FDA’s role in expediting the development of novel medical products

By Huri Mücahit

 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as the name suggests, is the primary regulatory organization for food and drug safety, including biologics and medical devices. However, surprisingly, the FDA regulates much more in the name of protecting public health, such as cosmetics, veterinary products, and tobacco products. The range in regulatory jurisdiction speaks to the long history of food and drug regulation that came about in response to the highly unregulated nature of medicine production in the early 1900’s, resulting in the death of 22 children due to contaminated vaccines. Since then, several laws have been passed requiring the licensing and inspection of food and drug manufacturers, as well as mandating the demonstration of not only safety, but also efficacy of a drug. Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., Director for Biologics and Research Evaluation, discussed the FDA’s history and approval process in this iJOBS seminar.

 

Of particular interest to Ph.D. students in the health sciences, is the FDA’s role in promoting the development of products that address the public’s unmet medical needs. The agency addresses these needs through several factors, such as extracting user fees for each application examined, so that performance metrics can be placed on the FDA to ensure timely review. In addition, to further facilitate drug and biologics development, sponsors of the applications, which are typically pharmaceutical companies, can ask for OrphanDesignation, apply for Priority Review vouchers, or apply through any of the expedited development programs. As the first category suggests, the Orphan Designation covers treatments for rare diseases affecting less than 200,000 people, and it features tax credits, 7 years of market exclusivity, and user fee exemption. Priority Review vouchers can be applied for neglected diseases of the tropics, rare pediatric diseases, and for medical countermeasures. This option ensures the review process will be completed within 6 months rather than the standard 10, however, the sponsors must demonstrate significant improvement in safety or effectiveness. Additional programs targeting treatments for serious conditions, like Fast Track, Accelerated Approval, or Breakthrough Therapy, may offer advantages such asrolling reviews in which the committee will review components of the application as they are prepared, approval based on surrogate endpoints, or extensive guidance from the review committee. Finally, sponsors can also be granted the Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy Designation (RMAT), if they provide cell therapies, tissue engineering products, or human cell and tissue products.

 

While the FDA has many paths to approval for new treatment applications, the agency naturally follows a standard process to ensure safety and efficacy of the treatment. This might include an initial information meeting between the FDA and the sponsor to go over the application procedure and provide guidance on the types of studies required prior to clinical trials. If the results look promising once the necessary pre-clinical trials are conducted, a manufacturing process will be developed, keeping with Good Manufacturing Practices. A second meeting might then be scheduled to propose Phase I trials and protocols, which, if approved, will be used to generate data for further review. Upon proving that the treatment has the potential to address an unmet need, the FDA will assign a specific designation, such as RMAT or Fast Track, and review the additional data produced from Phase II and III trials, as well, as manufacturing protocols. Finally, after a series of informal, mid-cycle, and late-cycle meetings, an advisory committee consisting of experts within the field will meet to grant or deny approval. This committee may also require post-marketing studies to be conducted to further test the safety of the treatment. If the sponsor fails to complete these studies, the FDA has the authority to rescind approval.

 

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For Ph.D. students interested in working with the FDA, those within epidemiology or biostatistics fields have the highest chance for employment immediately following their defense. However, to be a hired as a regulatory reviewer or research reviewer, post-doctoral research associates are preferred. Additionally, since the laboratories and the majority of offices are housed in the main facility in Silver Spring, Maryland, these positions are only available at this site. If the applicant wishes to remain local, there are inspector positions available throughout the country. The FDA also provides internship opportunities for interested students from a variety of backgrounds, including undergraduates and post-docs.

 

Overall, the FDA is a crucial agency in aiding the development of drugs and biologics and ensuring safety and efficacy of these treatments. Given the sheer number of drug applications received, Ph.Ds. have a wealth of opportunities for employment in reviewing these applications or conducting lab work within the FDA. Ultimately, these opportunities provide a medium to enact significant change and guide the path for new treatments.

 

Edited by: Jennifer Casiano-Matos and Monal Mehta

This blog post was written after attending the iJOBS Career Seminar: Jobs at the FDA on June 13th, 2019.

 

Where Are They Now: Ina Nikolaeva

– Deepshikha Mishra

 Ina Nikolaeva graduated from Rutgers University with a PhD in Cell Bio and Neuroscience, where she studied role of mtor pathway in brain injury and diseases for her thesis. Currently, she enjoys her role as an Associate Scientific Director at Healthcare Consultancy Group. She was a senior editor and lead blogger for the iJOBS blog and actively participated multiple programs organized by iJOBS. She shares her professional journey with us through this interview. 

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  • What have you been up to since graduating? Can you tell us about your job?

Following graduation, I started out as a medical writer at a medical communications company three years ago. Since then, I’ve changed companies once and am now an Associate Scientific Director at Healthcare Consultancy Group. I still love the medical communication field and plan to stay in it for the foreseeable future.

