There Is Life...

Sarah Caddick. Caddick obtained her Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Southampton in the UK in 1993 but is now Director of Medical and Scientific Programs at the Steven and Michele Kirsch Foundation

Debra Babcock, an MD/PhD (1990 and 1992) who is now a program chief at the NIH's National Institute of Mental Health.

Melanie Leitner. Leitner obtained her Ph.D. (also in neuroscience) just last year. She's spending this year pursuing her interest in science policy as a AAAS Congressional Fellow. (By the way, Melanie is a Next Wave Campus Representative)

Sarah J. Caddick, PhD

BSc, biology (honors), 1990, University of Portsmouth, UK

PhD, neuroscience, 1993, University of Southampton, UK

Professional experience:

  • Research Associate, neurology, 1993-1997, Duke University Medical Center

  • American Epilepsy Society/Milken Family Foundation Fellow, neurology, 1997-1998

  • Medical College of Virginia/Virginia Commonwealth University

  • Director of Award Programs, Cancer Research Fund, 1998-2000

  • Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell Foundation

  • Director of Medical and Scientific Programs, 2000-present, Steven and Michele Kirsch Foundation

Many reasons went into my decision to leave research. And I add to them as my new career progresses and I recognize what was not clear to me earlier. Time lends perspective that is both amusing and gratifying. In short, though, the answer is simple: research stopped being fun. I was increasingly frustrated by the politics and red tape of science, while becoming intrigued by the "bigger picture"-the strategic planning, policy, and communication aspects of science. I had been working for fun at the local science museum, creating a source document for the new life sciences exhibit and setting up science lecture programs and educational science forums; I was enjoying this more than my research. The real seed was planted when I was accepting my fellowship from the American Epilepsy Society/Milken Family Foundation in 1996. The short-story version: after listening to and talking with the founder, it became clear to me that I wanted to become a strategist, to help drive new research directions, to apply my knowledge of science on a broader level and to make a difference while still being in the scientific trenches.

Once I was clear that I wanted to change direction, I started to look for a way to achieve my goals. After scouring the job ads in Nature and Science, without seeing what I wanted, I came across a very short description for the job I ended up taking at the Cancer Research Fund. Little did I know it would provide me with about 20 years of experience crammed into two years and then launch me into my current job. I jumped head first into the deep end of grants administration, developing a new research program, interacting with other foundations and the scientific community, donor relations, strategic planning, board relations, business negotiations, fundraising, and more.

What became clear in those first two years was my desire to become more involved in the strategic side of science, identifying new avenues for funding research and being involved in more areas of science policy. That led to my current position at the Kirsch Foundation, where I am now charged with the challenging task of developing and implementing innovative strategies to fund medical and scientific research to cure disease. In addition, I have recently added the Foundation's Environmental Grants Program to my portfolio, adding more breadth and interesting challenges to my job.

My advice for anyone thinking of a career transition in any area is to ask yourself honestly what it is you want to do or achieve in your life. Make sure it is something you are passionate about. Be aware that this will rarely, if ever, translate into a job description, and there lies the challenge. Be prepared to reach beyond a job description and identify whether an organization's overall goals are aligned with yours and can provide you with the support, guidance, and professional development tools to achieve your goals. Identifying opportunities can be tricky, but it's not a science! Be creative, open, and determined. I would love to say I did a lot of background research before embarking on my own career transition, but basically I didn't, and information was somewhat thin on the ground at that point. In my opinion, Science's Next Wave is a good starting point for learning about nonacademic careers. However, I think networking is a valuable tool for finding out where opportunities are and for gaining visibility. Establishing yourself takes time and depends entirely on what you bring to the table. Excellent work, credibility, results, and impact in your chosen field will get you noticed. Be prepared to take the lead, be a team player, a coach, a resource, and a quick thinker.

Looking back, what would I have done differently? Probably nothing at all, except to trust myself a little more that I was doing the right thing! Not an easy task when the most common response to your choice-why are you leaving the bench?-sounds like an accusation of abandonment at best and a sign of failure at worst!

Debra J. Babcock, PhD, MD

BA, behavioral science, 1981, University of Chicago

PhD, psychology, 1990, Rush University, Chicago

MD, 1992, University of Illinois at Chicago

Professional experience:

  • Internship, internal medicine, 1993, Loyola University

  • Residency, neurology, 1996, University of Chicago

  • Basic Neuroscience Fellowship, 1996-1997, University of Chicago

  • Basic Neuroscience Fellowship/instructor/K08 recipient, 1997-2001

  • Washington University, St. Louis, MO (metabotropic glutamate receptors, role of calcium in neuronal apoptosis)

  • Clinic fellowship in movement disorders, 1999-2000, Washington University

  • Program Chief, Integrative Neuroscience of Schizophrenia, Mood and Other Brain Disorders, 2001-present, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Rockville, MD

I'm originally from Chicago, which is also where I acquired most of my academic training. I completed a residency in neurology at the University of Chicago and spent a fellowship period pursuing neuroscience bench research. After postdoctoral training at Washington University in St. Louis, I joined the faculty as an instructor, receiving a competitive National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant. I loved research, especially bench research, and I enjoyed clinical research as well.

