Interview with Sarah Ahlbrand, PhD – Medical Writer at Technical Resources International, Inc.

Dr. Ahlbrand
Dr. Ahlbrand, Medical Writer

Twitter can be a great platform for learning about careers outside of academia as a graduate student. I have been fortunate to follow the journey of several professionals in the tri-state area as they completed their graduate degrees and opted for careers that took them outside of the lab. Sarah Ahlbrand (@seahlbrand) is one of these fantastic professionals. She currently works as a medical writer for Technical Resources International, Inc. where she supports clinical trials in oncology. She received her PhD from University of Maryland College Park studying tuberculosis pathogenesis. When not tweeting about #scicomm or #lifebeyondthebench, she connects with her audience by sharing her love of puppies and tea. I had the opportunity of connecting with Dr. Ahlbrand to ask her about her career path and what it means to work as a medical writer.

  1. Tell me a little bit about your educational background and how you got to this point?

I obtained my B.S. in Biology from Roanoke College in 2012 and started my PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Maryland (UMD). While I was in graduate school, there were certain aspects of lab work and research that I enjoyed, but I also felt very bogged down by failed experiments, troubleshooting, and the “politics” of academia. Since UMD is near to Washington DC, I decided to take advantage of the opportunities in the area as a way to boost myself up when grad school became difficult.  I started attending networking events and workshops to learn more about non-academic careers in the biomedical field and found that I was really interested in jobs focusing on medical affairs.  I completed my PhD in August 2017 and was fortunate enough to start a job in medical writing about two weeks later.

  1. What experiences during your graduate education helped prepare you for your current career?

The ability to multitask and manage different projects at the same time!  At my current job it’s very rare to work on just one project at a time, which is fairly similar to my lab experiences.  Being able to prioritize tasks and juggle different responsibilities is a huge skill.

Also, being able to look at a publication and quickly abstract key information.  During my PhD I rarely had the time to sit and read papers from beginning to end. A valuable skill that I learned was being able to skim a paper and quickly locate the information I needed.  Same thing for medical writing—I often need to quickly read publications describing the results from clinical trials and summarize the results from those publications in documents that will go to the FDA.

  1. What does an average day look like for you?

It really depends!  Some of my main responsibilities are writing up reports summarizing key findings/adverse events from investigational cancer drug clinical trials and reviewing clinical trial protocols for compliance.  However, a lot of what I do on a day-to-day basis is dependent on what is requested from the medical officers we work with at the National Cancer Institute.

  1. Do you find it hard to find work-life balance in your current career?

I find I have a much better work/life balance now than I did during graduate school.  I work from 8:00-4:30, and after that put my work down and typically don’t worry about it until the next day.  Having the weekends free is also a nice perk!  Of course, there are times where deadlines can be demanding and you need to put in a bit more time, but that hasn’t been typical from my experience thus far.

  1. What do you think is currently lacking in graduate education that students need to focus on to reach their goals after graduation, specifically with regards to careers outside of academia?

Students need to realize that if they want a career outside of academia they need to develop and showcase their “soft skills”.  Being able to pipette into fifteen 96-well plates in under 2 minutes is impressive, but employers often look for candidates with communication, leadership, and project management skills.  This often means that students need to get involved in activities outside of the lab to hone these skills.

That being said, my biggest advice to graduate students is to start planning early for your career.  Look up job ads for potential jobs you might be interested in, write down the qualifications they’re looking for, and work toward obtaining those skills.  Conduct informational interviews with people in potential fields that you’re interested in—it’s very rare that people will say “no” if you ask to talk to them for 30 minutes!  The biggest mistake I see people make is waiting until the middle of their 5th or 6th years to start career planning—it’s never too early to start thinking about what’s next!  It might seem scary and burdensome, but you will be much better off as you’re finishing up your graduate work.

  1. Any thoughts on where you might be 5 years from now?

Not 100% sure, but I’d like to delve more into project management or medical science liaison-type work.  Right now, I’m soaking up as much information about drug development and pharmaceutical fields as I can, and from there we’ll see!

  1. What are best and worst features of your current job?

The best part of my job is the fact that I’m still working on the forefront of scientific discovery and drug development but I don’t have to do the science itself.  It’s also a great feeling to know that the work I’m doing is helping to support the discovery and development of new cancer therapeutics that will hopefully go toward prolonging patients’ lives.

I wouldn’t call it the “worst” thing ever, but the hardest part of my current job is sitting all day as opposed to constantly running around the lab doing experiments.  Most of my work also consists of staring at a computer, so sometimes it can also be a strain on the eyes.  I make sure to take occasional breaks to walk around outside or around the office—it really helps!

 

The 2Actify Experience – Updating your LinkedIn Profile for Successful Career Development

This post was written following my participation in the 2Actify Online course offered by the iJOBS program from July 17 to September 15, 2017

We have all been there: you’re attending iJOBS and (Alliance for Career Advancement) ACA events to learn about potential career options, you’re updating your resume and curriculum vitae to be ready for that first application, but then you suddenly hit a brick wall when you realize your LinkedIn profile hasn’t been updated since college (ack!!).

I was in this exact situation just a couple of months ago and I had no idea what to do with my online professional profile. There were so many people I could see on LinkedIn with fantastic profiles, but I felt like my profile just couldn’t compete. Apart from feeling so negatively about my profile, I also did not have the tools to even begin to improve my LinkedIn page. When the iJOBS program offered Rutgers students the opportunity to take the 2Actify online course for online networking, I wasted no time in putting my name down.

The online course is offered in 4 sessions and also may include a one-on-one profile review with founder, Penny Pearl. Initially I was not sure what I would gain from this experience and more importantly, if I would be able to implement the necessary changes to improve my LinkedIn page. I am happy to say, however, that the 2Actify course was thorough and the necessary information was delivered in very manageable chunks.

