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Environmental Factor, July 2012

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Trading a pipet for a pen — fellow pursues career in medical writing

By Sheila Yong

Emily Zhou, Ph.D.

Zhou was active in career development activities at NIEHS and elsewhere in Research Triangle Park, including workshops at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. As a guest writer for the NIEHS monthly newsletter, she built a portfolio of writing samples on scientific and general topics. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

“Writing has always been my passion, but I wasn’t sure which career path was the right one for me,” said Emily Zhou, Ph.D., a former NIEHS research fellow who recently moved on to her new position as a medical writer at PPD. “NIEHS provided the support I needed to figure that out.”

Zhou obtained her Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and came to NIEHS in April 2009 as a research fellow working with Stephen Shears, Ph.D., in the Laboratory of Signal Transduction. Shears was very supportive of her interest in writing and offered her opportunities to compose commentaries on published literature on Faculty 1000. Moreover, her stint with the Environmental Factor broadened her experience in writing for a wider audience. “I’m very appreciative of opportunities available writing for the Environmental Factor. I was able to build and showcase a portfolio of writing samples.”

In her new position, Zhou provides feasibility services to pharmaceutical clients who wish to conduct clinical trials by analyzing existing data and infrastructure, and subsequently making recommendations as to whether the trials are feasible or not. “I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into,” she laughed, when asked how her current position is different from her research role at NIEHS. Her current job is fast paced, and having a short turnaround time for her assignments has been testing her ability to think on her feet. “I have a week to analyze data and write an average 40-page report, and it does get very intense. However, I enjoy the fact that I am working with something different every day,” she commented.

Career development and networking

Apart from her research responsibilities at NIEHS, Zhou was actively involved with the NIEHS Trainees Assembly (NTA) and was a co-chair for the 2011 Biomedical Career Fair. Her involvement with the NTA subcommittees gave her the opportunity to meet people outside the lab and in other organizations, and exposed her to various managerial and organizational tasks, all of which are crucial to her current job. Time management skills played a big role as well, as she had to balance her research with her efforts in building her professional network. She also acknowledged that the analytical and critical thinking skills she learned as a graduate student and research fellow help her tremendously in her role as a medical writer, where she often has to analyze data and information on various topics that are outside her field of training.

Zhou found her job online, but with a twist. “Andy was job-hunting too, so we helped each other out,” she said, referring to NIEHS postdoc Andy Seipel, Ph.D., who works in the lab down the hall from hers. Seipel came across this opening online and sent it to her, and the rest is history. Therefore, one piece of advice she has to offer is to form a support group and help one another out.

“Job hunting can be very stressful, and it does help to have another pair of eyes out there to make sure that no stone is left unturned,” Zhou said. She also feels that while it is important to make one’s career aspirations a priority, it is also essential to be attentive to changes in the job market trends to ensure higher success in finding a job that suits one’s interests.

At this point, Zhou is unsure about her plans beyond her current position or where it will take her. “But I am very happy where I am,” she smiled.

(Sheila Yong, Ph.D., is a visiting fellow with the NIEHS Laboratory of Signal Transduction Inositol Signaling Group.)

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