Annina DeLeo: Where I was, Where I am

PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Zakiya Qualls, Annina DeLeo, Rwik Sen, and Erica Akhter will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday for new blog posts!

Current position: Postdoctoral fellow in Alzheimer’s disease, Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics Department
Program start date: March 2016
Institution: Boston University School of Medicine

Conventional wisdom says that even if you love your job, you should always be thinking about your next opportunity. As the daughter of a career counselor, this was something I heard frequently growing up, but I thought I could avoid the whole thing (or at least minimize the struggle) by earning my Ph.D. in biology and gaining the stability that comes with being a tenured professor…This was my only dream from the time I was 17 until I was 23 (coupled, of course, with winning the Nobel prize for curing cancer).

My dream started in high school when I took a biology class for the first time. Everything was crystal clear and made the most sense of any other subject. I interned in a lab in which my project was making a plasmid. At 17 I didn’t have the complete grasp of why the plasmid was important, but I enjoyed being at the bench and was thrilled at the idea of contributing to an eventual cure. In college, I excelled in my courses and in lab I was able to improve protocols and produce study results. To me, PIs were like magicians unlocking the universe, only better because what they did was not a trick; it was verifiable and it expanded human knowledge. When I was admitted to the Integrated Program in Cellular, Molecular, and Biomedical studies at Columbia University, I was elated to be one step closer to achieving my dream.

I started graduate school immediately after finishing my bachelor’s degree. Within a year, I had seen the scientific horizons that came with being a PI at a research institution were vast. As a PI in a research-focused setting, rather than a typical university, you could spend more time directly on your scientific questions, as there were typically fewer classroom related responsibilities. As our building was directly connected to a hospital, there were frequent collaborations between clinicians and researchers. This environment fueled my fascination with translational research and it’s potential to save lives.

While I could still see myself as a PI, I was also drawn to other possibilities. I started following my dad’s advice and began looking at the many other non-academic options to determine what to do next. I attended seminars toward the end of grad school, and even helped initiate an alumni networking night to find out what else was out there. During this time, I learned about industry/pharmaceutical company based research and management consulting. I really like the idea of industry research because it is an opportunity to perform focused, high-impact science.

By the time I graduated I had yet to publish a first author paper; therefore, I decided to pursue a postdoctoral position to get a publishing record. I also wanted to move away from the basic neural stem cell research I had done in graduate school and pursue research that would translate more directly to an industry job.

I accepted my current position as a post-doctoral fellow in an Alzheimer’s lab that publishes a lot and has connections to pharmaceutical companies. While I am investigating molecular mechanisms underlying this disease, I think about the potential therapeutic targets that my research could provide. I work with other labs both in academia and industry on projects relating to Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases, which I find incredibly exciting. I really appreciate that in my current position I get to collaborate with people working in industry and see how they work!

While I’m still interested in transitioning into a pharmaceutical research position, I’ve also begun to think about other opportunities for applying the skills I’ve learned over the past eight years that don’t necessarily involve pipetting. I love talking about science with others. I enjoy being part of a team. One of my favorite parts of my current job is data analysis and weaving that analysis into a bigger story. I relish writing about science, whether in the context of grants or publications, and even putting together SOPs. In exploring career opportunities that emphasize these skills, I’ve looked into medical communication, business analysis, teaching and community outreach, and even going back to school so that I can become a genetic counselor.

I’m exploring still, keeping my eye out for the next opportunity, searching for the best possible reality while working towards my ideal career. I’ve been getting to know myself better and using that knowledge to find the best fit for myself. I’ve found good options that will be satisfying, stimulating, and give me chances to draw on my scientific background.

I hope to share with you what I’ve discovered in investigating these different possibilities, and my strategy for finding future work that is both meaningful and enjoyable.

See you next month for an exploration of self and an alternate career path for Ph.D.s!


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