NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Chief Executive Officer

February 16, 2016

Name: Catherine C. Swanwick, PhD

Job Title & Company: CEO, Catlilli Games

Postdoc Advisor, IC: Dr. Robert Wenthold, NIDCD; PRAT Fellow through NIGMS

What was your career progression like after your postdoc?

Near the end of my postdoc, I wanted to look into details to gain experience away from the bench. I ended up getting a position as a Scientific Writer for a non-profit lab called MindSpec in McLean, VA. This was a good fit for me because I was a neurobiologist and I studied synapse development and regulation at the NIH, so I was able to contribute to the scientific conversations. I started doing bioinformatics research for them, but after a couple of years, I decided I wasn’t getting enough people interaction.

Even though I love research, I am more of a people person and I am more of a big picture person where I like to see the direct impact on people’s lives, so I found a job doing science education at a children’s science center. It was kind of like the Little Gym but for science, so we ran a lot of after school programs, fieldtrips, workshops, taught home school groups. I was there for two years as the Director of the Life Sciences Program. I wrote the entire curriculum for ages 3-14 for biology, chemistry, anything in life sciences. I also taught about 14-15 classes per week. It was a pretty intensive teaching boot camp. I worked really hard and since it had such a large age range, one hour you would be teaching three year olds about density, for example sinking or floating; then the next hour, you would be teaching middle schoolers about wave properties. You really just had to be ready for anything. I invented a lot of the curriculum on the fly based on what was or wasn’t working. I was used to the scientific world where I planned everything out very carefully and teaching wasn’t like that at all. I had to learn to improvise, teach different ages and simplify high-level concepts. I really enjoy bringing that cutting edge research world to kids.

While I was there, one of the things that I loved to do was to make games for my classes. I found it to be the most effective way of teaching kids and getting them to learn without realizing it. I would make up games that weren’t trivia games, but would use scientific concepts for the basis of the game. So, as you are playing it, you learn vocabulary and how things work. I had a colleague who did the same thing and he is a brilliant game designer, who has been really passionate about games his whole life. We started making games together that outside people noticed, like the Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences. After this, we realized there weren’t that many STEM applied games. There are math and trivia games, but not many games focusing on life sciences.

We decided to create our own company and together we co-founded Catlilli Games. The name is a combination of our names because my name is Catherine and his last name is Nardolilli, so that is how we got Catlilli. We formed it in January 2015, so we just celebrated our one year anniversary.

How has it been starting your own company?

I’m not a business person at all, but in many ways my training as a postdoc was like small business training because you learned how to manage people and how to budget as well as how to supervise and organize your time. Running a lab is like running a small business.

I have learned that it is not just science skills that you learn at the NIH, you learn a lot of things like management that are applicable in many jobs. I have learned a lot along the way, but my postdoc at the NIH really gave me a strong foundation.

So, I do the business part and my co-founder, Jon does the game design. It has gone really well because Jon has so many ideas and can just churn out games. In July of last year, we were accepted to George Mason University’s game institute. It is called Virginia Serious Game Institute, which isa business incubator for game companies. The other companies make computer games and we are the only tabletop game company. The mission is to make games that teach people and to make learning fun. The other companies focus on a variety of topics, but at Catlilli we focus on K-12 STEM.

We have residency at George Mason, so we occupy office space and we have business mentorship. It has been life changing for our company. We have quarterly deadlines within our year to help us create business plans and get IP patents and things like that. After a year, we graduate from this program but will most likely stay in residency at George Mason.

How did you learn about this opportunity?

I heard about it through the George Mason Enterprise Center, which help small businesses start. They told me about the game institute because I had never heard of such a thing. Apparently, this is the only one in the country but there are some in England that they modeled themselves after. There are world class computer game designers here, so it is really just remarkable. We applied and I didn’t think they would take us because we didn’t make computer games, but they did and they are really excited about our mission and they think it fills a space that isn’t being hit yet.

Since we’ve been here, we have actually been collaborating with the other companies and have been working to turn our tabletop games into apps that can go along with them. They have really liked working on this because the game mechanics are all worked out before moving on to the digital version.

How do you market your games?

We do a lot of events at museums and at schools and then we’ll sell the games. We also sell a lot to teachers and to home school families. In our first year, we haven’t produced a lot because we have been testing to make sure they are right. After we graduate from the institute in July, we are hoping to get investors to mass produce these games and go for a national market.

What has been the most rewarding part of this new venture?

My dream was to have my own lab. I love academia, research and the lab. I never wanted to go to industry. But, being in this position is like having my own lab — only my lab makes board games.

