Geoffrey Hunt, PhD
Public Outreach Coordinator, American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB)
Geoffrey Hunt, PhD, is the public outreach coordinator for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). Below, Geoff describes his path from the lab to facilitating communication between scientists and non-scientists.
When and where did you get your PhD? What did you study?
I got my PhD in 2009 from Princeton University. My thesis was on the regulation of embryonic stem cell behavior by extracellular matrix proteins.
After you finished your PhD, what did you do next?
The Public Affairs office at ASBMB offers a Policy Fellowship. It's a one year position that focuses on science policy issues. I applied for the fellowship right after grad school and got it.
Near the end of my time there, ASBMB created a new position centered on public outreach. I knew I wanted more of a communications role based on my experiences with the policy fellowship program, so I applied. Apparently they liked me from my time as the policy fellow, so I got the job. I've been here for three years now.
A lot of people go to graduate school thinking they're going to be a professor or work in industry. Did you think you would follow that path, or did you know you wanted to pursue a career away from the bench?
I ended up in grad school without any idea of where it would lead. I worked in a lab as an undergrad, and my advisor recommended going to grad school. The fact that it would be paid for led me to say "sure why not."
By my third year, I knew I wasn't going to be in the lab my whole life, so I was trying to figure out what other opportunities would be out there. There really was no plan.
So you realized you're not interested in the lab as a career.Was there anything you did as a grad student to supplement your resume to be better qualified for non-lab jobs?
There were two things. First, I earned a teaching certificate at Princeton thinking that I might end up teaching. I actually looked at teaching jobs (high school, lectureships, etc.) when I was applying for work after grad school.
Second, I took a science policy class at the Woodrow Wilson School in Princeton, which is the big public policy school they have there, and found that I really liked this thing called science policy. You had to have the ability to comprehend technical knowledge, but you also had to be able to break it down to people who didn't necessarily have that same background. I thought it was a really cool combination of things that I liked and things I was good at doing. So that's what got me on the path of policy as a career.
Which communication tools (e.g., networking, cold calls) did you use to find your current position?
I definitely utilized the graduate network at my university. I got contact information of lab alumni and talked to professors in the Wilson school to see if they knew of any opportunities.
Now you're at ASBMB as a public outreach coordinator. What are your responsibilities and goals?
My role is to get scientists to talk science to people who aren't scientists. I explain that as trying to prepare our members to interact with people outside of their discipline in whatever form that may take. Maybe they need training on how to communicate,funding, resources, opportunities to speak to audiences, new contacts - my job is to make that happen.
What do you do on a typical day?
A little bit of everything! I maintain a section on our website, but my main job is working with our Public Outreach Committee and putting their ideas into action. We convene about once a month on the phone and come up with or continue working on projects they have identified. So, I make their ideas reality.
Would you be able to do your job without a PhD? Would you be as effective/successful without it?
I could do it, but I don't know if I would be as effective. Obviously, the training you get provides insight and knowledge as to what it's like to be a scientist as well as the science itself. I also think it provides credibility - especially when dealing with other scientists. You can say "I've been there; I can speak your language."
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were looking for jobs?
I wish I knew the people I know now! Really though, I wish I knew that I had the training to do a "real" job after I finished my degree. You learn a lot of important job skills in a PhD program, but I personally couldn't see that until I got my first position. I came in pretty well prepared for this job even though I wasn't aware of it at the time.
What do you mean by job skills?
I mean things like communicating, working within an unfamiliar structure, designing and executing projects, writing and project management. When you're in the lab, you never think that's what you're actually doing and how it applies to a real world job. You just have to think about what you do in a little different way.
Do you have any advice for current students?
Get experience with what you want to do. Volunteer on committees, get involved locally or come into Washington D.C. for Advocacy Days. I think for these types of science policy/communication careers, it's important to demonstrate a commitment and passion for them before setting off down that path - especially as more and more people are trying to get into these fields. You have to show that you really want to do it.
Finally, I would emphasize the importance of passion, and not just for careers outside the lab. When you're a student, find what you're passionate about. People should be encouraged to follow whatever their passion is, because that will be what makes them most successful and happy.