Chris Halbrook hails from Green Bay, WI and obtained a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry – Biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. From there, he earned his Ph.D. in Chemistry – Chemical Biology from Stony Brook University working on pancreatic cancer and pancreatitis in Howard Crawford’s group, moving to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL and then to the University of Michigan during this time. Chris is currently a NCI NRSA / MICHR PTSP funded postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Costas Lyssiotis, co-mentored by Marina Pasca di Magliano. His current work centers on understanding the functional role of myeloid cell metabolism on the pancreatic tumor microenvironment.
What was your route to the bench? What helped you reach your position?
College was something foreign to my family, so despite promising ACT/SAT scores, I got a job out of high school working in the kitchen. After a several years in the food service industry, I was working as a chef at a large hotel / conference center when the executive chef pulled me into his office to offer some advice. He told me I was doing fine in my position, but if I wanted to run my own kitchen instead of working for other people, I would need to treat this as a career instead of a job. Importantly though, the first step for that should be to off and get a degree.
While I’m sure he was hoping I would take his advice to go to culinary school, instead it really gave me a chance to ask myself if this was really what I wanted to do with my life? After some soul searching aided by the sudden loss of my grandmother to metastatic lung cancer, I decided to go a completely different route. While it seemed an improbable goal at the time, I enrolled in biochemistry program the next fall, determined to give it my best shot to become a cancer research scientist. While I could never have anticipated the journey to this point, I never regret having made the decision to embark on it.
How did that experience shape your science career?
The one thing I find that my experience prior to embarking on my academic career has given me, other than a lot of invites to cook for dinner parties and barbeques, is perspective. For one thing, a bad day in the lab doesn’t end with me washing dishes until 1am because a dishwasher didn’t show up, and I get to spent holidays with my family instead of catering to other people spending time with theirs. But beyond that, I get to spend every day at work with the potential excitement of discovering things that have the potential to impact people’s lives. Instead of watching the clock every day waiting to go home and leave my work behind, I eagerly take my work with me everywhere and am happy to talk about it with anyone that will listen. Plus, despite the disparity of a postdoc salary vs. industry, I can assure you that we are doing fine in comparison to an average chef’s salary.
You stated that you have had great mentors, what would you say makes a great mentor?
This can always be a tricky question because I know some people really like to be left their own space, whereas others like having closer guidance, and the right balance of that can be a hard needle to thread with a mentor. While I have experienced a full spectrum of these personalities across my different mentors, the common positive experience with them has been the treatment of the mentor-mentee interaction as a partnership. In other words, they considered my achievements and career advancement as a metric of their success, and I have worked hard and taken pride in my contributions to their research program. In building a partnership based on respect, I have been able to count on a lot of help with grant writing, publishing manuscripts, and networking and collaboration opportunities. Just as importantly, I don’t think I have made any of them regret helping me out or be embarrassed of being associated with me.
What advice would you give to an incoming UMich postdoc?
I think the biggest piece of advice that I could give is to understand that there is no one right path that one needs to follow. I have been very happy with how my training has progressed so far, but there were a lot of discouraging and at time heartbreaking moments along with way. In addition, I think it is important to not compare yourself that closely with other people around you. I used to spend a lot of time being jealous and anxious about how other postdoc’s projects or careers were going compared to mine. Now being able to look back, some of them worked out and some didn’t, and certainly not always the way I would have predicted. While there is certainly an element of luck in science, the people who work hardest have seemed to have a better chance of coming out in one piece. Finally, a strong support system in colleagues and mentors has also been an invaluable resource to help overcome the hurdles and deal with the low points of a postdoc.
What are your hobbies/interest outside of lab?
An inordinate amount of my free time still revolves around food and drink, I am always trying to expand my horizons and test my endure for spice. Directly related, I spent a lot running and staying active to compensate for this gluttonous lifestyle. Additionally, as a Green Bay native born in Milwaukee, I am a passionate Packers / Brewers fan. I also have far more pictures of my cats to share at any given moment than is probably normal.