-Career-seekers who build relationships through networking are preparing themselves for career advancement.

The first session covered the importance of how to use LinkedIn as a networking tool and engage with the online community. Ms. Pearl mentions the best methods to make connections online and how to reach out to new people, which is critical for growing your network. In the second session, the course discusses how to create a magnetic profile. This session was the most beneficial to me considering the sorry state of my online profile and my negative feelings towards it. In this session, you learn pro-tips for how to attract people to your profile by perfecting every detail, from your headshot to your headline, and even how best to use media and recommendations as part of your profile.

In the third session of the program, Ms. Pearl takes you through integrating online networking into your regular routine and how to use companies and groups such as alumni networks to continue to build your connections. In the fourth and final session, you are taught the keys to being a standout candidate. More fine-tuned tips for developing relationships online, staying engaged with content that is posted in your feed, and how to use professional groups to expand your network, are provided in this session.

After going through the 2Actify program and using the steps outlined as part of the program, I could see my LinkedIn page transform from an ugly caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly. I felt like a true grown-up with a reliable tool for networking and getting to the next step in my post-graduate school goals. What I enjoyed most about the 2Actify program is that the final product is easily tangible; you see the results instantly and are compelled to continue networking and improving your profile.

I was curious at the end of the program about how this all started, what compelled Ms. Pearl to put together such a first-class product, and how this great opportunity was brought to the iJOBS program. I contacted Ms. Pearl after completing the 2Actify program to get answers to some of these questions and also hear her thoughts on networking as a graduate student or post-doc.

  1. Tell us about your background.

With Rutgers as my alma mater, I was pleased that 2Actify was a successful pilot program for iJOBS as PhDs prepare for their entry into a professional environment.

After graduating from Rutgers University with a Bachelor in Science, my early career included business development and training for technology companies.  I later founded a start-up company that sold healthy desserts online and through Whole Foods.

As my career advanced, so did my skills as an online networker, lead generator and certified business coach for corporations and entrepreneurs. I founded Bear2Bull Coaching and trained growth companies and corporate leaders on techniques for online lead generation. This proven system evolved into the 2Actify program.

  1. What prompted you to start 2Actify?

I was approached by the director of a university master’s program.  She was interested in teaching her students how to find a good job in their field of study upon graduation.

Using the 2Actify program had tremendous impact.  Students who completed the program had job offers prior to (or within 2 months of) graduation. The program was so successful in the first class that the program director has incorporated 2Actify into her curriculum.

I was able to introduce the 2Actify program to Janet Alder and the iJOBS program through a referral by a professional in my online network.  This connection was a perfect example of how strategic online networking can open the right doors.

  1. How has networking changed over the years?

Networking has always been important, but in many fields today, online networking is as—if not more—important than in-person networking. Candidates need to market themselves online as an alternative to applying through job boards.

Career-seekers who build relationships through networking are preparing themselves for career advancement. Further, by networking online, a candidate can find opportunities anywhere in the world.

  1. Currently, graduate programs do not really incorporate networking skills into their curriculum. Why is networking an important skill to learn as students graduate and enter the “real world”?

Networking skills should be incorporated into the curriculum well before students are ready to seek employment.

Relationship building can impact career readiness as early as high school, and should be encouraged by parents, schools, and professors since:

  1. The skills learned through networking enhance the “soft skills” that employers seek today (such as communication, problem solving, and teamwork).
  2. Relationship-building skills open doors for internships, mentoring, career opportunities, and referrals. A track record that includes internships and work experience makes early-career professionals more marketable.
  3. Today’s job-seeking landscape is not tipped in favor of the candidate unless they become a skilled communicator and build relationships. Networking helps find a job today and lays a foundation for career advancement.
  4. Scientists often have a reputation for being awkward or shy when it comes to networking. What three tips can you recommend to those of us who find networking difficult?

While taking the first step may feel huge, once you “get into it” you’ll find that networking is extremely gratifying—even fun!

My 3 tips are:

  1. Focus on the outcomes of building relationships for your future career, not just a current job.
  2. Communicate WHAT you do, HOW you do it, and WHO you do it for so the professionals you’ve targeted see how they can benefit from meeting you. Include a professional profile photo. Remember, your online profile is your marketing “brochure”!
  3. Create a routine of reaching out to professionals who can help advance your career. Begin with a request for a connection.  When they see that your profile aligns with their interests, many will connect with you.  You can then ask for an introduction.

The 2Actify program teaches a step-by-step system on how to strategically network online to build relationships and propel your career.  The program is delivered through a series of online training videos (available 24/7), live webinars, and supplemental coaching. Motivated career-seekers learn concepts and techniques that help them land a rewarding position faster, create future career opportunities, and master online communication skills.

The 2Actify program was piloted and proved its value with Rutgers iJOBS participants.

The program evaluation scored an average of 4.5 (with “5” as best):

For more information on how iJOBS participants can access 2Actify contact Janet Alder at janet.alder@rutgers.edu.

Penny Pearl, Founder and CEO

Penny@2Actify.com

530 277 7037

https://2actify.com/

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Follow up with Dr. Thomas Magaldi, PhD

This post was written as a follow up to the iJOBS event on August 29 with Dr. Thomas Magaldi discussing career preparation for graduate students and postdocs.

Dr. Magaldi led a very personable and informative discussion on August 29 at Rutgers Newark with current postdoc and graduate students regarding their career goals and how to prepare for the next step in our journey after graduate school. He took time to ask each individual person in the room what their plans were for the future and recommend pointed strategies for how to advance to the next stage. Interests ranged from tenure-track positions in academia, to scientist positions in industry, to medical writing, and science policy.

