Do What You Love
“You’ve got to love your job,” Marco Midon said. “I am one of these crazy people who almost live what they do.” As a lifelong ham radio operator, Midon has worked with sound since he was a child. Now he is the lead NASA Goddard Space Flight Center radio frequency engineer on the team responsible for designing antennas and receivers for a solar probe.
As a child, Tracey Williams Thomas wanted to be a scientist. That single-minded determination almost prevented her from realizing her true love: science policy. When, eventually, she started researching science policy, Next Wave was there to help facilitate the transition. She is currently an AAAS Risk Policy Fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency, responsible for three projects on risk assessment for children’s health care.
As it did Williams, a love of science always pushed Nadine Ritter. But after years as a lab assistant, a graduate student, and a postdoc, her love of the bench had disappeared. Her solution? Becoming a consultant to several medical and biotechnology firms specializing in quality assurance. In this new capacity, Ritter is involved in regulatory compliance and documentation for biotechnology and biology products.
Harrison Wein, writer and editor in the Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health, had similar early doubts. Like many ambitious young scientists, Wein realized, to his chagrin, he was unlikely ever to be a Nobel laureate. So, instead of languishing as a good, but in his own opinion not great, scientist, he decided to explore alternative career options. A high school teacher encouraged him to look into science writing, but he didn’t take her advice until later: It wasn’t until graduate school that he seriously considered writing. Wein eventually got his start freelancing while he was a postdoc at NIH.
Mentoring and Networking
Midon, who is visually impaired, had a mentor in college who converted equations to and from Braille and another at Goddard who drove him to work. He also recalled his teacher at the New Mexico School for the Visually Impaired sparking his lifelong love of ham radio. In turn, his interest and expertise in ham radio helped Midon, while an intern at Goddard, to make significant connections that proved important to his subsequent career development.
Indeed, such networking was another point of emphasis during the panel discussion. Banks noted that he networks almost everywhere, even his office’s gym. He advocates what he calls “the four P’s”–being “persistent, persuasive, polite, and positive” as a way of fostering good networking relationships. Wein suggested informational interviews–talking with people in a career field of interest about their work–as another effective networking tool.
Science’s Next Wave panel addresses alternative careers for scientists At lectern: Lenka Fedorkova (moderator) Seated, left to right: Marco Midon, Tracey Williams Thomas, Derris Banks, Nadine Ritter, Harrison Wein
Preparing for the Random Events
Ritter paraphrased Louis Pasteur: “Chance favors those who are prepared.” She urged young scientists pursuing alternative careers to strive to be the best at their current position while also preparing themselves for future transitions. Always do more than your peers, she suggests, because employers look at past work when evaluating candidates, no matter what job you’re applying for. Ritter spent 4 years at a community college and three at the University of Texas as an undergraduate–while also working full-time as a lab tech. Those experiences taught her that “there are no shortcuts.” She suggested reading Anne Baber’sas a career development tool.
Despite some cautionary words, Thomas voiced an opinion shared by most of the panelists: Careful preparation is important, but sometimes you have to take risks. For one thing, noted Thomas, pursuing your passion is better than locking yourself into a career you don’t enjoy, even if that pursuit carries risks. She implored everyone to disregard the scare-tactics often used to keep people locked into lab careers. All the panelists took risks to arrive at their current positions. To get “a big, important project” at Goddard, Midon pressed his supervisor, telling him, “If I don’t get it, I’m going to law school.” It worked. Wein is getting ready to take a new risk: He’s taking a government-sponsored executive training course, in preparation for yet another career change.
Wein’s advice: “Constantly question yourself.” This simple recommendation expressed the sentiments of the entire panel. The process of self-evaluation and self-discovery has, for them, led to success and happiness in their alternative careers.
Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet. He may be reached at .