It is almost exactly the same thing, so it is really fun. We are making board games so we have to design them and plan them and test them and there is a lot of scientific method and analysis as well as communicating results to people. I still feel like I’m using that analytical part of my brain, but I also feel like it is toward something that is immediately applied and useful to people, providing more instant gratification. When I show the games to teachers and kids, it seems like everybody really enjoys them and I see that they learn a lot. They will come in not knowing anything about genetics and then they’ll play one of our games and they will leave talking about dominant and recessive genes and the combinations and what that means. That makes me really happy, especially since I feel like I haven’t wasted my training and I am still doing something that makes a significant impact on people’s lives.

What has been the biggest challenge in starting your own company?

I have no business training. I have had to learn how to write a business plan and do finances and all the really fine details. It has been a steep learning curve but I have really great business mentors at Mason, so that has been comforting. It is still a challenge because it is out of my realm.

What are the most important skills which have enabled you to be successful?

I think communication skills because when I was a postdoc, I loved presenting and writing. I enjoyed synthesizing information and presenting it to people. Knowing and connecting with your audience has gotten me far. When we applied for George Mason, I had to come for an interview; on paper I didn’t look like a good candidate. I am a scientist with no business background and I didn’t make computer games. But, I feel like I convinced them that I was passionate about this and dedicated to STEM education. I think that is what got me into the program. My ability to impress upon people that this is a really important issue and we need to connect the cutting edge science world with the education system and I am uniquely suited to do it.

What advice can you give to a postdoc who would like to pursue a similar path?

A lot of postdocs have the ability to have their own small business. If they are interested at all and are creative and have that initiative, the best thing I did was to volunteer in FELCOM. When I was at the NIH, I was in FELCOM and I co-chaired the Career Development and Social Committee. That taught me so much about how organizations work and how people interact with each other, as well as how formal meetings go. I learned so much from getting outside the lab and getting involved in committee work. That type of experience gave me a lot of practical skills.

What are you the most proud of?

We have gotten two awards recently. We were selected in December by the Washington Post as a semi-finalist in their pitch contest. It was kind of like Shark Tank in a way. They picked ten young start-up companies out of 200 nationwide and we were one of them. We had to go downtown to the Washington Post office and give a one minute pitch to try and win $250,000 in advertising.

Out of all the talks that I have ever given, that was the most stressful ever. I was in front of a crowd of 300 people and there were cameras on me. It was stressful, but giving talks at the NIH – so many posters and so many powerpoints – was really good preparation. I kept telling myself it is just like a science talk and it is just one minute.

Even though we didn’t win, it was really exciting and we got a huge amount of exposure.

Last month, we were chosen as a finalist for the Duke University Startup Challenge. I went to Duke as an undergrad and they have this competition every year since 1999. There is one for undergrads and one for alumni, so we are in the alumni competition. So, we were chosen to be in the finals and we launched a campaign on Indiegogo, a crowdsourcing campaign. We are competing to raise money against other Duke alumni and faculty.

Any last bits of advice?
I wish more postdocs would make the connection between lab and business. I feel that if more postdocs realized this, then they could certainly launch their own biotech startup or whatever it might be. Now that I think about it, George Mason has biotech incubator for businesses that do bench lab work and are trying to get off the ground.

But, I love to work and I am used to that research life where you just work, work, work. I take all of the skills from the lab and I use it here. I have learned how to be self-disciplined through doing my PhD and then doing my postdoc project and I don’t need somebody standing over me telling me to work. I credit a lot of these lab skills with teaching me how to be independent.

My biggest advice is just to not be in the lab all day, especially at NIH where there are so many amazing opportunities that you can’t get anywhere else. Whether it is through volunteering or seminars, get out of the lab.

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NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Biomedical Engineer/Lead Medical Device Reviewer

January 11, 2016

Name: Joshua Chetta, PhD

Job Title & Organization: Biomedical Engineer/Lead Medical Device Reviewer, FDA

Location: White Oak, Silver Spring Md

How long you’ve been in your current job: 1.5 years

Postdoc Advisor, IC (when at NIH): Joseph Frank, Clinical Center

What do you do as an Engineer/Device Reviewer?
I’m in CDRH, the Center for Devices and Radiological Health. Most people know about the FDA in its capacity as a drug regulatory agency, but it also regulates medical devices. Things like implants, pace makers and all the hardware that you would see in a hospital room – all of the monitoring devices. So, the medical devices have their own regulatory pathways. My day to day job is to review applications from companies for clearance to market a device in the U.S. In some cases, those are straightforward applications, especially if there is already a similar device on the market. In other cases, it can be more complicated, especially if it is a new device or a new technology that we haven’t seen before.