The Humble PhD and Postdoc seminar with Thomas Magaldi, PhD.
The Humble PhD and Postdoc seminar with Thomas Magaldi, PhD.

He recommended that, for starters, everyone should:

  1. Complete an IDP (or use a similar tool such as Strength Finder)
  2. Explore the career you are interested in pursuing
  3. Conduct a skills assessment to come up with a plan

When you have completed these tasks, you will be ready for the last step: applying for a job.

IDPs are now required by the NIH for all graduate students who receive federal funding, so completing the first step on Dr. Magaldi’s checklist should be easy. A few ways to address the second item on the list—exploring career options—include informational interviews and networking, especially on LinkedIn and with Rutgers alumni. If you need a refresher on how to conduct an informational interview, check out one of our previous posts. There are also professional organizations that can be good sources of information such as the American Medical Writers Association. For example, one student at the event discussed her experience in conducting informational interviews to learn about the different aspects of medical writing such as freelancing, working for a pharmaceutical company, and informational writing. Dr. Magaldi stressed the importance of informational interviews as part of career exploration and explained that most people you meet will want to help you.

After going over the basics with all the attendees, Dr. Magaldi took the time to specifically ask each person about what point they were in the above process. In return, he recommended some next steps. Overall, he was extremely knowledgeable and engaging by combining his own experience in finding his career path with tested advice he has offered other students in similar situations.

I don’t think there was a single person who walked away from the seminar feeling that they could not achieve their immediate career goals and succeed in life post-Rutgers. Given that the time we spent with Dr. Magaldi was limited, I followed up with him after the event to learn more about his own career path and views on the current state of graduate education.

  1. What experiences during your graduate education helped prepare you for your current career? You mentioned during the Rutgers-Newark event that as a graduate student, you followed the more traditional path from graduate school to post-doc and were very unhappy with this experience. What impact did those events have in getting you to where you are now?

I knew early on in my graduate career that I did not want to pursue a faculty position, at least not at a research-intensive school—maybe at a small liberal arts college. And I also did not want to complete a post doc. I settled science policy as a career during my last year. However, I didn’t have the experiences I needed outside of the lab to land something like the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship. So, I took a postdoc position at NIH to build the skills I would need for the AAAS Fellowship. However, after four months I realized I was not passionate about the research enough to continue as a postdoc even though I had a great mentor. One thing I did do with my time at the NIH was to take part in professional development they offered that was related to science policy. In addition to applying for jobs in science policy, I also applied for opportunities in non-profits. I landed both an offer at the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) to run its professional development division and a final interview for a science policy fellowship. Because the offer at NYAS was so enticing, I declined the final interview for the fellowship and joined NYAS. After 14 months at NYAS, I left to run the Office of Career and Professional Development at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

  1. What does an average day look like for you at Memorial Sloan Kettering?

It’s pretty busy. I spend time planning events, developing courses, networking with speakers as well as the administrative responsibilities of the office. In addition, I meet with students to help them plan their career paths. 

  1. Do you find it hard to find work-life balance in your current career?

Not at all. I have a fantastic work-life balance. When I first started in this field I had to spend extra time learning new ideas and protocols, but over time I have become more efficient in my work, which ensures that I rarely must take work home.

  1. With your experience in helping guide graduate students and post-docs in their career preparation, what do you think is currently lacking in graduate education that students need to focus on to reach their goals after graduation?

Students already have many of the skills necessary for the jobs that they want (i.e. soft skills, problem solving, and critical thinking). However, it is important to train students how to plan for their next steps and how to communicate their value to employers. More programs are starting to prepare students for roles outside of academia, which is great. 

  1. Any thoughts on where you might be 5 years from now?

I don’t know where I’ll be 5 years from now. I could see myself being involved in a position that works with students beyond career development, such as a dean. But, that would involve leaving my current position. I enjoy what I am doing and I want to remain connected in the same networks I have now and still be able to use them in my next position.

We were very fortunate at Rutgers University to have the opportunity to spend time with Dr. Magaldi discussing our career options. After speaking with him regarding my own career development, I feel good to know that I am at least on the right track. If you have any concerns regarding your own career development, Rutgers has many resources available to students such as the iJOBS program, ACA, and of course, this blog. Good luck in your journey!

ACA Lunch and Learn Recap – Opportunities in Drug Development

ACA Lunch and Learn Event

This post was written following the ACA Lunch and Learn Event, Opportunities in Drug Development, on July 13 with Sam Kongsamut, PhD.

On July 13th, Rutgers Newark ACA graciously hosted Sam Kongsamut, PhD, a scientist and entrepreneur, regarding his career path in drug development. Dr. Kongamut is a tall, soft spoken, knowledgeable man with a wealth of experience ranging from academia to industry to biotech start-ups. He began his studies at the University of Chicago and received his doctorate in Neuropharmacology. From there, he continued on to complete postdocs at Yale University and Cornell University. He currently works as a consultant for various academic institutions and smaller companies with Rudder Serendip LLC, his own consulting firm. In addition, he acts as an industry advisor for the Institute for Life Sciences Entrepreneurship. On top of that, he has played a role in providing mentorship for the founding of two biotech companies, Biochron Therapeutics and Neurotrope Bioscience. And, he is co-founder of BryoLogyx Inc. Phew!

