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Ask the Expert

Take it from her and take that long-overdue sabbatical.

That’s the gist of an October 2008 “Q&A: Ask the Expert” column by Deb Koen in, in which Professor of Biology Joan Magnusen—and her spring 2008 sabbatical—served as example to a faculty member of a small university with limited resources who sought advice on how and whether to take a sabbatical. is touted as the “premier science jobs recruitment Web site.”

Nature is a journal that has been in print for more than a century and could be considered the British equivalent of Science” said Magnusen.

Koen writes: “It was an invitation from former students that tipped the balance in favor of [Magnusen] taking a sabbatical… Magnusen had excellent connections when it came time to lining up a sabbatical,” and recommends the faculty member seeking advice “turn to your own network, as well as research institutes, private labs, industry, government, or wherever your interests lead you.”

“I had been reluctant to leave campus because I didn’t know where I would go or what I would do,” said Magnusen. The fact that Cynthia Shannon Weickert ’88/’89 and Carolyn Klinge ’79 “were interested enough to have me” seemed like a real opportunity to Magnusen.

In closing, Koen writes, “Magnusen, in circumstances similar to yours, found a sabbatical personally affirming, and her students have benefitted as well.” She quotes Magnusen: “I should not have waited 25 years. I encourage everyone, especially teaching professionals, to get out of your comfort zone, try something new and see yourself in a new way.”

To read the column in full, go to:

Magnusen spent the first five-and-a-half weeks of her sabbatical at Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute in Randwick, Australia , with Weickert, chair of schizophrenia research for the Schizophrenia Research Institute (SRI), University of New South Wales, and Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute.

There, she became “familiar enough” with techniques used in molecular biology, including immunohistochemistry and DNA analysis, “to do them on her own” in the lab.

She attended several seminars where she thought she’d just be listening, but that wasn’t the case.

“There were aspects about the history of developmental and cell biology that they’d ask me about, such as ‘why did they call it that?” said Magnusen. “So, I wasn’t just there taking things, I was giving back and that was important to me.”

Magnusen also helped Weickert to revise an article while she was there.

As hoped, Magnusen was able to “satisfy both ends of the spectrum”—she has expertise in animal behavior, endangered species, and invertebrate zoology—while in Australia .

She saw rainbow lorikeets feeding at an apartment building as she walked to the lab, and saw others right outside the lab window feeding on a flower bush. She also saw fox bats feeding at the botanical gardens.

“Even the pigeons were different than pigeons you’d see here,” said Magnusen, who also toured the Sydney Zoo. “The animals that you just happen upon [in their natural environment] are more satisfying than [animals you see in zoos].”

Magnusen engaged in blogging while in Australia , something with which she “became enamored,” though it was “very time consuming.” Her entries can be viewed at http:/

She spent the next two months in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Louisville Medical School in Kentucky with Klinge, a professor.

At Louisville, Magnusen “wanted to spend as much time in the lab as I could, doing experiments over and over again, figuring out what could go wrong, how to fix the problem, and how to avoid problems.”

Magnusen used the technique of western blotting to look at samples of different kinds of cancer cells, including breast and lung, to try to understand if there is a correlation between the amounts and types of proteins present in the particular type of cancer cell.

Magnusen also got to engage in cell culture while in Louisville. Cell culture involves keeping cells alive in a dish and is another technique she’d like to bring to her Cell and Developmental Biology students.

“It is a technique that is done worldwide,” said Magnusen. “It is a skill that is very marketable.”

Magnusen plans to enlist the help of her BIO 353 students this semester in writing grant proposals for “pieces of the cell culture lab.”

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