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Your Identity Matters: Living Your True Self: “Puedes dejar la isla pero la isla nunca te deja a ti”

Submitted by Lori Conlan December 6, 2021

Guest Blogger: Natasha Lugo-Escobar, PhD: Director, NIH Academy Enrichment Program (NAEP), OITE
Part of the "Voices of OITE"

Raised by a single mother, I grew up on a Caribbean Island 100 miles long x 35 miles wide: Puerto Rico. Boricuas, as we identify ourselves, feel proud of our cultural heritage and history: a blend of Taino, Spanish, and African traditions. Our crystalline beaches, culinary experiences, year-round tropical weather, beautiful architecture, vibrant music and dance, and charming people all give us a rich and diverse uniqueness. Though we are a territory of the US and considered American citizens, it surely felt different when I moved to “The States”. People made assumptions about my identity because of my looks, and my strong accent would prompt questions like, “Where are you from?” While finishing my PhD thesis at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, an opportunity came to pursue postdoctoral training at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) at the NIH. Having collaborated previously with the PI, I thought it would be a chance to change my research focus, learn new techniques, and open future employment options. Never in a million years would I have thought that I would leave my island to embrace a new life away from my home. Yet, I learned a lot about myself during this life transition. Here are some of the lessons I learned.

Be open to unexpected opportunities. Taking a leap of faith at the chance to do something completely different in a new place away from home opened doors for me. While doing my postdoctoral training, I was still figuring out what career I wanted to pursue. I knew I didn’t want to run a lab and that I missed interacting with and mentoring students. I took advantage of OITE resources and events to explore career options and develop the skills to be successful. Little did I know that a casual conversation at one of those events would change the course of my career and future. I learned about a detail opportunity at OITE to gain experience in science program management and work with students at all educational levels. Once again, I took advantage of an opportunity I hadn’t expected. Fast forward 10+ years and here I am, directing programs where I can do what I love: mentoring and empowering summer and postbac trainees to reach their goals.

Let go of your imposter fears. I know this is easier said than done. When I moved here, I felt different: judged because of my accent, doubting my education because of where I came from, and thinking I wasn’t good enough for NIH. It was a struggle feeling that I had to prove myself ALL the time. It wasn’t until I heard the term “imposter fears” that I understood the feelings I was experiencing and, more importantly, that I could learn how to overcome them. I participated in the OITE Resilience Program and small group discussions to learn strategies to navigate these feelings (I still work on this) and develop the resilience skills to begin to let go of my own fears.

Find your family away from home. Resilience = people + process + preparation. This is so true! After growing up so close to family and friends, I felt lonely when I moved to Maryland. Yet, I found genuine and caring peers who had experienced similar circumstances and welcomed me into their network. I met many of my closest friends at NIH SACNAS Chapter events. This is where I found my community: where others spoke my language, talked about shared traditions and culture, and ultimately became my family and support system.

Get out of your comfort zone. Sometimes we are afraid to do things that we don’t feel comfortable with or think we are not good at, but we can all develop the skills to excel by practicing and using the right resources. I was terrified of public speaking and had a fixed mindset that made me believe I would never be good at it. I remember avoiding and dreading speaking in public. What got me through it? Luckily, I talked to people who acknowledged my fears and encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone by finding ways to practice speaking at small events, in a more familiar environment. After lots of advanced preparation, practice, and feedback, I gained a boost in confidence, and now I enjoy the chance to speak. You can always improve. Having a growth mindset is the key.

Believe in yourself. Sometimes it can be hard to believe in ourselves and know that we are here because of our merits and not purely luck. Often, those imposter fears and cognitive distortions get control of our mind and undermine our confidence. I had many insecurities about my abilities. When things didn’t go well in lab, I doubted myself as a scientist and compared myself to others. For a long time, I didn’t share my feelings because of the fear of what others might think, and I struggled on my own. Yet, when I found people with whom I could talk about my doubts, whose opinion I trusted, and who lifted me up, they helped me see my value and accomplishments.

I might have left the island, but the island never left me! I proudly identify myself as Puerto Rican no matter where I go. I learned to embrace my accent and love sharing our traditions and culture with others. By taking chances, creating community, and believing in ourselves, we can all find a place where we are valued and appreciated for who we are.


To PI or Not to PI---that is the question

Submitted by Lori Conlan December 13, 2021

As a postdoc, I wrestled with the decision not to become a faculty member running a large research group (Principal Investigator, or PI).  Truth be told, I had never wanted to be a PI. As an undergrad I saw the job my PI had at a large state school, and it did not entice me. That said, I did think academics might be the way for me, so I went to grad school with a goal to be a faculty member at a small college. My grad school and postdoc experiences revealed: PI-land was not my cup of tea—and in fact, maybe even a faculty position at a small school was not the right choice. I remember making a list of pros and cons to clarify my decision to do something else. As I look back at that list, I can see the ways that the path I chose allowed me to have a career I love connecting with trainees, delivering professional development workshops, and changing training to be more inclusive for everyone.