From his experience, Dr. Kongsamut has immense insight into the drug development process. It is long and complex, and involves many phases of evaluation. The total cost can be up to $5 billion and take as long as 12 years. In the past, larger pharmaceutical companies focused all of their research in house. Currently, it is more common is for industry to partner with smaller companies to enhance drug development innovation. Dr. Kongsamut has had the opportunity to work on both sides of the drug development aisle; at a larger pharmaceutical company, Sanofi, and now working with his smaller start-ups. Entrepreneurship isn’t for the faint of heart. Changes occur frequently in small companies and he himself has been laid of twice. Yikes! As a consultant, Dr. Kongsamut wears many hats. He can play a role at literally any part of the drug development process from writing an Investigational New Drug (IND) application to helping with grant reviews.

From his experience with both industry and biotech start-ups, he stressed the following three points that can be applied to any career path after graduate school:

  • Learn new things constantly throughout your career
  • Keep your eyes out for opportunities
  • Know your worth

Dr. Kongsamut covered several specific questions during the Lunch and Learn. Students asked questions regarding the role they might play in the process in Research and Development be it as a bench scientist, or as a consultant. After the event, I continued the conversation with Dr. Kongsamut to get a better understanding of what his day-to-day is like and what it takes to become an entrepreneur. Below is a brief summation of our exchange.

  1. What experiences during your graduate education helped prepare you for your current career?

It’s great that you have a program like ACA – such things did not exist in my time in graduate school. I was pretty much in ivory tower academia and expected to continue in academia. I “sold my soul” by joining industry. Of course, times and attitudes have changed. And Academia is not as lucrative (nor respected) as much as before. I had little to no preparation for industry; it took me some time to get used to things. I did enjoy two things off the bat though: (1) the research is goal-directed, and (2) it is multi-disciplinary. Being a curious scientist, I loved learning about other aspects of the business.

  1. You wear many hats and are involved in multiple projects – what does an average day look like for you?

Hmm! An average day varies quite a bit. If I am working in my home office, I will begin the day with responding to emails, unless I have a phone call, or something more urgent to attend to (grant reviews for example, or some sort of report). I work best in the morning. In the summer, in the afternoon, I will take a couple of hours off to go exercise (usually swimming, 2-3 times per week). I am usually working in the evening as well, until bed-time. While home, my wife often interrupts me to do this or that. So, I am quite busy, but my time is flexible. Other days, I may be out at meetings all day. I try to combine meetings to reduce time lost in travel; for example, I won’t go into NYC unless I have two (or more) meetings set up.

  1. Do you find it hard to find a work-life balance in your current career?

Yes. I have a difficult time saying “no” and hence am involved in too many things. But, since I work at home, I can be flexible with my time.

  1. What advice can you give to biomedical students who are interested in entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart. Be sure you are passionate about the idea you want to pursue as an entrepreneur. Be ready to work 80h a week (graduate students are well-prepared for this, of course!). Be ready for many set-backs, twists and turns, but also times of utter joy when something works out (again, scientists are well-trained for this scenario). Be a good listener – balance between passion for your idea and what the business requires. Being an entrepreneur means building a business – taking someone else’s money and making a return on that investment. In biotech, one can make 10x or more return, but there are also a lot of failures.

  1. Any thoughts on where you might be 5 years from now?

More retired. Better balance of work and life. BryoLogyx has become a successful company and has been sold to JNJ (or other big company).

Entrepreneurship is a challenging and dynamic career path. Dr. Kongsamut could address its complexity and risk-taking as he discussed his own career decisions. The rewards can be great when a drug makes it to market after years of investment which I think this is part of the drive that keeps Dr. Kongsamut part of the pipeline. Anyone planning on pursuing a career in entrepreneurship can expect to follow a similar journey of ups and downs, constant learning, and a multitude of responsibilities within the drug development process.

drug development
Image courtesy of Sam Kongsamut

 

Reflections from a year with Eagleton

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This past academic year, I was selected as a Raimondo Fellow as part of the Eagleton Fellowship program. This fellowship allows selected students to gain a better understanding of government, public affairs, and the legislative process through a class offered in the fall and an internship completed  in the spring. In addition to this, fellows also attend seminars and other events that discuss current issues in New Jersey and national politics, and highlight the accomplishments of prominent political figures. This year we had the opportunity to attend an event with Congressman John Lewis discussing his graphic novel March. If you want to learn more and apply for the fellowship yourself, click here. If you need to catch up on my previous adventures, click here

My time as an Eagleton Fellow ended on May 11th with an intimate graduation ceremony. It was a wonderful evening with commencement speeches from a few classmates and a keynote address from Governor James Florio. I think, like many of my classmates, that the night was filled with a great sense of accomplishment. While this past academic year has been a challenge juggling both lab and the requirements of the Eagleton Fellowship, I can say with confidence that it will be the most memorable year of my time as a graduate student. I made friends in new fields, gained a sense of where I would like to see myself in the coming years, and became a part of an incredible professional network.

It is almost cliché at this point in the blog to suggest the importance of experiences outside of the lab, but I truly cannot stress this point enough. Before I started my adventure with Eagleton, I knew I was interested in policy work that would support science and allow me to apply my scientific skills and knowledge. However, my focus was primarily on careers at the federal level. Through Eagleton, I really gained an appreciation and understanding of the importance of state government. In many respects, what happens in our local governments can be even more impactful than the decisions made at the federal level. The idea of working at the state level was completely new to me. While opportunities at the federal level for scientists are more well-established than local policy careers, the experience this past year has opened my eyes to parallel opportunities that aren’t based in Washington DC. Opportunities in governmental affairs at a pharmaceutical company, lobbying for a biotech start-up, running for a position in local government, or working as a staffer for a local politician are just a few positions that would be complimented by a scientific background and the bevy of translatable skills that go along with it.

