Celia Fernandez: Making an Impact, Finding a Purpose With a Ph.D.

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

The 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, Yeonwoo Lebovitz, Anthony Franchini, Megan Duffy, and Celia Fernandez will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday  for new posts.

Current position: Postdoctoral Research Fellow studying Cell & Molecular Neurobiology
Program start date: November 2015
Institution: The University of Chicago

Way, way back when I was very young, I decided I wanted to be a scientist not only because I found it interesting, but because I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives; I wanted to find ways to make people healthier, or to increase our understanding of human physiology to make life better for everyone. Accordingly, I’ve always wanted to center my research on a molecular pathway that could be a potential therapeutic target for treating human illness. But often, I tend to get “lost in the weeds,” wrapped up in the minutia of day-to-day lab work. Designing, executing, and analyzing data from an experiment is fun, but sometimes I have to ask myself: What is this PCR reaction actually going to tell me about brain development? Obviously, in basic research you have to be able to see the forest for the trees (or the trees for the forest?) but it’s easy to feel detached from the big picture when you’re at the bench for 10 hours straight.

After last month’s exciting (is that the right word?) election, I started reflecting on how science affects everyone, not just the scientists themselves. On a more personal level, now I’m wondering how I can use my Ph.D. to make more of a direct impact in people’s lives – more than just studying how Protein A affects Cellular Pathway B. To that end, I’ve explored two somewhat different career paths, technology transfer and science education. Although clearly distinct, both careers seem to have that elusive combination of being personally rewarding and allowing one to make a positive contribution to society.

I didn’t know anything about tech transfer, so I scheduled an informational interview with my friend who works as a tech transfer specialist for a university. She also has a Ph.D. in a biomedical sciences field and was able to learn many of the requisite skills on the job. Basically, tech transfer is all about bringing inventions from the bench to the market. A tech transfer specialist needs to understand and disseminate the details of a particular research project, while also grasping the big-picture application of the project. For example, Prof. X has developed a new diagnostic assay and wants to know how to turn it into an actual product that doctors can use. You would need to find out if there are any other diagnostic assays available, and if they are similar or different. You would help Prof. X formulate a licensing agreement through the university they work at, and help them work with a biotech company that is well-equipped to mass-produce the assay and make it available to hospitals. You help turn Prof. X’s project into a tangible benefit for society, you help connect a biotech company with a new product they can make and sell, and you improve people’s lives by making that innovative technology a reality. Pretty cool!

Tech transfer specialists can work at research institutions, universities, or biotech companies, and there is plenty of room for career development and growth. For example, working in tech transfer is closely related to careers in intellectual property (IP) law as a patent agent. While a patent agent may work in a law firm, a law degree isn’t required; instead, one would need to pass the patent bar, but even then, there are law firms out there that will hire a biology Ph.D. as a consultant while they study for the patent bar. I bristled a little bit at the idea of working in a law firm; my mother has worked as a paralegal almost her entire adult life and she strongly, strongly encouraged me to stay as far away from the law profession as possible. However, the idea that I could help expedite the process of bringing a breakthrough treatment to market is pretty enticing.

Closer to the academic side of things, I’ve been thinking more and more about a career as a science educator. I know it’s more complicated than this, but, idealistically, teachers prep the next generation of scientists, or at least help the general public to have a better science literacy. Thus, science educators can have a clear, positive impact on people’s lives. During my Ph.D., I had the rewarding opportunity to personally mentor undergraduate students in the lab. Their excitement to learn new techniques and principles was invigorating, and many of them have gone on to start their own careers in medicine and biomedical research. All of them happened to be women or from groups underrepresented in STEM fields, and they were all exceptionally bright and talented individuals who will make great contributions to science in the future. Based on this mentorship experience, I’ve wondered if a career that focused more on teaching might be a good fit for me. However, although I’ve been a student for more years than I care to admit, and although I’ve always sought out an academic career path in science, I haven’t had a ton of experience in front of a classroom.

To try to make up for this gap in experience, I took advantage of a formal pedagogy workshop that was offered by my school and was tailored specifically for grad students and postdocs in the sciences. We covered different teaching principles such as active learning, metacognition, how to design lecture to build on students’ prior knowledge, Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives; and while I had never previously been exposed to any of these terms in a formal setting, I had some intuitive sense of what they meant. Essentially, how do you teach students to have a deep understanding of the material covered, without just having them memorize a bunch of terms that they’ll forget as soon as they’re done with the class? As a researcher in academia, where research and teaching go hand-in-hand, such considerations are absolutely essential.

Of course, science education is important not only at the college level, but also at the secondary school level and younger. Earlier this month, I volunteered to teach an electrophysiology lab for local Chicago middle school students. Now, I am by no means an expert in electrophysiology, and I never had prior experience teaching middle school students, but luckily there was already a worksheet and plenty of more experienced teachers to help guide me through the lesson plan. The highlight of the day was dissecting a cockroach leg and electrically stimulating it to move in time with bass-heavy songs (“Seven Nation Army” and “Back in Black” were especially successful in accomplishing this). My students’ eyes lit up when they realized what they were doing: using electricity to make neurons fire and make a muscle move.

In this short workshop, I got to see first-hand why those learning principles from my teaching workshop were so important; my students could have just read about electrophysiology and not have any deep understanding of what it was or why it was important, but instead they got to see it for themselves and understand a basic, yet pretty extraordinary, idea about how neurons do what they do. If I were to go on to be a science educator, at the college level or otherwise, I would get a chance to help students make those exciting discoveries for themselves all the time, and maybe I could help inspire them to do great things with that knowledge. Of course, if I were to go into tech transfer, I would be at the other end of that ladder, helping established researchers take their exciting discoveries and make them into tangible benefits for society. Both seem like really great options!

I’m still nowhere near deciding whether I want to leave basic research; it’s still exciting when I get good data out of a month-long experiment. Importantly, this process of career exploration has put me somewhat at ease about my future prospects. I’ve come to realize that I have so many options available to me, and so many career development resources to pull from. I’m excited to see where this whole journey takes me, and I’m confident that I can find a career in which I’ll get the best of both worlds, something personally rewarding and something in which I can make a positive impact.

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