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NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 16 - Media Relations Representative, JHU Medical Institute

Submitted by peryan79 July 2, 2012

This is the Sixteenth 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: Vanessa McMains

Current position: Media relations representative, Johns Hopkins Medical Institute

Location: Baltimore, MD

Time in current position: 1 year 4 months

Graduate work/postdoc: Function of the protein complex g-secretase in Dictyostelium with Alan Kimmel at NIDDK

Day-to-day: I promote the basic science up at the medical school. It’s a small team. I do anything from writing press releases to leading media around with camera crews. I do a lot of Web work like design and updates, and I do a lot of Web writing. We try to promote our researchers to a non-scientific audience. We have pages called “Meet Our Scientists” where we do Q&As. That helps the general public understand the research that’s going on, or even postdocs who may be switching projects and may not be familiar with the terms. I also organize a yearly conference for science writers. And I run social media sites, like our Facebook pages. When I was looking for jobs, I wanted something that was mainly writing. This is maybe more like 30%—but that’s okay with me. I’m always stimulated. If I were writing all the time, I might get bored.

Finding the right fit: That was my problem in science—I got bored. As a scientist in training, you’re always learning new things, but after the first few years on a project, you know all the experiments you have to do and there’s nothing new. Every day felt like the same day. I felt like I was in Groundhog Day. Halfway through grad school, I started considering alternate careers. I went to all those events through OITE where people came in and talked about different jobs.

I had a friend who was in a science writing program, but I thought writing was a horrible task. I thought I might go into editing. There was an NIH group of mostly postdocs who would meet once a week and go over people’s papers and offer tips before they submitted to a journal. I enjoyed that, but I didn’t want to do it full-time. I realized I was becoming very picky.

Train yourself up: I also got married around that time. After all the planning was over, there was this void in my life. I decided to start a grad student newsletter. Then I started asking around about what to do if you did want to be a science writer. They said you need an internship. To get an internship, you need writing samples. Well, where do you get these magical writing samples? I met someone from the NIH at a conference whose wife volunteered for NIH Research Matters. He introduced us via email and she introduced me to Harrison Wein. I wrote up a couple of things for him. He gave me really good feedback to help me learn writing. Then I was in the OITE office one day when a staff member walked by and said the NIH Catalyst needed a writer. She introduced me to Chris Wanjek, and he was like, here, have a feature story. I was totally overwhelmed at first, but I did this shark cartilage article and a few more things.

Before my final year as a grad student, I found out about the Santa Fe Writers Workshop. It’s like a boot camp for science writers. My mentor at the NIH was really great and sent me there when they accepted my application. He said it was his job to train me for my career, even if it wasn’t as a bench scientist.

The following summer, he let me apply for a AAAS Mass Media Fellowship. [I was accepted, and] it was pretty much the best thing ever. I was placed at the Chicago Tribune as a science reporter. I did a couple of very good stories there, even a cover story.

Biggest frustrations: In the fall when I got back, I worked on my dissertation and started applying for fellowships and jobs. I defended in December and started a postdoc in my lab, basically tying up loose ends and getting negative result after negative result. I ended up doing that for six months. It really reinforced my thinking that I didn’t want to be a scientist. In the meantime I applied for internships at Science and Nature, the NCI communications fellowship, stuff at USA Jobs, science foundations, a company that wrote materials for undergrads, probably 20 jobs. From all of that, I got two interviews. I was totally crestfallen. I had great credentials for an opening position. OITE went over my cover letter and resume and said they were fine, although they did offer me some extra tips and advice. The economy just sucked and there were no positions. I was ready to take anything that wasn’t pipetting.

How I got my job: Someone at OITE said to go through my directory and just ask people if they knew of any open positions. I have a LinkedIn account, and I always added people after meetings and sent them a little note so they’d remember me. There was someone I knew who had taught me in a grant-writing course at Hopkins. She’d ended up in science writing there. When I contacted her, she said, “I’m actually hiring. I remember you. When can you start?”

I went in for coffee and to talk about the position. She was afraid I wouldn’t want to do the non-writing parts of the job like event planning, but I’d done that with my wedding and OITE Career Day. I went through the interview process, and when I met with the director of communications he asked me: “We have 100 applicants—why are you qualified?” I was taken aback, because it had sounded like the position was mine. But obviously, I got the job.

It’s really all about who you know. I guarantee you that if she hadn’t been working there, they would have passed over my application along with the 99 others they didn’t hire.

Essential skills: You need an incredible amount of multitasking and organization skills to do this kind of job. There are times I’m working on 10 projects at once. If you can’t stay on top of them, you’ll fail miserably. Also, there are deadlines you have to meet. It’s not like your experiment didn’t work so you can try again next week. It’s more like there’s a newsletter that has to go out tomorrow and you’ll stay until it’s finished. You need people skills to build relationships with the media and researchers; you can’t be a hermit-in-the-lab person in a setting like media relations.

