NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 6 – Science Policy Analyst

November 28, 2011

This is the sixth in a series of profiles about recent NIH postdocs who have found an array of jobs, from academia to industry to communications and beyond, in the U.S. and abroad. What do they do now, and how did they get there? What challenges did they face, and what advice do they have? Read on to find out.

Name: Sandeep Dayal

Current position: Health science policy analyst, Office of Scientific Program and Policy Analysis, NIDDK

Location: Bethesda, MD

Time in current position: 1 year

Postdoc: Role of chromatin remodeling in class-switch recombination with Gary Felsenfeld and Marty Gellert at NIDDK

Day-to-day: We analyze the science that goes on at NIDDK and make it accessible to people, i.e. Congress as they decide on funding. We support the institute director. I write in lay language a lot. I work on things like meeting reports, admin reports, PowerPoints and briefing materials. I analyze data sometimes. I work a lot with the extramural staff and the communications office.

Almost everyone in the office has a Ph.D. and some postdoc experience. It’s necessary to have people with strong science backgrounds to quickly digest very technical material. It’s actually kind of intimidating! Everyone’s really smart.

Essential skills: The main skill that stands out is writing. You have to really love to write, and writing in lay language is not the same as what you write in the lab. That part was kind of new to me. You really have to understand the science inside and out to write for the public and maintain the accuracy. It’s a constant learning process.

It also takes a little bit of humility. You have to be okay with people editing your work. In the beginning, documents would come back all bloody red with tracked changes and I was like, “Oh, my God, I thought I was a good writer.” And lots of things I do don’t have my name on them. You have to be okay with people not knowing you wrote something.

Adjustments: In the lab, I was used to being pretty independent. The amount of interaction with other people in this job is just so much more: working in a group to discuss ideas, managing projects, delegating responsibilities, being diplomatic in how you handle things, being tactful and respectful of people’s time and effort. On the other side, you spend a lot of time sitting in your office and writing.

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Giving Thanks for our Readers: Why We Do What We Do

November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving!  The time of year where many of us celebrate with a ridiculous amount of food, American Football on television, food, family, food, friends, and did we mention food?  Also, and perhaps more importantly, it is a time of year where we focus on those things in our lives for which we are thankful.  Here are OITE, we are reflecting on why we are thankful for our jobs and give you all a sense of why we do what we do.

Many of us are trained as research scientists.  Others are NIH employees committed to education and training.  We remain involved in biomedical research while providing the research tools into the often overlooked part of your scientific life…the career part.  We understand the pressures to publish and the long and often unpredictable hours of the lab.  We appreciate the sacrifices you make to further science and to provide better treatments and cures for diseases.  It is that great appreciation that drives us to do what we do:  Help you have the successful career you desire.

We meet with many fellows either through our workshops or in one-on-one meetings to help you improve your career prospects, in any job sector.  We strive to take our understanding of the dynamics of lab life and couple that with our knowledge of career development to help provide the tools and guidance needed to succeed in whatever career path you choose.  We try to provide a positive influence and inspiration.  We help you prepare to become a PI by helping with your application package all the way through negotiating the offer.  We provide training on breaking into industry, from crafting the resume, networking tools, and transitioning to the new job.  And we also present career options along with ways to gain additional skill sets so you can pursue any career that excites you. 

Through helping others reach career goals in science, we get to be a part of advancing biomedical research, growing the broader workforce, and helping people lead fulfilling lives.  When all the pieces come together and we are able to help a fellow achieve career success, it is like getting that final bit of data that completes a paper.  We are grateful to be able to participate in your success.


NIH Alumni: Where Are They Now? Profile 5 – Research Scientist at Johnson & Johnson

November 14, 2011

Name: Elizabeth Rex

Current position: Research scientist at Johnson & Johnson

Location: San Diego, CA

Time in current position: 4 months

Postdoc: Molecular neuropharmacology of dopamine receptors with David Sibley at NINDS

My story: When I came to NINDS, I didn’t know what I was going to do [for a career]. I thought it would all be unveiled with time. Looking back, I should have had more “career intellect.”

I knew I didn’t want to go into academia. Figuring out what I did want was the hard part. I knew I needed to get closer to helping people. I wanted to get more into drug discovery. Pharma was in line with my interests. It was more big-picture; okay, so you have the target, but what happens after that, how does it go down the pipeline, at what point does it get to the patient, how is it helping them, what went wrong, what works. The other thing is that funding was being cut. This was 2007, and the market was crashing. I had colleagues with their own labs who were struggling. It wasn’t an environment where I could thrive.

