Category Archives: Career

Technology at Fort Bliss

If you read my last post “Chemical weapons and clay,” you’ll know that I enjoyed a brief stint as a policy fellow at the National Academy of Sciences. Twelve weeks serving on the Board on Army Science and Technology (BAST) did wonders for my knowledge of the U.S. Army. Granted, the bar was, ahem, low.

Further into the fellowship (I believe we’re in week 5 here) I traveled with two other BAST staff members to Fort Bliss. One might imagine that Fort Bliss is in an exotic location, perhaps a beautiful island in the Pacific Ocean. Nope. Fort Bliss is in El Paso, Texas.

El Paso sits on Texas’ western border, less than 20 miles from Juarez, Mexico. Juarez…it sounded familiar to me but I couldn’t place it. A quick call to my mother went something like this:

    Sarah: “Hey Mom, what’s Juarez all about?”
    Mom: “JUAREZ MEXICO? Oh my God, Sarah, do NOT cross that border. Do you even have your passport? It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. Do NOT leave Texas while you’re at that army conference.”

Juarez, as it turns out, is infamous for crime, violence and drugs. Hmmmm…let’s put an army base beside it and name the base Fort Bliss! I give the U.S. Army a gold star sticker for nomenclature (this means “naming”) humor here.

One aim of the Fort Bliss BAST meeting focused on learning about new technology. A significant portion of the money annually dolled out to the Department of Defense funds army research and development, i.e. army science and technology. Just like in a university or at a private company, scores of scientists and engineers conduct basic and applied research under the auspices of the Department of Defense.

At Fort Bliss I watched soldiers plow through computer-based training modules, fighting virtual enemies of all shapes and sizes. Soldiers spend several weeks on a team, sitting together in one room, gazing up at a huge screen that depicts their battlefield. The soldiers advance their skills and knowledge, stage by stage, until their virtual training is complete.

Besides time spent on the main army base, we visited soldiers in the field at their training site, located an hour away near the base of the mountains. At the training site I had a crash course in unmanned aerial and ground systems, robots, monitoring devices, and practice attack strategies.

After one morning out in the field we broke for lunch. One dozen soldiers had just finished a practice attack, complete with green smoke bombs as diversions. Let’s just say that if I had a do-over, I would spend less time watching the green smoke spread slowly across my field of vision and more time tracking the attacking soldiers.

Where did those pesky attackers go? Oooooo pretty green smoke....

For lunch we ate soldier food: Meals, Ready-to-Eat, or MREs. An MRE comes in a thick, brown plastic wrapping that you open with your army knife or whatever weapon(s) you have on hand. I met a soldier from my hometown of Cary, North Carolina, who opened my MRE and gave me an extra for the road. I love Southern hospitality.

Decked out in a parka, I pose with my new friend from Cary, NC.

An MRE is calorie-rich to keep a soldier well-nourished for battle. The calories, however, do not come from tasty food, but rather from strange food-like substances only identifiable from their labels. After eating one such meal, I was less excited by the Southern hospitality than I had initially been. Below is some of the “food” I got:

    Mushy greenish puree = pears
    Brown chunky liquid = beef stew
    Purple powder = grape juice
    Little white disc = gum

I was impressed by the army’s technological progress to integrate information for its soldiers. Theoretically, better technology leads to better-equipped soldiers, which, in turn, should result in more successful missions.

Soldiers will soon have (if they don’t already) a smart phone with databases of friendly and enemy faces, locations of safe and unsafe places, and GPS-style navigation capabilities. Imagine a map of the Afghani desert, complete with information on where to go, and, more importantly, where not to go.

The most enjoyable part of my trip was chatting with the BAST experts. These experts included retired military generals and majors, engineers of several types (no, not clay) and physicists. Those folks were chock full of information about military technology, so I networked my way through the group. Besides scoring business cards I reveled in the free drinks.

After returning to D.C. I wrote my new contacts thank-you notes, beefing up my D.C.-based contacts list to include DARPA (the Department of Defense’s innovative technology research arm) and the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. Will I ever work at DARPA or The Heritage Foundation? Likely not. But one can never have too many contacts. Mark my words!

