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Spring 2002 Vol. 2 No. 1

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A Misfit Scientist Goes to Washington


Photo courtesy Melissa Marino Like most students starting science doctoral programs, I began mine expecting to follow the usual path to a career in scientific research -- earn my Ph.D., do a postdoc fellowship or two, maybe move on to a temporary research position, and, if I'm extremely lucky, a tenure-track position. That's what scientists do, right? After some self-assessment and a few years at the research bench, though, I started to realize that a slowly progressing, narrowly focused academic research position might not be in the cards for me. My scientific interests are broad and ever-changing -- not characteristics normally associated with success in an intensive research career.

I found myself spending hours scouring science job ads, reading books and articles about alternative careers, and searching the Web exhaustively for something a little different from research. For this I received some rather negative reactions, not only from some of the faculty, but also, somewhat surprisingly, from some of my fellow graduate students. It made me think that I was crazy to be contemplating anything other than a research career. Should I just go with the academic flow, continuing down the path that so many have taken before me?

There are many young scientists, just like me, searching for something rewarding to do outside the traditional academic realm.

What I truly preferred was reading and writing about science rather than actually doing science. I daydreamed about a career that didn't involve microscopes, animal colonies, or behavioral testing. So with support from the few open-minded faculty members and close friends, I decided to pursue my interests. For me, this meant (yikes!) an internship.

At my age and this stage in my graduate career -- beginning my fourth year in a Ph.D. program -- temporarily leaving my home and husband and putting my research on hold for several months just seemed like the last thing I should do. But since these opportunities don't come along every day, I decided to take the chance. So, it was off to the National Academies in Washington, D.C., to carry out the kind of research that many graduate students neglect -- researching my career options as a scientist.

The National Academies seemed like a good place to begin my foray into the mysterious world of nonacademic careers. The Academies offer a formal science-policy internship program for graduate students and postdoctoral-level scientists -- the Christine Mirzayan Internship Program. Interns are assigned to work throughout the institution, depending on their interests. The Academies have boards that cover every subject imaginable, from physical sciences and technology to social sciences and medicine. It was not hard to find something related to my research, but, for me, this experience was about trying something entirely new -- an opportunity that I would never have in my normal graduate school experience. Because my love of science and writing seemed appropriate to the business of science communications, I spent my summer in the Academies' Office of News and Public Information.

Well, I wanted to write, and write I did -- among many other things. I put together a comprehensive article on radioactive waste and selected and wrote several news briefs for the Academies' Web site. The majority of my time was spent writing news items on articles in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and tracking articles in the journal that would be of particular interest to the press. I read and wrote about mathematics, ecology, medicine, biochemistry, psychology, science policy, and more -- a range of topics that I would never have had time to explore during a regular semester in graduate school. The work I did got me started in science writing, and, as a result, I'm now a freelance science writer. Helping to communicate the latest scientific research to the media to facilitate public understanding of science has been more rewarding to me than any amount of time I could spend at the research bench.

Having said that, one of the most valuable things I learned that summer was that I am not alone. There are many young scientists, just like me, searching for something rewarding to do outside the traditional academic realm -- a way to use their science background in innovative ways to affect the world around them. And they are not "flunkies" or "slackers" who can't cut it in the research arena -- they are at the top of their classes in the finest academic institutions in the country and the world. The experience validated my belief that a scientist can do great things outside the laboratory, and it encouraged me to continue to pursue these interests, knowing that there is a place for scientists like me. Maybe I'm not such a misfit after all!

Melissa Marino is a doctoral candidate in biomedical science, specializing in neuroscience, at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. She earned her bachelor's degree in medical technology and previously worked as a clinical microbiology technologist at the Palmetto Baptist Medical Center in Columbia, S.C.

Find out more about the Christine Mirzayan Internship Program at <>. This article was adapted from one that appeared last November on Science's Next Wave at <>, a career development resource for scientists published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (©AAAS).

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Copyright 2002 by the National Academy of Sciences