Please describe your current position.
I serve as a representative for the NINDS Director, communicating policy, managing resources, and guiding the Institute’s scientific and administrative functions to accomplish its mission. In this role, I serve as the Director’s point of contact for a number of high priority projects, by performing analyses, fact finding, and collecting data to inform strategic, policy, and programmatic planning. In addition, I develop written material; data and policy analysis; coordinate communication, policy development, program planning and implementation, and work on a variety of strategic and outreach activities.
How did you learn about your current position?
What I have learned throughout my career search is that the best jobs are the ones that you create for yourself. My position at NINDS did not exist before I started here. I was lucky enough to be selected for a AAAS fellowship at NIH, where I served as a Special Assistant to the NINDS Director for a year before transitioning into my current role as Chief of Staff.
Were any resources (inside or outside your university) particularly helpful in your job search?
As a postdoc, the resources available from the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) were incredibly helpful to me. I talked to career counselors, attended career workshops, and ended up co-chairing the Fellows Committee on Career Development during my postdoc. Many of OITE’s materials, including summaries of past events and webinars, are available on their website for anyone interested in exploring various careers options (https://www.training.nih.gov/career_services).
What was your work or educational background before you were hired?
I have a BS in biology with a specialization in neuroscience from the University of Chicago and a PhD in Anatomical Sciences and Neurobiology from the University of Louisville. I originally came to the DC area for a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism where my research focused on the role of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor in motor system development of zebrafish. During my postdoc at NIH, I developed an interest in science communication and policy. I co-chaired the Fellows Committee on Career Development and the Science Policy Discussion Group, and interned part-time in the Office of Research on Women’s Health. From there I went on to complete a Christine Mirzayan Science Policy & Technology Policy Fellowship at the National Academies’ Forum on Neuroscience and Nervous System Disorders followed by a AAAS Science Policy & Technology Fellowship at NIH where I was placed in the Office of the Director at NINDS.
Which aspects of your background (doctoral training, postdoctoral training, internships, etc.) were required for your position?
What I love about my job is that I think it blends all of the aspects of my background – from my doctoral research in neurodevelopmental disorders to my postdoctoral training, which was focused on basic science to my policy internships both in and outside the NIH. My PhD in neuroscience is absolutely critical to my ability to assess program needs and priorities at the Institute, and I rely on my experience in policy and communication every day to help draft written material and analyses as well as enhance coordination within and outside of NIH for the NINDS Director’s office.
Has your career trajectory followed the path you had expected when you started graduate school?
Not at all! I had no idea what science policy was much less that a scientist could ever have this kind of job. As a graduate student, I knew that I didn’t want to pursue the academic route, but I wasn’t sure what other options were available to a PhD scientist. I loved neuroscience and knew that whatever career I ended up moving into, I wanted it to build off of my knowledge and experience studying the brain. I also really enjoyed writing and wanted my job to involve writing about science for a general audience.
Is there anything about your current job that you had not expected before you were hired?
The sheer volume of meetings and emails on a daily basis! Even for an extrovert like me who loves fast-paced project management, it can be challenging.
How do you spend an average workday?
My average workday is spent in meetings with Institute staff and stakeholders from a variety of communities – academic, industry, nonprofit, advocacy, and other government agencies as well as Congressional members and their staff. If there is time between meetings, it is spent responding to emails or dealing with urgent or emerging issues that require the Director’s attention, drafting communication materials on behalf of the Director or Deputy Director (e.g., slides, letters, etc.), and prioritizing daily as well as long-term projects and initiatives.
What do you like the most about your work?
I love that my daily work is so diverse in terms of the types of work that I do and the kinds of people that I meet. No two days are the same. One day I may be working on a slide set for a talk my Director will be giving at the University of Chicago and the next day I may be representing him in New York at a Disruptive Health Summit on Aging in America. It can be frustrating to come into work in the morning with a plan for the day and have to drop everything to work on an urgent or unexpected issue, but I have learned to be flexible and roll with it. There is never a dull moment!
What do you find the most challenging about your work?
Balancing the needs of the Institute (whether they be scientific or administrative) with other emerging issues.
What skills do you think are absolutely essential for your position?
Strong project management and communication skills are a must in this kind of job. Being able to multi-task is essential, and being organized helps.
Do you think it helps to have a certain personality to do the work you do?
I think it helps to have an outgoing personality for this kind of position, since the day-to-day responsibilities require so many meetings and fast-paced, sometimes high-pressure facilitation and decision making.
At any point, do you regret not having pursued a career in the academic field?
Never. I knew early on that I was not interested in pursuing an academic career and that I wanted to use my skills to support the biomedical research community in other ways. I am so thankful for the opportunity to serve in this position at NIH, where I feel like I am able to impact science in a completely different way.
What advice would you give to someone looking for a position like yours?
If you are interested in a career in science policy or communications, be prepared to put in extra time and effort developing skills away from the bench. For me, that meant writing articles for NIH Research Matters and the Association for Women in Science magazine while I was running a gel, waiting for a PCR, or collecting images on the confocal microscope in the lab. Do your research on the type of position you think are you interested in and talk to people currently in those jobs. Informational interviews were key for me in determining what path and what kind of position I was really interested in pursuing. Finally, understand that failure is part of the process. I applied for tons of jobs and fellowships that I didn’t get. I was disappointed, but I never let it discourage me from applying for the next one.