NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 7 – International Academic Research, Israel

This is the seventh 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: Mona Dvir-Ginzberg

Current position: Lecturer, Institute of Dental Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Location: Israel

Time in current position: 2 years

Postdoc: Histone-modifying enzymes involved in the pathology of osteoarthritis with David Hall at NIAMS

A change in path: I was very lucky during my postdoc to have made some novel observations. But I was held back by thinking it was way too early to look for jobs and that my publication record was insufficient. After my first publication, I felt more confident to start pursuing a position. At that point, I wasn’t thinking about academia at all. I wanted applicability and financial security, and industry seemed very appealing, so I began interviewing in the States and in Israel with several biotech companies.

It turned out some of the requirements did not suit my expectations. I was drawn to R&D, but some of the projects in the industry already had a product which only needed to be optimized. One company had outsourced all R&D. Others had a lot of documents and regulatory affairs, which appeared to me as being extremely technical and not very creative work.

A few friends persuaded me to look into a career in academia. In the beginning I was hesitant since I knew it would be tough and the hours would be crazy. On the other hand, the opportunity to interact with students and peers and engage in scientific research was very alluring. I could create my own research theme and still keep it applicative toward discovering new therapies. I began thinking that it might be in my reach. I started putting together an application package and sending it to suitable positions. A mentor in OITE helped me perfect my package and gave me some helpful tips on how to handle an interview. She gave me some tough love, but she did a terrific job preparing me for an academic career. Without her, I wouldn’t have a clue about interviewing or writing application packages and grants.

I learned that if you go into industry for the money and aren’t fulfilled by the work, you won’t have a long-lasting career and will feel dissatisfied. You need to look for jobs that fulfill your core needs and passions in science. It’s a metamorphosis you have to go through on your own.

How I got my job: I applied to positions in the U.S., Canada and Israel. I didn’t think I’d get anywhere with my package—I still thought I wasn’t an attractive candidate. But I heard back that I was being considered at two universities in the U.S. and Israel.

I was invited to give a talk at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. They were looking for someone with a specific expertise. At that point the institute had another candidate with a better publication record than I did. But they liked the overall impression I gave in my interview, my experience in biochemistry and epigenetics could let them open new venues in their curriculum, and my research experience complemented much of their existing research. Although I was unaware of the competition, I requested a relatively modest startup package. Three months after my interview, I was notified that the committee had unanimously accepted my application.

Surprises along the way: At a conference, someone from theU.S. university department I’d applied to let me in as to what they were looking for. They needed someone who could teach undergraduate engineering and had a strong engineering background. I hadn’t realized there were considerations other than publications. Each department’s needs are different; even if your research is in line with theirs, you may not fit other requirements.

Similarly, I gained the impression that the biotech industry doesn’t emphasize publications, and that sometimes having too many publications may be a hurdle.

A difficult adjustment: I found some things very difficult in the beginning. I needed to get a lot done. I had to set up my lab. There wasn’t a vacant space for me when I arrived, and I didn’t receive my start up package right away. I was the only woman in the institute, which was at times challenging. But the hardest thing was that I had to do it alone. As an independent PI, you’re completely isolated from the sort of community of friends you have when you’re a postdoc. I was literally an ocean apart from my friends in the U.S. The fact that you are assigned a mentor and have an institute head helps you deal with many issues, but it’s not the same level of communication you have with your colleagues and friends. You are simply expected to handle the load, and you don’t want to complain too much.

Find your support: I made it a priority to make time for my family. They energized me—they filled my batteries so I could go back in the ring. My family is my support. My mother, father, husband and children who are excited to see what I do in the lab. They keep me going through tough times. And my institute has a tremendous group of people who are very supportive and professional. They got together to help me out when I didn’t get any grants. That’s a great example of camaraderie and it shows me I work with people who want me as part of their team. You don’t want to go somewhere you’re not wanted.

Day-to-day: Now, most of my day is dedicated toward writing papers and grants and mentoring students. I have two students and a published paper; I have another paper accepted and one under review. Sometimes I indulge and join my students at the bench. I really love doing that. As part of my work, I need to teach. I teach undergrads in dental medicine and advanced students in Master’s and Ph.D. courses. I’d had a little experience teaching science enrichment for high school kids. I loved it and had no problem doing it. It’s very exhilarating. I love interacting with an audience and listening to their thoughts and ideas.

During the day unexpected responsibilities get thrown to your desk like budgeting, committee attendance, invited talks, and reviewing grants and papers. I try to plan it, but most of the time I don’t know how my day will pan out.

Essential skills: Multitasking. Working efficiently throughout the day so you can try to make time for things other than science. Trying to be courteous and patient to all the people who come to you with questions and requests. Not to lose your temper. And not taking on too many responsibilities if you think you’re maxed out. Learn to say no. We’re human. We can’t do everything.

Facing the challenge: In the beginning, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to Israel. There are fewer resources compared to the NIH and U.S. extramural. But it occurred to me that I should turn it around for the better. There are so many talented, well-published, well-acclaimed scientists in Israel and it would be great to work with them. Here you are more prone to collaborate with people. Because of limited resources, you improve to some degree your creativity. You are always thinking of ways to overcome various hurdles. There is so much open range. Many times I have attended conferences where I may have been the only attendee from Israel doing basic research in osteoarthritis. I want to lay this foundation. I see it as a challenge.

Mona can be contacted through the OITE alumni database.