Q&A with the Experts
Preethi Chander, PhD
Health Science Program Specialist, National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), NIH
Inspiration can come from anywhere. For Preethi Chander, PhD, it came from researching an autoimmune disease affecting a close friend and realizing she wanted her work to impact human health. Here, Preethi describes how that decision helped her find her current career in the world of science administration.
When and where did you earn your PhD, and what did you study?
I earned my PhD in 2006 from Purdue University in Indiana. My research focused on bacterial gene regulation and RNA binding proteins.
How did you decide what to do after your degree?
At the end of my PhD, I had a close friend who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. Being a scientific person, my approach was to learn as much as possible about this disease. Doing that research was more satisfying than the research I was pursuing in the lab! That’s what motivated me to move closer to a biomedical research area and brought me to my postdoc at the National Eye Institute (NEI) studying retinal proteins involved in the visual cycle.
Was biomedical research what you were expecting?
Yes, it was, and a lot more. Being at NIH, it was hard to escape the nuts and bolts of how science is enabled. I learned about the politics of science, from how decisions get made in Congress to how the money trickles down to the funding agencies and how they, in turn, prioritize and fund the best science. There are many remarkable people at NIH who weren’t in the lab, but played significant roles in supporting the machinery that makes science happen. That whole universe of science administration really caught my attention.
How did you start exploring the career opportunities in science administration?
I met with people in science administration jobs to learn what they do, how they got there, etc. These conversations made me aware that I’m more of a big picture person, I like to sit back and get a broader view of the science that’s going on. And that’s when I realized stepping away from the lab would satisfy me more. I volunteered as an intern at the NEI science policy and program planning office during my postdoc. After my postdoc, I was involved as a contractor in the initial planning and launch of the NEI Audacious Goals Initiative.
Leaving the lab is easier said than done. How did you prepare yourself ― and your resume ― for the transition?
When I realized I wanted to do more on the administrative side of science, I talked to people to find out what the gaps in skills were between the lab and science administration. Primarily,it’s important for those in science administration to be good communicators in both speaking and writing. I volunteered as a science writer for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) in their member magazine during my postdoc days, and continue to do so today. The other thing I did was to look for volunteer opportunities in organizations that were involved in science administration. As a representative on the NIH fellows committee I got involved in administrative activities and participated in decision making about issues related to fellows' science and training. I also organized meetings, like fellows retreats. The experience was unlike anything I had done in the lab.
By building up your experience outside the lab, you were able to transition to your current position in NIDCR. What does a Health Science Program Specialist do?
I am responsible for activities related to funding the best science relevant to the NIDCR mission. I help NIDCR funded investigators by participating in planning, coordination and implementation of program related activities for our research programs. I participate in the development of funding opportunity announcements in relevant research areas. I work with program officers on grant related administrative activities, including preparing funding plans and evaluating progress reports for funded projects and monitoring the status of projects once funded. I draft technical reports based on detailed analyses of our research portfolio to manage and evaluate our research programs.
Could you do your job without your PhD?
There are people who do my same job without a PhD. But I think there are skills you learn through your PhD that are valuable. You know the trials and tribulations of your grantees. The degree gives you credibility with the investigators. You understand when they say “we’re making progress, but something came up,” because you’ve experienced similar setbacks.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were a grad student or postdoc?
That besides the research experience, every day is a learning opportunity for a multitude of transferable skills that prepare you for a career away from the bench as well. You learn key skills ― critical thinking, analytical skills, attention to detail, ability to digest complex technical information and draft technical reports ― all very valuable in my current role.
It would have been invaluable to see the financial and administrative aspects of how my science and my scientific career were being supported. Outside the bubble of lab research, an army of PhDs play instrumental roles in evaluating scientific topics,prioritizing research, funding science, balancing portfolios and the assessing the impact of these decisions. Knowing that there are other ways to be involved in science, apart from being at the bench, was something I wish I had learnt earlier.
Another thing I didn’t appreciate while I was in the lab was that everyone there has a scientific background.When you step out into the real world, though, other people come with very different perspectives. Learning to communicate effectively with people with different training and getting the work done, that’s a big learning experience. You don’t realize how stereotypical your language and communications skills are when you’re in the lab.
What advice do you have for students looking to pursue a similar career?
Talk to people. Do not be shy! Don’t be afraid of talking to big shots in the field. Be curious about people ―not just their science. Do some introspection, what works best for you? And explore opportunities for personal growth because every one of them is a learning opportunity.
As scientists, we’re used to a chartered career path. But there’s a whole world out there, with lots of interesting side roads and pleasant surprise bends! Be comfortable not having a set path in front of you.There are a lot of opportunities out there if you’re willing to open your mind.