Career exploration panel gives advice to summer interns
By Ian Thomas
Participants in this year’s NIH Summer Internship Program at NIEHS attended a question and answer style career panel meeting comprised of five of environmental health’s brightest minds June 19. Featuring representatives from NIEHS, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), and the University of Maryland (UMD), the panel treated attendees to stories of what it means to build a career in public health, while offering them the chance to ask questions on everything from degree programs to mentorships.
“Regardless of the career, there’s no substitute for experience to help you decide on a field,” said Perry Blackshear, M.D., Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Polypeptide Hormone Action Group, who encouraged students to be proactive during their time at the Institute and beyond. “If you think you want to do research, get involved in a lab. If you want to work in medicine, volunteer with a clinic and see if you like working with patients. Whatever the interest, take advantage of the chance to learn about it firsthand.”
Many roads, same destination
One major topic of discussion during the session was the notion that science is a diverse field, comprised of countless career paths, specialties, and degrees, not all of which are for everyone. This point was reflected in the diverse backgrounds of the panelists themselves.
“I actually began my career in biology, thinking I wanted to go to vet school,” said Erin Hopper, Ph.D., director of training initiatives in biomedical and biological sciences at UNC and a former postdoc at NIEHS (see story). “Even after I changed my major to chemistry and earned my Ph.D., I was still interested in a career away from the bench. However, it wasn’t until I got to NIEHS and started getting involved with people that I found my way into what I do now in career development.”
Remembering the basics
While degrees and programs of study will be among the major decisions students will make in the years to come, the panelists agreed that they shouldn’t lose sight of the basic things when preparing for a career in science.
“No matter what you choose to do for a living, take the time to learn to read, write, and speak effectively,” said William Higgins, Ph.D., of the UMD biology department. “So many of our students today don’t spend enough time developing these simplest of skills, and they’re absolutely vital to success in any field, public health included.”
The value of role models
As many of these students continue to explore their options for potential careers, the panelists told the interns that surrounding themselves with the right people is crucial to the process. Nowhere is that more important than in the selection of a mentor.
“Be as selective about choosing your mentor as they are about choosing you,” noted Blackshear. “Different people mentor in different ways, just as different people learn in different ways. Find one that best matches who you are and get to know them.”
“Whether it’s your mentors, your teachers, or your friends, surround yourselves with people who excel at what they do and take notes,” added Higgins. “Learning what makes them successful and integrating that into how you build your own career could one day take you to similar heights.”
(Ian Thomas is a public affairs specialist for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison, and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)
NIH Summer Internship career panel
Perry Blackshear, M.D., Ph.D.
NIEHS Polypeptide Hormone Action Group
Serena Dudek, Ph.D.
NIEHS Synaptic and Developmental Plasticity Group
David Kurtz, D.V.M., Ph.D.
Veterinary staff scientist
NIEHS Comparative Medicine Branch
Erin Hopper, Ph.D.
Assistant director of the UNC Academic and Career Excellence Program
William Higgins, Ph.D.
UMD College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences