Shedding Light on Careers Beyond Academia  

Grad school can seem like walking down a well-lit path in an otherwise dark forest. It’s easy to see the academic path, but who knows what might happen if you step off of it? (Illustration: Ted Stanek)

Grad school can seem like walking down a well-lit path in an otherwise dark forest. It’s easy to see the academic path, but who knows what might happen if you step off of it? (Illustration: Ted Stanek)

Guest post from Ted Stanek, PhD candidate in neurobiology

The Duke Institute for Brain Sciences’ Beyond Academia panel on Oct. 30 tried to illuminate the many career paths available to PhDs and spread hope rather than dread in the minds of Triangle area graduate students.

There has been a flood of articles recently about the increase in competition in the academic world for tenure-track faculty positions and federal funding. They all harped on the perils of staying in academia and the tragedy of being a PhD student or postdoc in such a climate.

Many of these stories focus on the terrifying choice that all PhDs and postdocs face at various points in their career: whether or not they want to stay on the academic track. The alternative feels like jumping off of a cliff, and many people complain that programs which accept more PhD students than there are academic jobs available are effectively pushing students towards that cliff.

Ted Stanek

Ted Stanek is a PhD student in neurobiology.

In the face of this negative outlook for PhDs, the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences recently provided welcome insight into the variety of non-academic careers that may lie in a PhD’s future. Beyond Academia was a day-long workshop consisting of five groups of 3-4 panelists discussing their own career trajectories, what their careers are like, and how they prepared to achieve such positions. Each panelist had a neuroscience or biomedical science PhD, and each had found a successful and fulfilling career outside of the academic niche.

“There are no ‘alternative careers’,” Katja Brose, Senior Editor of Neuron, emphasized in her keynote address.  “There are just careers.”

Workshop panelists revealed just how many careers were available to PhDs. A major point reinforced during the event was that you are never “stuck” on the academic track. You have the option of changing careers every step of the way – even after you’ve reached the level of tenured faculty.

Switching career paths, however, is a daunting task – a common reason why many PhD students go straight into a postdoc. It’s easy to see how the skills that you learn as a graduate student will transfer to skills you can use as a postdoc, and then as a young faculty.

Elizabeth Brannon, a professor of psychology & neuroscience who organized the seminar, pointed out in her welcoming speech that PhD students have limited access to professionals outside of academia, making it difficult to even identify non-academic careers that may interest them, let alone prepare for them.

While many of these careers beyond academia do require some type of preparation, this preparation may simply consist of pursuing your interests while completing your PhD. Writing or editing for your lab, starting up a journal club, and participating in university or professional organizations are all great ways to boost your resume and develop your interests.

Perhaps the hardest part of preparing for any career, academic or otherwise, is undergoing that initial period of self-reflection necessary to identify what skills you possess in your current position, what interests you about your job, and how your life values might impact your career.

“The point at which your skills, interests, and values overlap determines your career sweet spot,” Brose said.

Do you especially enjoy the administrative aspects of academia? Maybe grant management is the way to go. How about actually conducting experiments to discover new biological mechanisms? Perhaps working in a pre-clinical lab for a pharmaceutical company is the place for you. What if you love writing – either the spinning of a story (science writer/freelancer), or writing down the scientific facts with precise and accurate language (medical writer)? Are you interested in new biological technology (intellectual property and patent law)? Or helping to change laws about science (science policy)? Maybe you just love reading papers and debating where they should be published (journal editor).

All of these positions highly value PhDs in particular, no matter what the specifics of your thesis are. Every PhD in the brain and behavioral sciences, whether molecular, systems, or behavioral, develops what career advisors call transferable skills. These highly valued “super powers” as one panelist put it, include being able to communicate technical topics to a diverse audience, working with team members, learning a large amount of information quickly and effectively, being resilient in the face of unexpected adversity, and thinking critically to solve complex problems. The overwhelming message from Beyond Academia was that no matter where you end up, after you get your PhD you can find a career that will make you happy and fulfilled.

To me, it seems like pursuing a PhD is a lot like walking down a well-lit path in an otherwise dark forest. It’s easy to see the next step along the path to academia, but who knows what might happen if you step off of it?

Thanks to Beyond Academia, that forest is now a little brighter.

Beyond Academia was  presented by the Duke Institute of Brain Sciences, the Graduate Admitting Program in Cognitive Neuroscience, the Neurobiology Graduate Program, and the Duke Psychology & Neuroscience Graduate Program.  This event was organized by  Elizabeth Brannon and Richard Mooney, with help from Tanya Schrieber, and moderated by Duke graduate students Caroline Drucker, Rosa Li, Marissa Gamble, and Vanessa Puñal.

Joining the ride – Thabit Pulak

By Thabit Pulak

Howdy everyone! My name is Thabit Pulak, and I am currently a freshman, hailing from the grand nation of Texas! Although I haven’t declared my major yet, I am interested in Public Policy, and Medicine.

My first arsenic filters -- fresh from the factory!

My first batch of custom-made  water filters, fresh from the manufacturing plant in Bangladesh!

