Leveraging Outreach and Volunteer Work...

Leveraging Outreach and Volunteer Work...

ThePostdocWay Advice Series: Life After Your Postdoc

Many postdocs realize that they are working a contract position that will eventually expire. The thought of ‘what comes next’ can be extremely daunting; especially considering the reality that most will not end up in academia. It can be intimidating and overwhelming to explore the endless possibilities of what you can do next. More often than not, the biggest hurdles that you must overcome are learning about the opportunities available and making sure you have the skills required.

Once you have this knowledge, what do you do with it? Are you really gathering the skills required to be a competitive candidate in the job market you are about to enter? Will you be ready to accept the fact that, even with a PhD, you may be unemployed?

Maybe the exercise of stepping out of that comfort zone and research bubble and investigating what you are passionate about is worth a closer look!

Preparing for your next career move, whether it is a faculty or nonfaculty position, is not a trivial task and will require a significant portion of your time, equivalent to working a second full-time job. Networking, preparing resumes and CVs, increasing your online presence and brand, submitting grant proposals and reading up on your field, studying up on employers and potential colleagues, evaluating the cost of living, economics, and dynamics in multiple cities, putting together slide decks or research talks, learning how to negotiate and estimate your value, and psyching yourself up for a rollercoaster ride of travel and emotions will increase your anxiety level no matter how calm you may be.

In our previous advice series titled ‘Taking Charge of Your Career’ we learned from several postdocs how they are preparing for the next phase of their career. Communicating these goals with your mentor as early as possible and really understanding the road ahead is incredibly important. In many cases you need to be planning 6-9 months in advance. As such, you cannot assume that because you earned your PhD and are four years into your postdoc that you are entitled to a job.

In this blog series titled, Life After Your Postdoc, I asked some of my colleagues to describe their next career step after the postdoc.  I hope you enjoy.


Brian (Founder & Editor-in-Chief)


Leveraging Outreach and Volunteer Work in your Career Development

by Cathy


This post is going to be a little different than the norm; I’m not currently an industry scientist, and as I’m in the process of my own long and challenging job search, I can’t claim to have any special insights about what you need to do to find a job, although I have helped others with their searches in the science outreach realm. But what I would like to share with you is inspired by my own experiences in the world of science outreach and volunteering in/with the community.

I didn’t start out on this journey to build particular skills or to apply this experience to a particular career outcome; however, looking back, these experiences have profoundly shaped who I am today as a scientist.

So, I’d like to share just a few of these experiences with you, in the hope that you might be inspired to incorporate outreach and volunteering into your career trajectory as well.

I still recall the very first meeting of the Biology Outreach Club at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the winter of 2005. I was running late, coming back to campus from teaching an afternoon session of Science Olympiad at one of the local high schools, and it had taken longer to clean up the glassware from the forensic chemistry laboratory than I had expected. I called my labmate, who had agreed to attend the meeting, which I had promoted by emails and flyers and hosted at the Wisconsin Union.

I had no idea at that point if anyone would be interested or if anyone would show up.

“We have lots of people!” she said. “I’ll get everyone chatting while we wait for you to arrive!” I ran off the bus and into the Wisconsin Union, coughing from running in the cold temperatures. Inside the Rathskeller Café, I saw a ring of chairs with people—there were more than 30 life science graduate students who had come to the meeting because they were interested in careers in outreach!

It was at that point I realized that my idea to grow the small-scale microbiology outreach I had been doing over the past year into a larger endeavor was something that was of interest to many other graduate students as well.

I was delighted, and the Biology Outreach Club (BOC) was born. Over the next few years, members of the BOC would lead science clubs in local community centers; travel to Appleton, Milwaukee, Green Bay, and rural Lafayette county, Wisconsin, to present interactive science tables to families; present on their research to a public audience on Wisconsin Public Television; and train the next wave of interested graduate students in the methods and communication strategies of the BOC. Each year we led an event for hundreds of people called “The Microbial Safari,” in which youth and families could explore the helpful roles of microbes in our lives (sauerkraut and kimchi tasting, anyone?).