My internship and hands-on experience at the Statehouse, which I obtained through the Eagleton Fellowship, were also priceless. The idea of starting a desk job completely terrified me – no pipets, no manufactures’ protocols to follow, no cell culture. This world was completely different from my norm of working hands-on at a lab bench. From the first day when I walked into the Statehouse with little confidence and understanding of what my internship experience would entail to my current standing now in seeing some of the legislative process first hand, my time at the Office of Legislative Services (OLS) has really solidified my appreciation for the legislative process and has given me a better understanding of the role I want to play in it. I do not want to be a legislator, but I enjoy the work that supports these positions such as those provided by the OLS. I want to provide information to the decision-makers, but not necessarily be the one to make the final decision.

I hope that you all have learned a lot from my experience with Eagleton. If you are interested in learning more, check out their website for public events and get involved. Last, but not least, if you can shadow or gain an experience outside of the lab do not hesitate to run with it. Good luck!!

Picture from: http://www.dailytargum.com/article/2017/03/eagleton-institute-prepares-students-to-run-for-public-office

Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, Political Scientist (Literally)

AsmZ
Asm. Zwicker speaking to the assembly session about NJ STEM Week.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to shadow Assemblyman (Asm.) Andrew Zwicker of the 16th legislative district of New Jersey. Asm. Zwicker isn’t your average politician. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in Physics from Johns Hopkins University and is now head of Science Education at the Princeton University Plasma Physics Laboratory. In addition to running his lab at Princeton and writing grants, he was elected to the assembly in 2016 and serves as an assemblyman in the statehouse. Serving in the legislature is considered a part-time position, so it is not uncommon for state assemblyman and senators to have other careers; however, it is uncommon to have a scientist within the assembly. This shadowing experience has left me with a newfound appreciation for what scientists can offer society besides innovative discoveries.

I started the morning off at a reception for the Governor’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Scholars award. The room was filled with several students from 10th grade through PhD level who had been chosen as scholars. They all had posters displaying their research from the past year. I spoke with Jessica Binkewicz (post-baccalaureate, Caldwell University) about her studies in the antibacterial properties of therapeutic oils and to Sandeep Dhagat (undergraduate, Raritan Valley Community College) regarding his work in understanding antioxidant stability. Sandeep even designed an instrument on his own to read antioxidant concentrations in different fruit samples that were being studied. The students all had impressive projects and data spanning the STEM field and it was amazing to see their work recognized at the state level.

After the morning reception, I met Asm. Zwicker and his colleagues in the assembly caucus room. All the assemblymen and assemblywomen gather at this meeting before the session to discuss the bills that will be voted on during the upcoming session. Generally, there is very little to discuss, however, the session became very lively when Assembly Bill 99 (read A99 here) was introduced. The bill would change the management of the Police and Fireman’s Pension from the Department of the Treasury to the Board of Trustees. Although most of the legislators knew how they would vote, they would still ask questions on specifics in the bill to address concerns they may get from their constituents. After more than an hour discussing the specifics of this bill, the assemblymen and assemblywomen breezed through the remainder of the agenda. The caucus room was like a busy classroom. All the assemblymen and assemblywomen have assigned seating, but they would move around the room to discuss with each other or staffers other important business at hand.

Once the caucus session ended, I followed Asm. Zwicker to the assembly chambers. The room is a beautiful, large chamber where all the legislative magic happens; on session days, the chamber is open to the public to experience the legislation-making process. On this day, because A99 was being discussed, many firefighters and policemen could be seen in the gallery awaiting the outcome of the vote. There were several ceremonial resolutions passed at the beginning of the session, such as a resolution for women’s history awareness month in which New Jersey servicewomen were honored for all their dedication and work throughout their careers. In addition, Asm. Zwicker presented a resolution recognizing New Jersey STEM week. Asm. Zwicker presented the bill with the Governor’s STEM Scholars behind him; they were all being recognized for their impressive work as scholars and future scientists.

While I left before I could see more of the legislative session unfold, the brief glimpse I had into a day-in-the life of Asm. Zwicker gave me a better understanding of the work that goes into running our state. I believe that we need not only diverse political opinions represented in our state governments, but also diverse expertise and experiences. No legislator is an expert in everything, but a little expertise in all fields is what makes our legislator special. When you look at the profile of Asm. Zwicker, his support for renewable energy policy and education reforms are rooted in his professional background. He shares the first-hand knowledge he brings to these issues with his colleagues, and this allows for the implementation of evidence-based policy. Diverse expertise at the legislative level also allows for equal representation of the parties affected by new laws. For example, when a physicist with an understanding of renewable energy works together with a lawyer specializing in environmental regulations and a representative from a town that is interested in created green jobs, we have a better chance of an outcome that is fair and balanced for a greater number of people.

Yet, diversity and expertise become even more important at the committee level, as this is where bills get reviewed (To understand what happens in committee, click here). Committees are organized by subject matter and discuss specific policies that relate to the general over-arching subject. For example, the committee on agriculture will review all bills that relate to this category. An effective legislator in a committee could be an assemblyman or assemblywoman with many years of experience with the policy of this field, but it could also be a politician with a related profession. The result of this is that someone who has worked in this committee for ten years is just as valuable as a woman who has managed a dairy farm. Asm. Zwicker is on three committees which are a good fit given his training: Judiciary, Regulated Professionals, and Telecommunications and Utilities. Other committees that could benefit from a STEM professional include Agriculture and Natural Resources, Education, Environment and Solid Waste, and Health and Senior Services- to name a few!

The major take-away I had from this shadowing experience is that there is room and need for all types of people in government and this includes scientists on any career path. Government works best when it is collaborative, just like science. And much like in science and for scientists, the road in the beginning is hard for a junior assemblyman: days can be long, losses can be many, and wins are few. Yet, if there is anything we scientists are good at, it is having a thick skin and perseverance. I wish Asm. Zwicker the best in his career going forward.

