Name: Kristin Fabre
Job Title & Organization: Scientific Program Manager, NCATS
Location: NIH – Bethesda, Maryland
How long you’ve been in your current job: Two years
Postdoc Advisor, IC: Dr. Jim Mitchell; Radiation Biology Branch, NCI
What do you do as a Scientific Program Manager?
There are many different job descriptions for what program analysts or managers do, but my primary focus is managing the Tissue Chip for Drug Screening Program. This program aims to develop 3-D human tissue chips that accurately model the structure and function of human organs, such as the lung, liver and heart. This program, which is consortium-based, allows me to work together with about twenty different investigators along with several interagency government officials. So, we work with a lot of different members, including: other NIH Institutes and Centers, the FDA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The idea is to make sure that all of the scientific and administrative milestones are being met. We work to identify any resources needed to meet those milestones or hurdles to overcome. We disseminate information to the public about what this program does and talk to the investigators on a regular basis about the science. We provide feedback as to how the projects can be improved and how we can highlight their successes.
Can you tell me more about this program?
The Tissue Chip Program is a five year program which is using bioengineering to make these devices that essentially mimic the human environment. So, what you can do is put human cells into this scaffold and it will trick the cells into thinking they are actually in the human body. They start to behave and function as if they are in the human body. What we are hoping for and what this technology promises is that it would be a superior method to getting responses to drug toxicity and efficacy using these model systems rather than animals or your standard in vitro systems.
How do you communicate these findings to the public?
There are different ways – obviously giving presentations and sometimes we get an occasional media request. One common request is giving regular updates to NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins or Dr. Chris Austin, the Director of NCATS. We want to keep them updated on the progress so that they can highlight it to Congress and other NIH constituents, as well as the scientific community. We also work on updating websites, are currently making a Tissue Chip video and engaging with social media.
What are the most important skills that you utilize in your current position?
There are a few skills that are important. First is having a strong scientific background because even though I am not at the bench doing research, I am still talking and thinking about science and thinking about future programs and how we can further build on this technology and help our investigators. This scientific background knowledge is very important. Second would be to the ability to step out of your comfort zone and look at how you can improve the program and implementing changes by collaborating with the investigators and other government agencies. Strong communication skills are vital in this regard. Another skill that is really important is the ability to step away from very specific tasks or questions such as “What does this protein do?” or “What is this pathway?” and look at the 30,000 foot view. You want to be able to look at the general program as a whole and how you’d want to move it forward.
What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
I really enjoy working directly with investigators and talking about the science. It is really exciting when we have a really big challenge and we do it as a consortium, which is really hard to do. We have about 200+ people in the consortium, so getting all of these project teams to be on the same page can be a daunting task, but when it really comes together, it is very rewarding.
Another one of my other favorite things is talking about the program. I love going places and talking about what this program does and what it means and what opportunities we might have for collaboration.
What has been the hardest challenge about transitioning into this career?
The biggest challenge would be learning the ropes of how extramural works. There have been a lot of things which I had to learn on the fly. My background was radiation biology and with this program, you really have to be a jack of all trades. You need to know a little bit about physiology, all ten major organ systems, bioengineering, stem cell technology, and induced pluripotent stem cell technology. I do have a working team. I have forty people across the NIH that are on my project team and can provide me with that expertise. Even so, it still is a lot of learning different concepts and different research fields beyond my expertise in radiation biology.
Additionally, understanding how extramural processes work has been a challenge because as a postdoc, I was just so used to being at the bench and working on my experiments. Coming out of that environment and learning how the whole grant process works and how we work with grants management and scientific review can be challenging, but these are all things you have to catch up on fairly rapidly once you get into managing a program.
What was your job search like?
It can be really difficult if you are interested in moving into program or science review work or any kind of extramural activity, especially when all you’ve known is bench and intramural work. Therefore, it is really important to develop skills outside of the lab which OITE was really helpful with as was the NCI FYI Steering Committee. It was important to get those skill sets through different activities. I spent a lot of time when I was job searching looking at jobs that I might be qualified for; however, how I actually got this job was through a contact I made when I chaired a committee. I was a chair for designing and developing career fairs and annual colloquiums but also for the steering committee. From that experience, I knew a couple of recruiters from contracting companies, such as Kelly and SAIC. When I started heavily looking for jobs, I would go to USAJobs.gov but I would also talk to people I had worked with. Through my work on the steering committee and organizing the career fair, I worked with a Kelly recruiter who actually got to see me in action and ultimately that is how I got this position, in addition to my experience!
How did you come to choose this as your next step?
It was a lot of soul searching, but ultimately what it boiled down to was asking myself, “What am I really good at?” and “What am I happy doing?”
When I was a graduate student or even a postdoc at the bench, I tried to think of the things that I was most excited about. One would be presenting and talking about science and big ideas while working with people. I realized I actually didn’t like doing the experiments but I wanted to look at the data and see what that meant and how we could move forward. I liked interacting, making connections, troubleshooting and building stronger programs. So, once I realized what I enjoyed and where I excelled, I then started looking for careers which incorporated those skills as a major component to them. I looked at science policy and global health, but ultimately program work really encompassed everything that I felt passionate about.
Any last bits of advice? If a trainee is reading this and is hoping to follow a similar path, what would you recommend?
I would recommend that they do some soul searching to figure out what they are happiest doing and what their strong or weak skills are and find a job that fits around that. Take some time to develop those skills even further outside of the lab so that you can put that on your resume and reach out and network.