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Environmental Factor, July 2012

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Career exploration panel gives advice to summer interns

By Ian Thomas

NIEHS interns asking questions at career panel meeting.

The interns enjoyed the rare opportunity to learn about the personal history of a variety of people in a range of biomedical careers, and several, including intern Haley Gunter, standing, took advantage of the informal question-and-answer format of the event. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Perry Blackshear, M.D., Ph.D.

Blackshear was the first panelist to describe his career path, which took him to a traditional academic research career before landing him at NIEHS. Blackshear has held several leadership positions at the Institute, including director of clinical research, acting scientific director, and his current role as head of the NIEHS Polypeptide Hormone Action Group. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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.)

David Kurtz, Erin Hopper, Ph.D., and William Higgins, Ph.D.

Kurtz, left, and Hopper, center, laughed as Higgins mixed his iconoclastic wit with solid advice about career preparation. People skills are critical, he told the students, because science is a collaborative effort, not a solitary, ivory tower endeavor. Scientists need to communicate, persuade, and manage people who may not answer to them. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Erin Hopper, Ph.D.

Young women in the audience could relate to Dudek, above, and Hopper, who have combined career and family in a field that is only beginning to reflect the gender balance of the general population. Dudek obtained tenure in 2010, overcoming the biggest single obstacle in the career of a young researcher (see story). (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIH Summer Internship career panel

Perry Blackshear, M.D., Ph.D.
Lead researcher
NIEHS Polypeptide Hormone Action Group

Serena Dudek, Ph.D.
Lead researcher
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.
Associate professor
UMD College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

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