Job search in a nutshell: One and a half years out of completing my term, I knew I needed to look for jobs. I started going to seminars through OITE and going on informational interviews. Then I got more serious. I did a ton of reading. I did more extensive job searches and tapped into every connection I could find, even if there was no position immediately available. That included things like mixers and roundtables after work. I had connections with a lot of embassies through the Visiting Fellows program. I used Fogarty. I worked with people who were in the medical field outside the NIH for additional perspective on my CV and so forth.

The thing is not to feel embarrassed but to let people know you’re looking for a job. Don’t cross over into hounding, but mention it in conversation. You just need that one person who will put in the word for you.

Challenges for a non-citizen: I wasn’t a citizen, and I wasn’t a green card holder. That puts another whole dimension on the job search. I had a J1 visa and tried to change my status to H1B. It’s very challenging because you’re only there to train for a certain amount of time (5 years) and then you need to go back to your home country for 2 years (although that can be waivered in some countries). You need to get someone to sponsor you. It all takes time. You really need to get up to speed as soon as possible about what you need to do.

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Maintaining Your Network: Quality over Quantity

November 7, 2011

 “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know!”  The old adage, while certainly over simplified and perhaps a little cynical, is an important reminder that often the one break a person needs to get started in a career is a personal connection to that first opportunity.  In the age of online social networking, the connections we have are often impersonal and disingenuous.  A person who is merely a number in you connection list is not likely to prove to be reliable or effective in helping you advance your career.

Social networking sites make a big deal out of the number of connections or friends you are linked to on their site.  An argument can be made that the more connections you have the better the likelihood one of them results in that big opportunity.  Call it the theory of mass action for social networking.  However, simply being LinkedIn with someone does not mean they know anything about you, nor does it mean they are willing to invest their energy in your career advancement. 

Miram Salpeter from U.S. News and World Report recently published this article with some very practical steps to getting the most of your social network.  In the article she suggests that the quality of your connections may be a better indicator of potential success.  How well do you know the people you are connected to in the field you want to get in to?  Have you ever met them in person and discussed your career aspirations?  Have you had an informational interview over the phone?  When was the last time you sent them an e-mail or message to maintain or improve your relationship with them?  

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NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 4 – Scientific Program Management

November 1, 2011

This is the fourth in a series of profiles about recent NIH postdocs who have found an array of jobs, from academia to industry to communications and beyond, in the U.S. and abroad. What do they do now, and how did they get there? What challenges did they face, and what advice do they have? Read on to find out.

Name: Tshaka Cunningham

Current position: Scientific program manager at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; adjunct assistant professor at Howard University

Location: Washington, D.C.

Time in current position: 2 ½ years

Postdocs: Cancer and HIV/AIDS with Jay Berzofsky at NCI; viruses and immunology with John Yewdell at NIAID

How I got my job: Every year I would update my CV and show it to people. I’d say, “Just to let you know, this is what I’m doing now, hope everything is going well with you.” That’s how my resume ended up at the VA. They got it from someone in my network. They called me up and asked if I’d like to talk about this research management position. It was very informal, over lunch. I hadn’t thought about that kind of work before. Once I realized what I’d be doing, I really liked it, because one of the things I like is mission-focused research, and what better mission than to help veterans who’ve served our country? It got me fired up. I applied for the posting.

 Unexpected directions: I did my doctorate at Rockefeller University, which was hard-core academia. Cutting-edge research in HIV biology. It was the best time in my academic life. Then I started a postdoc at the Institut Pasteur, but NIH offered more in the area I wanted to be in. My thinking was that I’d stay in academia. At the NIH, I learned that I’m not a traditional, basic researcher. I need application. I don’t feel that great unless I’m trying to cure someone. Now, at the VA, I get treatments out to people who need them.

“A-ha” moment: I took the Myers-Briggs assessment when I was at NIH and was shocked by the findings. [In a supplemental book that lists popular occupations for various personality types,] it didn’t have science as one of the careers for my type. It had other options like politics, business and administration/management. All my life, I’d felt like a science nerd. The test helped me recognize all these other interpersonal skills and preferences that I have. It pushed me out of the lab a little bit.  Read the rest of this entry »