  • What got you interested in this field?

I have always enjoyed and have been reasonably skilled at writing and communicating. Even though at the time of graduation, while I did not want to pursue bench work any further, I also wanted to stay close to cutting edge science. Once I discovered the medical communications career path, I looked no further 😊

  • Can you tell us what your job search experience? What were some obstacles you faced and how did you overcome them?

Some of my main challenges involved transitioning from running around in the lab to sitting at a desk. However, I always enjoyed the writing part of lab research and so I did not have much difficulty transitioning to doing that fulltime. The other key difference – though I did not necessarily perceive it as a challenge – is that medical communications is inherently a client-based service. Although I gained many communication skills while working towards my PhD, learning to provide a service for a client was a completely new experience.

  • How is your path going so far? What are some of the differences and similarities between your current position versus your research life at Rutgers?

The first difference is that my research at Rutgers was in neuroscience, using a mouse as a model organism. My current position now involves transitioning to oncology and working with data from human clinical trials. It is a whole different beast, but there is plenty of opportunity to catch up and get comfortable with the new scientific areas before taking on projects independently. I continue to enjoy my work every day!

  • What was your involvement with iJOBS, and is there anything specific that you were able to take away from the program events that helped you secure a position?

I was very involved with iJOBS and was one of the founding writers for the iJOBS blog. Eventually, I took over as the main editor as well and kept that task up for several months following my graduation. The iJOBS’s event I found the most useful was the SciPhD program. It was extremely helpful in giving us a glimpse of what life outside of academia entails, as well as providing very useful advice for resume writing, interviewing, and other useful skills. Larry and Randy specifically gave me tips on what companies are looking for at each stage of the interview process, and my resume is STILL in the format found in their manual!

  • How did you use skills that you learned during your graduate school career to transition into your current role? Were there any specific activities that you did during graduate school that helped you gain these essential skills?

My PI always let me write my own papers and encouraged me to take every opportunity I can to present my research in talk and poster form. She also always emphasized the “story-telling” element of such presentations. When it came time to interview, these skills were extremely important, as this is exactly what interviewers look for in the presentation you give them on-site. Additionally, my work on several blogs during this period was a clear indicator that I participate in writing activities even outside of the lab. I think all of these activities put together demonstrated both my skill and devotion to writing.

  • Do you have any general advice for current PhD students preparing for the next step in their careers?

I think the most important thing is to really think about which day-to-day activities you enjoy the most and least about your current position. You should try to find a career path that fits within those parameters.

Thank you very much Ina for the interview. It was so lovely knowing you and learning about your journey. I am sure the information you shared with us is going to help so many of us. Good luck.

Edited by: Eileen Oni and Tomas Kasza

A perspective on building relationships and networking

By Abla Tannous

While networking may come as second nature to some, many cringe at the thought of it. Yet, it does not have to be that way. Networking is all about building relationships.

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Image source: Pixabay  https://pixabay.com/vectors/social-media-connections-networking-3846597/

While networking may come as second nature to some, many cringe at the thought of it. Yet, it does not have to be that way. Networking is all about building relationships.

Every day presents us with opportunities to make new connections.  I was once on a plane trip and met a nice lady who started a conversation with me. You might have been in a situation like this and all you wanted was to sleep or read a book silently rather that talking to your chatty neighbor. At the time I met that woman, I was looking to learn about project management and she turned out to be one. I learned a lot about her job but unfortunately, I did not follow up with that connection. My lesson from that incident was to not miss on opportunities like this by not following up. Yet, if you don’t succeed at it, the potential of learning something new is well worth it. If you’re not wired to start conversations with random strangers, it may take you a lot of conscious effort to adapt and apply this approach. Yet, having this mindset will make you always ready to create new connections when an opportunity arises. There are simple ways to follow up with someone to show that you value the relationship; for example, you can send an email or a message to congratulate them on new accomplishments or life events and genuinely be happy for them and their success, invite them for coffee, share an article they wrote, ask for career advice or offer how you can help. In our world today, social media has made this easier, and allows us plenty of chances to connect, but try not to rely only on social media.

With that said, it’s important to remember that a relationship is always a two-way street. You can be a great asset to others and to your community, just as a new connection can be a great asset to you. While helping others should not come as an act in which we expect something in return, it allows us to leave a positive imprint where we go, and to foster strong relationships. And again, what is networking other than creating relationships between people?

Most of us probably have heard the quote “We rise by lifting others” (Robert Ingersoll). I strongly believe in this as a way of life. Mentoring and volunteering are some of the ways of helping and creating strong relationships and a better world.  If connecting with others is not in one’s comfort zone, it is important to not be afraid of making mistakes in the process of networking; instead, endeavor to learn from all your networking experiences and move on. And as I have experienced, magic happens when we step out of our comfort zone. I used to find it difficult to initiate a conversation with people I do not know much about. I started going to networking events such as those organized by iJOBS and the New Jersey Biopharma Networking group (NJBPNG). Doing so, I overcame the difficulty of breaking the ice when meeting a new person and made many connections.  You may not share common interests, or may have a very different personality from someone you are trying to connect with, but you can always find some basic common ground, provided that both of the concerned parties are willing to find it.

I have not always realized the importance of networking and I have not always applied the principles I describe here; however, it is never too late to start and to prioritize building and maintaining relationships. It may not be easy, so it requires continuous effort. Our busy lives take us away from thinking about how we are connecting to our immediate and larger communities and we have to constantly remind ourselves of doing it.

This article was edited by Shekerah Primus and Helena Mello.

Where Are They Now — Fatu Badiane Markey

By: Deepshikha Mishra

Junior Editor: Shekerah Primus

Senior Editor: Helena Mello

Fatu Badiane Markey graduated from Rutgers University in 2018 with a PhD in Microbiology, Biochemistry, and Molecular Genetics. The focus of her thesis was to study the molecular interactions of a fusion protein in pediatric Ewing’s sarcoma, a type of cancer affecting the bones and surrounding tissue. Additionally, she was a lead blogger for the iJOBS blog and actively participated in the program as well. Currently, she works as a communications specialist at the Rita Allen Foundation; a philanthropic organization investing in big ideas for the betterment of science and civil society. 

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What have you been up to since graduating?

I started working with the communications team at the Rita Allen Foundation immediately after defending my thesis. I got the job offer while I was preparing to defend my thesis, so it has been only six months since I joined this organization. Some of the projects that are funded through the foundation are from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), iBiology and many more (link to grants: http://ritaallen.org/all-grants/). I am enjoying working at the interface of science and society. I am learning a lot about working in a nonprofit setup as we also work with different agencies like The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Alan Alda Learning Center for Communicating Sciences. This job is very exciting! It’s challenging at the same time, however, as every year different projects are funded, and new collaborations are made. I also get to meet new and upcoming scientists since we also support early stage researchers.

Can you tell us a bit about your job responsibilities and tasks in general?

The Rita Allen Foundation started as a nonprofit organization that funds scientific research aimed towards the betterment of society, so very often I interview and write about investigators funded by our organization (learn about their stories here). Also, I write and create media related content for the focus areas of our organization. I write for more general audiences now. We are a small group of people, and it’s a very interactive kind of environment in which we get to meet people from a diverse variety of fields. There is always something to solve and improve in society; foundations and nonprofits such as Rita Allen are all trying to answer the bigger questions.

Can you tell us what your job search experience was like?

I started preparing for a new job before my last year of graduate school. I wanted to learn more about different career options available after graduate school, so I attended different iJOBS events. I never limited myself to follow only a certain career path, but I also looked for personal job satisfaction. My thesis advisor was very supportive and encouraged me to gain additional skill sets required for the job market. I interacted with people from different fields and built a network of friends and colleagues with diverse backgrounds. I got to know about my current position through my network, and that helped me in getting more informed about the organization.

After two rounds of interviews, I got the job!   

What are some differences and similarities between your current work versus your research at Rutgers?

This is my first job, so I was nervous at the beginning. It was tricky at first, but everybody at the Rita Allen Foundation is very supportive and made me feel comfortable all the time. For the rest of it, there are a lot of similarities between graduate school and what I am doing right now; I was trying to solve a problem then and I am trying to solve problems now also. Only the ways or methods have changed.

What was your involvement with iJOBS, and is there anything specific that you were able to take away from the program and events that helped you secure a job?

Apart from attending different events organized by iJOBS like SciPhD (read about SciPhD here and here), networking, and different career workshops, I learned a lot of essential skills like leadership and other soft skills that have become useful to me now. I was also actively involved with iJOBS as a blogger and senior editor. Writing for the iJOBS blog was a wonderful way to learn a non-formal style of writing and gave me good preparation for my current job. I wrote and edited multiple articles for the blog and enjoyed working with the other editors as part of a management team as well. This is very similar to what I do now on a regular basis.

Do you have any general advice for current PhD students and postdocs preparing for the next step in their careers?

Job hunting is a long process and finding a suitable position often takes time:

  1. Start preparing for your future job a year before the actual time you think you need to start.
  2. Take time to build your network.
  3. Perfect and tailor your resume according to each job posting.
  4. Update your LinkedIn profile and
  5. Be prepared to apply to a lot, a lot, a lot of places.

My current position came as a total surprise to me, so don’t be afraid to try something new!

