Why This Scientist Shares Vulnerable Career Moments
Dr. Rachel Lupien, a paleoclimatologist at Aarhus University, makes it a point to be honest about the challenges she runs into at work. She hopes that other scientists can learn from them. So last year, when a paper she wrote was rejected from journals five times, she tweeted about the experience.
This paper was… a lot [*rejected at 5 journals*]. I am v grateful for the most supportive coauthors #jim @GeochemEm @UMassBiogeochem @asfish2010 @FoersterVerena @henryflamb @HelenRobertsOSL @FSchaeb @MartinHTrauth @Cat_Beck Craig Feibel + Andy Cohen
50th paper of @HSPDPinfo!
— Rachel Lupien (@loopdlupien) February 24, 2022
While the responses ranged from supportive replies to harsh emails, Rachel says that it feels good to talk about professional headaches with peers who understand. Digital producer Emma Gometz interviews Rachel about why it’s important to be honest about setbacks as a scientist, and how transparency helps all professional scientists do better work.
Read more personal stories from scientists, including Rachel’s experience working as a paleoclimatologist across the world, and building mentorship networks of her own, on SciFri’s six-week automated newsletter, “Sincerely, Science.”
IRA FLATOW: We all love learning about cool science discoveries. That’s why we do this show, right? And some of my favorite stories are about the scientists behind the research. And as many of our guests have told us, it’s not always so easy. You don’t always find what you’re looking for. And that big discovery, well, it might just be hidden under a pile of little failures.
But failure can also be motivational. SciFri digital producer Emma Gometz spoke with six scientists, who shared their proudest accomplishments and some spectacular flops, all published in a limited run newsletter, called Sincerely Science. And today, she brings us a story of transparency from one of those scientists, Dr. Rachel Lupien.
EMMA LEE GOMETZ: Dr. Rachel Lupien is an assistant professor of geoscience at Aarhus University in Denmark. But before that she was an undergrad, PhD student, and postdoctoral researcher, building mentorship networks and learning from her peers.
Now that she’s a professor, Rachel makes it a point to be honest about the challenges she still runs into. She hopes that other scientists can learn from them. That includes sharing a story that she admits was pretty embarrassing at the time. It starts when she and her team were looking to publish their findings about a sudden climate shift in East Africa a couple of hundred thousand years ago. It’s the kind of research, she says, is important to understand early human evolution, adaptation, and dispersal.
RACHEL LUPIEN: Paleoclimatology is the study of climate in the past. It’s just a fancy word for that. So that could be in the past 100 years. It could be in the past 1,000 years. It could be in the past 1 billion years. So I typically study paleoclimate over the last maybe few millions of years. That’s the sort of timescale that I’m thinking about. And most of my work has been to reconstruct the past climate of Africa– in this paper, specifically East Africa.
A lot of my work is motivated by understanding how climate drove and influenced hominin evolution. So our early human ancestors were certainly influenced by the environments and the climates that they were living in. And so I’m bringing that climate– that paleoclimate– perspective to reconstruct what their world may have looked like in different areas and at different time periods.
EMMA LEE GOMETZ: You told me that this paper, before it was published, was actually rejected from five journals.
So talk to me about what that was like and why these things happen.
RACHEL LUPIEN: Oh, yeah. Well, yes, it did. It is now finally published in its sixth journal. And it brings back some tough memories. But it went through review at a fairly high-impact journal and did OK there, but ultimately got rejected, and then what we call desk reject, where the editor just doesn’t even send it out for review. That happened a few times afterwards. And we were just going down and down in the impact of journals.
And I think it was especially tough because it was with such a big team, it was such a group effort, this specific paper. Because we were drawing on data and locations from a few different projects, so there were a lot of people involved. So every single time this happened, I had to be the one– the lead author– I had to be the one to email everyone and say, unfortunately, this time, it was once again rejected. But I think it’s really important to show that it happens all the time.
EMMA LEE GOMETZ: And so that’s a perfect transition to my next question, which was you shared that information on Twitter. So why did you decide to do that?
RACHEL LUPIEN: Yeah. I mean, yeah, that’s a good question.
Do I regret it? No, I’m just kidding. [CHUCKLES] I shared it on Twitter mainly because– well, first of all, I like to share. And a lot of people do this now– a few tweets per publication– to share the findings, the figures, that you worked too many, many hours on using social media to share your scientific conclusions. But then, yeah, at the end of this Twitter thread I put what happened.
And I felt especially confident doing that because I, again, believe in the rigor of this study. But I thought it was super important to share. A lot of people in my career stage– I’m a first-year assistant professor; I was a postdoc at the time that this happened– it’s a really sensitive time. You’re starting to write proposals. You’re trying to get these papers out. And there’s a lot of good news shared online, people accepting jobs and things like that. But it really is important to keep in mind that this happens to everyone.
And so I think, when you understand that this happens all the time and it’s not just, you, then it helps you that much more to persevere and continue on your path.
EMMA LEE GOMETZ: Yeah, that’s really important. And so what was the response to that tweet like?
RACHEL LUPIEN: It was generally really positive. I actually had a friend, who’s a teacher at a small liberal arts college, use that thread as an example of science communication and that sort of thing. People also commented on it publicly on Twitter, saying that that’s happened to them, which was really nice.
I did have some negative consequences from it, things probably that wouldn’t have been shared publicly. But I received an email from someone who didn’t agree with the study and had a long history of work in the region, so is quite knowledgeable about the study and everything. That was a little tough to handle– just a typical consequence, I think, of putting yourself out there.
EMMA LEE GOMETZ: Yeah, totally. And so to you, what are the benefits of being transparent about the full process– like the rejections and also when you get accepted– that full process of making science?
RACHEL LUPIEN: Yeah. I mean, I like to think that I’m a confident person. I’m a particularly privileged person in my background and in my position now as an assistant professor. So on paper, I have a good CV. I did a postdoc. I got that permanent position that a lot of people are after. And so I felt like I could take one for the team. I could put myself out there, show a weakness, or a failure if you will.
Everyone says that rejection is a part of the job, but it doesn’t make it easier to experience. It makes you feel like crap. It makes you feel like you aren’t smart enough, that you don’t belong in the field, in the position, that people have put trust in you that perhaps they shouldn’t have. But that is so false, especially because everyone feels like that at a given time.
So I think the further along in your career, the better you are at coping with it. Because you learn how you are able to– what makes the most sense for you in terms of how to deal with the feeling. So for instance, when I get a paper rejection, I open the email and I don’t even read the reviews until the next day– until I’m ready for that. So that’s something that puts a little bit of space between me and the initial reaction. So that’s a good way of coping with it.
I mean, really, talking about it, it makes me feel better. And I think it makes other people feel better as well.
EMMA LEE GOMETZ: Thank you so much, Rachel. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
RACHEL LUPIEN: Yeah, thanks so much, Emma.
IRA FLATOW: Thanks to SciFri’s Emma Gometz for bringing us that story. And you can subscribe to Sincerely Science newsletter– yes– and read how telling scientists’ stories can improve the way we do science. You can do that by heading over to sciencefriday.com/sincerelyscience, sciencefriday.com/sincerelyscience.