Megan Duffy: Peeking into the world of Non-Profits – Interview with Dr. Beth Vernaleo, Ph.D., Associate Director of Research Programs, Parkinson’s Disease Foundation

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 Franchni, 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

In September, I attended the 4th triennial World Parkinson Congress (WPC) in Portland, OR. WPC is unique in that in addition to bringing together physicians, scientists, and other healthcare professionals, it makes a great effort to ensure the patient and caregiver community is heavily involved. This year, patients and their caregivers accounted for approximately 48% of the 4,500 delegates in attendance!

During the congress, I had a chance to meet with Dr. Beth Vernaleo, Associate Director of Research Programs at the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation (PDF; Now the Parkinson’s Foundation after a recent merger with the National Parkinson Foundation) to discuss working in the non-profit sector.  I first met Dr. Vernaleo during a poster session at a conference I attended at the end of my first year of graduate school (Tip: poster sessions are a great networking tool!)  We have stayed in touch over the last few years via attending conferences and some writing I did for my local newspaper for Parkinson’s Awareness month this past year.  Given that WPC is a Parkinson’s focused meeting with many non-profits in attendance, I emailed Dr. Vernaleo to set up an hour-long coffee meeting before the start of the conference to talk about her career path and experiences.

Working at a non-profit may appeal to those who love multiple aspects of science, but aren’t planning on spending their lives at the bench or caught up in grant-writing, especially in today’s funding climate. Dr. Vernaleo stated that she “always liked science but wanted to be in more of a support role instead of at the bench.” After looking into publishing as a career path, but not really being able to break into the field, she started in a part-time role as a grants manager at PDF and worked her way up to full-time Associate Director of Research Programs. So what does that actually entail?

“[At a smaller foundation] we wear a lot of different hats. In my position, I manage the entire research portfolio. I have my day-to-day administrative tasks but also  do things like work with our finance team to keep track of our budget, aid in fundraising efforts and evaluate the impact of our research funding. In addition to these various tasks which come up as needed, I also have cyclical duties during the year. For example, each grant cycle, there are letters of intent that come in, which I read and pass on to external reviewers. I love working with the scientists and seeing what topics are being proposed each year, and eventually distributing the awards. By taking on different types of tasks, you can really benefit from the variety while still having a cyclic component that allows you to know what’s coming up and plan accordingly.”

There are still some elements of academia that are involved in her work such as going to conferences and presenting posters. “I led a working group on cognition in PD this year—we came up with recommendations for people with Parkinson’s for nonpharmacological ways to preserve cognition and for what healthcare professionals should be discussing with their patients,” which was presented as a poster at WPC. The communication, critical thinking, analytical and creative skills you learn as a graduate student or post-doc are invaluable and are still utilized, just not at the bench.

Being involved with science outreach and the patient community is another large part of Dr. Vernaleo’s job. A crucial component of keeping a fluid dialogue between the scientific and patient/caregiver communities is being able to write lay summaries of current research geared for non-scientists. “We have a responsibility to break it [the science] down for them. You have to be careful, and it is important to be cautious.” I’m sure I can speak for many scientists, regardless of career stage, that we’ve all seen articles in the news praising a new preclinical therapy tested in rodents as being hailed as the next “cure” for a disease, when the reality is that such studies need to be replicated across labs and expanded into higher order species before we get the public’s hope up. “Every clinical trial is based on the basic science studies,” Vernaleo said, “people have a hard time understanding the reason for basic science, and we need to help them understand why it is so important.” (For examples of lay excerpts, check out the PDF Blog: Perspectives on Parkinson’s)

So, what can YOU do at the trainee stage if youre interested in working at a nonprofit?

  1. Practice practice practice! Write lay summaries or give presentations to audiences with a non-scientific background (more about this in my next blog!) If your research is disease-specific, see if there are any local support groups that you could present your research at or attend a conference in which the patient community is heavily involved, such as WPC. It does take a slightly different set of skills and vocabulary to discuss your research with a non-scientific audience, but the more you take advantage of those opportunities, the easier it will become (it’s one of my favorite things to do outside of the lab!) Instead of giving the “dreaded sigh” when family members ask how your research is going over the holidays, use that opportunity to practice your communication to lay audience.
  2. To postdoc or not to postdoc: This will vary from person to person. “I didn’t do a post-doc, but perhaps had I, I may have come in at a higher level—my supervisor was an assistant professor and was able to come in [to his role at PDF] at the director level. It may give you some leverage, but it’s not absolutely necessary. If you do complete a post-doc, [I would] stray a bit from what you’re studying as a graduate student. You really grow when you step outside of your comfort zone. You can learn new techniques in a post-doc and apply them to what you’ve already learned.”
  3. Reach out: If you’re interested in learning more about non-profits, reach out to someone who is active in that area. In my own experience, people would be more than happy to tell you about their journey that led them to working at a non-profit and really enjoy talking to young scientists about career paths. Use opportunities at conferences, poster sessions, and even connections your adviser has to reach out.  You just need to ask, what do you have to lose?
  4. Expand your interests and dont be afraid to try something new: Dr. Vernaleo noted that while her research in graduate school was related to the basal ganglia in Zebra finches, she didn’t have a large background in Parkinson’s disease. But, having the science background she gained as a Ph.D. proved helpful. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone!

I found this interview to be very helpful in delineating what trainees can do now to polish various skills in a manner that could help them succeed in the non-profit world, in addition to confirming that my interests are well-aligned with a career in this area.  Investing a little time writing lay-summaries or talking to the public about scientific research can make you less timid about pursuing careers in which this is a large component…and who knows? You may find that it’s one of your favorite things to do.

That’s all for now – off to finish prepping for a guest talk about all things graduate school and neuroscience at my old high school for their Women in Science and Engineering group this week.  Stay tuned!

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