NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 4 – Scientific Program Management

This is the fourth in a series of profiles about recent NIH postdocs who have found an array of jobs, from academia to industry to communications and beyond, in the U.S. and abroad. What do they do now, and how did they get there? What challenges did they face, and what advice do they have? Read on to find out.

Name: Tshaka Cunningham

Current position: Scientific program manager at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; adjunct assistant professor at Howard University

Location: Washington, D.C.

Time in current position: 2 ½ years

Postdocs: Cancer and HIV/AIDS with Jay Berzofsky at NCI; viruses and immunology with John Yewdell at NIAID

How I got my job: Every year I would update my CV and show it to people. I’d say, “Just to let you know, this is what I’m doing now, hope everything is going well with you.” That’s how my resume ended up at the VA. They got it from someone in my network. They called me up and asked if I’d like to talk about this research management position. It was very informal, over lunch. I hadn’t thought about that kind of work before. Once I realized what I’d be doing, I really liked it, because one of the things I like is mission-focused research, and what better mission than to help veterans who’ve served our country? It got me fired up. I applied for the posting.

 Unexpected directions: I did my doctorate at Rockefeller University, which was hard-core academia. Cutting-edge research in HIV biology. It was the best time in my academic life. Then I started a postdoc at the Institut Pasteur, but NIH offered more in the area I wanted to be in. My thinking was that I’d stay in academia. At the NIH, I learned that I’m not a traditional, basic researcher. I need application. I don’t feel that great unless I’m trying to cure someone. Now, at the VA, I get treatments out to people who need them.

“A-ha” moment: I took the Myers-Briggs assessment when I was at NIH and was shocked by the findings. [In a supplemental book that lists popular occupations for various personality types,] it didn’t have science as one of the careers for my type. It had other options like politics, business and administration/management. All my life, I’d felt like a science nerd. The test helped me recognize all these other interpersonal skills and preferences that I have. It pushed me out of the lab a little bit. 

Network, network, network: I’m a natural networker. I love talking to people. I do it everywhere I go. A lot of scientists shy away from that stuff. Being outgoing expands your network in ways you don’t even know. All the job offers I’ve had have come from someone I know, or from someone who knows someone I know. They already have a good impression of me and then they can look at my credentials.

Networking is not just getting a name and a business card. It’s having a conversation, getting to know the person, and them getting to know you.

 Practical considerations: I considered things like compensation, lifestyle and my feelings about basic research. If you want a family, you have to prepare. I met my wife when I first started my postdoc, and we got married right before I left. She’s an elementary school teacher, and we had loans to pay back. We said, “One of us has to get a higher-paying job!” Now we have a young son, Logan, who is the joy of my world.

Day-to-day: I work in the rehabilitation portion of the Office of Research and Development. Day to day, I evaluate science. I have to stay up on the science. I am constantly reading. I interact with investigators a lot. That’s good when there’s good news, but only a small percentage get funded, so I help them understand what they need to do better. I also set up peer reviews. I’m lucky to meet very distinguished scientists who take the time to do peer review. I do background research on them and manage a database of experts.

I don’t do bench research. The closest to that is site visits. But I am still involved in some basic research projects at Howard University outside my area of focus at the VA.

 Giving back to students: My dream was to do my training at Ivy League schools and be a professor at a historically black college. I was fortunate enough to be presented with the opportunity to become an adjunct professor at Howard University when I was at NIH. I still do that. I also am doing a detail with Alexandria city public schools to improve STEM education, especially for disadvantaged minorities. That’s my passion. I want to make science cool for kids.

 Marry your career for the right reasons: Keeping an open mind is important. When you’re finishing your postdoc, it’s like you’ve been in a relationship this whole time and you say, “We might as well get married.” That’s not good. You have to ask, “Is this a good fit for me?” Maybe you need something different. You’re not necessarily meant to become a clone of your lab mentor. You can do a variety of things with a Ph.D.

Tshaka can be contacted through the OITE alumni database.