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Fellowships 101

I’m reposting a career advice column I wrote for the monthly magazine ASBMB Today. This article first appeared in February 2011 here.

For those of you who crave a career outside of the lab, you are in luck – there are loads of fellowship opportunities for scientists who want to work in the policy realm.

Whether pre- or post-doctoral degree, you can help translate science into policy for executive and legislative branch leaders. A policy fellowship provides you with the opportunity to communicate science to nonscientists, conceivably shaping legislation at the state or federal levels.

Life as a National Academies fellow
I recently completed one of these fellowships: the Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship at the National Academies in Washington, D.C. The fellowship appealed to me, and likely to my 25 fellow fellows, because it’s a quick and dirty introduction to federal science policy in our nation’s capital.

My class of National Academies Fellows, sitting on a statue of physics genius Einstein.

The fellowship began with an intensive one-week orientation. Former fellows told us about their current positions in the departments of State, Energy, Agriculture and Defense; in the House and Senate science committees; and at think tanks or private firms. We also met the director of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, who works in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. A bowl of alphabet soup, anyone?

During orientation we delved into the workings of the National Academies (this includes engineering, medicine and science). The National Academy of Sciences was the first of the academies, chartered by President Abraham Lincoln as an independent organization to provide the nation’s leaders with scientifically sound advice. The twelve-week fellowship program places fellows in a variety of departments within the National Academies, from science education to astronomy to climate change.

My home department at the National Academy of Sciences was the Board on Army Science and Technology. Here, my doctorate degree in chemistry finally came in handy as I immersed myself in the U.S. Army’s chemical weapons disposal project. The U.S. has stockpiles of the blister agent mustard gas, several nerve agents and the arsenic-containing Lewisite left over from the cold war era and before. To increase our safety a few notches, the U.S. has ratified an international treaty to destroy all of these stockpiles. I learned this as I traveled to army bases, met with BAST committee members from academia and industry, and talked to experts about the army’s chemical demilitarization progress.

D.C. has a ready supply of governmental and nongovernmental policy organizations, so I met with program directors at the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the American Chemical Society, and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. On Capitol Hill, I observed House and Senate hearings on science policy from advancing STEM education to finding solutions for global warming. I attended lectures at think tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Potomac Institute, and I visited the Smithsonian museums carpeting the National Mall.

The twelve weeks flew by, and after the fellowship ended, I took a Duke University job in science administration. My fellow fellows returned to academia to finish graduate school or begin professorships, entered or returned to the business world, went to teach high school, stayed at the National Academies, or started new jobs or fellowships in the policy world. The National Academies is one of the few places you can jump into policy before finishing your doctorate, but post-doctorate, you have your choice of opportunities.

Fellowship offerings
In the realm of public policy, but not specifically science policy, the Presidential Management Fellowship is a two-year fellowship open to science doctorate holders as well as nonscientists holding advanced degrees. This fellowship program seeks future federal leaders, and PMFs are placed in a variety of federal agencies. Two of my National Academies classmates accepted positions within the NIH at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. NIH fellows can rotate every three to six months, a key attribute of this fellowship. Current fellow Mengfei Huang says, “As a Presidential Management Fellow, I have an unparalleled opportunity to shape my fellowship experience across different content areas and functionalities within my institute, across the NIH as well as other federal agencies. Talk about being a kid in a candy store!”

The most prominent fellowship in science and technology policy is the American Association for the Advancement of Science policy fellowship in Washington, D.C. This program hosts more than 100 new fellows annually in a variety of federal agencies. The three main fellowship divisions are diplomacy, security and development; energy, environment, agriculture and natural resources; and health, education and human services. One or two AAAS fellows can score a congressional fellowship – working as committee staff or personal staff for a senator or representative – but the more common route for this fellowship is through a scientific professional society. The American Chemical Society, the American Geological Institute, the American Physical Society and many others sponsor a fellow each year for the AAAS Congressional program.

PMF Mengfei, AAAS Fellow Hadas and AAAS Fellow David

Of the three AAAS fellows who were my National Academies classmates, two chose the diplomacy, security and development fellowship with placements at the U.S. Agency for International Development and the third works on the Hill. Current AAAS fellow Hadas Kushnir says, “At USAID, I am learning how science can best inform policies, strategies, and program implementation both in Washington and in the field across a number of different countries in Africa.”