How is the workflow structured?
I am in the Dental Device Branch which I wasn’t expecting to be as interesting as it is, but we get a lot of really fascinating stuff sent our way.

A submission will be assigned to an individual reviewer, who will act as the lead reviewer. Depending on the complexity of the device and the submission, the lead reviewer can either handle it on their own or call in others for consult. There are subject matter experts in the FDA whom we can ask for help. So, with respect to the review, there is the science side of it but there is also a project management side of it. I have my deadlines and I have to write my analysis and reports but I also have to get other people’s reports and compile everything to come up with a consensus.

What are the most important skills that you utilize in your current position?

Absolutely communication skills are vital, both oral and written. The ability to talk to people from different backgrounds and not only to make yourself understood but to understand where they are coming from as well. The ability to keep good records is extremely important since everything we do has legal ramifications. It is important to keep track of why decisions were made and the justification for those decisions. Emails, telephone/conference calls all need to be logged. This is essential because a lot of what we do can have an impact down the line. For example, if a device comes out and is questionable or it doesn’t do well, then it needs to be clear why a decision was made, so being meticulous with our written record is pretty important.

Of course the other thing is that you also have to have to look at data, analyze it and synthesize it. Often, you are working with short deadlines, and with test reports that may or may not include all of the information you’d like, or with studies that haven’t necessarily been designed well. A lot of the time, you are trying to do the best you can with what you have. It means relying on the scientific and regulatory knowledge of yourself and others to fill in the gaps. The process involves rigorous scientific analysis as well as trying to navigate through the regulatory framework, to come up with the best rationale to justify a decision. So there are a few constraints that make it interesting.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
There are a lot of really great things about it. First, the people that work here are great. The other reviewers come from different backgrounds. Since we review medical devices, we have everybody from engineers to clinicians, to physicists and chemists. There are all sorts of people here, so you walk down the hall and can ask a microbiologist what he thinks about sterilization. Then, down the hall on the other side is an electrical engineer who you can ask about circuits and software. That is a really, really great aspect of it – that everybody comes from a different background but we are all very much a team.

The other thing that I like is the actual science side of it – it is really interesting. There are a lot of ideas and new technology out there which people are trying to get through. It’s interesting to see how technology is progressing and how these things are moving along.

What has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this career? What are some of the challenges you initially faced?
It might sound silly, but sitting at a desk is really difficult. I was not prepared for that. I’m evaluating the data in applications, so I am pretty much at a computer most of the day. I’ve found that being at a computer can be tiring. It is not the same as being in a lab where you are running around and doing different things all the time.

The other thing, which I probably should have expected, is coming in and not knowing much. It has been difficult, but thankfully the people that I work with are all amazing. There’s a lot of experience in my branch and everybody is incredibly generous with their time and answering questions. There’s a sense that they have all been here before and we are all in this together. I like that curiosity encouraged here. However, being the new guy and dealing with the steep learning curve has been humbling.

How did you come to choose this as your next step?
I knew after my postdoc that I didn’t necessarily want to go into academic science. I had kind of burned out on basic, or even translational research. I realized I wasn’t really cut out for it. I like this because it is very much on the application side of medical research and science. It is as close as you can get to helping change the way that medicine is practiced in the United States, by making sure that new technology gets out to market quickly, but that the data supporting it is strong. From my background as a biomedical engineer, this seemed like a really interesting way to bridge that gap between the social relevance of science and what we do in the lab. I thought that was going to be cool and it has been.

What was your job search like?
I knew people here, so that helped. My wife has actually worked at the FDA for a few years and the fact that she liked her job so much made this seem like an attractive possibility, because I wasn’t necessarily thinking regulatory science until I heard her and her friends from work talk about it. It was definitely helpful to know people.

Also, I used OITE. I used LinkedIn. Lori Conlan (Director of Postdoc Services at OITE) helped connect me to people and I actually ended up getting a few job offers at the same time. So, like people say – network, network, network.

What was your interview like and how did you prepare for it?
I did many, many practice interviews at OITE, which were all really helpful. I met with OITE to learn about what types of questions to expect and how to prepare to answer them. I find interviewing to be very intimidating, because selling myself is not a skill that I have much experience with. So I have found that practice is really important, in order to figure out how to get my points across succinctly and clearly.