I’ve been interested in science ever since I was really young. As I got older, I became more aware of my surroundings. Ethnically, I am from Bangladesh, which is a poverty-stricken nation. Amongst the many problems the country faces, one that personally caught my eye was that of arsenic water poisoning, which affects nearly 70 million people in Bangladesh, and about 300 million people across the world. Continually drinking arsenic-tainted water results in arsenicosis, which is a chronic state of arsenic poisoning that gradually develops into various types of bodily cancers. So I thought, if exposure to arsenic was reduced, then the incidence of cancer would decrease as well.

Studying the issue closer, I noticed that solutions for filtering arsenic from water did exist, but they were very expensive (nearly $70) for the average villager, who makes around $1 a day. This was definitely a problem, as what good use was a solution, which was financially inaccessible to the target audience?

My meeting with the Minister of Bangladesh

I started to delve into this problem, trying to figure out what I could do. I read research articles on how other filters on the market worked. I noticed that the technologies used in other filters were plagued with various problems that brought cost up, such as being patented, or technologies not available natively in Bangladesh. Working in the kitchen of my home in Texas, I slowly developed an arsenic water filter that could also filter bacteria from water at an affordable price. I designed my filter in such a way that the whole filter could theoretically be built using materials in a typical village home.

Throughout the process of working on this project, I had the privilege of meeting many people who supported me along the way. I met with Bob Perciaspe, who at the time, was the head administrator of the EPA. I also met with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who lent me his endorsement towards carrying on with my work, with the future focus of expanding into rural areas into Texas, which also include arsenic affected regions. And, to my huge surprise, I was invited to the White House and met with President Obama!

I am now working on implementing my design. I founded iKormi, a non-profit organization, with the goal of alleviating problems faced by the underprivileged, in which my primary focus was arsenic water poisoning. Using some grants and money I raised, I was able to start up a small water filter plant in Bangladesh which manufactures arsenic water filters according to my design, consisting completely of local materials, using local labor. The filters were being built at a tenth of the cost. In addition to the manufacturing process, I also was able to gain support of many influential people in Bangladesh, including the Minister (and former general secretary) of Bangladesh. While there is definitely a lot more work to do, I definitely look forward to expanding this operation to be able to serve a wide variety of people who need access to clean drinking water.

At Duke, I hope to continue with my work in Bangladesh through the wealth of opportunities available to students in terms of research and working abroad. I look forward to writing for the Duke Research Blog!

Thabit and Obama

Me and President Obama in one of the Bangladesh national newspapers!

Artistic Anatomy: An Exploration of the Spine

By Olivia Zhu

How many times have you acted out the shape of a vertebra with your body? How many times have you even imagined what each of your vertebrae looks like?

On Wednesday, October 1, Kate Trammell and Sharon Babcock held a workshop on the spine as part of the series, Namely Muscles. In the interactive session, they pushed their audience members to gain a greater awareness of their spines.

Participants assemble vertebrae and discs of the spine

Participants assemble vertebrae and discs of the spine

Trammell and Babcock aim to revolutionize the teaching of anatomy by combining art, mainly through dance, and science. They imagine that a more active, participatory learning style will allow students from all backgrounds to learn and retain anatomy information much better. Babcock, who received her Ph.D. in anatomy from Duke, emphasized how her collaboration with Trammell, a dancer and choreographer, allowed her to truly internalize her study of anatomy. The workshop participants, who included dancers and scientists alike, also reflected a fusion of art and science.

Trammell observes the living sculptures of thoracic vertebrae

Trammell observes the living sculptures of thoracic vertebrae

To begin the exploration of the spine, Trammell and Babcock had participants close their eyes and feel models of individual vertebrae to gain tactile perception. Trammell and Babcock then instructed participants to make the shape of the vertebrae they felt with their bodies, creating a living sculpture garden of various interpretations of vertebrae–they pointed out key aspects of vertebrae as they walked through the sculptures.

Finally, Trammell and Babcock taught movement: in small groups, people played the roles of muscles, vertebrae, and spinal discs. They worked on interacting with accurate movements (for example, muscles only pull; they cannot push) to illustrate different movements of the spine.

Interactive illustration of a muscle pulling vertebrae

Interactive illustration of a muscle pulling vertebrae

 

 

 

To complete the series, Trammell performed Namely, Muscles, choreographed by Claire Porter, on October 4th  at the Ark.

Duke Undergraduate Research Society. Hit them up.

By Lyndsey Garcia

I have a confession: I have never personally been interested in performing research. I love to read, listen, and talk about research and latest developments, but never saw myself micropipetting or crunching raw data in the lab. But after attending the Duke Undergraduate Research Society (DURS) Kickoff, they got me to sign up for their listserve!

DURS Executive Board: (from left to right) Joseph Kleinhenz, Syed Adil, Lillian Kang, Dr. Huntington Willard, Sammie Truong, John Bentley

DURS Executive Board: (from left to right) Joseph Kleinhenz, Syed Adil, Lillian Kang, Dr. Huntington Willard, Sammie Truong, John Bentley

The kickoff highlighted DURS’s leading man, Dr. Huntington Willard. He was a biology pre-med undergraduate at Harvard for 3 years until he was introduced to genome research, which quickly became his life’s passion.