 Thank you, Fatu, for sharing your experiences and giving us insights about the right strategy for job hunt. It’s really motivating to see you doing something that helps the society directly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Interview with a Pharmaceutical Leader

Written by Vinam Puri

Dr. Navneet Puri is the Founder and CEO of Nevakar, Inc. in Bridgewater, NJ. He started this company in 2015, with a vision of creating a fully integrated specialty pharmaceutical company focusing on hospital injectables and ophthalmic products. As Chief Executive Officer, he sets the strategic and operational direction of the organization. Prior to this, he was the Founder and CEO of Innopharma, LLC (now a Pfizer company).

A Rutgers Alumnus, he received his Ph.D. in Pharmaceutics from the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy. He has received several prestigious awards such as the Future 50 magazine’s Smart CEO award and the EY Entrepreneur of The Year award from the state of New Jersey. He is also a current board member of Alzeca Biosciences, Inc.

In Dr. Puri’s words, “Leadership means having good vision, a good understanding of individuals and leading people in the right direction”. Good leaders lead by example. Dr. Puri referred to a famous Leaders lead from the front and take the entire team with them in order to achieve the objectives of the organization.

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A leader establishes his credibility with examples. If a leader has strong fundamentals, is true to his own words, and takes ownership of his actions, people will want to follow his lead. In an organization lead by the CEO, the Executive Leadership team aligns with the shared vision of the company and once that shared goal is established, there is no other alternative. Leaders communicate with their teams as much as possible. Dr. Puri gives the highest level of importance to having a strong vision. His vision, being the CEO, is what drives the vision of the company. At Nevakar, the vision is to Improve patient’s quality of life and healthcare outcomes.

When talking about the importance of artificial intelligence and machine learning in the pharmaceutical industry, Dr. Puri said AI is a beautiful thing and by the natural process of evolution, it must be incorporated in the pharmaceutical industry. From pharmacy practice to manufacturing and even R&D, automation is a key part of helping the industry grow in all ways.

Dr. Puri is a role model to me and his strong attitude of determination in achieving his goals is commendable. I look up to him as a leader and have heard great words from the people who work in various roles at Nevakar. Personally, I have observed him setting a good example and being an energetic and cheerful personality at the workplace. At Nevakar, there are several team building activities that are regularly conducted that make employees feel like members of the family contributing towards growing together. A quarterly townhall, for example, not only updates all members about the progress made in all active projects but also reminds everyone about the shared vision of the company. Because of the excellent leadership at Nevakar, it is an extraordinary environment to work in and grow.

One piece of advice that Dr. Puri would give to future leaders is to have a vision. To promote growth, you need to have foresight. Be it a scientific project or the evolution of the industry as a whole, a leader needs foresight which is guided by insight. It is important to have strong as they are your foundation. That is what will give you a clear vision, vision is Key. Leaders definitely face challenges on the way and Dr. Puri shared some that he has faced on his journey. The number one challenge is Team Alignment, which means that everyone on the team is in line with the shared vision of the company. At the executive level, the leader listens to various perspectives and the executive team identifies and defines the direction for the company. At this level, you do not want yes-men but a culture of sharing perspectives. Once the direction is set and the vision is identified, the team has to be aligned and although it is challenging, it is very important to achieve alignment at this level. Another challenge is to envision the evolution of the environment. A leader has to be opportunistic and whenever there is a shift in the landscape – political, financial, regulatory, etc., they have to keep re-calibrating in order to head towards success. The leader also has to be strategic. Fundamentals as mentioned before, need to be solid and there has to be conviction and a strong belief in them but pragmatism has also to be kept in mind. One has to be flexible and must maintain a balance; one must retain the fundamentals while being pragmatic. Think of it from the example of a river flowing down from a mountain. The river has a final destination which is the sea and it could get there by a straight-line route but has to demonstrate flexibility and travel around the rocks and obstacles. If you are not willing to change, you better be right every time or the whole company will face the consequences of your actions. The third biggest challenge is to have alignment with all of your value providers. Value providers exist in various forms such as outside lawyers, vendors, suppliers, cross-country collaborators, global collaborators, etc. and it is important for a leader to work with them, bargain hard, at times, and stay focused on the goal. If this alignment does not exist, the business suffers.

Dr. Puri is optimistic about the industry’s future and thinks that the pharmaceutical industry will continue to grow, despite all the challenges- regulation, price control, lack of compliance or lack of oversight. When a couple of organizations lose the industry’s purpose and lead with the purpose of greed, they do not define the industry as a whole. The industry is much bigger and stronger than one or two companies who take the wrong direction. With a 5% average CAGR projected over the next five years, growth has to come, and it must come.

Finally, for all future aspiring leaders, here is the one skill that you should have according to Dr. Puri, absolute and relative value proposition of the mission. The value is the product and it is absolute because it is based on the identification of an unmet need. When the unmet need is validated, value is provided. Value is also relative because it has to be adjusted based on how the landscape is evolving. Hence, the value proposition has to be absolute and relative.