The interview itself focused on creative problem solving and how I would go about doing things given certain situations, or how I had solved problems in the past, so it was actually a fun interview. It didn’t seem to focus so much on skill sets as much as personality and problem solving approach. The focus here is on having a broad scientific knowledge and a willingness to learn. Meeting with everybody and the interview process definitely sold me on the job.

Advice for somebody hoping to go down a similar path?
It’s tough coming from academic research, because unless you’ve been involved in the regulatory side of product development, or maybe tech transfer, I don’t think most of us have had experience with regulatory science. I guess if you worked at a regulatory consultancy or law firm that deals with shepherding applications through the FDA and the regulatory process in general that could help; however, at the reviewer level, there is an understanding that most people come in without much of a background in the regulatory side of things. The important part is to demonstrate broad scientific literacy, competency, and a willingness to learn new things and put yourself in a position where you aren’t going to have all the answers.

With that being said, I should have done more research on the regulatory process prior to my interview. I talked with my wife a lot and she explained the broad process to me. But there are resources on the FDA’s website intended to describe the process to industry, and I would recommend that people interested in working here take some time to reveiw those. But still, until you do it, it will all be theoretical and the nuts and bolts of it are often more complicated than it sounds.

How long was your search and if you had to do it again, would you change anything about your job search?

One of my problems was that I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do. Coming from an academic science/research background, the academic path seemed clearly marked out. Anything other than that was unknown. I took advantage of the courses and seminars which OITE offered because a lot of them focused on non-bench career options. Even after that though, I still didn’t necessarily know what I wanted to do, so it would have been nice to nail down a direction a little bit sooner.

I was seriously looking for a job for at least 9 months before I finally got any offers and I was looking in a less serious way for well over a year. It was a reasonably drawn out process, but if I had figured myself out more, it might have helped me identify my options sooner. At the same time, that exploration process was important as well.

Any last bits of advice?
You know, I was told this many times but it didn’t really hit home until after the fact. However, the thing that everybody says about networking and putting yourself out there and exploring different options is really important. I struggled for a while trying to find insight into what I was looking for and that only came after a long process, so try to embark upon that sooner rather than later. Finding a good job was (for me) about knowing myself and what I was looking for in order to find something fulfilling.


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Biologist

November 2, 2015

Name: Juliane Lessard, PhD

Job Title & Company: Biologist, FDA, Center for Devices and Radiological Health

Location: White Oak, MD

How long you’ve been in your current job: 1 year

Postdoc Advisor, IC: Dr. Maria Morasso, NIAMS

What do you do as a Biologist?
I mostly review pre-market regulatory submissions for in vitro diagnostic tests, which are considered medical devices. My division gets many different types of pre-market submissions (e.g., PMA, 510k) depending on the type of device and the type of test. My supervisor will assign me a submission and I then begin the review process. I work with product specialists, other reviewers in the division, and management to get a good idea of what we need, evaluate performance data to identify any potential safety issues, and determine what we should ask the industry sponsor to provide for us in order to complete the review. I also interact with the industry sponsor directly to clarify issues, request updates to the material, etc. Within a pre-determined time frame, we will decide whether the submission contains any deficiencies too significant for us to continue our review at that time. If so, we issue a hold letter with a list of items that the sponsor needs to address in order for us to continue our review. Or, if there are no deficiencies, I recommend approval or clearance of the submission and if management is in agreement, the sponsor can go ahead and market their product.

What are the most important skills that you utilize in your current position?

I do a lot of reading and a lot of writing. There are memos for everything and because I interact with the industry sponsors directly, it is very important to be able to write clearly. There is a highly specific way to write in regulatory affairs, which was a pretty steep learning curve for me coming to the FDA. I read probably a couple of hundred pages a day. It can be easy to get lost in the details, so it is really important to be able to extract the important points from a submission while keeping the big picture in mind. I would say this is very similar to manuscript reviewing for publication in journals.

How did you get up to speed on the regulatory affairs writing style?
The way it is done in my division (and in most other offices at the FDA), I was assigned a mentor who was different from my direct supervisor. In the beginning, that mentor worked with me on all of my submissions. She would edit my language and offer suggestions on how to word things. She would also provide examples for me to look at how certain issues had been addressed previously. This mentor worked closely with me for the first six months and my direct supervisor would meet with me every other week to go over any transition issues. In addition, I completed several months of coursework as part of the Reviewer Certification Program, which is a requirement for new reviewers in the Center for Devices and Radiological Health.

