NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 21 – Health Science Policy Analyst

This is the twenty first 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: Dr Brenda Diane Kostelecky

Job title and company: Health Science Policy Analyst, NCI

Location: Bethesda, MD

How long you’ve been in your current job: 10 months

Postdoc subject, advisor and IC: NICHD, Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, morphology changes in mitochondria and their effects on proliferation, authophagy

What are you doing now?

I am a health science policy analyst at the NCI in the Office of Science Planning and Assessment. I did a 3-month detail there at the end of my postdoc and stayed on as a contractor.

How did you decide that you didn’t want to continue doing bench science?

I didn’t want to leave science but I couldn’t see myself at the bench for the long-term. I started to look for other options by joining the NIH Fellows Committee (FelCom) Career Development Sub-Committee.

What is your day-to-day work like?

One of the big changes in mentality for me is that you go to a lot of meetings in the type of job I’m in now. So it’s a challenge at first to get your schedule sorted out.

My work varies a lot. In addition to meetings, there’s a lot of coordinating projects between people. I do a fair amount of work at my computer. The projects change pretty much constantly. I have some that will last maybe one or two months and then we’ll move on to something else. Then there are some projects that only last a couple of days.

How did you get to your current position?

I was in my postdoc at NICHD. I had applied for the AAAS fellowship and didn’t get in that year. I was looking for some policy relevant experience so I could either get the fellowship or make the transition without it.

NICHD, in particular, has a really helpful Program Management Officer named Brenda Hanning who is responsible for helping postdocs. (She’s NICHD-specific but there’re resources like that available for everybody at NIH and OITE is a good one.) She and I sat and brainstormed some different people whom I could contact about doing a policy detail. She basically got me in contact with a couple of people whom I then networked through to find the person that I ended up doing the detail with.

I had just wrapped up a big project when I approached my mentor about doing the detail. We talked for a bit and she asked if this was the direction I definitely wanted to follow and I said it was. She said she’d support me for the 3 months if I then gave up my post-doc position.

What do you think helped you get the fellowship the second time?

Actually, being rejected by AAAS the first time helped. It was hard but it gave me the push I needed to get more experience. I did a detail part-time at OITE, as a program analyst, helping them set up a career seminar on global health. I also got involved with FELCOM’s career development seminars, which was a commitment of just a few hours a week.

I also did a short internship at FASEB writing fact sheets intended for members of congress, their staff, and advocacy organizations on how NIH money is used in individual states: the amount of grant money awarded, the major institutes supported, the types of jobs supported, etc.

Then when the AAAS application came around again I didn’t feel like I had all of my eggs in that one basket. I was in a stronger position not just to get the AAAS fellowship but to move on without it. I think it’s important to remember that it’s not the only way to get into policy.

I think it also helped that I got a reference from the supervisor that I did the policy detail under. That helped display that I had both scientific skills and “soft skills”– if you want to call them that (for example, communications skills and other skills that are different from those you need in a lab).

How can an active researcher develop his/her “soft skills”?

One of the things is did was I wrote a blog. I tried to write different things for the career development committee, for Lori Conlan on the career symposium, stuff like that to show that I could translate something that’s very technical and scientific into something that someone with a basic knowledge of science can understand. Verbal communication at that level is important, too.

Brenda can be contacted through the OITE alumni database.

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