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A Misfit Scientist Goes to Washington

UPDATED: May 2007

I should have known from the moment my kindergarten teacher assigned me the role of Hermie, the misfit elf in "Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," that I was destined to be a misfit too. There's just no place for an elf who wants to be a dentist--or a scientist who wants to be a writer!

Or is there?

Although you may argue that Hermie was born an elf and I was not born a scientist, we are both determined to break out of our stereotypical roles. Hermie fixed dolls' teeth and read dentistry textbooks when he should have been making toys. Likewise, instead of researching how alcohol exposure affected the developing rat fetus, I daydreamed about a career that didn't involve microscopes, animal colonies, or behavioral testing.

I spent hours scouring science job ads, reading books and articles about alternative careers, and searching the Web for something a little different from research. For this I received some rather negative reactions, not only from some members of the faculty but, most surprisingly, from some of my fellow graduate students as well. It made me think that I was crazy to contemplate anything other than a research career. Should I just go with the academic flow, continuing down the research path that so many have taken before me--to a postdoc or two, a temporary research position perhaps, and, if I'm extremely lucky, on to a tenure-track position? That's what scientists do, right?

After some self-assessment and a few years at the bench, I had realized that a slowly progressing academic position narrowly focused on some specialty might not be in the cards for me. My scientific interests are broad and ever-changing--not a characteristic normally conducive to success in an intensive research career. And I found that I preferred reading and writing about science to actually doing science.

Despite having identified my interests, I had no idea how to pursue them. Because most faculty members were cloned from their graduate advisers and academic research is all they know, as a group they can offer little help to someone with "alternative" interests. Further, the graduate education system does not typically expose students to careers other than research. But the support I got from a few open-minded faculty members--namely, my adviser, assistant dean, and graduate committee--and a few grad students close to me encouraged me to follow my nose. With their encouragement, I pursued my interests. For me, this meant--yikes!--an internship.

To quote a friend--and paraphrase a Trix commercial--"Silly girl, internships are for kids." And at my age and career stage (beginning my fourth year in a Ph.D. program), I agreed that my friend had a point. An internship meant leaving home and husband and putting my research on hold for several months. It risked delaying my progress toward graduation without enhancing my technical skills or increasing my list of publications. But these opportunities don't come along every day, so I decided to take the chance. It was off to the National Academies in Washington, D.C., to carry out the kind of research that many graduate students neglect: researching my career options as a scientist.

The National Academies seemed like a good place to begin my foray into the mysterious world of nonacademic careers. The academies have issued reports on the problems in the graduate-education system, improving the postdoctoral experience, and providing career guidance for science and engineering Ph.D.s. One recommendation in the graduate-education report was to use more internship and fellowship opportunities to augment the traditional graduate-school experience.

The National Academies put their money where their mouths are by offering a formal science-policy internship program--the Christine Mirzayan Internship Program for graduate students and postdoctoral-level scientists. Interns are assigned to boards of the academies depending on their ongoing projects and their need for an intern. The academies have boards that cover every subject imaginable, from physical sciences and technology to social sciences and medicine. Applicants choose the five boards or offices they are most interested in, and the boards make their selections. I could have found something related to my research, but for me this was about trying something entirely new--an opportunity that I would never have in my normal graduate school experience. Because of my love of science and writing, I spent my summer in the academies' Office of News and Public Information.


You can learn more about this internship program at the Christine Mirzayan Internships home page. If you're interested in participating in the fall 2007 internship session, you'd better hurry: The deadline for submission of applications is Friday, 1 June 2007. The next deadline, for the 2008 winter program, is 1 November.

If you're interested in doing an internship, you may also be interested in one of the internship programs offered by AAAS.

I wanted to write, and write I did--among many other things! I put together a comprehensive article on radioactive waste and selected and wrote several news briefs for the academies' science news page. But most of my time was spent writing press tips for reporters on articles published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and tracking the "press-interest" papers for the journal. I read and wrote about mathematics, ecology, medicine, biochemistry, psychology, science policy--a range of topics I would never have had time to explore during a regular semester in graduate school. The work I did this summer got me started in science writing, and I now write press tips as a freelance science writer. Helping to communicate the latest scientific research to the media to facilitate the public's understanding of science has been more rewarding to me than any amount of time I spent at the research bench.

The internship experience didn't stop at the National Academies program. Washington, D.C., is home to many scientific organizations and societies, science publications, and research institutions, so I took advantage of those vast resources here to build my network and make connections with people who might be able to assist and advise me on my career options. Also, with ample opportunity to attend House and Senate hearings and see our government in action, I got to explore my interests in the science policy realm. I expect the rewards of the internship to continue beyond my graduate career and open doors to a real job after graduation. It was an excellent first step toward exploring my nonacademic interests.

Still, one of the most valuable things I learned this summer was not about science writing, science policy, or making connections. It was finding out that there are many young scientists just like me, searching for something rewarding to do outside the traditional academic realm--for an innovative way to use their science background to affect the world around them. They are not slackers who can't cut it in the research arena; they are at the top of their classes in the finest academic institutions in the country and the world. My internship experience validated my belief that a scientist can do great things outside the laboratory and encouraged me to continue to pursue these interests, knowing that there is a place for scientists like me. Maybe I'm not such a misfit after all!

Update: 25 May 2007

We tracked down Melissa Marino to see what she is up to. Marino is now a public information officer/science writer for the News and Public Affairs office at Vanderbilt Medical Center. She writes:

"Our office produces a number of publications, a weekly newspaper as well as several magazines and annual reports. I mainly write about basic science research for the newspaper, called the " Reporter," and our research magazine, called " Lens." I also regularly contribute research-y type articles (when needed) to the medical school alumni magazine and the cancer center magazine. Of course, I also have a small part in media relations ...

"I really did enjoy my time at the National Academies and I would wholeheartedly recommend that program for folks that are interested in science policy and/or advancing public understanding of science."

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