Other than the writing style, what has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this career?
One of the hardest things to adjust to was the amount of reading that I do. I also sit in front of a computer all day. There is no getting up and doing experiments and then sitting back down. A lot of the work is very deadline driven. This wasn’t a problem in the beginning, but now that I have more parallel submissions to work on, it is very important to schedule my timelines well. In the lab, I could just do an experiment next week or not look at it for another month, so my current work is a lot less flexible than time management in the lab.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
I really love how diverse the work is and how relevant it is to public health. It is very rewarding for me to know that my work has a much more immediate impact than what I was working on when I was on the research side at the NIH. For example, I can go to the drug store and see some of the over the counter devices that we regulate. Our division reviews pregnancy tests, so when I see those, I think, “Oh, look at that – I am part of the pathway for this product to be on the market in the US!”

What was your job search like?
It started when I met with OITE pretty early on during my postdoc. I did all of those personality tests, but what really helped me was Science Career’s IDP. I knew I didn’t want to go into academia and I was looking for something that was a little more family friendly. One of the top hits from the IDP report was in Quality Assurance and Regulatory Affairs, and I didn’t know anything about it really. Then I remembered that I had met somebody from the FDA when I was in grad school. I looked her up and found out that she was still at the FDA. She invited me to come over to see the office for an informational interview and she gave me a couple more people to talk to. I started doing a lot of informational interviews in this area. I also used LinkedIn and found several alums not only from grad school but also from my college who now work as regulatory reviewers at the FDA. Most people were really willing to talk on the phone or in person for a couple of minutes. I made up a short questionnaire so I could ask everybody similar questions.

Eventually, one of my informational interviewees showed my resume to her supervisor and I was invited for an interview. I was originally hired as a Staff Fellow, which is a Title 42 direct hire position. After I had my interview, I had to submit a formal application for this position. A Staff Fellow is term-limited (for two years), so I continued applying for review positions in my division through USAJobs after I started at the FDA. After a few tries, I was successful and my Staff Fellow appointment was converted to a more permanent (GS) position as a Biologist.

What resume tips can you share?
One of the things I learned from my informational interviews was to highlight the following skills: time management, critical thinking, writing skills, presentation skills, and team work. For my resume, I tried to incorporate most of these skills into my qualifications summary on my resume. It also helped to highlight a lot of manuscript review experience because that is very similar to pre-market review work at the FDA.

What was your interview like?
It was a group interview. The way our division is structured is that we have several branch chiefs, kind of like lab heads. All of the branch chiefs were there. It was mostly based on my resume and they asked me questions on my background and what kind of lab techniques I was trained in, as well as questions on how I manage my time and why I wanted to work at the FDA. Overall, pretty standard questions and it was only a one round interview.

You have to have a lot of patience with the government hiring process, even with Title 42. For me, I interviewed in May and didn’t hear officially that I was going to be hired until the end of September. I have heard from others that generally the process takes about four months after a successful interview.

You did a lot of research and informational interviews about this field. Now that you are in it, is this work what you anticipated? Any surprises?
The type of work was expected, but the details weren’t. I didn’t realize how many different types of submissions we would get. There is a really big span from engineering to clinical trials to basic chemistry.

In hindsight, would you have done anything differently in your job search?
I would have started earlier. The postdoc helped in terms of the work experience, but not in terms of the technical knowledge. Part of me wishes I had explored this career option in graduate school in more detail.

For somebody, hoping to go down a similar path, do you have any last bits of advice?
My advice to others is to start early because it can take a long time to find an opening and to find somebody who needs a reviewer. Plus, it takes a while to get through the hiring process.


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Assistant Professor

July 27, 2015

**TWO-PART SERIES — Part 2: Job Search**

Name: Veronica Irvin

Job Title & Organization:  Assistant Professor; Oregon State University, College of Public Health

Location: Corvallis, Oregon

What was your job search like?
I really did want to get back to academia but I was also realistic that I might not be able to. I definitely had other career options in mind because I knew how difficult it was to find a tenure-track faculty position. Not only that, my position is actually hard money, which is even harder to find.

So, I tried to keep my options open in terms of career field, but I was also willing to move anywhere in the country. If you are fixed on a certain geographic area, that can be limiting. While I was at the NIH, I really focused on publications. I didn’t have any grants going to the university. Coming from the NIH, there was only one mechanism that I could apply through which was the K’s and the university was very forgiving of that because they also realized that by being at the NIH, I was aware of the grant process. So, during my postdoc, I focused on publications and that did matter quite a bit. I know that is what everyone says but it really is that way. It is just easier for them to see what you have done and to count. I also think that networking is important, but networking only takes you so far. My postdoc advisor could help me look at job postings and let me know if he knew anybody in that department or university and what that might actually mean when you look at the job descriptions. He helped me decipher the nuances between them and would help point me to his contacts at universities and on search committees.