Another AAAS, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, offers their Hellman Fellowship in science and technology policy. The academy, a policy think tank in Cambridge, Mass., selects one or two fellows with science doctorates to work on the social implications of current science research questions. This one-year fellowship program currently is in its third year.

ASBMB offers a fellowship similar to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences one. It also is geared toward science doctoral degree holders but has a few extra perks: It can last up to 18 months and offers a more personal exploration of federal science policy. The selected ASBMB science policy fellow works directly with ASBMB Director of Public Affairs Benjamin Corb, in Bethesda, Md.

California offers a state version of the American Association for the Advancement of Science federal science and technology policy fellowship through the California Council of Science and Technology. In this program, 10 fellows (all with science doctorates) work in Sacramento for the state legislature on policy issues important to California. This one-year fellowship is in its second year, and my National Academies classmate Tony Marino is a current fellow. According to Marino, “California has been a bellwether for science policy, being the first state to pass an e-waste recycling program, green chemistry and a carbon cap-and-trade. It’s a great place to learn about where the country is headed.”

For those of you interested in global science policy and further along in your careers, the Franklin Fellows Program in Washington, D.C. offers a one-year placement in the Department of State or USAID. I met a Franklin fellow at a congressional hearing on science education; she was on a one-year sabbatical from her university and likely will be an invaluable resource on science education policy once she returns to her post.

If you are interested in broadcasting or publishing, the American Association for the Advancement of Science offers a program where fellows spend ten weeks at a major media outlet within the U.S. This Mass Media Science and Engineering summer program is a non-policy fellowship where you can learn how to communicate science to the general public. This program is open to pre- and post-doctoral degree holders, and each fellow has the option to work behind the scenes in research, as a production assistant or editor, or even in front of the camera as a reporter.

Besides these programs, other smaller and subject-specific fellowships abound – check with your professional organizations, the policy office at your local university, a local think tank or a career center at your workplace. Think broadly and apply for any program that strikes your interest.

Networking 101

I’m reposting a career advice column I wrote for the monthly magazine ASBMB Today. This article first appeared in February 2010 here.

As a third-year chemistry graduate student at Stanford University, I wondered what life was like after graduate school. What were people out there doing, how were they meeting each other and how were they getting jobs? Admittedly, these questions relieved my brain from troubleshooting my repeated failure to turn my recalcitrant yeast cells green. However, I also recognized the utility of building a network – this is how I would discover what job I wanted and how to obtain it.

The idea of networking, for most of us, incites fear. “People don’t like networking,” says Lance Choy, director of Stanford’s Career Development Center. “There is ‘stranger danger’ and they don’t know what to say.” Very true, and, furthermore, networking requires skills not typically in a scientist’s repertoire. So why bother? The statistics speak for themselves: I hear regularly that networking fills 80 percent of jobs. For four out of every five jobs, the person hiring is somehow connected to the person being hired. That’s why you should bother.

I didn’t do much networking while I was in graduate school. Instead, I used Stanford’s Career Development Center to gather information that I knew I’d need one day. That day came six months ago. After finishing my graduate degree, I had taken a postdoctoral position at Harvard Medical School to work on finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. I realized that bench research did not feel right and abandoned the laboratory in favor of finding another science-related career.

Thus, I found myself in a position I never would have imagined: I was unemployed. What has since ensued is a networking roadtrip. My goals: to discover what doors a doctorate in science can open and to land a job.

Networking is a numbers game: Connecting professionally with more people increases your likelihood of landing a job. As with any new task, start easy. I asked my parents if they knew anyone doing anything science-related I could contact. Then, I asked my next-door neighbor, my high school guidance counselor and math teacher, my mom’s friend, my friend’s mom. Before long, I was off to the races with several contacts.