Pro List: The reasons a faculty job appealed to me (and how I found a way to connect with these interests and values in my current job):

  • Solving Problems: As a faculty member, I would have led projects with my grad students and postdocs to solve biochemistry problems. There is so much satisfaction in an experiment that works to answer a scientific question. Those scientific wins make research so exciting.
    • The excitement of using my problem-solving skills to help trainees make career decisions or navigate challenging situations is amazing. The aha moment from seeing a trainee succeed is even better than a successful experiment.
  • Academic traditions: From welcoming new students to graduation ceremonies, the pomp and circumstance of academia fed my value of traditions.
    • Every job has traditions. Now these are big annual events for me, like the NIH Career Symposium. These large gatherings encourage us to form community and give me hope for the future.
  • Academic service: As an academic department member, I would serve on committees, teach courses, and guide curriculum. These parts of being a faculty member appealed to my desire to be part of the social fabric that moves science forward.
    • I sit on committees across the NIH and the US working on policies to make training better. I teach workshops on career and professional development. I have a larger impact than just at my own institution. As part of the NIH, I can extend my commitment to service across the United States.
  • Connecting with trainees: Faculty members have a direct influence on the lives of their students. Whether in the classroom or the research group, mentorship of trainees is important to me.
    • I have a larger mentorship role now than I could have at a small college or running a research group. I love when trainees can resolve a difficult situation and, even better, when they successfully move on to their next career step. I help trainees make life decisions that make them happier.
  • I was “supposed’ to: I feared that if I did not become faculty, I would be letting down my mentors/departments/science.
    • This guilt of letting down the “system” was alleviated by supportive people. Many of us who have chosen non-faculty paths discuss this. We are all successful regardless of which path we chose. Our research training allows us to find solutions to difficult questions…something every career path needs.

Con List: Reasons I did not want to be a faculty member (and how these relate to my current job):

  • Failed experiments: I am driven by success and waiting so long between successful experiments or paper publications was disheartening.
    • I love that every day, I see that the work I completed moved me a step forward. This is the biggest component to my career satisfaction since leaving research.
  • Constant need for new ideas: I was scared that I wouldn’t have enough ideas to run a whole research group. The PI needs enough ideas to keep everyone going for years.
    • Ideas are necessary in every job, but for me new ideas for career/professional development come more naturally than science ones. This helps me feel more successful and in control of my career.
  • Work on the same thing “forever”. When you start a research group it has the feeling that you will follow that research path forever.
    • Research always felt slow to me. Now my days move quickly from project to project.  While many research groups change direction, it felt slow compared to how quickly my job has evolved over the past 15 years. A good example is how fast we moved to a virtual environment during the pandemic to meet the needs of trainees.

With all these pros and cons how did I decide? Even though it was shorter, the con list weighed more heavily for me. I started to see that I could get much of what I wanted from a career as a PI through a different route that was a better fit for me. Success, to me, was seeing progress every day and doing new things. I am thrilled that I found a career that moves at a pace that excites me.

If you have a similar pro/con strategy and are struggling to decide whether the pro list or the con list is more important for you, perhaps a meeting with a career counselor can help. Talking it over with a professional can solidify how your list and your skills, interests and values will connect to your next job and your career satisfaction.   

Guest Blogger: Lori Conlan, PhD: Director of the Office of Postdoc Services & the Career Services Center, OITE. Part of the “Voices of OITE” 

Don’t Think You Have Any Networking Contacts? Here’s How to Find Some.

Submitted by Lori Conlan December 20, 2021

For some people “networking” is an intimidating word. They say, “I don’t have any contacts and networking sounds scary.”  If you start by thinking about what careers you want to learn about and who you can reach out to who is working in those career areas, the process may feel less intimidating. Calling these interactions informational interviewing can take some of the stress out of learning about career options and developing new contacts.

Informational interviews are a chance for you to "sit down" with a professional in a brief meeting to learn about their career path, their current role, and any advice they may have for you. (Note that they are not the time to ask for a job.) Many fellows are surprised by the fact that many professionals are happy to meet with them to discuss their careers, especially over Zoom. The format of an informational interview can help both you and the person you interview to know what to expect, guiding your interaction and making it feel less awkward than unstructured networking. In my appointments with NIH fellows since 2008, I have found that even the most shy or introverted fellows can develop a robust network of contacts if they take the time and energy to work on this project. With the resources below, you can do it, too!

Here are some ways to get started:

Happy holidays and best wishes for productive informational interviewing and developing new contacts in the New Year!

Guest Blogger: Anne Kirchgessner, MSEd, LCPC: Career Counselor, OITE
Part of the “Voices of OITE” series.