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Starting a Career in Science: Challenges and Successes

Amber Baum
Amber Baum '98

When Amber Baum '98 was finishing up her doctoral dissertation at Northwestern University last year, she called a member of her thesis committee Francis McMahon of the National Institute of Mental Health's Unit on the Genetic Basis of Mood and Anxiety Disorders for networking advice. Coincidentally, there was a postdoctoral position open in McMahon's lab, and he invited Baum to interview in March. There was just one hitch: Baum's thesis defense was scheduled for April 5.

"It seemed poorly timed," says Baum, "but actually, it was perfectly timed. It motivated me even more to get done what I needed to get done." The presentation she gave to McMahon's group enabled her to practice what was essentially her thesis defense, Baum notes. "It improved my thesis defense to have their feedback." The feedback was positive: Baum got the job.

Young Bryn Mawr alumnae like Baum have encountered their share of challenges on the road to research careers in academia, industry and government. The keys to success, they say, are to know yourself and reach out to others for guidance.

Managing Change

Baum says the transition from student to postdoc has involved some adjustment. "I have to change how I think about myself my role and my relationship to other people," she says. "As a postdoc, you're still very much a trainee, but there's also a sense that you're guiding what's going on."

Margaret Greenslade '98
Margaret Greenslade '98

Margaret Greenslade '98 has been working as a research associate at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Boulder , Colo. , since receiving her Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania in August 2005. She says a challenge she has faced is "making sure I'm always making progress and, if there is a problem, that I'm finding the people who can help me." Working independently has involved an adjustment, Greenslade explains. "In graduate school, I always worked in a team environment. Here, a lot of the problems that I experience are mine to deal with."

Greenslade who investigates optical properties of aerosols as a function of relative humidity adds that when she's stumped on a problem, resources abound. "A lot of the people in my group have plentiful experience with the type of science I'm working on now. They help direct me and lead me toward the future. Plus, people from all over the world come here to give seminars and share their science with us."

Asha Abdool '97
Asha Abdool '97
credit: Daniel Krieger

Asha Abdool '97, a public health epidemiologist at the New York City Department of Health, also knows what it's like to juggle roles. At her job, says Abdool, who received an M.P.H. from Yale University in 2002, "Every day is different." Among her many duties is investigating cases of 62 communicable diseases via patient and provider interviews and medical chart reviews. "My role has been basically on the front lines," she explains. Recently, for example, she called attendees at a party where a food-borne outbreak had occurred, questioning them about their symptoms, what they had eaten and whether they knew of anyone else who had gotten sick.

Before Abdool began conducting patient interviews, she recalls, "I had to learn a whole new set of skills." She often must ask personal questions about sexual behavior or calm an upset patient who has just received notification that he or she has a reportable disease. And often, "the patients want to talk about their other health issues, and I have to keep them on track."

She also conducts surveillance for parasitic diseases at five hospital laboratories and helps to oversee human surveillance activities, including database maintenance, for West Nile virus. "There is a lot of paperwork involved in arranging for the transport of specimens to maximize finding cases," she says.

In addition, Abdool and her colleagues take turns fielding calls from the public. "One of the most frequent calls are from people who think they've been exposed to rabies," she says. "It's rewarding when I've educated people, and put their minds at ease."

Nontraditional Paths

Christina Cuomo '91
Christina Cuomo '91

After earning her Ph.D. in genetics from Harvard University in 1996, Christina Cuomo '91 was a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Andrew Murray, first at the University of California, San Francisco, and later at Harvard. In 2002-03 she was a member of the Human Genome Project's closure team at the Whitehead Institute Center for Genome Research. Since 2003, she has been a research scientist in comparative fungal genomics at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard.

"In terms of career path, I'm clearly following a nontraditional one," she says. Most students considering academic careers aspire to tenure-track positions, she notes. But the "research scientist" position "is one that naturally suits me," she says. "It gives me the freedom to continue to develop my research interests while allowing time for grant writing and other career-development areas." Her experience, she notes, demonstrates that "there are other paths to take than the usual grad student-postdoc-faculty one, even in academic science."

Cuomo uses comparative genomics to study how the genomes and genes of fungal pathogens evolve. One of her current projects involves sequencing and comparing the genomes of different Candida species. "Although a single species, C. albicans, is responsible for about half of the Candida infections," she explains, "a wide variety of species contribute to the remainder, and the prevalence of non- albicans infections is increasing. We sequenced C. albicans as well as four other related Candida species." A comparative analysis should help clarify common processes and functional elements within the group as well as differences in pathogenicity in each species, she explains. "We hope to better understand the evolution of these Candida , which can directly impact how to treat infections."

