“When I Was in Grad School…” with Asa Gustafsson

By Kanaga Arul Nambi Rajan

Asa Gustafsson – associate professor at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy, cardiovascular researcher, BMS alum, current co-chair of BMS and…retired ski bum? Indeed. Asa’s journey to her current position is one that even she never expected.

From the snow to the sun

Growing up in Sweden, Asa did not necessary see herself pursuing science as a career. Her original plan was to go into business, so she specialized in economics in high school. After completing high school, as is common in Europe, Asa decided to take time off to travel. In her own words, this led her to two years spent as a ski bum. “I actually decided I was going to become a ski bum and I went down to Austria and got myself a job at a ski resort working in a bar. So I would ski all day and then work at night and so I spent all winter in a ski resort…” In between, she spent a summer in Greece. After two years of travel, she was ready to go back to school. Her plan was to go to the United States and study business.

“I came here because I had some friends who were living in San Diego and I thought ‘Oh San Diego sounds like a nice place. I should go there’,” Asa recounted. When she arrived, she enrolled in a San Diego community college as a business major. It was only then that she realized that perhaps her interest lay elsewhere: she liked math but was not the biggest fan of accounting. She began to shift her focus to science.

Asa transferred to UCSD for her last two years, changed her major to marine biology (apt given the SD location) and began working at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Her work included studying sea urchins and classifying invertebrates from the kelp forests.  As her academic and career interests developed, she decided to switch to molecular biology in Revelle College at UCSD. Upon graduation, Asa wanted to stay in sunny San Diego for graduate school. She only applied to a few local programs, and ultimately decided on BMS. (Little did she expect she would one day be co-chair of that very program!)

The BMS co-chair as a BMS student

Asa started BMS with the intent of joining a gene therapy lab and then going into industry. At the time, gene therapy was the hot science topic on everyone’s mind. However, given her previous experiences in an ecology lab, she initially felt she lacked some of the skills necessary to be a biomedical researcher. “I had never done PCR,” Asa explained, “I had done some lab Westerns and some DNA sequencing gels in lab classes but I didn’t have the right skills.”

For this reason, Asa did her first rotation in Francisco Villareal’s lab, which was in the UCSD Hillcrest Campus at the time. She wanted to work in gene therapy but carefully chose a lab that was small, so she could have strong support from mentorship and PI interactions. Her first rotation was important because it was where she developed her interest in heart research. Staying with the cardiology theme, she ventured to BSB for her second rotation, in Wolfgang Dillmann’s lab.

Though she enjoyed the Dillmann lab, a suggestion from a postdoc prompted her to do her final rotation in Larry Brunton’s lab. It was her rotation in Larry’s lab where everything fell into place. Asa explained, “Once you are in the [right] lab, you feel like this is home. This feels right on all levels. It is not just the science. You have to get along with the PI and the people you are going to work with. There are so many things.”

BMS has evolved since Asa’s time as a student. When she was a student, she recalls more traditional classes that were lecture heavy instead of the interactive ones we have today. Also, the minor proposition exam was quite different: back then it focused on a project completely unrelated to a student’s thesis. Despite these changes, student dynamics have stayed the same. She fondly recounted how her cohort would meet each Thursday to watch Friends and Seinfeld. Plus, there are some great BMS traditions that still stand such as, for instance, the pirate party, the chili party, and recruitment – all popular events then and now.

Now an academic, Asa cannot imagine any other career path, despite how she started grad school as many of us do: with the intent to enter industry. In her mind, her plans were clear, “I was going to industry. That was my mindset. I am going to go into industry and I am going to start my own company…” It was Larry who encouraged her to reconsider, seeing in her the potential to succeed in academia and really enjoy it.

By the time she graduated, Asa was married (to a fellow BMSer!) and the pair were on the job market. He wanted to transition to industry while Asa decided to give academia a try. She explained that since she had flexibility in finding a postdoc anywhere, she agreed to relocate to wherever he found an industry job. Luckily, they managed to stay in San Diego. To branch off from UCSD, Asa took a postdoc position at Scripps where she discovered a new working dynamic.