Can you tell us about your timeline? How early did you begin your job search?
I attended almost every single training that I could from OITE. I cannot say how helpful they were. Specifically, I went to one that Sharon Milgram facilitated on Applying for Tenure Track Positions. She had mentioned that you should apply one year before you are ready, and I think that is some of the best advice I have ever been given. You have to apply to tenure track positions in the fall, almost one year prior to starting. So, I applied one year before I was ready and it was a great experience because you have to write your research statement and teaching philosophy. It was a great activity to sit down and realize where my holes were and how I wanted to try and focus my next year’s work in my postdoc. It took a lot of time to put together an application for a tenure track position, so I was glad that I started a year out. My postdoc advisor told me that you should consider this: every position that you apply for is one less paper you will get because of the amount of time you have to spend tailoring your application for that university and the job description. I think that helped me a lot because I went online and read a lot about OSU and I knew people who worked there, so I asked them a lot about it. So, applying one year before you are ready is really useful because you get to see what goes into preparing a tenure track application and then it still gives you a year to fill in the holes that you see in your application for the next year. And what happened for me is I actually ended up getting the job during my first year of applying. When I wrote the application, I never thought I was actually going to get this job but I was still so happy I did it because it really did help me focus.

You mentioned publications mattered a lot in your academic job search. Does that mean the quantity, quality or both?
I know this is hard to hear but for a research position or for a research-intensive university, it is still so true. Everyone says both, but it is hard to do it all. First of all, it is really hard to get into really good journals. For example, I don’t have any papers in Science or Nature or JAMA and you don’t necessarily have to have that. I think that one paper in JAMA or Science will help you tremendously. So, I had multiple papers in the next level journal and I still think that they were very good journals but they weren’t the top seven. For me, it was having multiple papers in journals that matched the research disciplines I was focusing on.

What was the interview like?
So, everything happened very quickly for me. This university posted early, the due date was October 15th. I was called within a week for references and then a week later for a phone interview. I did a phone interview with four to five individuals probably a month after I applied and then I heard back two weeks later for an in-person interview.

I flew out in January for the two-day interview process. Essentially, it was from 7:30 am to 7:00 pm each day. I met with someone for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In between meals, every moment was scheduled with meeting and interviews. I started off with the search committee and then the directors of the school. Then I did a presentation about my research which was an hour total. Next, I had an interview with the dean and I also met with a bunch of different faculty from within my school. The deans and directors asked a lot of questions about productivity and what courses I could teach and ideas for the future. The other faculty I met with were really trying to assess if I was going to be a good colleague. These interviews were a lot more low key and more about trying to see if you have common research interests. My feeling about those interviews was that they were trying to see if I was going to be a good fit and if I was going to be able to contribute to meetings and communicate with them. Some concerns could arise if there was nobody that you could collaborate with on your research. If that was the case, then that could be a hiring downside.

Is there anything you wish you had known going into this interview?
No, because I had asked a lot of people about their experiences interviewing and I also practiced interviewing at the OITE. I also went over my research presentation with people who had interviewed and/or worked in academia, so I wasn’t really surprised by anything in the interview process. But one question that others had warned me about getting and which I actually got in my interview was, “How do you bring diversity into the classroom? How do you bring diversity to your research?” Diversity was undefined and vague.

In hindsight, would you have changed anything about your search? Any last bits of advice?
My job search worked really well and I was fortunate to get a job during my first year of applying, but even if that hadn’t happened, I am so happy I started a year out. I can’t say how helpful that was in focusing me during my last year of my postdoc. I took the advice of applying a year before I was really ready, so everything felt like practice to me. Actually, during my interview, I felt really calm because I didn’t think I was going to get the job and I thought it was just good practice. My postdoc advisor gave me great advice before I flew out for the interview, he said, “Just have fun.” At this stage, they aren’t flying you if they really don’t like you and they aren’t trying to embarrass you. It helped take the stress off because I met so many people during my interview and there was no way I could know everybody’s research background.

In terms of advice: I would try to talk to faculty at the university within the same college or school who have the same dean because they will have a sense about how decisions are made regarding teaching load and money goes within the college/school. Talk to people (of course they can’t be on the search committee) to see what advice they would give. Once you have a phone interview, you will know who is on the search committee. I would look for other people and call or email them, or even better ask colleagues for referrals. That way you can know what kind of support they got their first year and it will make it clearer for you.

***

Last week, we posted Part 1 – Job Overview.