I learned a lot of things about myself through this process: my strengths and weaknesses in terms of organization and time management, my love for public speaking (yes, most people thought I was crazy), and my proclivity for facilitating connections between people and between groups. I loved seeing those new networks grow and flourish.

One of the most important things I observed was the “power” and capabilities of junior scientists. Later in my career, I spoke to someone in the science outreach field who said that he didn’t trust graduate students to do outreach, and I told him I couldn’t disagree more.

Junior scientists bring a special enthusiasm to the field, and my experience is that while the senior scientists receive the awards for the outreach, it is predominantly the junior scientists who are out in the field, making connections, wiping up the spilled DNA glop.

 During this time, I also was significantly influenced by my mentors in the realm of science outreach; just as it is important to have a mentor in your scientific work, an outreach mentor can open your eyes to new ways of thinking and introduce you to individuals in the field as well as conference and publication opportunities. Mine was Tom Zinnen from the University of Wisconsin Biotechnology Center, who has an innate gift for storytelling and who has mastered the craft of utilizing hands-on experiments to engage people in the process of thinking like a scientist.

Lots of people do public science activities where they extract DNA from strawberries or peas; at the Biotechnology Center, we used wheat germ. But instead of it just being a “gee whiz” experience, Tom turns it into an immersion in scientific testing, logic, critical thinking. Years down the line, most people won’t remember the details or names of the chemicals in a particular experiment—but that understanding of how to learn about the world like a scientist is a concept that can stick with you. I also remember with fondness the many fellow outreachers I worked with over the years, including my colleague at the time and good friend Laurel, who laughed with me as the wheat germ in the tube I opened at an FFA event at a local farm flew up in the wind and all over my face in front of a group of middle schoolers.

Outreach provided me with the opportunities to see many things and meet many people I know I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise—from cheese tours featuring the foot-smelling Limburger cheese, to people who shared personal stories that were highly insightful and profound.

Learning in outreach is a two-way street, and both Tom and I rejected the model of science outreach as a one-way communications tool. The farmers from around the state, in particular, fascinated me with their anecdotes about different scientific concepts as related to their crops or animals.

In December of 2008, I completed my Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, with a thesis on the molecular details of the response of bacterial cells to starvation. Tom was doing a sabbatical to work with the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., and so I applied for the corresponding interim position opening with the University of Wisconsin-Extension. It was a whirlwind year in which the role seemed to involve me in anything and everything science outreach around the state, and it was also a pivotal year in my career progression, because I was able to deeply explore the roles and possibilities of work for the public good through the Cooperative Extension system. The Cooperative Extension provides a national network of information for the public and involves faculty and staff at land-grant universities in each U.S. state and territory.

In my role, I particularly enjoyed the component of working with the state 4-H program, which focuses on youth development, and I was a member of the state 4-H SET (Science, Engineering, and Technology) team. I traveled to Morris, MN to climb into a wind turbine and then develop a wind energy education program that was implemented in over a dozen sites in the state, with a focus on “training the trainer” to expand the activities to a wider number of youth. When my “Biofuel Blast” experiment—demonstrating the fermentation activity of yeast in the production of biofuels—was selected as the National Youth Science Day experiment, I met with National 4-H staff in Chevy Chase, MD to learn about the national implementation of the program.

I was so proud to see photos shared online of smiling kids from each state conducting the experiment and holding up their bottles of yeast with inflated balloons on top. I still remember the feeling of seeing the state 4-H director with the giant-sized check we received and feeling so happy that this money could be used to contribute to the personal and educational development of youth in our state.

During the course of that year, however, I realized that while I loved outreach, I missed the element of creating new knowledge in the scientific realm.