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Here are some of the takeaways from the interview:

  • Leaders lead by example and from the front.
  • Leaders communicate with their staff as frequently as possible.
  • Leaders must have a clear vision, which is based on their fundamentals and guides their insight, which in turn directs foresight.
  • Leaders need to identify the evolution of the industry segment they are in, in order to steer in the right direction timely.
  • A successful leader is one who keeps re-calibrating from time to time.

This article was edited by Andrew Petryna and Maryam Alapa

How to Stay Focused

By: Huri Mücahit

Edited by: Paulina Krzyszczyk


The following blog post is a summary of the articles, “Turn off your email and social media to get more done” by John Tregoning and “15 ways to stay focused all day” by Jessica Orwig and Lydia Ramsey

With the advent Tips to Stay Focusedof smartphones, our ability to access information has dramatically increased. Our productivity and capabilities have quickly followed, such that, we can remain up-to-date on all news, emails, and activities within our professional and social networks. However, does this constant accessibility come at a cost? According to several experts, the answer is a resounding, yes!, and the cost is much greater than any of us have anticipated. The state of “hyper-connectedness” is so time-consuming that our efforts at productivity are often undermined by the myriad of distractions available to us. Attempts at focusing on papers, experimental time points, and any of the other number of tasks graduate students must focus on can be thwarted with message notifications and work emails, demanding our immediate attention and leaving very little of our ability to concentrate.

How can we then combat these distractions to reach our desired level of productivity and eventually reach the finish line? The answer, according to John Tregoning, is not to work harder, but to work smarter. Listed below are several tips and suggestions provided by Tregoning, Jessica Orwig, and Lydia Ramsey.

  1. Email productively
    • Given the role emails play within our work environments, it is impossible to disregard them completely. However, to ensure that it does not take away crucial time from other tasks, it is best to limit email time to specific bursts. All answered emails should also be kept concise and to-the-point to avoid the dreaded chains and “volley” of emails back and forth.
    • Flag emails that don’t require immediate attention and set them aside for later, to be completed during less productive times.
  1. Establish a to-do list and group non-essential tasks together to minimize distractions
    • Any thoughts that demand your attention can be jotted down for later, which can help drastically when planning experiments!
    • Multi-tasking may appear to increase efficiency, but it is often counter-productive.Our focus is a finite resource, and dividing it between multiple tasks results in a lower ability to focus on important tasks.
    • Additionally, allotting specific work hours can help train your brain to focus more consistently, while ensuring that tasks are completed at a reasonable hour. When work-life balance is achieved, graduate students, advisors, and the project itself all benefit.
  1. Take care of your body’s needs
    • Exercising has been shown to increase memory and focus.
    • Designating specific times to take breaks can help prevent burn-out and increase productivity in the long run.
    • Finally, although many graduate students are guilty of this, poor sleeping patterns have been shown to reduce concentration. If needed, a cup of coffee can boost your focus for a short time, but it is obviously not a long-term solution. Ultimately, you must ensure that you get enough sleep!
  1. Provide an environment that allows you to focus and minimizes distractions
    • Whether it’s ensuring that the space has the right temperature, the ideal lighting, etc.; find a corner that is comfortable so that you’re not looking for a reason to leave. These factors are especially important when performing more difficult tasks like writing a fellowship application or your thesis!
    • While we need to remain connected, for short periods of time….put away your phone, turn on the “Do Not Disturb” feature, and eliminate the online distractions that eat up so much of our time!
  1. Aspire to be bored.
    • In today’s world, we are constantly being bombarded by news and advertisements which can do more than distract—they may also reduce our sense of creativity. Allotting time to sit and think, without any additional stimuli, can serve as an incredible opportunity to explore avenues you may not be able to otherwise.
    • Additionally, the constant overload of information can genuinely exhaust our minds and bodies. Taking a break from all technology and letting yourself live in the moment can provide crucial rest.

Ultimately, while technology and other distractions are pervasive, there are tools to minimize their impact so that we can all be more productive and healthier in the long run.

 

Exploring Your Skills

When it’s time to start thinking about a future career, one of the first questions that might come to mind is, “What am I good at?” This can often be a difficult question to address, and unfortunately, it may be easier to think of things we are not good at. Laura N. Schram, an academic program officer at the University of Michigan, along with humanities students learned five useful lessons for Ph.D. students interested in identifying their skill set, in an eight-week career exploration program. These five lessons are broad enough to be applied to almost any field, including STEM.