 


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Assistant Professor

July 22, 2015

**TWO-PART SERIES — Part 1: Job Overview**

Name: Veronica Irvin

Job Title & Organization:  Assistant Professor; Oregon State University, College of Public Health

Location: Corvallis, Oregon

How long you’ve been in your current job: Started in September 2014, so I’m in my second term.

What is your role as an Assistant Professor like?
It’s a tenured track position, broken up between teaching, advising, research, scholarship and service. The first few years I have a reduced teaching load to get introduced to the system and develop my course syllabi.

What courses are you teaching?
This term I am teaching Program Evaluation for MPH students where they design an evaluation plan for a real-world health program. They work with a stakeholder in the community at a health department, a non-profit or a community organization, who is implementing a health program. The students design an evaluation that fits around the needs and the timing of the project, including some of their outcomes. It gives the students experience working within the community and a realistic picture about what timing and financial constraints are in a real-world setting.

The other course is a writing class for undergraduate students. In our university, they want to give students a chance to learn writing not only from the English Department but also learn what is common in your specific genre or discipline. Seniors will actually do a writing course with non-English department faculty to learn writing methods. The university actually provided me with a course on how to learn about teaching writing.

How did you come to choose this as the next step after your postdoc? Has a tenure track faculty position always been your goal?
I have always been leaning toward academia. That is where I was from prior to my postdoc. I really enjoyed my postdoc at the NIH and I was really thinking about whether I wanted to stay in more of an administrative role within research or go back to academia. In academia, I really liked the idea of working with students one-on-one and I liked the prospect of having a little bit more freedom about what your research will focus on. I really did miss working with students which is what I had done prior to the NIH as a graduate student.

What do you consider the most important skills that you utilize in this role?
Definitely writing skills and it is important to listen and understand the priorities of not only the students you are working with but also with the community organizations you are engaging. If I really want a student to have another opportunity with a community organization or a clinic, I really have to stop and think, “Why would this clinic want this student?” I need to make sure it wouldn’t be a time burden for them and analyze the benefit that each party could receive from this partnership.

What about soft skills?
How to write effective emails and how to have a one-on-one discussion with a student are some skills I use a lot. Many times, things come up in a student’s personal life which they have to come and talk to you about. Or, it can be a discussion on grades and having to explain why they may or may not get an ‘A.’ So, I think those conversation skills and being able to respond to emails whether it is department-wide or between you and a student are very important.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
I really enjoy engaging with the students and working to tailor the program for each student. There are some students who want to do more statistics/design versus students that want to do more community outreach/organization. It helps to tailor their courses and research experiences to help them be better prepared to land a job.

The university is the number one employer in the community so there are a lot of bonds between the university and the community, which is great. For me, it has been a process of starting slow and trying to make and establish those connections. That has taken a few months and I am still not quite there yet, but relationship building can take time.

What has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this career?
Moving the research that I was doing at the NIH and trying to get it started up here. Finding out what will and what won’t work here has been challenging. One of the challenges is that we are located in a smaller city so for a lot of health promotion or public health research, you are now working with a smaller representation of the population. I have been trying to adapt whether I can do some of the research from OSU but with a population that lives elsewhere or can I tailor some of my research questions to match the population that lives here.

How has the orientation to this role been? What has the process been like for new faculty and how have you been supported?
There are lots of orientations and at our university, they gave us no teaching the first term in order to give us time to go to all of these new meetings, whether it was meeting with the IRB or others.

But it is important to note that I asked about this during my interview. It is important to ask good questions during your interview. My university actually has a formal mentoring program for new assistant professors. So, when I came in the fall, they worked with me to identify two faculty members who I wanted to work with for either teaching or research. So, I meet with them separately at least once every other month. The goal is to become tenured in five years, so they also help you make sure you are on the right track for that. I speak with my mentors about what I have done and my goals for the rest of the year so that I can make sure I have had a successful first year on the track to becoming tenured.

***

Next week, we will post Part 2 – Job Search.


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Program Specialist

February 23, 2015

Name: Becky Roof, PhD

Job Title & Organization: Program Specialist, NINDS

Postdoc Advisor, IC: Dr. David Sibley, NINDS (from 2008-2012)

How long you’ve been in your current job: I’ve been in my current position a little over two years; however, I also spent six months here on a detail. I was in the same office but working for a different program.

How did you find this detail?
I did a google search for offices that were doing cool things and I contacted people. A lot of people ignored me but one person responded and then I interviewed for a detail. I had been frustrated at the time because I had been trying to get a job through USAJobs and I felt like I had useful transferable skills but I couldn’t say that I had actually done the stuff that I wanted to do.

