NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 20 – Co-Director of Community College Program, Office of Intramural Training and Education

This is the twentieth 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: Erika L. Barr

Job title and company: Co-director for NIH Community College Program & Coordinator of Special Projects, OITE, NIH

Location: Bethesda, MD

How long you’ve been in your current job: 2.5 years

Postdoc subject, advisor and IC: Laboratory of Immunology, Dennis Taub, NIA

How did you get to where you are now?

(Chuckling.) A lot of prayer. I was a biology major in undergrad. I went to a historically black college in North Carolina. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do after that so I taught sixth grade science for 2 years. I found that I enjoyed education, but wanted to teach older kids.

I talked to a former professor and mentor of mine and she encouraged me to get a Master’s in biology. That was huge because that was the first time I was exposed to real research.

I still wanted to have a small job while I went to school so I worked as an assistant coordinator with a math and science program for kids from underrepresented backgrounds.

Then, I decided to complete my PhD at Clark Atlanta University.

What did you find helpful along the way?

Networking and having awesome mentors both played major roles in my journey.

For example, towards the end of graduate school, I went to an international conference. During one of the activities, I met a PI on the bus and we began to talk. He asked me about my research and career goals, and I gave him my little elevator speech. He asked me, “Well, what do you want to do next?” I told him that attending that meeting had really made me want to do research abroad. By the end of the conversation, he had asked me if I would be interested in going to West Africa to do trachoma vaccine research. So, I did a short postdoc for him through the Medical Research Council/London School of Hygiene and Tropical Disease before coming to the NIH for my postdoc here.

How did you decide to move away from the bench?

Finishing my postdoc at NIA was the crossroads for me. That was when I thought, “Now what?” I sat down and was very honest with myself. What did I enjoy doing and what did I not enjoy doing? I realized that I most enjoyed teaching those 2 years as a sixth grade teacher and working with the math and science program while in graduate school.

How did you get the position you are currently in?

I was doing all kinds of key word searches, meeting with the career counselor here at OITE, redoing my resume and CV, and going on a lot of informational interviews.

In one interview, I was told that a community college position might be opening up soon at OITE, so I made sure to follow up with them. Once the announcement was sent out, I applied and interviewed for it. And here I am today.

What are your current responsibilities?

I am in charge of the NIH Community College Program, which includes the 10-week Community College Summer Enrichment Program and the annual NIH Community College Day. The Summer Enrichment Program is an opportunity for community college students to intern in a lab. There’s a curriculum to help them develop their science skills, such as lab math and how to keep a notebook. There are career planning sessions, leadership and team building activities, and a weekly workshop. The program also provides postdocs with opportunities to mentor and teach.

I coordinate everything for the program and I’m responsible for the program development and generally ensuring that the students have a successful experience.

I do a lot of outreach as well, which includes coordinating campus visits, visiting local community colleges/organizations and helping NIH trainees get involved in outreach opportunities on campus.

Do you have any other advice for career seekers?

Sometimes you get into a lab and you’re in a vacuum until you realize you could be trying to explore additional interests (science and non-science) on the side. Those small, out-of-the-lab experiences can end up being really significant when applying for a job. My research experience ended up being only 4-5 lines on my CV, while my teaching and mentoring experience dominated.

Going through your career, people have all of these expectations for you but at the end of the day, you’re the person that has to go through your career path. If it’s not research you’re passionate about, you have to find out what you are passionate about.

You have to be able to “forgive” yourself for not choosing the path that others think you should’ve chosen. I told myself, “If I went to school for 27 years, you’d best believe I’m going to enjoy my job!”

Erika can be contacted through the OITE alumni database.

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