If you have any additional questions for Asm. Zwicker and want to learn more about his work in the statehouse, let me know in the comments and I will have an update for you in the fall!

PS- This is the second of a series about my internship at the NJ statehouse. Be sure to check out my first post here!

If you need a refresher on what assemblymen/assemblywomen are and how the statehouse is structured, please click here.

Adventures of a Scientist in the Statehouse

By: Fatu Badiane Markey

Last month, I started an internship at the Statehouse in Trenton, NJ in the Office of Legislative Services (OLS). The OLS is a nonpartisan supportive office for legislators that provides many services such as general research and analysis, bill drafting, and legal opinions. I’ve been to the state capitol before and I was happy to be back for this new experience. Like most students and post-docs looking to transition out of academia, I was uncertain about how I would be received and if I would be able to do the work required. After years of running PCRs, what skillset did I have that could be useful to state government??

As I took the elevator up to the Environmental section of OLS, I felt some relief as I was met with friendly and welcoming faces from the department staff. I started my day in the OLS Library where I learned about how bills are written and annotated as they undergo change in the Senate and Assembly. Even though I have absolutely no law background, I enjoyed the fact that I could apply my ability to follow and understand protocols and to quickly pick up the patterns used in bill annotation. I found it very comforting that my “science brain” could adapt so quickly and learn these new rules. I also learned how to use the unique referencing system to trace a law all the way back to its original bill form. There is even a specific system of organization for how laws are ordered within the library. These protocols that exist within the legal system are tied to the importance of language and intent within legislation, which is a concept I never considered.

After my time in the library, I attended a special committee regarding lead contamination in New Jersey drinking water. During this committee, legislators were presented with testimony from school districts that had completed water testing as well as experts that study water contamination issues. The legislators asked those testifying many pointed questions about their data, how they conducted their studies, and potential flaws in their conclusions. With this kind of information, these lawmakers can gain an understanding of an issue and have better insight into making sensible legislation that is supported by expert testimony. Attending this committee was an eye-opening experience for me because I could clearly see the interface where science and policymaking interact and see the relevance of data in these huge decisions. I could see myself acting in an advisory or advocacy role in one of these hearings and having to communicate my scientific knowledge to a non-science audience. Again, this scenario highlighted to me how transferable my presentation and communication skills are even outside of academia.

I ended the day with my first research assignment. One of the functions of OLS is to act as support staff for the legislature during the bill writing process. This can include researching topics of legislative interest for lawmakers or their staff. I think it’s fair to say that at this point in my education, I can do a literature search very well. The only difference was that I had to rely primarily on legislative resources as opposed to scientific databases. With everything I had learned earlier in the day from the OLS Library, I dove into my research assignment very quickly. Mentally digesting and making sense of large amounts of information is second nature to any graduate student who has spent years reading and understanding scientific literature. At this point I was so relieved to see how my scientific training had served to my advantage throughout the day. I was honest in asking questions about new information I did not understand, but I had very few problems overall adapting to this new environment.

The feeling of insecurity about leaving academia is not new to any student or post-doc in biomedical research. I had a lot of reservations before starting this internship about how I would be received and if I would be successful. We have all heard the negative comments directed towards people who left academia to pursue other career tracks. And this negativity sits in our minds and makes us doubt what we are capable of. Many skills I have mastered from my years in lab were completely applicable to my new role as an intern in the Statehouse. With such a positive start to this new experience, I feel confident that as my internship continues I will have many more successes along the way. The journey away from academia starts with one step, but you must be willing to take that first step. I guarantee you the path ahead is not as treacherous as some would have you believe.

Interview with Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy, Vice President of Research

By Fatu Badiane Markey and Urmimala Basu

I first met Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy at an American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) advocacy event on Capitol Hill. Having had previous experience speaking to legislators about biomedical research, her insight was highly relevant to this event as well as my personal interests.  That day, I unfortunately did not have much time to connect with her about her important role as the Vice President of Research for Rutgers University. To learn more, I worked together with fellow blogger Urmimala who was also curious about the Rutgers VP of Research to brainstorm interview questions for Dr. Kinzy. Afterwards, I contacted Dr. Kinzy for a quick phone interview to learn about her research, career and current job responsibilities.

 How did you first get introduced into biology and the research field?

I have loved science from a young age. My parents are not scientists and did not go to college, but they supported my interest and encouraged my love of discovery. I think everyone is born with a love of discovery and experimentation, but the problem is we do not always encourage it. I originally started out as a chemist. I had an excellent chemistry teacher in high school and completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Akron, which is well known for its chemistry program. In college, I needed a way to earn money to pay for my education and participated in a co-op program. In this program, I was assigned to the molecular biology group and that is how I got my introduction to biology. I completed my graduate studies at Case Western Reserve University.

What is the focus of your current research?

My lab focuses on protein synthesis in eukaryotic systems.  We study the translation elongation factors and their role in efficient, timely and accurate protein synthesis, as well as the non-canonical function of one other factor in actin cytoskeletal organization. The first protein is a target of several bacterial toxins and the second is only found in fungi and perhaps some single celled eukaryotes.  Lately, we have been working on translation as a target for the development of new antifungals.

What is a major caveat, in your opinion, about how biomedical education is taught today?

I currently teach in several classes and from my experience, I had a really great graduate and post doc career, but I did not have enough speaking and writing opportunities. In my lab, with my students and postdocs, I really stress this. We have regular lab meetings, which serve as an informal platform for presenting people’s research, and also an RNA journal club. Your first talk should not be interviewing for your postdoc and this happens a lot more often than it should.

You have recently been appointed as the associate vice president for research administration. Can you explain your job and its responsibilities?