How did your detail turn into a full-time/permanent position?
I ended up doing a full-time detail in the office for six months and then when a position opened up in the office, I was able to say that I had done that work, so I was able to get through the USAJobs process when I applied.

What do you do as a Program Specialist?
I work in the Office of Translational Research in NINDS. I work in two programs that give grants to researchers looking to translate their basic science findings into something that will benefit patients with neurological disorders. One program that I work with is called IGNITE, which is very new. It stands for Innovative Grants to Nurture Initial Translational Efforts. It is an early stage program to help people get ready for later-stage translational programs which we already have up and running in our office. And the second program is the Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR program. This is a congressionally mandated program that spans eleven federal agencies.

The role of program in this is writing the funding opportunities, advising the applicants, and making funding recommendations to council based primarily on review comments. I help with moving grants through that process. I also help with things like workshops, websites, twitter, managing the budget, and doing analyses.

What are the most important skills that you utilize in your current position?
I’m going to break this up into two different categories because I remember being a postdoc and trying to think about what skills I had that were transferable and what skills I needed to develop.

One thing I do a lot of which I didn’t do much of in the lab is working as a team. Everything I do is very dependent on other people and they depend on me a lot more than when I was in the lab. Everything is done as a committee and everything is decided as a group. There are a lot of interpersonal skills and teamwork that I do now that I didn’t do much of in the lab.

Another thing that I do a lot of now, which I didn’t do much of before is juggling a lot of different tasks. Before, in an interview, I would say, “Sure, I can multitask because I can run two different experiments at a time.” Now, I have way more balls in the air than I did before and that was something that I had to learn.

Some of the things that I do now which are very transferable from what I did in the lab include: analysis, critical thinking, and being able to work in a very detail-oriented but also big picture way. Right now, I manage budgets and I move grants through the process and that is all very detail-oriented and you really can’t let anything fall through the cracks. However, I also do a lot of big picture thinking. For example I helped with the planning of a whole new program. Another example is thinking about how to best do outreach or to help grantees continue to succeed after their grant is done. There are a lot of big issues, which is really fun. It is also something that I did in the lab. I had to plan these individual experiments while thinking about how this fits into the big picture.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
It’s very challenging, but there are some really cool things. It is really cool to see a very broad view of science. In the lab, I was very focused on one receptor but now there are hundreds of diseases within the mission of NINDS and I see grants looking at a range from drug development to diagnostics to devices — all kinds of things. It is a really diverse portfolio and it is really cool to see a very broad view of neuroscience. It’s also really cool that I feel like we can shape the landscape of science. When we put out a new funding opportunity announcement, it can encourage scientists to go in a new direction. In that way, we can shape the field in a much broader way than when I was in the lab. I also really like supporting science; if somebody that we supported succeeds, I can feel proud that, in some small way, I helped make that happen. I will never be in the spotlight for the discovery but I had some role to play in bringing that to patients and that is exciting to me.

What has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this career? What are some of the challenges you face?
Oh, it is an extremely different environment. It was a hard transition. It’s drinking from the fire hose here. The whole grant process is very complicated and there are a lot of details that you can’t drop. It’s just a very different world. Learning how government works was different as well; for example, trying to set up a workshop can require HHS approval, which can take twelve months. Learning the limitations of what can and can’t be done and then looking for creative ways to work within the system is challenging. There are just many things that you have to learn. Plus, you are working with so many other people and you aren’t just doing your own thing.

Being on detail was also a struggle for me in that it is a temporary assignment – you only have a three month MOU and my job back in the lab was gone. That was a struggle because I didn’t have a lot of stability at that time.

How did you come to choose this as your next step, including the process of deciding to pursue a detail?
Well, it was kick started when my mentor was running out of money for me, which I think happens to a lot of postdocs. I followed the advice of your office and even though I am an introvert by nature, I contacted a lot of people and did a lot of informational interviews to learn about a lot of different kinds of jobs. I talked to people in government but I also talked to people in nonprofits. At NIH, I talked to people in review and in program. After hearing about a lot of different things, I decided that program work sounded really exciting. Once I made that decision, then I started the process of applying to jobs and like I mentioned that didn’t work out and I eventually started looking for the detail.

Any last bits of advice?
I was pretty shy about talking to people I didn’t know, like a friend of a friend or a complete stranger for an informational interview. I really hesitated to do it, but your office suggested that I do it and so I did. And, it really made all the difference. That is really how I found out what I wanted to do and it is how I got the detail. My best advice is to not be shy about doing that.


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Scientific Program Manager

October 27, 2014

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.