Yael David, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the Chemical Biology Program at the Sloan Kettering Institute (SKI), where she specializes in Epigenetics research. Outside of science, Yael spends time with her family and friends, enjoying the cultural diversity NYC has to offer.
Yael grew up in Israel. She and her family often lived in air force bases since her father was a combat pilot in the Israeli Air Force. Despite its geographic and cultural difference from New York City, Yael finds that the Upper East Side actually reminds her of the army neighborhoods that she grew up in due to its palpable “sense of community”.
What’s your favorite thing about being a scientist? Did you always want to be a scientist?
“I love being a scientist and I wanted to be one very early in life. As a child, I immersed myself in reading fiction, but was always drawn to books that were intellectual puzzles. When I was in high school, I was lucky enough to have an incredible science teacher, who made me fall in love with science by demonstrating the elegance of biological processes, and the puzzle-like challenges they presented. Throughout my career, I continued being fortunate to have inspiring scientific mentors, who showed me, through their lenses, the beauty of science and the satisfaction in taming it. A major turning point was my transition to a postdoctoral training with Prof. Tom Muir, who taught me the power of interdisciplinary research. Having very little background in Chemistry, Tom and the chemists in the lab patiently taught me how to approach biological questions using chemical perspectives and tools. I fell in love with chemical biology and it is at the heart of the work in my lab – applying it towards understanding fundamental events related to regulation of transcription in human cells. I was recently interviewing students for the graduate program and came across a candidate who defined science as a “love letter to humanity” and it really resonated with me. I definitely try to provide my students with the same experience, demonstrating to them that science is something you do with passion and because “curiosity demands”.”
I still need to pinch myself every once in a while, to check that this is not all just a dream- that I do have my own lab, in one of the best institutes in the world, filled with an incredibly dedicated group of people, all doing science we are deeply passionate about, advancing basic knowledge, as well as benefiting cancer patients.
Can you think of a specific time when you found science or pursuing science challenging?
“Science is always challenging and that is the best part of it. The challenges keep every day interesting and exciting and us, on our toes. To me, the hardest thing about being a scientist is dealing with disappointment and rejection. It could be a paper, grant, fellowship or an award you didn’t get, which makes it easy to feel like you are failing. But with so many amazing people doing really great science out there, the competition is stiff and even if you do well, you can’t win them all. As a way to deal with this challenge, very early in my academic career I came up with the “one day rule”. Whenever I get a rejection, I allow myself to feel bad, which validates my feelings – it’s ok to be disappointed, but only for one day. Having a defined time frame prevents it from spiraling to non-productive negative avenues and a pity fest. The next morning, no matter what, I have to put the disappointment aside, learn whatever lesson needed to be learned and move on. My PhD advisor used to say – “it’s ok to be down, just bring something with you on the way up”. I also apply my “one day rule” on successes- I think that those are good to be celebrated for one day only too, and then back to work.”
If you could give one piece of advice to young scientists or students, what would it be?
“My advice for young scientists is to follow your passion and dream big. Swing for the fences. Dare. We live in a time where technological leaps enable us to ask brave and complex questions, so pursue those! And if the technology doesn’t exist – develop it! If you only stick to what you know, you will never make a breakthrough. My other advice would be to remember that being a scientist is no longer just working at the bench. It means being part of a community. A community to collaborate with, share your ideas and technologies with, to stimulate discussion. Go out there and be part of that community – meet with seminar speakers, travel to conferences when possible, join twitter, write your scientific idols and meet with them for coffee. Everyone loves talking about their science! My last advice, is find people that will inspire and mentor you both professionally and personally. Choose people that followed a path you aspire to take – they will understand what you need to do best. Choose people that are role models to learn from. And most importantly, choose people you genuinely personally like, that in time will become advocates and friends. There are no roadmaps for scientific success and there are many ways to get where you want to go. But a mentor by your side will help push you forward towards your goals.”
If you hadn’t pursued science, what would you have done instead?
“When I was young, I thought I was going to be a writer. In many ways, being exposed to written masterpieces inspired me and transcended me to exciting times and places where I met incredible characters. Being able to touch people using characters on paper is fascinating to me. While as a very practical person I abandoned the romantic idea of being a writer (although as a scientist I find myself using writing daily!), this is definitely something I could see myself doing later on in life.”