Jake Valenzuela, PhD

Jake Valenzuela, PhD

What got you interested in science?

I don’t know why I got interested in science that’s a hard question. I was always curious as a kid; if I was ever watching the TV or something I always gravitated towards nature documentaries. I had a subscription to a journal called Zoobooks that would come in every month and it would be about a different animal. I always found those interesting. I also loved to take things apart, where if something was broken I wanted to figure out why. I am assuming that is where I started, but it is hard to tell.


What was your education process like?

When I went to college I had no idea what I wanted to do. No one had gone to college in my family and I was pretty sure I wanted to go but I didn’t know at first. I got into UC Santa Barbara and my first thought was “Oh, this is pretty cool.” I didn’t take my second quarter of AP Chemistry my senior year of high school, and when the university found out, they withdrew my admission. After, I scramble a bit and found Sacramento State and I went there for a year, and during that time my brother who was in the army was shipped off to Iraq, and I decided that it was better to be with my family. I went to a community college for a year when I moved back. During that time I started thinking about what I was going to do with my time there because had no idea what I was going to do. I wanted to become a veterinarian, maybe a doctor but I didn’t have anyone to tell me what to do. I did really well in community college and from there I went to Cal Poly. I was undeclared when I got there, and it was probably the best decision I ever made because it allowed me to take different classes and courses to understand what they do and what it was all about.

The reason I loved biology was that once I understood the central dogma of microbiology it was almost like an epiphany. It helped me understand evolution, chemistry, and other things made complete sense. So I took the MCATs and was doing interviews at med schools but as I went along, I was going further into debt. I wasn’t very satisfied with doing that because it was almost like I was begging for a spot even though the person next to me was just as good. At the same time I was in a proteomics lab and we were doing research and I enjoyed it, which later gave me an opportunity to go to Montana State and do a fellowship and I thought that it was amazing. I accepted it and when I got there, I was scared, I thought the people there were smarter than me, but once I started realizing that I was just as smart and all I had to do was work harder, there was no problem. And that was when my confidence started building, and I was thinking more about what I wanted to do next.

Mentor Jake with interns Audrey and Laura, and visiting teacher Kyle.

How did you get to the ISB?

When I felt like I was getting done with my PhD, I started looking around for postdocs. I was always aware about ISB because of Lee Hood and how much of an icon he is. I heard him talk a few times, and I always kept ISB as a peripheral of where I wanted to go. I was looking for jobs, and ISB had an opening for a diatom researcher to study ocean acidification. Another thing was that Nitin knew my previous boss, so I thought that it was a really good fit. Later, Nitin sent me an email asking me if I wanted to do an hour-long video presentation at the ISB so they could decide. The email was fast, and I had a week to prepare a presentation that had to be an hour long. I reserved a room in my building for the talk and when the webcam came on, Nitin came in five minutes late, and told me that he had twenty minutes. I gave the talk and only hit the highlights but when I was finished I thought that it went terrible. The next day he had an offer for me. But for a young postdoc like me, it was nerve-wracking to prepare a long presentation and have a short time to readjust to the situation. But it was something that I worked on, and later I started to naturally see this development in myself which was really cool.


How is your work/life balance?

Being a postdoc is a weird position because you do six years of training and then they tell you that you have to do even more training. When I first got my Ph.D., I was being congratulated and one of my mentors shakes my hand and says “Now the real work begins.” I thought I was done with the work and he told me that it only got harder from that point. The work-life balance is tough because there is a lot being put on your plate and you need to get work done. The postdoc is about yourself and it can either make or break your career. It is up to you, whether or not you want to push it. I was averaging about 2 days every month where I would stay up all night just working on something. It is something that you have to think about because if you give too much on one thing the other one starts to go, it’s why they call it a balance.


What is your favorite part about working at the ISB?

The people. That’s an easy one. It’s the people that I work with. Every day is different, there is never the same day which is really fun. It doesn’t get monotonous and allows you to be creative. We are not beholden to stakeholders or shareholders, so there is a certain amount of leeway that allows you to be creative. It also allows you to collaborate with a lot of different people.


Does writing grants take up a lot of time?

Yup. It takes up a lot of time. It depends on how your research goes. For me, I am a research biologist so I have to do a lot of the analysis myself and as a postdoc, I have a lot of roles too. One: I am the experimenter, two: I analyze the data, three: I am a mentor, four: I am a teacher as well, five: I have to get grant funding, and six: I am a program manager and I oversee all my projects. So you take all these things at once, but you’re still called a postdoc. I do every single job that is required as a PI but it is considered training. When we need funding, we are the ones who write a lot of the grants. This is part of the training because when I become a PI, I will be the one doing the writing and getting the funding. You need to be able to switch your focus and redirect very quickly.


Will you ever be done with your training? Why do you want to be a professor?

I felt like I was done with my training a long time ago. But eventually, you start looking for new jobs or a new position. My goal is to become a professor, so I have to find the right opportunity and hopefully I can get there.