“There were no students. It was basically just a postdoc environment. We had one graduate student. And it was nice. All we did was research. I mean here, when you are at a university, there is a lot! Tons of seminars, speakers and lunches and dinners! There are all these distractions.” During her postdoc, she felt she could focus on research. But it was only a matter of time until she missed the university life. After starting a professorship at San Diego State University, Asa ultimately returned back to her academic home at UCSD, but this time as BMS faculty.

Now on the other side of BMS, Asa reflected on how BMS has changed over the years. Asa explained that one of the biggest changes is the applicant pool. “Oh my gosh. The quality of the students!” Asa excitedly explained, “I have been on the admissions committee for the last 6 years and I look at these applications and I’m like oh my gosh! These students are amazing that apply!”

As a PI herself, Asa hopes her scientist trainees will go beyond the grant writing and PowerPoint presentations. She encourages her team to be independent thinkers who treat their colleagues with respect and become good mentors themselves. “The first responsibility of a graduate student is the project and the training,” began Asa, but quickly expanded, “It is also to be a role model for the undergraduate students and summer students.”

There is still hope in academia!

Just last year, Asa was officially appointed the new co-chair of BMS! Seeing BMS and graduate students evolve, Asa hopes to encourage more students to keep an open mind about staying in academia. She hopes students in the future will give it a chance, starting with postdoctoral training. “Personally, I think everyone should do a postdoc and then make up their mind. When you are a graduate student, you are still in training,” Asa encouraged. “When you are a postdoc, you are going to learn if you hate it or you love it.”

Though she admitted even she came into BMS with a industry career in mind, she is sad to see that students today come in having already given up on an academic career. Often times, graduate students set their sights on non-academic careers because prospects in academia seem bleak. She can see the culture change.

“There is a little bit of a mentality coming in that ‘oh don’t bother with academia, you can’t get a job, you can’t get grants, you can’t do this’ and it’s negative on the outside.” Asa argues that is not entirely the case. “There are jobs out there and obviously I love it in academia and I think if you are being told coming in ‘don’t bother’ then you aren’t even going to try…” As she sees it, “We are training the next generation of scientists and we need good scientists. We need good PIs in academia. They can’t all go to industry!”

Instead of backing away from academia completely, Asa encourages that students keep open communication with their PIs. “Keep an open communication with your PI because they can help you. Not only send you to meetings and help you with all of that,” she explained, “They can make sure you write fellowships because that starts early. I mean writing a fellowship is like writing a RO1 grant. It’s just smaller but it’s still a mini version [of the grant].”

As she sees it, keeping open communication between students and PIs allows the PI to help the student early on. Meetings are a great place to network, meet colleagues and set yourself up for a great postdoc. Asa explained that a PI is a great resources to help you with all of this, if they know it is path you are considering.

Despite her enthusiasm for grad school and academia, Asa acknowledges that it can be difficult without efficiency and organization. “You might not believe it seeing my office but it is an organized mess. I am very good at managing my time efficiently,” she laughed. It is definitely a skill she improved with time, especially once she had kids. Back in graduate school, she mastered lab-life balance due to her fur-child instead. “I think I learned this [efficiency] more as a postdoc as when I had kids…but [even in grad school] I tried to keep my hours within reason because I had a dog and I felt like I had to go home and walk my dog!”

When asked if she misses being a grad student, Asa laughed, “My gut response is to say no because I have such an awesome position right now!” Remember, this is a position she never anticipated when she was a graduate student. Today, she can barely even fathom an industry career anymore. From her days in ski resorts, to the aspiration to start her own business, to becoming a marine biologist, Asa’s career took turns she did not anticipate but that could not be more fitting. Now, as a graduate mentor and BMS co-chair, Asa strongly advises both current, and future, BMS students to keep an open mind and communicate with our PIs. Perhaps try to explore science and career options more during your postdoc. Who knows where it may lead you!





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