position. I knew I wanted to work in a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI) or an undergraduate-focused university; that idea was clear to me for a long time.

For your postdoc you moved to the University of British Columbia. What was your focus there?

There were a couple of things I wanted from a postdoc. Specifically, I knew I wanted to complement my PhD experience of in vitro cancer cell culture by working on an in vivo organism. I was working on contractility and some cell migration, but I wanted to get to the other side of the science and move into environmental sensing. Dr Guy Tanentzapf’s lab really fit the bill for me – he’s well known for his work on integrins and receptors and he ran a fly lab. I applied thinking I was going to do flies, but he had a whole mouse project ready for someone to start, so I ended up going straight into mice!

That experience was definitely a learning curve and setting up a mouse lab inside a fly lab was hard. But I’ve found that it meant I did a lot of the new PI processes early on. There were no protocols for me to start with, but now I have all of the new set up procedures and protocols that I wrote as a postdoc, and all of the experience that comes with that, too. It was great to learn how to be independent and start my own projects as a postdoc.

And as you mentioned, you’re a new PI now at the University of North Dakota (UND). How has that experience been so far?

Yes, I started in May 2019, and I’m on the education scholar track, which means I’m 60% teaching and 40% research: the reverse of most research-focused faculty. I surprised myself ending up at UND. The other schools I interviewed at were smaller, private, undergraduate only type institutions, but UND is very much in-between research and a teaching focus, and I really liked that when I interviewed here. I have the opportunity to mentor a few graduate students at one time as opposed to a giant multi-student and multi-postdoc lab, and I like that I can do that whilst still retaining a teaching focus. There’s also a lot of flexibility, and if I wanted to pursue a bigger research grant, I’d have the support and the resources to do so. I can go between research and teaching and there’s a spectrum of places I can take that with my career.

How has the pandemic impacted establishing your lab?

When I was originally hired my focus was to redesign our large enrolment undergraduate anatomy and physiology classes. The understanding was that the big course redesign was my main objective, and establishing the lab was on the backburner for a little while until those classes were up and running. I think I’d just acquired a cell culture hood and other equipment when the pandemic hit, so I knew they wouldn’t end up being touched for a while!

The nice thing about UND is that it’s a little bit smaller, so it’s probably a bit easier to maintain Covid safety guidelines than at a large, research dense institution. I also chose to do asynchronous teaching instead of Zoom classes when we were mainly online, because Zoom teaching is not fun. Some people can do it really well, but I found talking to rows of black squares really tough.

You led a paper based on an analysis of the academic job market for prospective PIs, which makes for very interesting reading. What led you to do this and how did it correlate with your own job application experience?

That was a really interesting process. I started that project when I was on the job market, and I was heavily involved in a future PI Slack group at the time. We were doing our own anonymised internal tracking spreadsheet, because it’s well-known that in most cases you won’t hear back from a university when you apply for a faculty position, and there’s not a lot of transparency about the interview process. From there we launched a more formalised survey, by which point I had already accepted my position at UND.

Interestingly, when I did look back at the survey results, I realised my own CV is actually right around the average of a lot of those benchmarks. I know a lot of articles have picked up on various aspects of the paper, but what’s clear to me is that the [faculty] interview itself and the ability to be part of the department is key. It’s easier to look at measurable metrics like the impact factors of journals you’ve published in, or how much funding you’ve been awarded, but I think aspects of interviewing are perhaps undersold. Of course, it also depends on where you’re applying, and a lot of the information that is available in the US is geared towards R1 universities (research-focused). A little pet project of mine is to think about the different types of universities and how you might apply to those accordingly.

I was happy to read in that paper that a preprint record is generally viewed favourably by hiring committees. Do you think there’s still a way to go in making preprints an established part of academic culture?

I’ve always been involved in things like preLights, academic twitter, and the greater culture of research. I love North Dakota, but when I moved here, no one was talking about preprints. I think that although in our Twitter culture it can feel pervasive, and that people are talking about it all the time, there are still large pockets of people going about things they way they’ve always been done. That conversation might seem to be super widespread, but I think it is still limited and field-specific. It’s interesting to see what’s happened already in biology, and I hope eventually it will be like a domino effect – we’ll all fall for preprints eventually!

Using teaching as a way of making science more accessible is obviously something that’s important to you. I also noticed that your Twitter bio says you’re a ‘real person’. I feel this links into science accessibility and showing that scientists are indeed real people you can communicate with! How do you think we can do this better in the future?

In general, you can’t be what you can’t see. The perception of what we think a scientist looks like meant that I always thought I needed to be a teacher – that’s what a young woman interested in science did. I didn’t see that there was a way for me to be a scientist or a researcher. Granted, I really like teaching and that’s partly where I’ve ended up, but I never imagined myself being in a white coat, doing microscopy or all the things I do now. I don’t even think that’s just based in gender perception, there’s also an element of class. The ivory tower has a reputation for being elitist and unattainable, and I’m a first-generation college student. My Twitter feed is the full range: dog pictures, smoking meats, video games, and science. I don’t believe in separation or a professional view of what a scientists should be – these are the things I’m doing, and science is a part of that.

You were the author of our first ever preLights post! What inspired you to get involved?

That’s an interesting story. I remember it was February 2018, and I was writing my research plan for job applications. This preprint focused on the migration of neural crest cells, and I wanted to use their protocol in my own work. I was reading it at the time so I thought it would be good to do a little write up of it for my own use too. I’ve always taken notes when I read articles, and I’ve grown to like writing too. I was really excited to be part of preLights; it helps me stay on track with reading and with the field, so it’s kind of a win-win.

Lastly – what do you think the main benefits of preprints are for early-career researchers?

Just getting your work out there – speed is a huge one! Having that work there to be evaluated anytime you have grant applications, job applications, all of those things. It’s also a larger piece of culture. Changes in science should be transparent, and we should be talking about having a collaborative environment instead of a competitive one. For me, preprints provide another layer of transparency and to science in general -and I think that helps us all.