I sent e-mails. It felt less invasive than cold-calling, especially with people I did not know well. The format is simple. In the subject line, write “referred by ____.” This grabs the person’s attention. Unsolicited e-mails are easily overlooked, so this tactic increases your chances of making the cut. Start with “Dear ____” and end with “Sincerely, ____.” Use a four-paragraph approach with two sentences per paragraph. Begin with an introduction that includes a reference to your mutual contact, then describe your background and refer to your attached resume. Next, describe your area(s) of interest and intention to speak with this person, and end with an appreciative, enthusiastic exit. The goal is to be polite, concise and grateful. You are asking for a favor.

An effective tip is to ask for “insight and advice.” This gem comes from a recent contact, Joan Plotnick, a writer and editor in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

A few people will not respond to your e-mails. A few more will reply but offer little help. The majority will happily oblige. They often explicitly tell you how they prefer to connect, so your job is to set up the phone or in-person meeting.

Before the interview, spend at least 15 minutes finding out who this person is and what he or she does. “This leads to more thoughtful questions,” says Choy. “The unstated goal is building trust.” Translation: Make a good impression.

Approach the meeting like an informational interview. Have a list of questions like: What is your role within the organization? How much travel is involved? What is the education or training necessary for this position? We may not know these people well (or at all), but these conversations encourage us to explore our interests, broaden our knowledge base and help us think outside the box. Most importantly, these people are our tickets to our next jobs.

Interviewees generally fall into three categories. One is awkward folks who answer questions with one or two words. Here, the responsibility falls on you to ask good questions. The second group of people answers your questions more thoroughly, and a back-and-forth ensues. The last group, my personal favorite, consists of contacts who are excited to share and connect. Listen well and write quickly, because the floodgates open with that first question.

The most important information you will gather in the meeting is two new contacts. If these are not offered, ask, “Do you know of anyone else within your field willing to share his or her career history with me?”

These two new contacts become the sources for your next two e-mails. Follow the same e-mail format. Set up your informational interviews. Rinse and repeat.

If at any point you lack contacts, fear not. LinkedIn is an excellent online professional networking community. Or, use the alumni services for your educational institutions. Go to conferences. Join the local chapter of your trade or professional society. Volunteer at your local science museum. Use recruiters and educators local to you. Google searches even have resulted in valuable contacts for me.

Do not ask your new contact for a job. If the information is not freely given, ask, “Do you know of any current or future opportunities for someone with my credentials?” or “How do you suggest I approach finding this type of job?” These questions have triggered job possibilities for me, leading to job postings I had not seen and new people to contact.

If you persevere with your networking project, your contact base will build quickly. Start a spreadsheet to record basic contact information: date, name, number, e-mail, company, job title. Include how you know the new contact, e.g. a “Referred by” column. This last column is crucial. When you call or meet with one of your contacts and hear, “So, how do you know Mark?” you had better be sure you know which Mark and what this Mark does.

Give yourself a timeline for reinitiating contact. Three to four weeks after making your connection, send an e-mail to check back in. The e-mail should be personal. Refer to something you had previously discussed, what steps you have taken toward one of the suggestions from your contact, etc. This makes you pop back on the radar screen and gives your contact the chance to mention new job leads.

A follow-up thank-you note is crucial. Every single time you speak to or meet with someone in an informational interview, write “thank you for taking the time to [meet/speak] with me. I appreciate the advice you gave me concerning [something specific you learned].”

“Remember that the folks you are connecting with have lives, too,” says Laura Dominguez Chan, a career counselor at Stanford’s Career Development Center. “Be appreciative throughout the networking process and minimally send an e-mail message thanking them for their time.” Based on a recent survey by Chan, most contacts had not received letters of thanks. The few written thank-you cards stood out like gold stars.

If, like me, you dislike asking for help from acquaintances or strangers when it isn’t clear how to repay them, I have good news. People love talking about themselves! Three months and 90 contacts later, I can now give each new contact two of their very own new contacts. My networking adventure is still a work in progress, and I’m still out there searching for that tailor-made job. Along the way, however, I have gained much insight and advice.

The Stanford Career Development Center’s motto is “Connect, Respect, Reflect.” These three words make a world of difference between unemployment and employment. “Integrate [networking] into your goals,” says Chan, “and if you are job searching, then by all means make it a priority. Look at networking as research.” Scientists love research.