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A Career Journey: Dr. Akinobu Watanabe

Sep 22, 2023

 I awoke on the first of May. On that peaceful Monday morning I looked at my phone with groggy, barely-open eyes. On the screen were a blinking set of numbers and two letters, both of which acted as the end of my serenity and the harbinger of my abject horror.

10:00 AM

That was the current time.

I proceeded to jump out of my bed at the speed of light and landed with finesse that would put the five little monkeys to shame. I practically teleported to my computer and turned it on, opening up my emails as fast as I could. Switching to the “starred” section, I opened up a zoom invitation that would be used for an online interview that I had scheduled today at this very time.

But before I could click the link, I noticed that the time was scheduled not for 10:00 AM, but for 1:00 PM. At my sheer illiteracy, I facepalmed. Swiftly, I retreated to the comfort of my bed, this time with an alarm set to prevent myself from oversleeping.

On that day, I had scheduled an interview with Akinobu Watanabe, an assistant professor in the apartment of anatomy here at New York Tech. Dr. Watanabe’s area of expertise includes: Evolution and Development, Paleontology, 3D Imaging, and Shape Analysis. When the time came, I began the interview with the good doctor via zoom.

Could you formally introduce yourself and tell us your occupation?

“I’m Dr. Aki Watanabe. I’m an assistant professor in the anatomy department at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine.”

How many jobs have you had?

“How many jobs?” Dr. Watanabe chuckled. “Well, it really depends on what you consider a job. Well, we can start at high school. My first job was being a server at a restaurant and my second job was in college. I would volunteer at a lab to work on wasp behavior research at University of Michigan. Soon afterwards, at the bulk at my time as an undergraduate student, I worked in a fossil lab. I trained as a paleontologist, so I studied fossils, ancient lifeforms and the evolution of the planet. You know, I think working in the wasp lab made me think that I wanted to become a researcher in biology but I also wanted to work with insects, which I had a childhood passion for.”

“But I always wanted to become a paleontologist. So I joined a fossil lab my sophomore year and worked there until the year after I graduated from undergrad. So then, I got into graduate programs. I did a masters at Florida State University. There I was a TA for some of the courses including vertebrate anatomy and human anatomy and physiology. And then I did my Phd in New York at the American Museum of Natural History. I also TA’d a class there. I also developed some high school summer courses that required 3D printing. At that time it was exciting, since 3D printing was an emerging technology and affordable 3D printers were being released. The Museum’s education department bought a bunch and we were able to be one of the first ones to 3D print fossils after scanning the real ones.”

“After that, I got my postdoc researcher position at the other Natural History Museum in London. As a postdoc researcher I was focused on a grant-funded research that my advisor received which involved me looking at skull evolution from different organisms. And then I got this position. And I’ve been here at NYIT for little over five years now.”

Before we continued, Dr. Watanabe informed me of one more job he almost forgot to mention. “It was kind of a short term job. I worked as a student worker in the music department of my undergrad. It was kinda the basic stuff like, stuffing envelopes to send out to college supporters and donors. Copying things and just basic tasks.”

Of the jobs you’ve had, which of them was our favorite?

“Would I get punished if I don’t say NYIT?” Dr. Watanabe asked with a chuckle. “Well, I mean I like teaching and doing research. So, my favorite is probably what I do now. Both teaching and research are activities that strive me to do better.”

“In terms of like, formative jobs, I’d say it was that first job I had being a server in the restaurant. I think that’s where I learned a lot of my social skills and how to deal with people.”

Which job paid you the most?"

“The current one as professor at NYIT.”

Which job was your least favorite?

“I don’t think I have a least favorite.” He answered after a pause. “I think with all my jobs I gained useful skills. So I don’t think I hated any of my jobs.”

How did you get your job(s)?

“Well, I guess we’ll start with the most recent one. For this position, you have to be fishing, keeping your eye on open positions. That part isn't too different from any other professional job. NYIT was close to where I did my Phd. I already had a good community, I knew collaborators already in the area. That was one of the reasons this job was so attractive.”

“In terms of steps involved: For academic positions you usually submit your CV which is much longer and exhaustive than a resume, you submit your research statement, your teaching statement and I think a cover letter. These days it’s more common for academic positions to also require diversity statements.”

“So for the next step, I was invited for a zoom interview. I think it was about an hour long. I met with the anatomy department here. Then I did an in-person interview. I flew here and spent a day and a half at Long Island and I spent a full day doing a job talk. Job talks are expected of you when you apply for a faculty position in-person. Job talks are basically an overview of your research and your plans for the next five years. You really had to sell your research, basically pitching yourself and your research and saying ‘hey, I belong here and this is what I can provide to enrich the department’. I remember spending a lot of time on the slides and rehearsing the job talk before doing the interview.”

Is there anyone you’re glad to have met with during your careers?

