Journey to Science Policy and Beyond

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

I’m looking forward to exploring careers in science policy this Spring, and to sharing my journey with BEST blog readers!

Name: Leah Cairns
Institution: Johns Hopkins School of Medicine
Position and year: 5th year Ph.D. student
Twitter: @lscairns18

As an undergraduate, I led a double life. I took my required classes in biology, chemistry, physics, and math, and spent much of my free time in my research lab. But I also found time every semester to take classes far outside my major: history, sociology, linguistics, and literature. I loved my time in the lab, but I also loved thinking and writing about a wide variety of topics. I knew I wanted a career where I could use my training as a scientist along with my ability to communicate to a wider audience.

I decided to come to graduate school for my Ph.D. in Biophysics knowing that I wanted a career away from the bench. My goal was to act as a translator between scientists and the general public. I am now in my 5th year of the Biochemistry, Cellular, and Molecular Biology Program at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. I work in a lab in the Bloomberg School of Public Health, which allows me to practice basic science research just down the hall from leaders in the public health sphere. In my time here at Hopkins, I have explored diverse career paths for Ph.D.s including science writing, consulting, and biotech. There were aspects of each that I liked, but they were never quite right. This cycle of trial and error reaffirmed my desire to act as a science translator, but it also made me realize I wanted to act as an advocate for scientists. A career in science policy fits that bill.

Since I became interested in science policy, I have tried to get as much hands-on experience as I can. Here on campus, I joined the student-led Johns Hopkins Science Policy Group, and I now serve as the Chair of the Advocacy Committee. Through this position, I have organized several phone-banking events to tell Congress how we feel about issues such as funding for scientific research and taxation of graduate student stipends. I’ve really enjoyed learning more about how scientists can engage in policy and also helping my peers get involved. Now that we have held so many successful events, members of the community look to us when new policy issues arise and they are looking to make their voices heard.

I am also trying to engage the science policy community beyond Hopkins. My favorite tool to track the people and issues in science policy is Twitter—that is where I first heard about BEST! Twitter is an easy way to follow individuals and organizations in order to keep up-to-date on current topics in science policy, and to learn about new fellowships, workshops, and job postings. Even better, it is an informal way to talk directly to people working in science policy to ask questions and discuss current events. My Twitter interactions have even turned into in-person conversations! At a recent networking event, I introduced myself to someone I follow on Twitter. Having interacted with them online made it way less scary to introduce myself in real life.

This spring, my goal is to network with as many science policy professionals as possible in order to learn more about their careers. I’ll be applying for jobs soon, so I’m currently exploring what jobs are out there, and which ones could be right for me. Luckily the Professional Development and Career Office (PDCO) here at the School of Medicine has a ton of resources available. The PDCO offers training in a wide variety of careers, as well as interview practice and resume workshops. My favorite PDCO series is called “Casual Conversations” which brings in speakers to meet with small groups of students and discuss their career path and day-to-day life. Hopkins also offers a wide range of courses and internships through the Biomedical Careers Initiative that gives students the opportunity to test out some career options before graduation.

I would love to hear your comments!

If you like this post, please share on social media and don’t forget to follow me (@lscairns18) and @NIHBEST on twitter.

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