Zakiya Qualls: Once a Scientist, Always a Scientist – Leaving the Bench Behind, but Not Really!

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, 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: Ph.D. Candidate, Immunity, Infection, & Inflammation (I^3) Research Track; Freelance medical writer & blogger
Program start date:  September 2011
Institution: Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences

I am perfectly sure that we as scientists all had that ‘aha’ moment in life where we realized our love for science and vowed to discover the next life changing cure that would save millions! I am also pretty sure that we have all detailed our similar experiences in some college application essay at one point in time, so I won’t do that here. Let’s fast-forward though… 10-20 years past our scientific ‘awakening,’ and that is where you will find many of the readers of this blog, including myself. We are successful, awarded, and skilled graduate and post-doctoral trainees. We have survived the rigors of challenging course work and impossible research projects. We have networked, published, and presented our work. But, we have also become aware of the realities and unavoidable roadblocks inherent to the biomedical field that for many may have altered our career paths and ultimately changed our entire perspective of the scientific process. We have realized an academic career might not be as attainable, enjoyable, or lucrative as we once thought and are left to wonder what will we do with our lives now!

Okay, okay, enough with the doom and gloom. Luckily, our concerns have been heard and career development platforms like the iJOBs program of Rutgers University, a NIH BEST funded site, are popping up across the country. These programs aim to help Ph.D. students and post-doctoral trainees smoothly transition from academia by broadening career and professional development opportunities. In addition, luckily for us, our scientific training and thought process are in high demand in most industries. Simply put, it is in our nature to come up with a solution if we see a problem. That is why if you look into any field, from local government officials to restaurant owners to VPs of marketing companies, you will find a successfully transitioned scientist!

Over the next 6 months I hope to detail my own personal journey as I finish graduate school and journey away from academia to a career as a medical writer and entrepreneur. For now, I hope to introduce myself by briefly answering a few questions you all may have.

Who am I? What is my background?

I am a 6th year Ph.D. student at Rutgers University. I work in the lab of Dr. Abraham Pinter of the Public Health Research Institute in Newark, NJ. My project focuses on understanding the mechanisms behind how HIV-1 evades the immune system by masking sensitive immunogenic sites. I completed my undergraduate education at Howard University in Washington, DC with research experience at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), and Amgen. Not only am I a science ‘nerd,’ but I also have a deep love of history, politics, nutrition, and holistic health. I hope to bring all of my interests into my future career options and will detail how I plan to in upcoming posts.

What do I mean by leaving the bench behind, but not really?

In graduate school, I quickly learned that my favorite part of research was creating presentations, explaining my findings through writing, and interacting with other people. No, this was not because I was awful at bench work, but because those were the avenues in which my creativity and independence could shine. I realized that while I was deeply invested in my project, it was not what I would research if I had complete liberty to choose what I wanted to study on my own. I learned that being constrained to research questions covered under a funded grant was just not how I wanted to spend my life. However, I didn’t want to completely give up my pipettes and walk away from research forever. I enjoy research! I sat and thought, then came up with a solution. I am a Ph.D. trained scientist. I can research whatever I want, wherever I want, for as long as I want if I can secure my own equipment and funds. So, with a bit more research into the subject I was introduced into the world of biohacking and do-it-yourself (DIY) scientists, an up and coming movement where scientists along with everyday people build labs in their homes and conduct research to their hearts desire. While, I obviously can’t work on dangerous microorganisms at home without the proper permissions, there are still plenty of interesting topics I can explore on a bls1 level. Current projects range from genetically engineering plants to glow for a free source of light to helping hospitals find new antibiotics by testing random products around your home. Eventually, I hope to use my own DIY lab to research natural remedies, product contamination with heavy metals, and other related topics. The bottom line is that I am not walking away from bench research, just taking it in another direction. Stay tuned for future posts for more on this topic.

Where do I hope to see myself in the immediate future?

Completing my dissertation, defending, and starting an exciting career as a medical writer. As mentioned earlier, I enjoy writing and science. I really think this will be the perfect career path for me. I’ve completed multiple freelance writing projects, joined medical writing organizations, and networked over the past couple of years. I will give further details in upcoming post as I hope to join a communications agency after defending. Also, I will talk a little more about my science related business ventures.

The distant future?

I hope to own my own medical communications company and also be a successful holistic health practitioner (based out of the Caribbean)!

What are my goals by participating in this blog series?

I want to share my story, perspective, and help people see that through broadening their viewpoints we can all be exposed to so much more than we ever imagined. I hope to connect with other like-minded students and professionals. Mostly, I want struggling graduate students to know that they aren’t alone with their career path dilemmas and that with hard work and dedication, we will all accomplish our goals.

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