Before Ashley Kopec studied the molecular mechanisms of long-term memory formation, before she became an associate professor in neuroscience, she was a little blonde girl in rural Wisconsin. Even then she leaned toward academics: After her sister Kayla was born, Kopec loved playing school, assigning homework to her and their neighbor Hollie.
School came easily to her, and by her teenage years she felt bored by the small-town scene. She found escape, she says, by being “drunk for most of my junior year.”
The upside of Kopec’s high-school partying was that she’d cleared that sort of thing from her system by the time she started college at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin in 2005. She had little interest in the fermented socializing she saw on campus and instead focused on her studies. “I’m one of those weird people who was OK being alone,” she says. She has rarely cared about the opinions of others, she says, and has always had the confidence to stand by the decisions she makes.
For most of her adult life, those decisions have been in pursuit of bettering her research career, Kopec says. But this past May, she took another step away from the crowd — this time to benefit her personal life. She closed her lab and left a coveted associate professorship at Albany Medical College in New York to become a scientific review officer at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In her new role, she focuses on other people’s science — receiving grant applications, finding reviewers and running the resulting study sections.
A life in science has its perks, says Staci Bilbo, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and Kopec’s postdoctoral adviser. There is something exhilarating about being paid to follow one’s curiosity. But a career in academia is also a treadmill, and the demands of the job — the constant need to write grants and publish papers — can make academic research “an all-consuming profession.”
Often, “everything else comes second,” Bilbo says. “And if you’re wanting to build a family at the time when you’re trying to do this, there’s an obvious issue there.”
opec found a calling in neuroscience relatively early when, between her third and fourth year of college, she landed an internship at the University of California, San Francisco. She worked in a lab that researches dementia, and there she observed someone with dementia who would come to the clinic with their spouse for checkups. “This person couldn’t recall the context of all their relationships, and it just seemed like such a huge loss,” she says. “If you don’t have your memories, you don’t have anything.”
Based in part on that encounter, she decided she wanted to spend her life studying the brain. She applied widely to neuroscience Ph.D. programs but was not accepted to any of them. So she took a job as a clinical research coordinator at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, driving her 9-year-old Saturn sedan from Wisconsin to the East Coast.
She applied to graduate programs again the next year and was accepted to the University of California, Irvine. So she drove the Saturn across the country and began her work on memory with neuroscientist Tom Carew. But in her second year, Carew moved his lab to New York University, where he is now Julius Silver professor of neural science and psychology. Kopec again packed up the Saturn, this time driving it through the deserts of the Southwest and up to Wisconsin for a brief stay before making her way to New York City.
Kopec used her credit cards and took out two personal loans to help cover her living costs, she says. “I’ll do whatever I need to do,” she told herself, to get the degree. She finished her neuroscience Ph.D. in five years and published part of her dissertation in Neuron in 2015. Eager to take the next step and get out of pricey Manhattan, she applied for and accepted a postdoctoral research position with Bilbo at Duke.
She’s incapable of bullshit.
“She came to the lab with her own ideas of what she would like to work on and figured out how to make everything work,” Bilbo says. But a few months later, Bilbo took a position at Harvard University, so it was back north for Kopec, this time with her boyfriend (now husband), Dan DiSantis, in tow. Together, they covered the rent and her loan repayments, which she could not swing on her postdoc salary alone, she says. She and DiSantis got married one sunny day in July at a Boston courthouse, just the two of them, and then went out for a celebratory cinnamon roll.
Kopec understood that neuroscientists often spend years as postdocs, sometimes moving across the country multiple times to complete stints in various labs to learn different techniques. She knew that repeatedly uprooting her life in this way was considered normal. But she found herself craving more stability than this version of academia seemed to provide, and, she says, she was also itching to lead her own lab to study how morphine exposure shapes synaptic pruning during adolescence.
So when, in the third year of her postdoc, she was offered a position as a neuroscience professor at Albany Medical College, at nearly twice her postdoc salary, she took it. It felt like “the smart thing to do, financially,” she says. Over the next year and a half, Kopec and DiSantis settled into Albany. She found out she was pregnant, and at work she hired her first Ph.D. student.
Her lab was just up and running when the COVID-19 shutdowns began in March 2020. The stress of getting her lab funded and off the ground in this new uncertainty began to mount — she could feel it in her chest, she says. And the longer it went on, the more she worried her career might be over.
ater that year, Kopec was awarded an R03 grant, which supports small research projects, to investigate how adolescent development affects social aging. During the day, she hired more staff and coached her graduate students and postdocs, though she also spent portions of her time on university requirements, such as serving on hiring committees and attending faculty meetings.
On the weekends and at night, after her infant daughter, Lexie, was in bed, she sat on the couch with one of the family cats against her leg, writing grant after grant proposal on her laptop. Sometimes she typed until past midnight. “I was never rested,” she says, remembering that period.