As a result, when the year was up, I made a critical decision at a fork in the road of my career. As opposed to applying for a 4-H SET faculty position that opened up in Extension, I chose to return to the academic research realm as a postdoctoral scientist. I was happy to return to the bench, and while the road at first was challenging, I learned a lot about my own personal ethics and values in the process. I found my “groove” in a postdoctoral position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Ames, IA, where I had my first experiences working with cattle and elk brains, as well as my first experiences going out to the barn in overalls and boots with the veterinary technicians in order to catch a sheep in the rain (to take a blood sample for analysis).

I immediately loved the intersection between research and public interests at the USDA. I worked on research projects intimately related to public and wildlife health, participated in the USDA outreach booth at the famous Iowa State Fair each year, and shared knowledge about these diseases to undergraduates at the nearby Iowa State University.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of funding for these postdoctoral positions, I ended up needing to find a new position this past fall. I feel very fortunate to have found another postdoctoral position with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, with the opportunity to continue my work in infectious diseases and protein science in the context of Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent of anthrax.

I am similarly fortunate to be in the laboratory of an esteemed and experienced PI who inspires me to do that extra experiment each day and to take on new projects and learn challenging new skills.

My very positive experience working here has kept me committed to my path in science, and I know that while it hasn’t been easy finding a permanent position (I’ve been looking for a long time, as some of you might have been too), the only way to reach that next phase of my career is to keep making forward progress toward each of the personal and experimental goals I have laid out for myself. I’ve realized that my persistence and unwillingness to give up has been a major contributing factor in all of the successes I’ve had so far in life, and I’d imagine that the process of finding a permanent position won’t be much different.

Last week, in the latest issue of The Engaged Scientist (see below), I wrote about my recent experiences volunteering as a vocational counselor for a men’s homeless shelter in the greater Washington D.C. area. The experiences of those men—and the resilience of many of them in the face of their life challenges—remind me of the good fortune I have had to live my life doing things which I am passionate about. I am truly lucky in this way, and remind myself of this when the anxiety of the job search creeps in.

My postdoctoral training time has also afforded me the opportunity to engage in a variety of different volunteer opportunities that have expanded my skill set and experiences. I can’t say that it hasn’t been tiring or challenging, but my combined love for both the laboratory and working in the community keep me inspired each day, and the people I have met through these experiences have as well. For example, I spent a couple of years doing policy, advocacy, and volunteer lobbying work for two different nonprofit/NGO organizations.

The friends I have made from those experiences are from all over the country and the world, and the non-scientist perspectives they bring to my life are invaluable. Last week I received an email with updates from a friend in the international development world, sharing her experiences learning Arabic in Jordan. Another of my friends shared a photo of the root vegetables she was eating for dinner, grown the previous season in the community garden in Nebraska where she works in community training and development. I like to gain inspiration from these outside sources, and they also help me to remember that the world is a lot greater than that of the small scientific communities in which we interact.

There are many ways to make a contribution to the world.

Going back to the importance of mentors, my realm of understanding and knowledge was expanded again in 2011, when I met the veritable Nancy Macduff, a nonprofit consultant from the state of Washington, via an online certificate program in Volunteer Engagement and Leadership through Portland State University. I took the first class on a bit of a whim—one thing I realized in my work with the BOC was how important skills in volunteer leadership and management were to project success, and I wanted to learn more about the research and theory in this area.

I ended up completing the whole certificate series, since I loved the first course so much; Nancy was an expert at not only online course development but also weaving together research and practice. The following year, through Nancy’s introductions, I began participating in ARNOVA, or the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Volunteer Administration. Again, it has been incredibly instructive for me to see how researchers in other fields address questions, facilitate collaborations, and host meetings. I think that these experiences provide me with an interdisciplinary understanding that it is hard to achieve any other way besides diving right in and experiencing it as a volunteer.

In the early spring of 2012, I was delighted to have the opportunity to travel to Vancouver, Canada to present a career workshop on “outreach and engagement” at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Joining me were two friends and colleagues: one I met through a policy organization, and the other succeeded me as president of the BOC at Wisconsin.