I want to be a professor because I like working with students. I think it is fun when I get to see the light bulb in their heads go off. I know that’s cliche but when you see someone go “Oh, yeah, that makes sense” it gets fun. It keeps a lot of things fresh and from a new perspective.


Do you ever regret not becoming a doctor?

Sometimes. If I think about it I would be making a lot more money right now. But not really, I don’t spend time regretting that stuff. A piece of advice that I would give is that you are a different person when you are eighteen when you are twenty-six, and when you’re thirty, so if you try to pinpoint yourself right away, you might not want to do that in four years. So it is important to be universally smart and understand how systems work. It lets you have multiple avenues of success in the end.


Do you have any hobbies?

I like working with wood and making things. I work with a lathe and I make a lot of bowls and bats, things like that. Those are fun because I get to put my headphones on, and zone out while working on wood. I like sports and go outdoors with my dog.


What is a the process of writing papers like?

You usually start with a hypothesis in the beginning. It then leads to creating experiments. So you take many avenues and later it starts coming together, the picture becomes clearer. And usually what happens is that one result leads to another. When you get to the point that you can tell a story, and you have all the facts to tell that story, then you write up the paper. After, it is about deciding what journal you want to send the paper to. You share it with your coauthors to get feedback and decide what to add and remove. The process is a lot of editing to make it better. When we submit the paper, it goes to a journal editor to decide whether or not it is worth their time. If it is approved it means we got their attention, then they go to three reviewers that critique the paper. From the critique, you work on improving it and sending it back in. It is just a process that sometimes goes back and forth many times. In the end, all those things make the paper better.


What do you want to research when you have your own lab?

I see myself as an environmental physiologist, someone who wants to learn fundamental aspects of the environment. Then my other wing would be the application. I want to learn why algae survive in these weird climate shifts, but I also want to discover how we can use them to our advantage. I want to focus on discovering the fundamentals of environmental science, but then also how we can apply that in the outside world.

I envision myself running a moderately sized lab in a university. Too many people in a lab, you don’t give them enough time, too little people and you don’t get things done. A group of eight to twelve individuals with different expertise, you can do a lot more. A few postdocs, grad students, undergrads, master students; get them all in the same room, trust them, let them be creative, and see what they can do.


How does ISB do the application part of research?

You do the research and if you think you’ve got something, we have a whole office of litigators and lawyers that can make the patents and we can either sell a patent or work with a company. For example, if I were to find an alga that is the best to make fuel, I can spin-out a company and start my own. If I were to do that, then the ISB and I would need to work out the legal property that comes with it.


How are you different now than what you thought in high school?

I had no idea. When I went to get my Ph.D. in Montana, I had no friend out there, no family. My parents, siblings, and friends asked “You’re going where? Montana? Have you ever been to Montana?” The thing I was thinking about in high school was that I kind of knew I needed to go to college and get a good job. I didn’t have a real idea of what I wanted to do, and it was hard trying to figure it out. I didn’t have internships or things like that. I knew that I was good at certain things, but I had no idea what I could do with a PhD. I was a  good student, played a lot of sports and had a lot of friends. But it was hard to figure out what to do. I was raised in Visalia, California; a little farm town right in the central valley.


What do you need to do to get to a professorship?

One thing is, tuition for college is going up, but they aren’t making a lot of new colleges to expand the amount of students. If a new position were to open up in microbiology at the UW, for example, I would need to apply and they look for three things. One is your teaching philosophy, and my philosophy is to ask a lot of questions, I don’t what to tell you the answer when it is better to look for it and learn. Two, they ask what your research philosophy is like. I want to do my environmental science and I want to also do my application science. Three is how you are going to bring in money. In universities you actually have to bring in money. For example, if I wanted to do research, they would ask me about how to get grants and collaborations. and 75 percent would be your salary the university would cover but the other 25 percent you would need to bring in on your own. What they are looking for is someone who can do all three of those things, but I think that the main one in a research institute would be proving that you are capable to bring money in. You also need to be able to understand how the generation you are teaching works. Right now, you have access to almost everything through your phone. In order to teach, it is important to address the differences in teaching generations, and once you’re aware of it I think you’ll be a better teacher.

After that, they ask if you will be able to fit into the department and have the ability to collaborate with others. From there, they decide if they want to hire you or not.


Any advice about life in science?

I would say, weigh what you perceive people think of you versus what you want to be. What that means is, if you want to be a scientist, don’t worry about whether you’re going to be able to go out on Fridays with friends instead of going to the lab. You should do what you want to do. There are times where you should study for exams but you need to make a choice between that and going out. It is all about what is best for you in the long run and you end up having more fun doing what you love. My father used to say, “If you do a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Think about what is more important, because ultimately it’s up to you.

Also, talk to professors. If you think someone is cool or would be a cool person to talk to, try to email and get opportunities working with them if you can. The tendency is to think that they are really busy, but that is not the case. If you show the initiative that you’re interested in something, we always respond.