How I discovered the scientific side of fundraising


My career had reached a high point. I’d been promoted the previous year to the next level of nontenured research faculty, my experimental mouse system was finally up and running, collaborations were coming together, and I was excited to march down the list of questions I wanted to answer. Then, suddenly, a bleak funding future brought my job to a premature end. I was at a loss. I had spent my entire professional life—more than 20 years—in university research and teaching. I didn’t think my skills or training had any value outside that realm.

A colleague pointed me to an opening at the university’s Office of Development. I had never heard of it before. But I was pleasantly surprised that the university apparently had an office devoted to R&D, like a pharma company. It sounded like a potential avenue for me to continue in research. Once my colleague explained that “development” in this context referred to fundraising, far from being grateful for her suggestion, I was insulted and horrified. Scientific research was my métier. I was overqualified for fundraising. I wasn’t interested.

But I quickly realized that my ego was getting in the way. I couldn’t afford to not have a steady income. I decided it wouldn’t hurt to check out her lead. I applied for the job, which was focused on translating professors’ research into language that would resonate with nonscientist donors. I was fairly confident that the skills on my resume would not be a good fit.

To my surprise, I was invited for an interview, which went rather well. It felt almost too easy. I wondered whether the job would offer enough intellectual challenges. But about a month later, when I was offered the position, it was my only option.

Over time, I grew to like it. One of the biggest surprises, and one of the most satisfying, was seeing that I could apply my knowledge and skills acquired and honed during my science education to university fundraising. My scientific fluency allowed me to serve as a bridge between researchers and potential donors. And about a year and a half after I started, my quantitative skills found an outlet when I transitioned to the now-hot areas of data analysis, data science, and data visualization. These days, I use our office’s wealth of internal data from years of fundraising efforts to figure out the most promising leads for raising money for nascent university research programs.

I could apply my knowledge and skills … to university fundraising.

When I was in the lab, I was looking at biochemical puzzles. In my new career, I look at funding puzzles. And because I’m not constantly writing the next grant to stay afloat, I sometimes feel I have more time to solve interesting puzzles than I did in the lab.

It has been 10 years since I was confronted with the scary and emotional prospect of wrapping up my research, possibly for good. At that point, the future looked bleak. Today, things look different. Yes, there are moments when I’m wistful and even a little envious of my former peers who are still conducting scientific research. But I’ve stayed connected with the scientific community by starting a “science cafe,” where researchers speak about their work to nonscientists. And, overall, I’m happy with where my career has taken me. There’s something to be said for moving out of your comfort zone to see what you are truly capable of.

Perhaps what the past decade has taught me most is that scientific training and a scientific mindset will serve you well, no matter what you end up doing. Although the skills you gain in the lab might seem very specialized, the reality is that the analytic rigor that science teaches and demands is critical for success in any field. And for those who, like me, find themselves leaving the lab, the open-mindedness that is required of a good scientist is an asset when you have to recalibrate yourself to a new career.

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