Her efforts paid off: In 2022, she received a R01 grant to pursue her previous goal and study the ways drugs such as morphine affect adolescent brain development — about $300,000 per year for five years. It was the sort of success she had been dreaming about for nearly a decade, but her euphoric feelings were fleeting. “It’s very cool to get a huge grant. That’s super cool for like, two seconds,” she recalls — but then her mind began to race with the other responsibilities she had to tackle to keep that work moving forward.
On top of that, Kopec and DiSantis realized they wanted to be closer to extended family. DiSantis’ job at the software company Oracle was fully remote, so they could move anywhere Kopec could find work. She applied for some positions, both in and out of academia, including at the NIH, and was offered a tenure-track job back in Wisconsin. That was enticing and would have put her within a short drive of her family, but she turned it down. She and DiSantis wanted a warmer climate.
When a faculty position popped up at the University of Florida in Gainsville, not far from her in-laws, she applied for that, too. She didn’t get it, and she was surprised by her own lack of emotional response, she says. “It wasn’t the fact that I lost that job; it was the fact that I did not respond to the loss of that job,” that told her she might be ready to leave academia.
In November 2022, Kopec attended the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego, California. She met with Carew, her Ph.D. adviser, for breakfast, as she did each year at the meeting. She took the opportunity to ask him about her growing itch to leave academia. She asked him about her unhappiness, and she wondered aloud if she could stick it out for a few more years. “Would that be worth it?” she asked him.
In his time as her adviser, Carew had found Kopec to be decisive, he says. “She’s incapable of bullshit.” He had also found her to be mentally tough. When things in the lab didn’t work, she “never let it get her down. She just stayed at it.” So when she described her growing unrest, he understood she meant it. “If you’re not happy,” he told her, “there is no reason to stay.”
Kopec says she knew then that her feelings “weren’t crazy, and they weren’t small.”
here is a growing chorus of early-career researchers — women in particular — who say that academia in its current form does not work for them. Women assistant professors are 6 percent more likely to leave each year they are in that role than are their male counterparts, according to a study published in Science Advances in October — and that figure increases to 10 and 19 percent for associate and full professors, respectively. These academics report feeling pushed out of their tenure-track jobs, according to the study, because of poor work-life balance, low salaries, and workplaces that lack support or even foster harassment.
Kopec did not feel pushed out of academia, she says. But she did feel pushed to choose between her own happiness and her career. After years of choosing her career and feeling like her path was out of her control, she wanted to make a change.
“For the first time in my adult career, I have decided not to keep doing that,” she remembers thinking. “I’m going to make a decision for me, personally.”
Kopec reapplied for a position at the NIH and, a month after her meeting with Carew, she received the offer for the scientific review officer position.
She and DiSantis went to his parents’ home in Florida for the holidays, and while there she came down with a cold. Quarantined in a guest room with time to think, she says she mentally put her academic career behind her, had a short cry and formally accepted the job.
She liked the idea of her new role, which would allow her to glimpse research in its earliest stages. And she says she felt, throughout the application process, that her time and expertise were valued in a way that they hadn’t been in academia.
Kopec also likes that within the NIH, there are clear metrics for moving up and standardized ways to assess productivity. As a professor and academic researcher, evaluation of her job performance felt opaque, but at her new job, “it’s clear. And because it’s clear, it’s in my control again.” Her NIH job calls for only 40 hours per week; if she works more, she can bank that time. And she works remotely, earning the same salary she made as a professor.
Kopec started the job at the end of May and moved with her family to St. Augustine, Florida. Lexie, now 3 years old, goes to daycare, and they see DiSantis’ family once a week.
Some of Kopec’s colleagues told her she might be bored in the role, she says, but that has not been the case. She doesn’t think about her past work at all, apart from helping her former students, she says. “All of a sudden I have downtime.”
Others have met her career change with expressions of camaraderie. In March, back when she had just decided to wind down her lab — and as she was finding positions in other labs for her trainees, helping to get her grant reallocated to one of her former colleagues, posting five new preprints to bioRxiv and tossing out onto social media interesting experimental findings that she could not bear to let slide — she made her announcement.
“Big news!” she wrote on Twitter (now called X). “I’ve been promoted to Associate Professor! I’m a whole ass Assoc Prof with an R01. And with joy and peace, I am resigning from my TT [tenure track] position and closing my lab in May.”
“Welcome to the exodus!” wrote Lisa Gunaydin in response, who left her position as assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco in 2021 to become a licensed therapist. “There is so much more outside the walls of academia than we’re taught to believe.”
The author attended graduate school at New York University’s Center for Neural Science at the same time as Kopec.
The Spectrum team is excited to announce the launch of The Transmitter, a new publication for the neuroscience community. Spectrum is now a key section of The Transmitter and will continue to publish news and perspectives about autism research. Soon, you will be able to find all previous Spectrum articles at thetransmitter.org.