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Diane Bovenkamp, PhD

Diane Bovenkamp, PhD
Scientific Program Officer,  BrightFocus  Foundation

When and where did you get your PhD? What did you study?

I earned my PhD in Biochemistry in 2000 at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. I discovered and characterized a number of Eph receptors in zebrafish and looked at their roles in angiogenesis and nervous system development.

Can you share a brief history of where you worked after grad school?

In 2001, I moved to the US and did a postdoctoral fellowship in the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Then, I went to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore where I worked on cardiovascular disease proteomics.

While at Hopkins, I also did a volunteer internship on the University's media team, helping to build up my portfolio of writing samples.  From there, I moved on to Foundation Fighting Blindness, where I worked as the Director of Science Information and Programs. After that I came to BrightFocus Foundation. I originally hired as the Science Communications Specialist, but for the past year I've been the Scientific Program Officer.

What led you to pursue a career outside of academia or industry?

I realized in my postdoc that I wanted to embrace a larger universe of health science than was associated with my specific project. I also wanted to have in my workday the ability to have a direct impact on the lives of people diagnosed with the diseases on which my research was focused. In addition, I wanted to bring my experience to bear in supporting other scientists in their careers so they can find cures for those patients.

After you made the decision to switch careers, how did you prepare yourself and your resume?

In grad school, I took a course called "Beyond Academia." It introduced me to all types of non-academic careers. Later, after I decided to make the switch in my postdoc, that introduction helped me to narrow down what I wanted to do, which was originally communications.

To enter the communications field,you need to have a portfolio of articles that you can provide in job applications and interviews. You can get that experience through volunteering to write for magazines, newspapers, online blogs, etc.

In addition, I wanted to find a way to improve my public speaking, while at the same time giving back to the community. So, I volunteered as a reader and digital recorder of biology and genetic textbooks for the blind and dyslexic. I was also an exhibit guide at a bunch of museums in Boston and Baltimore. Those positions helped me to become more agile in thinking on my feet, answering science in lay language for the public and be more comfortable giving speeches.

Communication (eg, networking) is important to finding a job. Which communication tools have you used to find your "post-research" positions?

There is something to be said for cold calling or cold emailing, because that's how I got my internship with the Hopkins media team. When I decided that I wanted to do an internship, I sent out at least 40 emails to a number of places. The person who eventually became my mentor and supervisor at Hopkins was the one who responded. So, networking is important, but so is the classical cold call and applying for hundreds of jobs.

However, don't underestimate the value of in-person networking. I think it's very valuable to join a local networking organization, like Women in Bio, which started in the Washington, D.C./Baltimore area but has since spread across the country. You can also start right at your institution. If you want to do grants management, go to the grants management people at your university and talk to them. If you want to do patent law or regulatory work, talk to the respective people at your university. I think ARVO is a great resource, too, with the Annual Meeting being a great place to network.

Now you're at BrightFocus as a Scientific Program Officer. What are your responsibilities and goals?

BrightFocus is a non-profit organization supporting research around the globe.  In addition to research, we provide public education to constituents who have the diseases for which we're funding research: Alzheimer's disease, macular degeneration and glaucoma.

As a Scientific Program Officer, I'm responsible for overseeing and conducting the administration of our three core research programs. That involves looking a scientific and financial progress reports, organizing the scientific review committees, conducting the entire application and review process,executing contract negotiations with the awardees and their institutional representatives, and fostering strong relationships with the scientific community. I'm also involved in projects concerning public affairs and communications, fundraising, and constituent relations. I help to answer difficult scientific questions that come in over the phone, in snail-mail letters, or via email. No day is the same around here.

What do you do on a typical day? What skills are necessary to get through your day?

I can bounce from talking to the head of our scientific review committee one minute, to someone who was just diagnosed with glaucoma the next. So, having effective communications skills is important. Having a broad knowledge of interdisciplinary science is also very important. You want to be able to evaluate the latest research being done around the world.All of the skills that I've developed to this point help me to tackle my daily responsibilities - and I keep on learning new skills,and accepting new challenges.

So, it's very much a collaborative position in that there is so much to do and everything is done in collaboration with others. It's definitely a team effort. We all rely on each other for pulling our skills together.

Would you be able to do your job without a PhD? Would you be as effective/successful without it?

For my particular job, I would not be as effective without my PhD. In fact, having postdoctoral experience gives me more insight into the academic world so I can better serve our academic clients who apply for grant funding. Having the research background helps me get my head around all the science I read and keep up with every day.

But, there are effective grants managers who have master's degrees. In science communications, most people don't have PhDs, but I think having a PhD helps to enrich communication, and certainly what I do every day.

What advice would you give to students who are looking to find a position similar to your own?

Focus on networking. It can be stressful meeting new people, but it's worth it. Have a LinkedIn account, and make sure that your résumé, scientific papers, and other essential materials are posted and current. Set up informational interviews with people who are doing the work that you think you want to do as a career and ask questions. Start at your institution's technology transfer, communications, grants management, or other departments; go to the career office and see if they can point you in the right direction.

Take a chance on applying for positions that don't, at first glance, define the career path you want to enter. You may be surprised you like it, or you may learn about new jobs and possibilities of which you weren't previously aware.

Remember that it's important to market yourself. Volunteer, do internships, and build your experience before you leave your training. Use social media to gather information, network, and let others know about your interests and talents. Don't be afraid to approach your network. Think about what you're good at doing in or out of the lab and how to apply those talents in a new position.

There are so many jobs out there not based in a lab, and there are a lot of people in non-traditional careers who are willing to help.

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