Former NIEHS fellow pursues a career in mentoring postdocs
By Sheila Yong
During her time as a postdoctoral fellow at NIEHS, Nisha Cavanaugh, Ph.D., discovered her passion in advocating for postdoctoral fellows and helping them seek out the best opportunities available to them. Equipped with her previous leadership experience as the chair of the NIEHS Trainees Assembly (NTA), she wanted to continue her quest to assist postdoctoral fellows in exploring potential career paths and help them acquire the skills they need to achieve their goals.
As the new director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA) at North Carolina State University (NCSU), a position she assumed in December 2012, Cavanaugh is now in the best position to realize her ambition.
Preparing for a career away from the bench
While serving as the NTA chair in 2010-2011, Cavanaugh worked closely with Diane Klotz, Ph.D., the former director of the Office of Fellows’ Career Development (OFCD). Using her own career experience as an example, Klotz was instrumental in advising Cavanaugh regarding careers away from the bench.
“My postdoctoral experience at NIEHS and my interaction with Dr. Klotz allowed me to better understand the various challenges postdoctoral fellows often face both in and outside the lab, and it put me in a position to help future postdocs overcome these challenges,” Cavanaugh commented. She believes that these qualities will enable her to carry out her duties more effectively as the OPA director. Her responsibilities at OPA include overseeing the development of programs and services for postdoctoral scholars that will enhance their experience at NCSU, facilitating networking opportunities for them in the Research Triangle Park area, and creating a network among past and present NCSU postdocs.
Cavanaugh is also grateful to her former supervisor, Samuel Wilson, M.D., who heads the DNA Repair and Nucleic Acid Enzymology Group at NIEHS. Wilson was very supportive of Cavanaugh’s involvement with NTA and OFCD activities, which enabled her to develop communication and leadership skills that are crucial to her current position.
“Dr. Wilson regularly advises his postdoctoral fellows on matters that will help them become independent researchers,” Cavanaugh said. “Although I did not pursue a career in bench science, I appreciate the training he gave me and the analytical skills I am able to apply at my new position.”
The importance of professional networking
Cavanaugh credits her landing the OPA director position to the strong professional network she built while at NIEHS. “Several people in my network informed me of the job opportunity and introduced me to people who were also on the interview committee,” she explained. Her professional network continued to be her source of support and advice throughout the long job application process.
Cavanaugh urges current postdoctoral fellows to actively participate in various career development events at NIEHS, and to familiarize themselves with the institute and its policies. “Both NTA and OFCD provide invaluable leadership and networking opportunities, and being involved is an excellent way to enhance your communication and transferable skills,” she concluded.
(Sheila Yong, Ph.D., is a visiting fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Signal Transduction.)