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Lesson 1: Examine any negative assumptions about skills

First we need to define what is meant by the term “skills.” The dictionary definition states that a skill is, “the ability to do something that comes from training, experience or practice.” Schram states that, if you are pursuing a Ph.D., you are gaining highly specialized training, experience and practice within your field. Last week, I completed my Individual Development Plan (IDP) for my yearly evaluation. Within the IDP, there is an entire section on “assessing your skills,” where you must rank skills from 1 (needs improvement) – 5 (highly proficient). After you rank yourself, you give the same list to your PI to complete. The list includes laboratory/bench skills, general research skills, professional skills, leadership and management skills, and interpersonal skills. These are 5 broad categories, ranging from specific science knowledge to skills that are important for all fields, such as punctuality, conflict resolution and communicating clearly in conversation. In order to be successful as Ph.D. students, we have to communicate clearly, manage projects and time, be receptive to feedback, have independence, and solve problems. Initially, I had very negative assumptions about my skills; it was easy to go through the list and give myself low scores. Talking about these skills with my PI opened my eyes to how critical I was—he gave me much higher scores than I had given myself! What I learned from this experience is, it is important to not sell yourself short. Furthermore, it is important to remember that, in addition to the science, we are developing important soft skills, which are crucial for finding a future career.

Lesson 2: Believe you have transferable skills.

In terms of transferable skills, Schram refers to skills that have been acquired in one work setting that can be productively applied in another. Think about the skills you have, and areas you might want to improve on before engaging in a new professional experience. As mentioned in “Lesson 1,” we are all gaining abilities, during our Ph.D. training, that will be relevant in other contexts. Whether it is grant writing, running a lab, teaching a course or leading a committee, the skills used and developed in these activities can be brought into a new context. This was a highly discussed topic during SciPhD workshop as well (read about it here). We are gaining transferable skills every day, however, it can be hard to look outside of the box. How can running western blots be a transferable skill? Well, running experiments take time and project management, as well as punctuality. If you have undergraduates, you are also managing a team. When a problem comes up, you will use creativity, problem solving, and it is possible you will have to respond to a failure. Already, this is a large variety of transferable skills that you may not have thought of before. If you are interested in reading more about this, there is a list of Ph.D. transferable skills created by the University Career Center at University of Michigan, which can be found here.

Lesson 3: Don’t underestimate how quickly you can acquire skills.

 Sometimes it can feel like learning something new takes an incredibly long time, especially in regards to research. However, in terms of more general skills, the process might be quicker than expected. Schram states, “taking on a part-time job opportunity can expand your existing skills in more ways than you might expect.” She believes that by working in a new setting, even if it is for a relatively short time period, one can expand his or her range of transferable skills, even more than anticipated. While it might be difficult, or impossible, to get a part-time job opportunity while pursuing a Ph.D., it might be possible to do a summer internship. This will allow you to gain more transferable skills, such as: forging effective relationships through improved communication (“managing up”), cooperating and collaborating on team projects, networking and forming new collaborative relationships inside and outside the organization, managing projects from beginning to end, and implementing plans or solutions. At the same time, internships have been thought of as being an important entry point for getting a job in industry. Therefore, by doing an internship, or a similar out-of-lab-experience, you have the possibility of gaining skills and setting yourself up for the future.

Lesson 4: Broaden your skills outside of your department.

This might seem like another impossible task, but it does not have to be. Schram states that translating skills from one setting to another is a skill in itself, so working outside of your department can broaden your skill base simply through working out how to translate your skills in a new setting. You might be wondering how you can get started? When Schram was a doctoral student, she found joy in teaching and talking about teaching with colleagues. She sought out professional development workshops at her campus’s teaching center, and applied for part-time pedagogy-related employment opportunities outside of her department. She states that it was through these smaller engagements that she developed confidence and career clarity, ultimately leading to a career in educational development. To build skills outside of your department, you can start looking for smaller professional opportunities, such as attending workshops and seminars that may help in future career development.

Lesson 5: Skill building is not a zero-sum game.

After reading the previous couple of lessons, you might be thinking that exploring professional opportunities outside of your department will take away from the progression of your Ph.D. However, this does not have to be the case. Pursuing these “outside activities” can help you develop skills necessary for the next step in your career, make you a more competitive candidate, and more effective in your career. An expanded skill set is valuable for everyone, such as those who strive to be future faculty members in academia, and those looking to leave academia. Schram spoke with students who have pursued opportunities in professional settings, and they have reported that they expanded their core scholarly skills, such as the abilities to link ideas, identify sources of information applicable to a given problem, teach skills or concepts to others, and effectively convey complex information. Therefore, while you will develop core skills through your Ph.D., you can expand on your skill set through applying those skills in different settings outside of your department.

While this is just a brief list of suggestions to help you explore your skills, it is a good starting point. As a science Ph.D. student, I often struggle with imagining how my specific set of lab skills will be translatable for a future career that might not be on the bench. The advice provided by Laura Schram was useful in understanding how a lab task such as troubleshooting a failed experiment, can also be thought of as creative problem solving, or analyzing an issue. A Ph.D. teaches us so much more than just science and it is important that we do not sell ourselves short.

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Junior Editor: Eileen Oni / Senior Editor: Paulina Krzyszczyk/Maryam Alapa

How to be successful in your career

 

The following is an article review of “The Core Traits of Success” by David G. Jensen.

Dr. David G. Jensen is a writer, a world-wide speaker on career issues, and the founder of CareerTax Inc. He has written about the issues that scientists and engineers face when transitioning from an academic environment to the industrial employment. In his article, The Core Traits of Success, Dr. Jensen reflects on the traits needed to have a successful career. Very early on in his career he became interested in what makes a scientist stand out. Through his conversation with a person at a biotech company, he learned about the traits that many recruiters and hiring managers usually look for in a candidate. These traits were persistence, focus, inner beliefs, flexibility, network, and critical thinking. I also agree that these are traits you must have and work on in order to be a successful, professional scientist. I also think that having a plan, setting goals, and following through are important when making your transition. For example, persistence comes in when a plan (or experiment) does not go as expected, but you do not immediately give up; you take a step back, re-evaluate the process, make adjustments, and try again. This is a trait important in every aspect of your life, especially for graduate students. Many recruiters will ask if you have ever had a recurrent problem and how you handled it. They want to know if you were able to follow through or if the stress was too much for you to bear. Be sure to keep this in mind in every aspect of your life—not just in science!

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It is also important to focus on your goal. Remembering why you started doing a project or task, and what makes it important to you will help keep you motivated and stick with the plan. Dr. Jensen also discusses inner beliefs; in other words, believing in yourself. For example, scientists, especially those early on in their career, must believe in their potential, including completing publications and successfully graduating. This is a trait that I have not thought much about but have recently heard a lot people discussing. Have you ever heard the phrase “fake it until you make it”, or have seen some people do the superman pose before a talk or a surgery? These are just little tricks to give yourself self-confidence, and yes, the people that believe in this are right; when you believe in yourself and in the work you are doing you tend to perform better! The next trait that Dr. Jensen talks about is flexibility. This means being open and willing to learn new techniques. In this era, new techniques in the laboratory are quickly emerging, so we cannot stay stuck repeating the things we have already learned. We need to be flexible in order to move forward. Networking, the importance of which many of us have heard of before, is a really important trait to be successful. You need to build a network of future collaborators and potential employers. The final trait is critical thinking, which scientists are trained to do. We learn how to approach a problem from different angles and figure out the most efficient way to do it. Keep in mind that when looking for a job what will set you apart from others is how you an approach a problem and what options you have to solve it. This is what critical thinking is about, we all know the science, but the key to success is having a critical mind on how to approach the science.

Jensen concludes his article by saying that the most important trait of all is having passion for what you do. Having passion for your work will help you tie together the other six traits and achieve your goals.

If you want to be successful, set a goal, make a plan, follow through, and add in the six traits. Good luck!!

Edits for this post was provided by Eileen Oni, Paulina Krzyszczyk and Maryam Alapa

Vision-goal

Data Scientist to the Rescue!

By Tomas Kasza

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard of the job title, data scientist. Heralded as one of the new, hot jobs of the 21st century, it has made its way to several top ten jobs lists across the news  (1, 2, and 3). You may have thought you missed out on this opportunity, however I have some great news for you! A data scientist can receive training at any level of college or post-college education, and there are even specific jobs within data science that an individual with a Ph.D. is more suited for. This post will answer some questions that you may have about being a data scientist.

What exactly is a data scientist?

Data scientists extract meaning from data. They interpret and communicate this data by using a combination of statistics, programming, and presentation skills. Throughout history, scientists have collected and organized data in order to make predictions about the world. However, in modern times, there has been an explosion in the quantity of data generated due to advances in technology. As a result, individuals with data analysis skills are now in high demand.

Do I need programming knowledge to be a data scientist?

Yes, you will need to learn a programming language like python or Java and a data visualization language like R or SQL. A more complete list can be found here. R and Python are free to download on your computer from their online websites. Check out the graphic below for the skill traits of a complete data scientist! It is important to remember that these are powerful tools for interpreting and visualizing substantial amounts of data. As many of us are bench scientists, our current work involves observing changes in experimental systems and interpreting the results that are generated.  Programming is the same in principle. Think of it as learning a new bench technique that will allow you to interpret data more easily!

Data scientist graphic

Programming seems complicated—do you think I would be able to learn it?

There is a cornucopia of online materials available to aspiring data scientists. Fortunately, most of these tools are free—you can just sign up for them and teach yourself. You can also obtain several Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) for each language, also available for free online. IDEs will help you learn, design, and debug code. For online learning, DataCamp tutorials are extremely helpful. You can also find some courses on Coursera and edX. These will help point you in the right direction for further learning. When you need help accomplishing a specific coding task, visit the developer forum, stack overflow.  It is likely that another person has asked the same question, and someone else has already explained how to accomplish that task!

