NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 8 – NIH Alumnus to NIH Tenure Track Investigator

This is the eighth 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.

NOTE:  During the interview for this profile, Dr. Milner noted that he had some exciting findings his lab was submitting for publication.  Those findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine and highlighted in the NIH e-clips.

Name: Joshua Milner

Current position: Tenure-track investigator, Laboratory of Allergic Diseases, NIAID, NIH

Location: Bethesda, MD

Time in current position: 2 years

Summer student project: Immunology research with Michael Lenardo at NIAID

Clinical fellow in allergy/immunology in William (Bill) Paul’s lab at NIAID

My story: I worked in Mike Lenardo’s lab for 3 summers right after high school. I had a few other internships, and when I did my residency after medical school, some of my projects involved collaborating with NIH researchers. Then I came back here for a fellowship in 2003.

Job search in a nutshell: The third year of my fellowship, I was approached by a major international medical center. I wasn’t anticipating that. For M.D. fellowships, that’s classically the time to get a job, but it was too early to get an NIH job. I liked what I was doing at NIAID enough that I was willing to wait to see if I could get a job here. I interviewed for that medical center job but I basically turned it down because it seemed too early. Still, I thought if I was approached by one place, I’d better contact others. I really didn’t know if I’d be able to stay at NIAID.

Exert a little pressure: I interviewed at several other places, and made it clear what they were offering. I also had mentors who were trying to help. The uncertainty was tough. There was not a clear path to become faculty here. They were finally able to cobble together a way for me to become a staff clinician and partner with a clinical lab, and I decided to stay for the time being.

Taking that last step: The next year, I was accepted to NIAID’s transition program for fellows who want to move to tenure-track. Right at that time, I kind of hit it big: I got a Nature paper. After that, I felt more confident, although I still didn’t know if I’d get a tenure-track position. But it turned out I only stayed in that transition program for a short time because NIAID conducted its first IC-wide tenure-track search—where the whole IC advertised and said you could pick the lab—and I and a few other folks were accepted. I didn’t think twice about accepting.

That was 2009. All told, it was a two-year process.

The upside: What I do specifically is patient-centered science. The opportunities to do that are so much better here because of the way the Clinical Center is set up. We get interesting, unique patients and look at their cell pathways and the biochemistry related to the conditions they have. By looking at these rare cases, we hope to learn more about common allergic diseases.

A major issue for me is work/life balance and spending time with family. I have 4 kids. The flexibility here is great. In an outside position, if nothing else, I’d be spending more time writing grants and performing mandatory, time-consuming clinical duties. Of course, you could have a great balance but not be doing good work. If I weren’t being productive, I’d have to reevaluate.

Necessary compromises: The career path in academia was clearer. There was the attraction of being in major medical centers that focus on clinical immunology, where there’s a tremendous intellectual and scientific community and where I had made lots of relationships. Certain types of patients are also much more available out there. Also, here, things can work more like individual fiefdoms. I’d like to push to have more interaction between labs and a more academic-type environment here.

The transition: As a fellow, I was just doing 1 or 2 projects in another person’s lab. As a tenure-track researcher I had other people doing projects for me. It was a quantum leap difference. Now I am a manager of people and of a program. I’m very extroverted so I wasn’t as worried about that. Being fairly young, I was a little worried about hiring people older than me. And I clearly remember walking through my empty lab and saying, “What the heck do I put on these shelves?” I was petrified. But it was a quick transition. I talked to more experienced folks who were either a few years ahead of me or who were far senior.

It would have been useful to have different templates for startup purchasing. The instruction on how to hire a postdoc often comes after you’ve hired a postdoc. There is mentorship about how to get tenure, and rightly so, but not about how to set up a lab. I recommend asking lots of questions of lab chiefs about what they do. Because I was from here, I was able to do this a little more informally.

Full circle: My lab is 2 doors down from Mike Lenardo’s where I worked back then. Now I have my own summer students. Frankly, it takes work! I now have an even greater appreciation for the people who took me on when I was a student. But I want to make sure I have them because that’s how I got my start. I’ve had 3 so far, and I’m starting to get “repeat offenders.”

Make it your own: People [at the NIH who are looking to make the move into tenure-track positions here] should show they know how to use the power of the NIH intramural program and show what their unique mark is in using those resources. I had been working with mice as a fellow. The research that led to the Nature paper was in patients. I hadn’t done human research, so I found a lab that worked with patient samples all the time. I brought together different groups, which is what was needed to do something this translational. You shouldn’t just expect that if you do good work, you’re going to be rewarded; you have to do your work. Be creative, independent, and make it your own. Chart your own course.

Joshua can be contacted through the OITE alumni database.