February in Vancouver is cold, wet, and windy, and after returning to our hotel after a day of conference proceedings, we retreated to the restaurant for a drink and a plate of Canadian mussels in front of the fire. While chatting about our experiences in outreach over the years—it was hard for me to believe it had been a decade of this kind of work for me—we developed and began to shape an idea for an organization which would eventually become The Engaged Scientist.

The basic idea [of The Engaged Scientist] was to create an online community to connect junior scientists (and others) who were engaged in science outreach and public engagement or who wanted to learn more about getting involved.

After presenting at a conference that fall in Arizona, where we attended a fascinating meeting about science and society, the Engaged Scientist went from concept to reality with a LinkedIn group in February 2013. A year later, we have 750+ members, a monthly newsletter that reaches this membership, a plan for a brand-new community of practice, and a similarly brand-new awards committee which will select and present the first annual science outreach award for an engaged junior scientist this summer.

It has been a pleasure to see how it has taken off, and I hope we can reach 1000+ members by the end of the year. Occasionally I will talk with people who have heard about the Engaged Scientist from another source, and I still get a thrill inside that the project might be helpful to others.

Going back to how I started the essay, I was tasked with providing some advice for the reader, and as opposed to advice per se, I have a few summary thoughts I’d like to share that I hope will be useful to you in some small way in your own career journey.

I certainly have taken the road less traveled in many of my pursuits. Not everyone has understood my choices, and while this used to be more of a concern for me, the older and more experienced I get, the less and less it bothers me—I feel more secure with my own decisions and the skills I have, both in the lab and otherwise. No matter the outcome, I do not think I would make many changes in my bumpy and winding travels, as I know that my experiences have shaped how I approach important components of my scientific work, such as selecting research projects or developing collaborations.

One thing that helped me in the process was to keep my eye focused on goals, both in the lab and in my additional activities; it has always been a priority for me to obtain results and publish in the lab, and I believe this is critical if you are to balance your work with outreach.

I develop short-term and long-term goals for each of the different components of my work, paid and unpaid, and I find that this helps me bring focus and clarity to my decision-making in each area.

Volunteering and outreach can assist you in building a diverse and robust personal network that everyone who reads this site surely knows is critical in your career development, and I encourage everyone to identify and regularly engage with multiple mentors. Even if you have a great relationship with your direct boss in the lab, it is useful to have diverse perspectives and contacts.

And finally, in addition to your mentors, I recommend connecting with other people whom you find inspirational. They don’t have to be scientists (often it is helpful if some of them aren’t), and they don’t have to be the CEO or the founder of a “hot” startup. Instead, for me, it has been the less flashy people I have met along my journey who are inspirational to me; people who have shared their courage, kindness, insights, or generosity to me along the way. There have been a few key junctures in my career where I have had to rely on the kindness of relative strangers, and I hope to pay that forward in the future


About our contributor:

Cathy is the co-founder of The Engaged Scientist and currently a postdoctoral fellow in anthrax research in Bethesda, MD (previously working at the USDA in prion disease research in Ames, IA, where she explored prion structure-function and disease diagnostics in cattle, sheep, and elk systems). She received her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in Dec. 2008 and her B.S. from the Pennsylvania State University in 2003, and will receive her Certificate in Management for Science Professionals from Oregon State University in summer 2014. In 2005, she founded the Biology Outreach Club at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and secured funding from the Evjue Foundation and a Baldwin Grant to facilitate statewide outreach projects, as well as the “Badger for a Day” science outreach program to community centers in North Madison. She also served as the 2009 Interim Biotechnology Outreach Specialist for the University of Wisconsin- Extension, and has volunteered with over 25 different nonprofit organizations, with a focus on youth development, social services, and community horticulture. She is currently a Women in Science volunteer with the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association and the membership chair for the DC/Baltimore chapter of Women in Science. In the next year, she hopes to have secured a position in industry. 

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