I basically try and make research work effectively for Rutgers University. This means dealing with efficiencies for getting grants in and out, making sure we follow regulations, and keeping a comprehensive university research portfolio. I also look for opportunities to get more research on campus and upgrading our IT infrastructure so that it becomes more compatible to support research.

What is the toughest part of your job?

Balancing our regulatory responsibilities with wanting to get the research done.

What has helped with this?

It’s hard sometimes, but I find really working with people one-on-one is the best way to address this issue. It’s a matter of reaching out to those that complain the loudest; they need to be heard. And when you really talk to them, you can explain that we are not trying to stop them from working. We just need the rules to be followed and there is a reason for them.

With regards to the recent presidential election, do you have any concerns regarding the future of research funding?

Research funding is always a focus. Always. I have been working closely with ASBMB to write a short document for the new administration to highlight the importance of funding research. We don’t really know what is going to happen. But I always want Rutgers to be in a good position to promote itself and cutting-edge research at the University.

What can we do as students in this regard?

I always encourage students to be positively proactive about what they do. Talk to people about what you do and find programs like ASBMB Hill Day to participate in. You should always feel empowered!

Have you faced specific challenges in your career as a woman?

Yes, and those challenges are still here. They don’t go away. I was frequently the only woman in my class as a student. This means you don’t always get picked for group projects and that can be hard when you are young. Even when I worked in industry, and here at Rutgers, I have had people say inappropriate things to me. At one interview at another university for my first faculty job in which I was invited to dinner, I literally had every single illegal and inappropriate question you can think thrown at me. When I first arrived at Rutgers, I was the only woman in the department. I found that the best way to deal with these challenges is to have peer mentors at your same career stage. Both men and women that you can trust and talk to. I met a lot of other junior faculty when I first arrived and this helps build community. We all had young children at day care and were all going through the same thing.

What is your view of the iJOBS program?

One of our jobs as a university is to train our workforce for the state. We need to train people for every job they could do. And compared to the other sciences – engineering, computer science, etc. – we are a little bit behind. They train their students for other careers, not just academia. We could learn a lot from others in other disciplines.

Any parting advice for graduate students?

Open communication with your mentor is critical. It is important to maintain this relationship; have an open dialogue and balance what you are doing. People think that if they go off in another direction from research, or academia that they will be ostracized. This is not the case. Build your network and keep those early relationships.

Interview with Dr. Erika Shor

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By: Fatu Badiane Markey

Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Erika Shor of the Research and Grant Development office of the Public Health Research Institute (PHRI) at Rutgers Newark. Dr. Shor has a very unique position at PHRI where she combines a career in research with scientific writing. She received her Bachelor’s degree from the University of California Berkeley and completed a Doctorate in Genetics from Columbia University. Let’s learn more about her journey and what advice she has to offer to graduate students and postdocs interested in pursuing an alternate career path.

How did you first get introduced into biology and research?

My family immigrated to the United States from the former USSR and there was a lot of pressure to follow a prestigious career path such as medicine, or law. I did not have a strong interest in medicine, but as an undergraduate at UC Berkley, I still took premed classes. In my junior year, I took a biochemistry course and really enjoyed it. The professor of this course encouraged me to start working in his lab and I absolutely loved it. I felt like I had found my place.

Did you expect your career to take this path?

Not exactly, but I would be happy in any academic sphere where the topics are interesting; it doesn’t necessarily have to be biology. I am very happy with where I am now and with what I do.

How did you get interested, or involved in science writing and grant development?

During my second postdoc at Princeton University, I had the opportunity to teach a few classes as part of a writing program geared towards graduate students in the sciences and engineering. I also had experience in writing and editing grants during my time as a graduate student because my PI at the time expected all students in his lab to prepare their own manuscripts. It was a hard experience, but I am glad I had it. My current position at PHRI came about from a meeting I had with Dr. David Perlin, the Executive Director, about a new position to help faculty write grants.

What is the biggest weakness in PhD training now and what should we be doing proactively to overcome it?

From my understanding, most graduate programs are focused on research and/or teaching. Most programs don’t have any writing instruction and I think that writing training is necessary. It is a big part of academia and even in other careers such as industry. Learning how to explain your research is absolutely key. As a student you need to ask yourself the right questions: “What are you good at? What do you want to do? What do you like to do?” There are a lot of jobs out there where the skills we have can be useful.

What is the best part of your job?

I do research on Candida glabrata; it mutates very quickly and readily acquires resistance to anti-fungals. I am trying to understand why this is the case. Research is enjoyable, but it doesn’t always work and can be frustrating. I like that I can put it away for a time and make a difference elsewhere. When I help faculty in editing their grants, I know that I can help to make it better. And whenever a grant gets a good score, or gets funded, that also makes me feel good because it means that a particular research project can go ahead. I feel like it is another way for me to contribute to science.

What is the hardest part of your job?

Transitioning between writing and research is hard. During periods of heavy grant writing, like now when NIH has a lot of deadlines, I spend most of my time in my office reading and editing. Both writing and research need a lot of focus. Sometimes I can juggle both at the same time. Fortunately, since I work with yeast which can be easily frozen, it is easy to stop the lab work at any time. The key to returning back to research after writing is keeping good notes and getting refreshed on lab techniques.

Do you think it makes sense for graduate schools to focus on alternative career paths?

Yes, absolutely. NIH funding has flat lined in the last 15 years and the numbers just don’t work out – there are too many PhDs and not enough spots. More PIs now have realistic expectations that there are not enough academic positions for graduate students. I hope that there is encouragement for students to look at alternative career paths.

As a woman in science, what have been some challenges, if any, that you have encountered within your career?

