Megan Duffy: Interview with Nicole Polinski, Ph.D., Research Programs Officer, Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research

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: 4th year Ph.D. Student in Neuroscience, Department of Translational Science and Molecular Medicine
Program start date:  August 2013
Institution: Michigan State University

For my last blog, I wanted to interview someone in the early stages of a career post-graduate school.  This month, I contacted Nicole Polinski, Ph.D., Research Programs Officer at the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.  Nicole, in addition to being a recent graduate from my lab, was my go-to person for any lab or academic related questions and was always extremely well-organized and driven.  In addition to graduating a year ahead of schedule, she secured a position at a Parkinson’s centered non-profit, a role that is also of interest to me.  As you’ve heard before from me and other bloggers, your connections can be your greatest assets when it comes to expanding your network and learning more about different career paths.  And without further ado, meet Dr. Polinski:

Tell us a little about your research and academic background:

I went to college at a small liberal arts college—Kalamazoo College—in Kalamazoo, MI. I majored in biology and concentrated in neuroscience. For my senior thesis, I spent my summer as an undergraduate research assistant at The Ohio State University studying the inflammatory pathways of spinal cord injury in rats and a potential therapeutic intervention. I went straight to graduate school after college to pursue a Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Michigan State University (MSU).

For my PhD, I studied age-related changes in brain regions affected by Parkinson’s disease (PD), trying to determine whether these age-related changes would impact a potential therapy being tested in PD clinical trials. The therapy I investigated was viral vector-mediated gene therapy, which uses a virus’ innate ability to infect cells and take over their machinery (but this time the virus is engineered to make the cells healthy instead of sick). Also while in graduate school, I became involved in science policy and advocacy. I was an Early Career Policy Fellow with the Society for Neuroscience and received a scholarship to participate in the Parkinson’s Action Network Hill Day. Both of these activities gave me experience meeting with legislators on Capitol Hill and discussing science with the general public. I also served in multiple positions in our graduate student council for the Neuroscience Program at MSU, including President, and volunteered in multiple Brain Awareness Week events and started a science policy blog. After defending my dissertation, I transitioned into a Research Programs Officer position at the Michael J Fox Foundation (MJFF).

As a Research Programs Officer, what does your job entail?  What does a “typical day” look like?

My job is very collaborative. I work with the MJFF Preclinical Tools and Animal Models program to help make research tools widely available to the PD research community. I therefore work with many groups to design, generate, and distribute the tools. And there are certain tasks I perform repeatedly (like analyzing distribution data for our tools every three months), but mostly it is new every day. I work with many different people on many different projects, and that is interesting and challenging.

You made a quick transition from graduate school to a career—do you think it was more or less difficult than doing a post-doc fellowship first? What other options were you considering at the time?

It is hard for me to assess whether my current job is more or less difficult than a postdoc. I think it is just very different. I always saw a postdoc as a higher position when I was a graduate student since it was the next logical step. But now I’m back at the bottom of the totem pole because I decided to switch career paths. I decided to switch because I knew I did not want to pursue a career in academia. So for me, although I’m back at the bottom, I know I at least have a path now. Plus, the benefits are much better than that of a postdoc.

Based on the interview process, do you think there were areas, skills, and experiences that set you apart from other candidates?

First, networking was a major factor that led to the job offer. In a pool of hundreds of candidates, you really need someone to vouch for you and remind people who you are and why you are the right fit. For me, that either took the shape of (1) doing informational interviews with individuals who worked somewhere I was interested in applying, or (2) asking friends/mentors who had connections where I was applying to put in a good word to reinforce my resume. After that, I think my repeated and prolonged involvement in public policy / communicating science helped set me apart from other candidates, especially since communicating science to the public is so important in a non-profit that relies on donations.

What do you miss about graduate school and bench science the most? Least?

I miss bench science. Shifting from bench science where you are moving around constantly to a desk job at a non-profit took some adjusting. I miss running around and performing experiments—timers going off, preparing solutions, meticulously mounting brain slices, watching Netflix while on the stereology scope. The great diversity of tasks ranging from working with the microscope to biochemistry experiments to histology to surgery. What I don’t miss is the hassle of committee meetings and gigantic looming deadlines. I also miss the friends I left back in graduate school.

What skills did you develop in graduate school do you use the most?

I think I use two skills the most: the ability to work with large datasets and the ability to manage projects. Working with large datasets and understanding how to graph the data to represent it in the clearest way possible and understanding the purpose of the data are skills used in many aspects of my job (and life in general). Also, I gained a lot of project management skills during my dissertation—learning to work with diverse groups of people and manage collaborations. I definitely use that skill outside of graduate school. There are a lot of useful skills you develop in graduate school outside of technical, experimental skills—I recommend putting a lot of thought into those skills and pitching them as skills when exploring job opportunities.

What professional development and outreach activities were you involved with as a graduate student that you think aided in obtaining your role at MJFF now? What outside-of-lab opportunities would you recommend for graduate students to pursue while still in school?

My motto in graduate school was “say yes”. Whenever anyone asked me to become involved in something, asked if I was able to help with something, or asked if I was planning on applying to something, I always tried to say yes. This did end up taking a lot of time and giving me added responsibilities, but since I knew I most likely did not want to pursue an academic career and I was able to stay on top of my experiments, I didn’t feel like I was losing much. I tried to diversify my resume and make it stand out from what I imagined other graduate students’ resumes looked like. So I applied for probably upwards of 10 grants, dozens of awards, a handful of workshops, and a policy fellowship. Most of the time I was rejected, but some times I was awarded something. I received a policy fellowship from the Society for Neuroscience, which led to more scholarships to attend advocacy events, and I believed that also helped diversify my resume for my current job.

Whether it’s a former peer or someone your mentor knows, the best and easiest thing you can do is send a brief email, politely asking for an informational interview—most people would love to tell you what they do and how they got to where they are.

Final thoughts: I cannot believe how quickly these six months have flown by.  Do I still want to pursue a career in non-profit? Absolutely.  The more I learned from scientists currently working in non-profit, the more I realized how closely my strengths, values, and goals similarly identified with theirs.  But, the journey doesn’t stop there –implementing that advice is so important!  I learned a lot about what things I can do *now* that will propel me forward in my career endeavors in the future, and also make an impact on the community.  As scientists, I think it’s safe to say that we love learning, taking risks (within reason), and contributing to ever-changing pool of knowledge.  No matter what stage you are in your training, don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and reach out to others in different science careers or create your own opportunities to improve your communication skills.   And with that, I’m off to finish prepping for a presentation.  Thanks for reading and good luck!

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