What are the requirements for the career?

As mentioned above, one specific requirement to be a data scientist is to know how to program in a data visualization language and a programming language. The number of resources available is daunting at first, but there are many online guides to let you forge a learning path for yourself. There are also classes you can take, such as boot camps, and degrees at Rutgers in order to show that you have the knowledge to succeed in data science. Personally, I have talked to my advisor about my interest in this field, and he has suggested taking several courses, beginning with linear algebra and research statistics.

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Will a career in data science be a good fit for me?

This is a question you will have to ask yourself. I think it is a great career transition for someone who loves understanding technical data interpretation. From my perspective, understanding data, asking  questions about it, and learning even more, is one of the reasons why I got involved in science in the first place. It is a natural progression for me to pursue a career in this area because it is so similar to the scientific process that I already practice. I used to be apprehensive about learning programming, but I have found that once I learned some basics, it became much less daunting. I have also found that I enjoy learning about new techniques and technological advances within data science, which is important to do in any prospective career.

I hope that you have enjoyed my review of data science, have obtained a better understanding of what a data scientist does, and find the links that I have provided to be helpful. I hope that you remember that data science can be a rewarding career for any Ph.D. student or postdoc!

Edited by Sangeena Salam and Paulina Krzyszczyk

Burn Out – #Takebreaksmakebreakthroughs

By: Huri Mücahit

 

The following blog post is a summary of, “Break or burn out” by Kendall Powell and “Burnout syndrome: five ways to keep it together” by Gaia Cantelli

 

PhD students and postdocs work in some of the most rewarding positions, with the potential to truly be at the very cusp of the newest discovery – but all of this can come at a high personal cost. Often, graduate students believe that working hard is synonymous with working to the brink of exhaustion. From the extensive hours spent in the lab, obtaining inexplicable or negative results, and numerous additional responsibilities can combine to form a toxic environment for mental health. The phenomenon is in fact, so common, that numerous articles have been published on this very subject. Within this post, I will be reviewing two of these articles , both of which have been published in two of the most prominent journals in science: Nature Magazine and the American Society for Cell Biology.

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The term “burn out” is defined as “a combination of overwhelming fatigue and a loss of motivation caused by chronic stress or frustration” (Powell, 2017). Since as many as one-third of graduate students are at risk for burnout, according to a study conducted in Belgium (K. Levecque et al. Res. Policy 46, 868–879; 2017), it is important to be aware of the warning signs, which are listed in the table below.

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As Kendall Powell mentions, it is important to treat both yourself and your peers with understanding; PhD programs are essentially marathons, and it is in all of our best interests to reach the finish line—aka the thesis defense—in a healthy state of mind. Ignoring the signs of burn out can threaten more than just the completion of our degree; it can lead to more serious mental and physical health issues such as depression.

 

In the case where one can recognize these symptoms, what can we feasibly do to alleviate them? Gaia Cantelli offers some advice: first, pay attention to your body; check in and determine the difference between “being tired” and true fatigue. While it may be much easier to grab a candy bar and coffee to combat hunger and weariness, instead, put effort into eating healthier. You can simplify this process by having fruit and vegetables readily available so that you have no excuse. Secondly, although none of us ever seem to have the time, make sure to set aside time to obtain a full night of sleep. Exhaustion will only delay those breakthroughs we’re all looking for.

 

Additionally, check in with your peers; we’re all in the same program so who else would be better to understand your struggles? It might be difficult to open up and discuss your experiences due to the fear of stigmatization and appearing “weak”, but you would be surprised by the number of students who might be in the same situation. There’s a reason that so many articles have been written on the subject! Furthermore, Rutgers University offers excellent counseling services on each campus, so don’t be afraid to take advantage of them. This is why they exist! You may feel ill-equipped to deal with these symptoms, but therapists and counselors most certainly are not. Remember, this is to help you get through a difficult, and temporary, period in your life.

 

Finally, although it may seem impossible when you think of the sheer number of tasks that need to be completed, make sure to take breaks. If this thought seems frightening, take small breaks throughout the day during which you don’t discuss science with your peers or read a paper. You need to take effective breaks that clear your mind from science. When possible, make effort to spend time on a hobby, one that you know that you are successful at, in order to combat any demoralizing experiments or results. It might even be beneficial to minimize the amount of experiments you conduct, if only for a short period of time, just to restore your own well-being. As Cantelli states, “For a few short weeks, become the kid in school who does the minimum necessary to pass the class”. You can even use the twitter hashtag created by Kay Guccione, #takebreaksmakebreakthroughs to remind yourself of why these breaks are necessary. During these slower periods, the minimal stress may help you re-discover your passion for research and ultimately, help you reach the finish line.