As a graduate student at Columbia, I could not really see myself in a lot of the female faculty I encountered; most had no children, or had children much later in life. I realize now that I didn’t see these examples because it is damn hard. Many women put off having children until they have labs. I married fairly young and I had a lot of doubt if what I wanted was even possible. Could I even do it? I had children during my first postdoc and even with an extremely supportive husband it was still hard and took my focus away from the lab. In order to have an academic career, productivity during the postdoc years is key. There is a lot of frustration and confusion in how to balance everything. In the end, though, I am very happy with what I am doing; it all worked out.

What advice can you give to current students?

In graduate school, it is important to start looking at realistic career paths early. I did not do this and I wish I had. But again, it all worked out and I am very happy. Ask yourself the right questions and explore. Look for programs such as iJOBS and talk to people and network. The path you map for yourself may or may not work, but if you start early there is a better chance for things to go well.

Taking Science to the Hill: ASBMB Hill Day and Science Advocacy

Towards the end of April, earlier this year, I had the opportunity to take part in a science advocacy day on Capitol Hill organized by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). I stumbled across this opportunity as part of an iJOBS event email and decided to apply simply on a whim. If the outcome was in my favor, it would be a great experience to add to my tool belt in my exploration of the policy career field. Fortunately for me, I was accepted!

The two-day event started with an overview presentation by Benjamin Corb, Director of Public Affairs for ASBMB, on how a bill becomes a law, what to expect in our congressional meetings and how to conduct the meetings with representatives and their staff. Understanding how a bill becomes a law always leaves me nostalgic for that classic episode from Schoolhouse Rock!. During this initial evening event, I also met my mentor for the advocacy day, Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy, Vice President of Research and Economic Development at Rutgers University. Dr. Kinzy is primarily responsible for corporate contracts and research operations for the university. She also has experience speaking to government organizations such as NIH with regards to promoting research programs and opportunities at Rutgers University.

Earl Markey, Fatu Badiane Markey, Rep. Donald Payne, Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy (from left to right)
Earl Markey, Fatu Badiane Markey, Rep. Donald Payne, Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy (from left to right)

The evening ended with a dinner where I was able to meet the other students and postdocs who were also selected for the advocacy day. As we introduced ourselves and enjoyed the meal, we had the opportunity to practice describing our research to a non-science audience with Sarah Martin, the ASBMB science policy fellow. This practice was a very important part of our lobbying on the Hill the next day. As students and postdocs we are able to bring a very personal side to the discussion of supporting NIH funding. We would not only explain our research focus and the importance of discovery within the larger society, but also our experience and how we view our futures with regards to the stability of available funding. The meetings for the next day were arranged so that we met with representatives from the districts and states where we attended school and resided. This adds the additional impact of not only advocating as scientists-in-training, but also as constituents. These are the representatives that were placed into office based on our votes; the opportunity to address them directly with some of our concerns as constituents is the cornerstone of democracy.

The next day, I met Dr. Kinzy at breakfast and we made our way over the the US Capitol along with Peter Mercredi, a post-doc at St. Jude’s, and his mentor. The day was gloomy, but our spirits were not wavered. We looked over our busy schedule and quickly realized there would be a lot of running around in order to make all of the appointments on time. The first three meetings were with staff from the offices of Sen. Pat Toomey, Rep. Chaka Fattah, and Rep. Frank Pallone and all the meetings were scheduled back-to-back. We made it to each one on time, although just barely for the third meeting, and presented the case for supporting NIH funding. I focused on the importance of my research in the pediatric cancer, Ewing’s sarcoma, which currently has no targeted treatments and benefits immensely from continued NIH funding. In addition, I focused on the impact of research within the broader community. As a graduate student, I have mentored numerous undergraduates and even high school students to help foster their interest in research. I have also collaborated with researchers that have patented their inventions and sold them to larger biotechnology companies. These examples indicate the impact of our work on the larger local economy.

The last two meetings of the day were with staffers from the offices of Sen. Robert Casey and Rep. Donald Payne. We were fortunate enough to catch Rep. Payne before he left his office to go vote and took a quick group picture with him. He was very receptive to our introductions before leaving us to speak to his staffer. In this conversation, Dr. Kinzy and I continued with the same themes we had discussed earlier. Dr. Kinzy focused on the importance of Rutgers as a strong, local research institution and its recent induction into the Big 10 consortium. Our conversation ended by asking about the Representative’s stance on moving NIH funding from the discretionary pool in the budget to mandatory. This budget relocation topic is somewhat controversial and currently does not have much congressional support, but it would guarantee stable funding for the NIH and any supported research.

The day ended with an evening hors d’oeuvres on Capitol Hill and acknowledgement of Rep. Diana De Gette who received the Schachman Award from ASBMB for all her hard work in promoting research funding. Overall, I had had a fairly successful day running around Capitol Hill. All of the Congressmen I met were in support of, or at least not blatantly against supporting NIH funding. Several had even started their own initiatives at the local level to promote health related research. In discussing my experience with some other students during this cocktail hour, however, I realized that there were several who had had some unpleasant experiences in the meetings with their representatives. Supporting research simply was not a part of the political agenda with certain congressmen and they made that very clear during the meetings. In spite of this, though, the students still walked away with very positive memories from this unique experience.

As graduate students with only one goal in mind – to graduate – we can sometimes be oblivious of all the forces that have an influence on our research and how these forces can be molded by our political involvement. The next time you have a gel running in the background, take a minute to look up your local representative and examine their voting record, particularly with regards to supporting research funding. In this very competitive funding climate we need to remember that the money that supports our research is not determined by random events; rather, it can be influenced by the people we place in office to represent our needs. We all need to do our part to ensure a more stable future for biomedical research. Call your representative, write to them, set up an in-person meeting, and remember to VOTE in your local elections.