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

Submitted by peryan79 November 1, 2011

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.

Maintaining Your Network: Quality over Quantity

Submitted by peryan79 November 7, 2011

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know!”  The old adage, while certainly over simplified and perhaps a little cynical, is an important reminder that often the one break a person needs to get started in a career is a personal connection to that first opportunity.  In the age of online social networking, the connections we have are often impersonal and disingenuous.  A person who is merely a number in you connection list is not likely to prove to be reliable or effective in helping you advance your career.

Social networking sites make a big deal out of the number of connections or friends you are linked to on their site.  An argument can be made that the more connections you have the better the likelihood one of them results in that big opportunity.  Call it the theory of mass action for social networking.  However, simply being LinkedIn with someone does not mean they know anything about you, nor does it mean they are willing to invest their energy in your career advancement. 

Miram Salpeter from U.S. News and World Report recently published this article with some very practical steps to getting the most of your social network.  In the article she suggests that the quality of your connections may be a better indicator of potential success.  How well do you know the people you are connected to in the field you want to get in to?  Have you ever met them in person and discussed your career aspirations?  Have you had an informational interview over the phone?  When was the last time you sent them an e-mail or message to maintain or improve your relationship with them?  

The internet is fast-paced and overloaded with information and people.  For most of us, it is out of sight, out of mind with our acquaintances and connections.  To assure you are not lost in the fray, engage your network.  Instead of focusing on increasing your number of connections, increase the quality of your relationships with those you are already connected to.  Here are a few tips to maintaining your social network:

  • Reaffirm your shared interests by sharing relevant articles you have read.  Then, follow up and start a discussion about it. 
  • Send an e-mail to follow up on a conversation you had the last time you met with your connection. 
  • Do not be afraid to get personal.  Ask about their family.  Be quick to offer congratulations if you see they have updated their job position or educational achievements. 
  • Be careful to not be solely focused on how someone can help you.  Be looking for ways to help your connections.  Alert them to job postings if you know they are looking.  Suggest career development articles or workshops in their area. 

Be proactive in building and maintaining a relationship with them.  Being connected to many people looks good on your profile page, but nothing is quite as useful as the right person being willing to put their reputation down as collateral for your success.

NIH Alumni: Where Are They Now? Profile 5 - Research Scientist at Johnson & Johnson

Submitted by peryan79 November 14, 2011

Name: Elizabeth Rex

Current position: Research scientist at Johnson & Johnson

Location: San Diego, CA

Time in current position: 4 months

Postdoc: Molecular neuropharmacology of dopamine receptors with David Sibley at NINDS

My story: When I came to NINDS, I didn’t know what I was going to do [for a career]. I thought it would all be unveiled with time. Looking back, I should have had more “career intellect.”

I knew I didn’t want to go into academia. Figuring out what I did want was the hard part. I knew I needed to get closer to helping people. I wanted to get more into drug discovery. Pharma was in line with my interests. It was more big-picture; okay, so you have the target, but what happens after that, how does it go down the pipeline, at what point does it get to the patient, how is it helping them, what went wrong, what works. The other thing is that funding was being cut. This was 2007, and the market was crashing. I had colleagues with their own labs who were struggling. It wasn’t an environment where I could thrive.

Job search in a nutshell: One and a half years out of completing my term, I knew I needed to look for jobs. I started going to seminars through OITE and going on informational interviews. Then I got more serious. I did a ton of reading. I did more extensive job searches and tapped into every connection I could find, even if there was no position immediately available. That included things like mixers and roundtables after work. I had connections with a lot of embassies through the Visiting Fellows program. I used Fogarty. I worked with people who were in the medical field outside the NIH for additional perspective on my CV and so forth.

The thing is not to feel embarrassed but to let people know you’re looking for a job. Don’t cross over into hounding, but mention it in conversation. You just need that one person who will put in the word for you.

Challenges for a non-citizen: I wasn’t a citizen, and I wasn’t a green card holder. That puts another whole dimension on the job search. I had a J1 visa and tried to change my status to H1B. It’s very challenging because you’re only there to train for a certain amount of time (5 years) and then you need to go back to your home country for 2 years (although that can be waivered in some countries). You need to get someone to sponsor you. It all takes time. You really need to get up to speed as soon as possible about what you need to do.


Visa status is not a mark against us, but there are some companies and science organizations that won’t sponsor you. You need to take that into account when you’re looking at jobs. There will be a disclosure at the bottom of the job description if it’s open to U.S. citizens only. If not, it needs to be brought up at some point during the interview. NIH being in DC, the majority of positions require permanent residency or U.S. citizenship. The likelihood is you’ll have to relocate. I cast a wide net. I was willing to move to wherever the best job was.

It was a huge hurdle for me, to be perfectly honest. You aren’t just up against people who want to do the job you’re interested in, but people who are citizens and who have experience. I learned that you have to really tailor your CV to what the job requirements are. The experience you don’t have, you look for what you can substitute. For example, if they were looking for people-management and team skills, I may not have done that as part of my job, but I was co-chair for the Visiting Fellows Committee, organizing events and teams. I didn’t mention visa status until the interview. Usually it comes up with HR. At the end of the interview I would say something like, “Oh, I wanted to let you know, is this a problem, is the company willing to sponsor?” Usually, unless they’ve disclosed otherwise, it’s not issue.

Stepping stone: I was getting interviews but not job offers. The answer was invariably that the other person had industry experience. So I ended up doing a second postdoc in industry at Eli Lilly. It was a completely different line of research, using techniques I’d never used before. The postdoc did three main things for me: it gave me industry experience, it added new techniques to my resume, and it involved a company that was ready and willing to sponsor my visa.

How I got my job: A colleague of mine from back at the NIH received a job announcement through a recruiter. She didn’t want it, but she thought it was a good fit for me and forwarded it to me. It was a great fit. I contacted the recruiter, and within a week I was set up for a phone interview.

Day-to-day: There are a lot more team meetings and a lot more projects. Just about every project that needs a drug crosses my desk. I’ve got an incredible amount of diversity. I like the collaborative nature of the work. I’m still doing bench science, and there’s freedom to look for collaborations outside industry.

What’s next: I’ll probably take more of a management route, away from the bench. I am very interested in the managerial side of pharma.

Elizabeth can be contacted through the OITE alumni database.

Giving Thanks for our Readers: Why We Do What We Do

Submitted by peryan79 November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving!  The time of year where many of us celebrate with a ridiculous amount of food, American Football on television, food, family, food, friends, and did we mention food?  Also, and perhaps more importantly, it is a time of year where we focus on those things in our lives for which we are thankful.  Here are OITE, we are reflecting on why we are thankful for our jobs and give you all a sense of why we do what we do.

Many of us are trained as research scientists.  Others are NIH employees committed to education and training.  We remain involved in biomedical research while providing the research tools into the often overlooked part of your scientific life…the career part.  We understand the pressures to publish and the long and often unpredictable hours of the lab.  We appreciate the sacrifices you make to further science and to provide better treatments and cures for diseases.  It is that great appreciation that drives us to do what we do:  Help you have the successful career you desire.

We meet with many fellows either through our workshops or in one-on-one meetings to help you improve your career prospects, in any job sector.  We strive to take our understanding of the dynamics of lab life and couple that with our knowledge of career development to help provide the tools and guidance needed to succeed in whatever career path you choose.  We try to provide a positive influence and inspiration.  We help you prepare to become a PI by helping with your application package all the way through negotiating the offer.  We provide training on breaking into industry, from crafting the resume, networking tools, and transitioning to the new job.  And we also present career options along with ways to gain additional skill sets so you can pursue any career that excites you. 

Through helping others reach career goals in science, we get to be a part of advancing biomedical research, growing the broader workforce, and helping people lead fulfilling lives.  When all the pieces come together and we are able to help a fellow achieve career success, it is like getting that final bit of data that completes a paper.  We are grateful to be able to participate in your success.

NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 6 - Science Policy Analyst

Submitted by peryan79 November 28, 2011

This is the sixth 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: Sandeep Dayal

Current position: Health science policy analyst, Office of Scientific Program and Policy Analysis, NIDDK

Location: Bethesda, MD

Time in current position: 1 year

Postdoc: Role of chromatin remodeling in class-switch recombination with Gary Felsenfeld and Marty Gellert at NIDDK

Day-to-day: We analyze the science that goes on at NIDDK and make it accessible to people, i.e. Congress as they decide on funding. We support the institute director. I write in lay language a lot. I work on things like meeting reports, admin reports, PowerPoints and briefing materials. I analyze data sometimes. I work a lot with the extramural staff and the communications office.

Almost everyone in the office has a Ph.D. and some postdoc experience. It’s necessary to have people with strong science backgrounds to quickly digest very technical material. It’s actually kind of intimidating! Everyone’s really smart.

Essential skills: The main skill that stands out is writing. You have to really love to write, and writing in lay language is not the same as what you write in the lab. That part was kind of new to me. You really have to understand the science inside and out to write for the public and maintain the accuracy. It’s a constant learning process.

It also takes a little bit of humility. You have to be okay with people editing your work. In the beginning, documents would come back all bloody red with tracked changes and I was like, “Oh, my God, I thought I was a good writer.” And lots of things I do don’t have my name on them. You have to be okay with people not knowing you wrote something.

Adjustments: In the lab, I was used to being pretty independent. The amount of interaction with other people in this job is just so much more: working in a group to discuss ideas, managing projects, delegating responsibilities, being diplomatic in how you handle things, being tactful and respectful of people’s time and effort. On the other side, you spend a lot of time sitting in your office and writing.


The scope of the science is completely different. In my postdoc, I worked on one region of the genome. I knew every single modification of that histone. In this kind of job, you never do anything in depth. It’s much broader. One day it’s X-ray crystallography of a drug interacting with a protein and the next it’s large-scale trials of whether vending machines affect childhood obesity rates. I love it, but it wouldn’t be for everyone.

Another difference is deadlines. I was told in the interview that I’d have to work within deadlines, but I guess I didn’t fully appreciate what that does for your work when you’re juggling three or four or five projects. You have to work quickly and budget your time carefully. You have to get things done to 80-90% of your satisfaction and then let them go.

Sometimes I do miss doing experiments and analyzing data. I miss the flexibility of lab life. On the other hand, I work 8:30 to 5:00 most days. There’s more structure. I don’t miss failed experiments or troubleshooting! The way I see it, every job has its mini-preps—the little jobs you don’t want to do. But if the fun stuff outweighs the boring stuff, you’re in a good place.

A path in hindsight: When I started my postdoc, probably like most people I was thinking about PI positions and academia. It didn’t take long to realize that maybe I don’t want to do this long-term. I was watching people smarter than me at the bench struggle. You have to really love it. There was something missing for me.

Since grad school, I’d been doing all these things outside the lab. I was president of my grad school student association and I started my own journal club. At the NIH I joined Felcom. It’s all stuff you’d call leadership. I talked to lots of people at the NIH, and what kept coming up was policy. I took a look back and saw that all the things I’d been doing were good preparation for a career in policy.

Network, network, network: Start with your friends. It sounds silly, but it’s true. They’re your immediate networking circle. Then expand on that. Go for coffee, send emails, make phone calls, go on “informational interviews.” I used the contacts I made at Felcom. I learned of this job because two people gave me the heads up. They knew I was looking, and they said I should apply. I got an industry offer through networking with people I knew in grad school.

If you have people who can put your resumé in front of the right eyes, it really helps. It won’t get you the job, but it’ll get your resumé looked at.

Take a chance: I almost didn’t apply for this job. I didn’t have direct policy experience. But people said apply, apply, so, okay. I sat down with the person whose job I would be filling—she was moving overseas—and tried to really understand it, to see if it was what I wanted to do. And it was. Then it was a matter of navigating the federal government hiring process. I got through the first screen, so my resumé was looked at. Then in the first interview I met everyone in the office and it was a great fit. There was a second interview with different people. For policy, personality really matters because there’s so much interaction between people. They offered me the job.

Making the choice: I applied to industry positions, too, which is like 180 degrees from policy. I think I would have liked industry, but this appealed to me more. An industry job I was offered in Connecticut paid a lot more, and I had to wrestle with that. But I really love D.C., and I had family reasons to stay.

Beyond the lab: Try to get extra skills under your belt outside the lab. Everyone’s really smart and good in the lab, and on paper, most of us look roughly the same when it comes to the science. Sometimes you’re lucky or creative and you have top-tier publications, but that’s not the case for everyone. You have to find other things to stand out. There’s things you can do to make yourself marketable beyond pipetting. It’s really good to have leadership skills. I would encourage anyone interested in policy to get involved in the community.

The right fit: I think this is where I’m going to lay my roots. I’ve gotten to know people in different ICs, and the cultures are different. I’m really pleased with my office. It’s fun to do policy at the NIH.

Sandeep can be contacted through the OITE alumni database