NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profiles 17 &18 – Assistant Professors of Medicine, University of Central Florida

This is the Seventeenth (and Eighteenth) 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.

Names: Mollie and Travis Jewett

Current positions: Assistant professors of medicine, University of Central Florida

Location: Orlando, FL

Time in current positions: 2 years

Postdocs: Mollie: zoonotic pathogens of Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi) with Patti Rosa; Travis: intracellular parasites (Rickettsia rickettsii and Chlamydia trachomatis) with Ted Hackstadt; both at NIAID’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories

Our story: We met when we were undergrads in Vermont. We moved to St. Louis together for grad school, then we moved to the NIH together for our postdocs, and now we’re at UCF. We’ve been doing the two-person thing for a while!

Application strategy: Our strategy the whole time has been to end up at the same place. We each applied to opportunities as individuals without mentioning the other person. We wanted to feel we were selected based on our own merits. In 2008-2009 when we were applying for faculty positions, we cast a wide net with the hope of getting multiple interviews. We applied separately and kept separate binders. In the end, it turned out we’d applied to many of the same places. We sent about 50 applications and had about 7 interviews each. Six of those were at the same places, though sometimes in different departments. We both had at least one interview at a place the other didn’t. At that point, we did mention the other spouse. They only had one position available, so we didn’t move forward with that process. It was a deal-breaker if we did not both get positions in at least the same city. 

Friendly competition: Mollie was on maternity leave and I was at work, mostly applying in the evenings. I’d get home and we’d say, “Okay, where did you apply today?” We had our own little competition, you know, “How many applications did you send today?” Procrastination was not an option.

Geographic flexibility: I think sometimes people try to restrict themselves to the East coast or West coast or Midwest, but you have to be really flexible. I don’t think we would have seen ourselves in Florida. We’re from the Northeast. We miss snow and the four seasons. For the past two years, we’ve really told friends and colleagues who say things like “I don’t think I could live in Texas” that they should apply everywhere. That way at least they will have options. If you prelimit yourself, maybe you won’t have a job offer at all. It would have really hurt us if we’d said, “We won’t apply here or here or here.”

Logistics: We have two kids also. One was 5 months old and the other was 3 years [when we were applying]. So we could only travel one at a time. We scheduled a very precise calendar. It was a logistical nightmare. Once, I [Mollie] had two trips with only one day between and got stuck in a snowstorm. Another time, Travis was supposed to take off while I was headed back from the airport. We had to get family help so we could both attend the UCF interview.

Making the choice: Ultimately, we had offers from 2 places. Obviously we decided on UCF, but we were also heavily recruited by [a Midwestern university]. We would have been in two different departments, in the College of Medicine and the biology department. That would have been fine except the campuses were on opposite ends of town. Our ideal plan was to have our labs right next to each other so we could share our resources, so that wouldn’t have worked.

A package deal: We both had K22 awards, so we had some funding and start-up packages. We were thinking about how we were different, there being two of us, and how we could use that to our advantage. We knew we could share resources, like only buying one centrifuge and one freezer and both labs could use that. We have group lab meetings. The people in Travis’ lab benefit from my expertise, and the people in my lab benefit from Travis’ expertise. It’s almost like a two-for-one for both the people and the resources. We’re really hoping in this very tough funding climate that that’s going to help us.

Trade-offs: Because our systems require different types of equipment, one of our requests for start-up funding was a little higher than the other. Because we applied as two individuals, UCF wanted to be very fair and gave us identical packages [at the lower request]. But it’s still worth it.

A tough transition: It’s been a big transition, to be honest. But I think it’s working out pretty well. We have labs with people in them. We’re working on grant submissions, converting our K awards to R01s. It’s a lot, being the person behind the desk rather than in the lab. Nobody really trains you for that. We also teach courses. It’s very rewarding when you’re in the classroom with the students, but it requires a lot of work to prepare, especially when some of the courses are new. We like it, but a lot of the work directs our attention away from research. And we discovered a new two-body problem this week when our grant proposals went to the same study section!

The upside: We expect we’ll stay in Florida for quite some time. We’re glad it’s over! Feeling settled is a good thing. We’re together in the same place, and that’s great. It will forever be a balance—our new policy is only one of us submits a grant per cycle, otherwise our kids will go hungry!—but the rewards are totally worth it. We’re leading this life together. I couldn’t ask for more.

Mollie and Travis can be contacted through the OITE alumni database.