The downside: It’s really a starter position. I think of myself as still being in training. People my age in journalism are more experienced because they got started in their early twenties. The salary was also something of a shock because while on paper it’s a little more than I would be making as a postdoc, the insurance and taxes are much higher. But there are great benefits and a pension. There isn’t much opportunity to move up where I am, but I think of it as putting in for the future.

The upside: I love my job. I get to do lots of things. A lot of people here used to be science writers for the Baltimore Sun. They’re very, very experienced journalists and I’m very impressed with them. But they’re very impressed with me because I have a science background. They give me writing tips, and I explain papers to them. It works out really well.

Vanessa can be contacted through the OITE alumni database.

Get More Done: Take A Break

Submitted by peryan79 July 9, 2012
The title seems a little contradictory.  How is it that you can get more work done, but spend less time working?  According to a New York Times article about a study from the University of Toronto Scarborough, it is because small breaks make you more efficient.  The study authors suggests that the brain “becomes fatigued after sustained use and needs a rest period before it can recover, he explains — much as a weight lifter needs rest before doing a second round of repetitions at the gym.”  So here are a few of the tips from the article:
  • Symptoms of needing to take a break are drifting or day dreaming.
  • If you are in “the zone,” keep working.  It isn’t working hard that drains your brain, it’s when you are forcing yourself to go on when you really need a break.
  • Taking too many breaks leads to procrastination.  So, be smart about it.  Everything in moderation
Here are a few ideas for break:
  • Go for a walk – Even just doing laps on your floor gets you moving and gives you a break from your work.  If you are at the NIH and don’t want to melt in this heat wave, consider walking the track in the basement of building 10.
  • Go get a coffee (or something else) with a co-worker – After all, you have to walk to where the coffee is and having someone with you makes it less likely you will just sit and start thinking about work.  According scientists who have spent time in England, many labs there still take a break in the afternoon for tea (or other beverage) for about 30 minutes.  In fact, there is often a break in the morning as well for around the same amount of time. 
  • Stand at your computer while you read the OITE Careers Blog – The article mentions that standing while doing your work can help relieve some of the brain drain.
  • Take a nap – We are aware this is not a culturally acceptable practice here in the USA, even if it is supported by science.  However, in other cultures a break in the afternoon to rest is quite common.  The Spanish Siesta is famous, and so I asked a visiting fellow and friend from Spain about how the “Siesta” works in the research community.  She pointed out the siesta is as much about food as it is about sleep.  The main goal is to sit down together around the table and have a meal as a family or group of friends.  If you can grab a siesta in that time, that’s even better. 
Working hard is a hallmark of the research profession.  Most scientists I know take a lot of pride in putting in long hours.  We are certainly not suggesting that any of us not work hard.  However, research suggests that taking breaks can help us work smarter as we work hard.  And isn’t that what we all want to do?    

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

Submitted by peryan79 July 16, 2012

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.

Getting the Skills You Need

Submitted by peryan79 July 23, 2012

If you have been following our Calendar for Career Success in 2012, then July is the month where you should be making some decisions.  You have done some exploring of career options, gathered information on different jobs and interviewed a variety of people to gain a better understanding of what a particular job really entails.  You have spent the first part of the year getting to know yourself and your options.  You have broadened your ideas of what careers are out there for you.  Now it is time to start narrowing those options down to the ones you are really passionate about and to make a plan for how you are going to put yourself in the best position to successfully get where you want to go. Here are a few practical steps you can take to get yours moving in the right direction: For each position you want to attain;

  • Make a list of skills in three areas; Required, Desired, and Helpful
  • Mark off the lists those skills you already possess
  • Make note of those that you have, but that could use improvement
  • List in a separate list those skills that you do not have. 

For each skill that you do not have

  • Search for workshops, seminars and courses that you can take to develop those skills.  The workshops can be offered through your institute, the OITE, FAES, professional societies, local colleges, etc.  For example, if you want to do tech transfer, FAES offers a full certificate program.
  • Volunteer.  Getting hands on experience is often the best way to gain the experience that you need.   Use your network map, starting with those you did informational interviews with.  Were any of the jobs in those offices particularly interesting?  Go back and ask if you can volunteer to help (note that you will have to clear any time away from your research group during working hours with your supervisor).  Also do not forget to look at professional societies as a place to volunteer. 
  • Maybe you actually have the skill already. Go back to the list above and sit down with a friend or career counselor to make sure that a skill you have now couldn’t be looked at in a different way.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice.  Whatever the skill is that you are trying to develop, the best way to do that is to practice it, in as many forums as possible.  Find opportunities through organizations inside and out of your institution.  For example, if you want to practice your public speaking, join a group like toastmasters. 

No matter where you are in your career, it’s neither too early or too late to start assessing what you need and making a plan to get it.  This is your career.  It’s time to start taking charge of it.

NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 19 - Group Leader, Center for Allergy and Environment in Munich, Germany

Submitted by peryan79 July 30, 2012

This is the Nineteenth 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: Jan Gutermuth

Current position: Group leader (Arbeitsgruppenleiter) of the Experimental Allergy Group, Center for Allergy and Environment (ZAUM), Technische Universität München and Helmholtz Center Munich

Location: Munich, Germany

Time in current position: 1 year

Postdoc: Mechanisms of immunological tolerance and their therapeutic modulation with Stephen I. Katz at NCI

My story: I’m a dermatologist.By the time I came to the NIH, I was in a pretty lucky situation. I had taken a step away from the clinic and had done a Ph.D. equivalent, which at that time was not well-regulated in Germany. Often, our medical doctors are sent outside their institutes for some time because our mentors want us to gain some experience and then come back. This was offered to me. Of course, there’s no guarantee there will be a position for you when you go back. For me, I was not 100% sure if I would go back to the same department or somewhere else.

Job search in a nutshell: I started to look for jobs once I saw my project at the NIH was running well and I was starting to write a paper. I considered staying in the U.S. But I didn’t have a board exam in dermatology that was recognized in the U.S. and I didn’t want to do my residency again. I always maintained contact with my home department in Germany, but I was also invited by other departments to give talks based on scientific presentations. Normally that means they want to interview you. Prior to coming to the NIH, I was active in the German dermatology and allergy scene, so they knew me already. I could have joined at least three or four departments.

Network, network, network: Mostly my conversations came out of real interest. If I’m interested, I will talk to that person. It has led me to the people I need to know. I’m a little bit hurt if someone networks with me but isn’t really interested. Of course, if you’re really good at networking, you’ll do more than I do. For me, it’s like a key and lock: it should fit.

The book How To Work a Room was very helpful for me.

Also regarding networking, I became friends with the Austrian embassy attaché and representatives from the European Union in D.C. They tried to recruit me. Washington has a lot to offer. You shouldn’t only stay in your lab at the NIH. It is such a rich scene with many scientists and politicians traveling to the area.

Keep in touch: I didn’t cut my ties when I lived in the U.S. I went to conferences in Europe and so forth. Likewise, now that I am back in Germany I have kept in touch with the closest people from the NIH. I have a web from the U.S. to Asia from this period. That is a big advantage. The people who hired me want this network.

Advice for job-seekers: The most important thing when you choose your next job, even more than the project, is if you can live with the personality of your supervisor and your colleagues. Even if he is the most important person in the world, if I won’t get along with him, I won’t take the position. Otherwise it can be a real problem.

And of course, don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Don’t put skills you don’t have or languages you don’t speak on your resumé.

Making the choice: Ultimately, I made the decision together with my wife. She’s a commercial engineer. We always find a solution that works for the whole family. I had another offer in Switzerland, but it was a small town and it would have been bad for her, which would be a catastrophe for our personal life and therefore for my professional life. I could have had better-paid jobs, but my wife would not have had a job, or our children might not have had day care. It is important to recognize that the perfect job might not be the perfect whole package.

Day-to-day: This is the job I always wanted to have. I see patients for about 20 hours a week, three mornings in the clinic. The rest of the time, other than meetings and so forth, I’m free to do research. I supervise a number of scientists. I plan projects, write grants and train students. It has become a management position. Moreover, I have moved more into science administration and have to deal with personal matters, budget and supervisory boards like animal welfare.

It’s the best from both worlds. My two chairmen give me maximum freedom. I can do my discoveries, pursue my scientific interests and also practice medicine.

The downside: I would like to spend more time with my family. And playing sports.

Essential skills: Communication skills are the most important part of my job other than the science and methods capacities. Interacting with other scientists and science administration is a major part of my work. Also, I think most problems arise because of communication issues.

Almost every week, there is some conflict you have to resolve or something you have to fight for. You have to do it in a sustainable way; you can’t just scream at people. You have to resolve it so you can still look into the eye of your opponent and maintain a working relationship.

Train yourself up: At the NIH I had a very good mentor and role model in how to lead people and resolve conflicts. I did some seminars as well: “Dealing with Conflict” for an afternoon in Building 1, “Basic and Advanced Project Management” in Building 10, and scientific writing. These are things you really need. I took some courses at Georgetown such as “Introduction to Management,” “Communication in Organizations” and “Introduction to Marketing.”

Adjustments: One thing that was harder than being a postdoc was the sudden responsibility for the future of your coworkers. Other careers depend on you.Also, you can’t just focus on your own interests. And your day gets more busy. You can’t believe it, but it’s true.

I was homesick for the U.S. when I went back to Germany. Luckily I met many people here who went to the same school, and we formed a similar community. I also had to adjust to the stricter German hierarchy.

What’s next: I think I’m good for the next four years. The steps after that involve becoming a director and so forth. These positions are very rare, so you cannot necessarily make local decisions. My next job could be international—in Europe or North America, most likely. Europe is harmonizing a lot, cutting the borders more and more and opening up the workforce.

Jan can be contacted through the OITE alumni database.