Cuomo says she appreciates the opportunity to interact with researchers who have a broad range of expertise. Cuomo notes, "Genome projects, by their very nature, are very collaborative projects. These are often international projects, which bring together people with diverse backgrounds and research interests." However, she adds, "Managing the collaboration takes a lot of your time. In developing the project, there's a balancing act between the topics you wish to pursue and how your collaborators are able to work with you. But the collaborations work well because we can synergize the computational strengths of scientists like myself with the biological depth and breadth of a community of researchers."

Cuomo says the Human Genome Project "was an amazing project to play a role in. The greatest impact of the sequence is as a public resource it provides the infrastructure for any researcher to take a systematic approach to study any disease." One highlight, she says, was taking part in discussions with National Human Genome Research Institute Director Francis Collins and hearing his vision for the project.

Changing Paths

Nina Sullivan Morrison '93
Nina Sullivan Morrison '93

Nina Sullivan Morrison '93 , who received a B.A. and M.A. in mathematics from Bryn Mawr, did research at NASA and the California Institute of Technology in the summer of 1991, where she discovered a new relationship between ozone and water vapor. But when she learned it would take years for her finding to be applied, she decided a research career was not for her. "I just don't have that kind of patience," she says.

The summer after Morrison's NASA experience, she worked at SmithKline Beecham, evaluating the pharmaceutical firm's global computer network. She found she enjoyed the work and began assessing her options: "When I was at Bryn Mawr, the two things that interested me the most were teaching and management consulting," she says. "I knew it would be harder to jump from teaching to consulting than the other way around."

A mentor advised Morrison to apply for a position at McKinsey & Co., an experience that would open doors. In 1993, she was offered a coveted position as a consultant based in McKinsey's Chicago office. "I worked directly with chairmen of companies, doing incredible things," she says. Her first assignment, for example, involved determining whether a $2 billion global firm should build a new factory and, if so, where in the world it should be located, and how large it should be. "My Bryn Mawr education really prepared me well for that," Morrison recalls. "It taught me that I can solve complex, seemingly impossible problems. At the beginning of the day, we were totally befuddled; at the end of the day, we had a whiteboard full of tasks for everyone to do."

But Morrison grew weary of the intense pace. "I would get up at 4 in the morning and would not get home until 11 at night every day for two years," she says. "From talking to people, I knew that pace was never going to let up."

In 1995, Morrison surprised her colleagues by leaving McKinsey to return to Philadelphia's Main Line to teach mathematics in a private school. "I needed to get some distance from the corporate world," she says. She drew on her McKinsey experience in developing lesson plans based on real-world problems, she recalls.

During the summer of 1997, Morrison who advises students to "use your summers wisely" returned to Bryn Mawr to do research with mathematics professor Rhonda Hughes. There, she was reintroduced to Amber Salzman, who was pursuing her Ph.D. part-time while working at SmithKline. Through Salzman, Morrison learned that SmithKline had a department that provided strategic-management advice to the executive board and senior management and that it was possible to do this high-level work and lead a balanced life. In the summer of 1998, Morrison worked as a consultant at SmithKline on "a very directed project" building a systems dynamics model of the pharmaceutical R&D process. She continued to consult for the company during the following school year. In 1999, she joined the company which had become GlaxoSmithKline full-time as a senior strategy adviser.

"I was making strategic recommendations that helped the company to better manage their portfolio of compounds and deliver improved value to shareholders," Morrison recalls. "At one time, I was managing 14 multinational teams of more than 200 people." She worked directly with the executive board members.

Owing to her hard work and an aggressive career path, Morrison was able to retire in 2003 when a family crisis arose. "It wasn't an easy decision," she says. "I loved my job, but family came first." Today, Morrison is building a home in the Bahamas.

Gratifying Opportunities

Christina Erwin '98
Christina Erwin '98

Christina Erwin '98 began working as a software engineer at Raytheon Co. in Portsmouth, R.I., immediately after graduating from Bryn Mawr with a physics degree. After about 18 months, she successfully applied to Raytheon's Advanced Study Program, which supported her graduate education at Brown University while she worked 40 hours a week at Raytheon. "It was one of the tougher times of my life," acknowledges Erwin, who received her M.S. in computer science from Brown in 2003. She would work from 6 to 10 a.m., then head to the Brown campus an hour's commute from Raytheon for classes in mid-day, then return to work and travel back to Brown for help sessions in the evening. It wasn't exactly a matter of switching hats, Erwin says with a laugh. "I just wore them all at the same time."

Erwin has worked on a variety of R&D projects at Raytheon. In her early years at the firm, she helped develop programs that processed the submarine's sensor data and displayed it to the sailors, thus enabling them to determine the location of objects in the water. That project required her to collaborate closely with Navy personnel, she says. "I worked with them for months," she recalls. "The commanders were sitting with me in the lab and showing me their problems." It was especially gratifying to see the look on their faces when she was able to devise a solution that was exactly what they wanted, she says. "We were able to cut through a lot of bureaucracy because we had built up so much trust. You don't always get that opportunity in the corporate world." More recently, Erwin says, she has been a member of a team creating infrastructure components for DD(X), the United States' next-generation naval destroyer, working on automated systems that can reduce the number of crew members needed on board.

Shifting Focus

Several young alumnae shifted their research focus after finishing grad school. Greenslade, who had investigated hydroxyl radical complexes for her Ph.D. thesis, was only loosely a part of the atmospheric research community then. "It has always been my goal to break into this community and to become an atmospheric scientist," she says.

In graduate school at Northwestern, Baum studied the Wistar-Kyoto rat, an inbred strain with behavioral abnormalities that resemble major depression, but wanted to switch to humans; she now studies the genetics of bipolar illness. "I liked working with animals, but it wasn't what I wanted to do," she says. "The first postdoc is a good chance to switch."

Yet the transition was not without complications, Baum notes. "Moving from animal to human genetics research sounds like changing just one word," she says, "but the analyses are very different." In her rat studies, she generated the data herself. Her current research, by contrast, involves clinician interviews with patients from multiple centers; she analyzes those data and the patients' genetic information. "It's a completely different scale," she says.

Baum says her work at the National Institute of Mental Health has given her a deeper understanding of the federal funding process. "In five years, the funding climate will have changed, and I'm learning what I have to look at to keep my plans flexible," she says. "I've always known that tenure-track jobs are in short supply, and I've always had an eye on all the options in research and out of it." She plans to learn more about science policy and has made valuable contacts in research and policy fields through the Bryn Mawr alumnae listserv. "A lot of us are thinking about what we can do to make the world a better place," she says.

Morrison, whose career as a consultant took her into all types of workplaces, urges young job seekers to work hard and keep current. "Hard work is the key it gives you value and it gives you power in the marketplace," she says. "Stimulating your thinking keeps you creative and makes you an invaluable resource to your organization."

About Our Sources

Asha J. Abdool '97 (M.P.H. with a concentration in epidemiology of microbial diseases, Yale University, 2002), was a research technician in the University of Pennsylvania's Division of Infectious Diseases from 1998 to 2000. She has worked at the New York City Department of Health since November 2003 first in the Bureau of Integrated Surveillance, and currently in the Bureau of Communicable Disease.

Amber E. Baum '98 (Ph.D. in neuroscience, Northwestern University, 2005) is a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Francis McMahon at the Genetic Basis of Mood and Anxiety Unit, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health.

Christina A. Cuomo '91 (Ph.D. in genetics, Harvard University, 1996) was a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Andrew Murray at the University of California, San Francisco, and at Harvard University from 1996 to 2002. From 2002 to 2003 she served as a manager in the Human Genome Project closure team at the Whitehead Institute Center for Genome Research. Since 2003 she has been a research scientist in comparative fungal genomics at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

Christina M. Erwin '98 (M.S. in computer science with a concentration in database research, Brown University, 2003) has worked at Raytheon Company, Portsmouth, R.I., since 1998, initially as a software engineer and currently as a senior software engineer. She is one of 65 members of Raytheon's Engineering Leadership Development Program, Class of 2006, selected from across all Raytheon sites internationally.

Margaret E. Greenslade '98 (Ph.D. in physical chemistry, University of Pennsylvania, 2005) participated in a series of three two-week visits at the University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands, as part of a collaborative project at the Department of Molecular and Laser Physics in 2002 and 2003. Since the summer of 2005 she has been a research associate at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Boulder, Colo.

Nina Sullivan Morrison '93 (combined A.B./M.A., Bryn Mawr College) served as a summer research fellow in the Earth and Space Sciences Division at NASA and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., in 1991. In the summer of 1992, she was a research analyst in the Application Development Division at SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals in Philadelphia. From 1993 to 1995 she was a management consultant at McKinsey & Co., Chicago. She was an upper school mathematics teacher at the Shipley School, Bryn Mawr, Pa., from 1995 to 1997 and at the Haverford School, Haverford, Pa., from 1997 to 1999. She worked as a research analyst in Bryn Mawr College's mathematics department in 1997 and as an instructor in 1998. She was a management consultant at SmithKline's Process Improvements Division in 1998 and 1999 and a senior strategy adviser at the company, which changed its name to GlaxoSmithKline, from 1999 until her retirement in 2003.

Barbara Spector writes on science and technology as well as business topics. She is the editor-in-chief of Family Business magazine and former editor of The Scientist.