So why did I stop doing research if I liked it so much? With time, I saw that what a researcher really spends time doing is not science. My senior colleagues spend their time writing grants, writing papers, and traveling to conferences. The time spent in the lab (if any at all) continually shrinks until it accounts for no more than 5% of their week. As a neurologist, my academic appointment required me to see patients-never a part-time job. You simply cannot ask someone seizing uncontrollably to hang on while you finish running your experiment. I enjoyed doing each separate task, but juggling them all became near impossible. I quickly found myself working twelve-hour days, seven days a week. I could not picture myself doing this for the next ten years (I could not picture LIVING for ten years, or even wanting to, at that rate).

I became interested in alternative science careers by attending seminars sponsored by the St. Louis Chapter of Women in Neuroscience (WIN). I did several interviews for the WIN website with women scientists, some of whom had pursued alternative careers, and I learned a great deal about science options from those interviews. I found the job I have now by placing my curriculum vita on the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) career website and interviewing with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) at the Society for Neuroscience meetings. Such meetings are great places to meet just about anybody involved in your field. My current job is a perfect synthesis of all the things I enjoy-not only does it combine my interests in psychology and neuroscience, but I continue to be immersed in research-not doing it, but reviewing the latest concepts, thinking about where the field is going, and how to help it (and the researchers) get there. For a NIH position, the fact that I have a MD in addition to the PhD created several opportunities-and I found an ideal match.

My all-purpose job search advice is network! Other people can expand the options available to you, and they can sometimes put you in touch with potential employers. I was surprised at some of the contacts my colleagues had and were willing to share with me. Sometimes you can even get help from potential employers. My current supervisor at NIMH helped me negotiate the forms and processes I needed to complete to apply for my current position, and I am convinced I would never have succeeded without his invaluable advice. The bottom line is, I have asked a lot of people for help and advice over the years, and not one of them has tried to shoot me (yet)-so I highly recommend this approach as a job search mechanism.

Melanie L. Leitner, PhD

ScB, neural sciences (magna cum laude with honors), 1993, Brown University Providence, RI PhD, neuroscience, 2000, Washington University St. Louis, MO (HHMI Predoctoral Fellow, Lucille P. Markey Predoctoral Fellow)

Professional experience:

  • Research Associate, neuroimaging, 2000-2001, Washington University, St. Louis

  • AAAS Congressional Science and Engineering Fellow, 2001-2002, American Association for the Advancement of Science

My decision to leave the bench was one of the most difficult decisions I've made and I struggled with the process for a long time. I began considering a science career in seventh grade and firmly decided on academic research after my first college lab experience. By the time I arrived in graduate school, I had experience with five different laboratory environments in two top-tier universities. You would think I knew all about careers at the bench. Looking back on it now, I am not sure if I was naïve or just idealistic. When all is said and done, many elements-personal, political, and environmental-influenced my decision to leave academic science.

I have always taken an active role in student leadership, ethics, and efforts to improve the way science is perceived by the public. I enjoy these activities, especially the intellectual rigor of bioethics. I found struggling with the multifaceted issues discussed in my ethics course and in subsequent ethics initiatives often more intellectually stimulating than I found lab experience. The sense of personal satisfaction I experienced in my nonlab activities was also far greater than I felt within the lab. For example, I thought I was accomplishing something important by serving as an advocate for students and women in science. Problem solving was part of what drew me to science, but the problems I was solving in the lab sometimes seemed small compared with urgent social and political problems. I also wanted to balance the many aspects of my life-something that seemed unfathomable to my colleagues.

Attending national meetings, including the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting and a variety of ethics meetings, got me out of my somewhat constrained lab-centered world, exposed me to larger policy issues, and allowed me to meet a variety of individuals who later served as mentors. When I finally chose to pursue policy, these experiences gave me confidence in my ability to communicate with people in different fields, with different backgrounds, and with varied expertise. It is hard for any of us to think outside the confines of our own choices, the limits of our own experience. It is especially difficult when we are surrounded by people who have all made a certain lifestyle choice and question the validity of other choices. Placing myself in situations where I would interact with people who had not chosen the traditional academic path opened my eyes to my options.

One book really helped me to focus my search: Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the ivory tower by Cynthia Robbins-Roth. It has some very in depth descriptions of a variety of careers. If I knew then what I know now-that I would pursue science policy as a career-I would have been more active in university student government issues. I would have been more involved with the National Association for Graduate and Professional Students. I would have found a way to fit in a course on public policy or better yet science and technology policy. With the clarity of hindsight I would now place far less importance on the comments of those who thought my outside activities were distracting and that I needed to concentrate more on benchwork if I wanted to get anywhere.

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