How did you become interested in science and research?
I have been interested in science for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, I used to mix together shampoo, soap, things from the kitchen, and other cleaning products and think that I was making the cure for cancer. My mom was not always pleased about the mess, but she encouraged the curiosity.
As I grew older, I realized I didn't necessarily want to work in a hospital, but the science was still fascinating. I also had a truly fantastic middle school science teacher, Tom Kuntzleman, who introduced me to the concept of experimentation; we had fun demonstrations, for instance, using chewing gum to explore sugar content and testing the conductive ability of different kinds of fruits or vegetables.
All these experiences were formative in my interest in science in general, but then, I was fortunate enough to intern at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences when I was in high school. I worked on a project to calculate the fertile days of the menstrual cycle, and that was my introduction to female reproductive health. I was hooked! I thought it was fascinating the way that women had all this data at their fingertips (literally!) about their fertility status and their cycles based on observable characteristics, like temperature and cervical mucus. I thought that was fascinating, and that's what has driven me toward this field.
What brought you to NICHD?
I came to NIH through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowship in the Office of Research on Women's Health (ORWH). I had found after my graduate school career that, while I loved the science of female reproductive health, and I loved thinking about the science and planning the science and figuring out the best way to do the science, I didn't actually love doing the science. That part had started to feel a little more routine, a little more robotic, and so I wanted to feel that I was using my science in a way to really help society and really look at the science from a higher level.
The AAAS fellowship is designed to bring scientists into the government so that those with expertise in science can participate in the decision making of how science should be done and what science needed to be done. I really enjoyed that aspect of thinking through how NIH does its science, evaluates the impact, and decides where the gaps and opportunities are for new research.
After my fellowship at ORWH was over, I moved to the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) to continue this policy work, which really helped me gain expertise in the importance of health disparities and health disparity populations in NIH research. But all this time, I was missing my great scientific passion, which is female reproductive health. NICHD’s chief of the Gynecologic Health and Disease Branch saw my resume and thought I had the ideal background to work as a program officer, overseeing a portfolio of research grants in female reproductive health, including uterine fibroids. I came to NICHD with the lure of getting back to my scientific passion and thinking about women's reproductive health once more as my focus.
Can you explain your job to people who are not familiar with scientific positions outside of a laboratory or clinical setting?
I am a program officer. NIH awards grants, i.e., financial support for scientific research. My job is to oversee all those grants for NICHD that relate to endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and menstrual health irregularities. So, my job is to understand the science in those areas, stimulate new research in that field by writing funding opportunity announcements (where NIH solicits applications for new grants), organize workshops and meetings to discuss the state of the science and disseminate emerging research, and evaluate the scientific progress of all existing grants in those areas. I work with investigators who do research on those topics as they develop new applications, think through new ideas, and perform the research in their awarded grants.
What types of training, experiences, or traits are essential for success in your position?
Well, top of the list has to be my passion for my scientific area. As a program officer, you are a champion of that scientific focus. You need to constantly keep up with the science in that area. You will be competing for funding in that area. You will become a touchpoint for all the NIH-funded researchers in that area. You serve as a liaison to that scientific community. So being driven by an ever-present interest in the science is the number one aspect that makes the job so fun.
I’ll also say that, interestingly enough, the fact that I am not necessarily an optimist is helpful in my position. One of my strengths has always been the ability to look at a scientific proposal or scientific protocol and see potential pitfalls. So, while my passion for the science continuously drives me to help my researchers succeed, my ability to see potential problems is the tool that I use to help them.
Lastly, as a program officer, you are a steward of the science, but you have to care about the people behind the science, too. At different points in a grant lifecycle, you are a cheerleader, a therapist, a sounding board, a colleague, sometimes a nagging parent, and, for hopeful principal investigators, a fortune teller. You have to recognize that the NIH grant process can be long and grueling. You have to have this understanding and desire to work with your investigators through every stage of that process, both scientifically and on a personal level.
What do you find most valuable about working at NICHD?
The people! The researchers in my portfolio are passionate, driven, collaborative, engaged, energetic, and constantly seeking to further their field on behalf of women and girls everywhere. Not only that, but my colleagues at NICHD are, without exaggeration, some of the best people I’ve ever worked with. The institute truly strives to live its values, to uphold our beliefs in diversity and equity and inclusion, to support each other in finding good work-life balance, and to make our workplace one that is collegial and kind.
If you have advanced along your career within the institute, can you summarize your career steps and how you successfully navigated these changes?
Technically, I started off as a high school summer intern at NIH. After my doctorate, I moved from policy positions at ORWH and NIMHD to being a program officer at NICHD. Being a program officer was a completely different type of job than I had held before at NIH. I think what really helped was giving myself a few months to learn the position without feeling that I had to know everything right away. I also took advantage of every resource that was offered to me, including the training courses and the mentors who were here at NICHD.
The number one thing that I think helped me to transition to my new position was not being afraid to ask questions. At the beginning, I asked questions constantly, and I asked them of my boss, my colleagues in the branch, other program officers who had been here much longer than I had, and I learned from all their experience. Even today, I have to reach out at times to clarify policies or grants management questions. In this position, you can't be afraid to ask questions. You have to be comfortable not always knowing the right answer and figure out how to seek out the information that you need.
What advice can you offer to people who are at an earlier stage of their career?
Be open to new experiences and new job possibilities. I think that my career was more linear than most experiences. As a high schooler, I wanted to study female reproductive health. Then, I completed my doctorate in the topic, and now, I work at NIH in that field. And even with that in mind, I still had positions and tasks that were not immediately related to female reproductive health but helped me get to where I am today. So, I think you can ask around and have informational interviews to figure out where you think you want to go. Stay open to new tasks and new experiences because you never know where you might find a new passion or a new skill that will really help you down the line.
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