In 2002, Willard launched the Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy at Duke, which grew to more than 100 faculty and 300 staff members. The institute unfortunately met its end this past June, but Willard continues his love and passion for genome research here at Duke, and with Duke undergraduate students.

Before creating IGSP, Willard had only interacted with medical and graduate students during his research. But at Duke he had his first opportunity to engage with  undergrads.

“The best thing at Duke is the undergrads and I wanted to take advantage of the best thing at Duke,” he says.

Willard explains his love for research by explaining the inherent differences between all Duke students and those Duke students who perform research. All Duke students love to learn and are interested in what they are learning, but Duke students who research are questioners. He says they want to know more than what is given in the textbook. They constantly go between B and C on the test because there could be valid reasons for both, but we just don’t know why yet. They aren’t afraid to delve into uncharted territories where there is no safety net of certainty.

Willard says many of these young researchers seem to follow his own motto: “This is so cool. I want to know how it works.”

Willard’s talk already had me inspired, but then I got to hear from the executive board of DURS. Each member explained the research they are involved with on campus and how they got there. They explained how they sent tons of emails to professors and received no responses and gave anecdotes about switching labs because it wasn’t what they wanted.

They also expanded on what DURS offers to undergraduates. The program connects professors and undergraduates for potential research positions, sets up workshops to help make networking contacts, pairs young undergrads with experienced undergrads to mentor and give advice, and helps one realize that no one came out of the womb with lab experience, so don’t be discouraged by not having any at first.

“This is exactly why I came to Duke. It’s a great university with amazing research opportunities and now I can’t wait to get started.” – Freshman Jaclyn Onufrey.

So my takeaway from Duke Undergraduate Research Society was:

1)      Are you interested in questioning the unknown?

2)      Do you want to be part of discovering something new?

3)      Don’t know where to start?

If any of those aspects apply to you, it’s definitely worth hitting up DURS!

The Mystery Behind the Camel Statue

Knut Schmidt-Nielsen

A file photo of the real Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, not the bronze one, standing with the enigmatic camel statue dedicated to him and his work.

By Olivia Zhu           

The camel statue between the Biology Building and Gross Hall is a staple of Duke’s campus, but the significance behind this landmark is generally unknown.

On Monday, September 22, faculty from the Biology Department gathered for a dedication to remember the man behind the camel statue (or rather, in front of it), Dr. Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, who died in 2007.

Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, who would have turned 99 this Wednesday, was “the father of comparative physiology and integrative biology” and a James B. Duke professor at Duke’s Biology Department starting in 1952.

Schmidt-Nielsen studied the physiology of the camel’s nose, received the International Prize for Biology, and wrote the authoritative text on animal physiology.

Dr. Stephen Wainwright, who was present at the dedication, commissioned the camel to British sculptor Jonathan Kingdon, who finished the bronze camel statue in 1993. The inscription for the statue, “Tell me about yourself, Camel, that I may know myself,” encapsulates Schmidt-Nielsen’s outlook on physiology.

According to Dr. Steven Vogel, who was recruited to Duke’s faculty by Schmidt-Nielsen 49 years ago, Schmidt-Nielsen was actually shy and rather uncomfortable with the statue of himself. Vogel reported that Schmidt-Nielsen greatly advanced the zoology department with his high standards and “great charm and urbanity.”

“You could never say no to Knut,” Vogel said. Schmidt-Nielsen was also reportedly  “a very serious wine drinker”—accordingly, the dedication ceremony ended with wine and champagne.

To learn more about Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, read Vogel’s memoirs or a recommended autobiography, The Camel’s Nose.

Knut Schmidt-Nielsen

The statue as it appears now, with Knut in bronze. (File photo)

Futurity Research News Site Turns Five

Guest Post by David Jarmul

Futurity.Org, a website that has shared Duke’s research news with millions of readers around the world, is celebrating its fifth anniversary this week.

(Credit: Paul Albertella/Flickr)

(Credit: Paul Albertella/Flickr)

Launched in 2009, Futurity has since recorded 12 million visits and 16 million page views. Among the approximately 10,000 stories it has published are recent Duke offerings on baboon behavior, the treatment of hepatitis C, species extinction and smoking rates among immigrants.

Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, helped launch the site, which presents research from 62 leading universities in the United States and other countries in a colorful, non-technical format designed to reach wider audiences.

“When we started Futurity five years ago we hoped to create a new channel to those interested in thoughtful stories about university research,” Schoenfeld said. “That has tfuturity.org logourned into a very successful venture in digital media, and helped create a model collaboration among the top universities in the world.”

Karl Bates, director of research communications for the Office of News and Communications (and editor of this blog), serves as the university’s “bureau chief” for Futurity, working with researchers and communicators across the campus to identify newsworthy stories. He then works with the Futurity editorial team, based at the University of Rochester, to present the stories on Futurity’s website and social media channels on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

Schoenfeld, who continues to chair Futurity’s governing board, said the site hopes to build on its success and is considering expanding into new arenas to keep pace with the rapidly changing media landscape.