“Besides science, my passion lies in music and film. Although it’s always beneficial to meet new scientists in my field, I’m curious about how people in other professions lead and manage teams, now that I’m in charge of my own lab. For this reason, I think I would have gained valuable insights to learn about how orchestra conductors or film directors/producers harness each team member’s strengths to complete innovative, collaborative projects. I would love to have a conversation with some of my favorite conductors and directors, such as Gustavo Dudamel, Joshua Weilerstein (who has a great classical music podcast called ‘Sticky Notes’), Denis Villeneuve, and Christopher Nolan.”

What would you say is the most important thing to look for in a job?

“Well, one of the most important things that I definitely start the conversation with my advisees is: ‘how does the job or position help your professional and personal long-term goals?’ Consider which one will contribute more towards your longer-term career goals, basically.”

If you could add anything to your current job what would it be? An extra benefit like gym membership or discounts at local food stores, etc.

“I do wish that the campus was close to one of the mainline LIRR stations. I don’t mind commuting by car, but I don’t particularly like driving. If there was a major public transportation line, particularly LIRR, that made it easy to commute, that would be nice. Other than that, I’m pretty happy with the resources and benefits I have.”

Do you have any career horror stories? Being mistreated or cheated by your employer, etc.

“No, I think I’ve been very fortunate with my bosses, those at my earlier position as a server and my advisors during my research were very supportive of me.Even co-workers, students and other researchers in labs I’ve been in have been super positive and I really can’t complain!”

Career-wise, what is the best thing that happened to you?

Dr. Watanabe took a moment to think. “Being accepted into my undergrad at the University of Chicago and that gave me so many opportunities. The intellectual community had a lot of research opportunities that got me hooked onto what I do now, and then my graduate studies getting into programs at Florida State…” He paused, then suddenly continued. “Well, that actually reminds me now. I would say the best thing to happen was being rejected from the Phd program at the American Museum of Natural History, the first time.”

“So, I applied there twice and I got in there a second time which is where I ended up doing my Phd. After my undergrad, I applied for multiple Phd and masters programs and I really wanted to study at the American Museum of Natural History. It was one of my favorite museums in the world. I didn’t get in the first time, so that allowed me to go to Florida state to do my master’s there for 2 years. I reapplied after learning more about research and my own interests. It let me build up my expertise before I reapplied and got in the second time I applied. It was kind of a blessing in disguise because I think it made me develop the methodological approach to my work that  I’m known for, from when I studied at Florida state. If I got into that museum program before I studied at Florida state, I think I would be a much less capable researcher. So it was some good news that out of what, at the time, was bad news.”

What’s an important skill you learned during your career journey?

“Obviously my research skills, but that’s not really that applicable. Aside from that, there’s communication. Communication is key, you know? When I started as a researcher and gave my first presentations at a conference I initially tried to cram as much stuff as possible, but that’s not how to make a compelling presentation. So I learned how to better craft my presentations for the purpose of research and for my teaching. What I like about having both teaching and research in my job is that one helps the other. What I learned from helping students can be applied to presenting my research to other people, and vice versa. There’s also…resource management? I don’t know, that sounds boring! It’s basically like budgeting or maximizing the potential of the people in your lab. Both are important.”

“I think grad school and undergrad school are kind of focused on course work or research and you can have too many other distractions. But when you become a professor you have a lot of other responsibilities.”

Do you have any advice for the NYIT students who are beginning their own career journeys?

“Definitely, I’ll try to keep it succinct.” He began before continuing. “In terms of general advice…well I already emphasized networking. Like, go out and talk to people, you never know. Well, here’s a bit of a story: One of the faculty members in the anatomy department, Dr. Brian Beatty, I met him for the first time when I was a master student in Florida. At that time, when I met him, I had no idea I would be applying to NYIT. This was around six or seven years ago. See, you never know how the connections you make will come back down the road! So yeah, I would really push on networking. Meet people, even if you think they’re not related to your career plan.”

“Another piece of advice: you can rely on your faculty and professors and other seniors for advice and resources. I think you should also try to get guidance from someone who’s in a career stage above you. Like, immediately in front of you in terms of a career stage.”

“Always be thinking about short and long term goals. Short term, for example, is like looking for a job. So that might be your first step. But as you're looking for a job come back and think about what your long term goal is and have the next job fit that goal. So keep both the short and long term goals in mind.” He continued with a last piece of advice. “Never forget about yourself. What I mean by that is remembering what makes you happy. I know happiness is a vague, nebulous term, but I think part of happiness is ‘thriving’. Like what you want out of your life and job. Always keep that in mind. Though sometimes you might have to sacrifice some of that when you have an immediate urgency to get a job, both professionally and personally as well.”

With that, we ended the interview and logged off of zoom. Like Dr. Watanabe said, it's important to remember yourself. Finding what makes you happy and incorporating that into your professional life will no doubt make your career journey a much more enjoyable one.

This Article was contributed by Joe Tapia, CSEE Ambassador in the office of Career Success and Experiential Education.