Oh, the places you'll go
after grad school!
One branch ahead

Forging a Career from Science and Art

Jul 26, 2013

“There are two kinds of truth: the truth that lights the way and the truth that warms the heart. The first of these is science, and the second is art. Neither is independent of the other or more important than the other. Without art science would be as useless as a pair of high forceps in the hands of a plumber. Without science art would become a crude mess of folklore and emotional quackery. The truth of art keeps science from becoming inhuman, and the truth of science keeps art from becoming ridiculous.”

Raymond Chandler

This career story comes all the way from Brazil, where Carolina Brandão Zanelli turned her graduate degree in plant biology and love for drawing into a career as a scientific illustrator and translator. Read on to learn why Carolina decided to leave academia, how she forged her own career path, and what life is like as a scientific illustrator. Also be sure to check out Carolina’s website, Art for Scientists, where you can find examples of her work. As Carolina says, “the interaction between science and art is so exquisite, and yet, we often still see science and art as opposing, mutually exclusive paths. I’d like to use the blog to show that this is not necessarily true.”

What did you study in your graduate program?

I have a college degree in biology and studied plant biology in my graduate program. More specifically, in my undergraduate and graduate research I studied plant population ecology and community ecology in the Brazilian Cerrado, a savanna-like vegetation type and one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. I also studied ecological restoration because this was the main research theme in my laboratory.

When you first started the program, did you know what you wanted to do after grad school?

When I first started the program, (I thought) I wanted to pursue an academic career.

How did your career plans or goals change by the time you were finishing your degree?

My career plans had turned upside down by the time I was finishing my degree!

The more I saw of academia, the least I wanted to become part of it. Professors in Brazilian public universities are expected to dedicate themselves to three major activities – research, education and community outreach. But they are mostly evaluated (and, therefore, recognized and funded) by their contribution to research, and the mechanisms of this evaluation are still widely debated. The result is that professors and grad students are forced to “publish or perish”. Other academic activities such as education and community outreach are severely compromised, and those few that dedicate themselves to these activities are poorly recognized and funded, if at all. These and other academic issues slowly filled my mind with doubt and anxiety.

As time went by, I also noted that, although the academic career had seemed the logical thing to pursue, it was mostly what people in general expected of me (as a high-achieving student), but not necessarily what I wanted to do.

Then, in the second year of grad school, I failed the qualification exam. Soon after, when I was feeling sad and disappointed, a colleague wrote me to ask if I could draw an illustration for his paper.

How could I have forgotten? I had been drawing for my whole life! My drawing skills had already proved themselves incredibly useful during college for making the schemes of cells, tissues and organisms that are so important in biology. And in the previous year I had already been asked by two colleagues to make scientific illustrations for their publications!

This was my “epiphany”. After that I started searching the web for ways to fuse my art-related interests and skills with my education as a biologist and researcher. It took two more years of hard work to overcome my anxiety, complete my research and get the Master’s degree, gather information and start my own business as a scientific illustrator and translator.

Were you involved in any organizations or activities while in grad school that helped lead you to where you are now?

There was a point during grad school when I was out of funding, so I started working in an environmental company.  It was in another city and my partner couldn’t move with me, which meant constant traveling. It was also quite outside of my area of specialization: I was performing microbiological analyses of water quality; even though the company had a sector dedicated to environmental impact analysis, to which I felt more suited with my knowledge on plant ecology and forest restoration. Eventually I quit this job to start my own business.

Nonetheless, it was still a good job, stable and well-paying. It enabled me to complete my Master’s and to save enough money to keep things going after I quit and launched my business, especially in the first four months. I met lots of people and learned several things, most of all, that you don’t need to know everything to start doing something.

What do you do now?

Now I work as a scientific illustrator and translator, at my site and blog Art for Scientists, where I help scientists and educators share their knowledge and hope to inspire scientists, educators, parents and students to see science and art in an integrated way.


PhD to University Administration

Jun 5, 2013

 This installment of One Branch Ahead comes courtesy of Alycia Mosley Austin, the Director of Graduate Recruitment and Diversity Initiatives and Executive Coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program at the University of Rhode Island. Here, Alycia shares the story of her path from the neuroscience PhD program at UCSD to her current role in university administration, and shares advice for others looking to make a similar transition. Alycia was particularly active in activities outside of the lab and serves as an excellent model for grad students looking to get involved in their communities.

What did you study in your PhD program?

My research was in developmental neurobiology of the mammalian cortex. I started out studying the effects of genes that regulate arealization of the cortex on interneuron migration, but then I switched labs and advisors after my fourth year (more on that later). My dissertation focused on genomic variations in neural progenitor cells of embryonic cortex.

When you first started the program, did you know what you wanted to do after grad school?

From the beginning I was skeptical that the lifestyle of a tenure-track professor would be something that I would enjoy, but I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do. After finishing an undergraduate degree in neuroscience, I spent two years as a research assistant in a genetics lab, which was a great experience. Since I knew that I enjoyed doing research I thought about a career in biotech, but I tried to read as much as I could about non-traditional careers to get a sense of what other options were out there.

How did your career plans or goals change by the time you were finishing your PhD?

During my second year of graduate school I started volunteering on a few committees, both for my program and the university as a whole. Once I got a better sense of how universities function I started to realize that I was interested in a career in university administration. Most professors that I knew complained about university service commitments because they are a distraction from research, but I found that I actually enjoyed that type of work. The next several years were spent trying to figure out how to turn my interests in science, diversity, and graduate education into a career.

Were you involved in any organizations or activities while in grad school that helped lead you to where you are now?

I was perhaps a little too involved with campus organizations during graduate school, which is related to the fact that my original advisor and I did not make a good match. I didn’t feel supported and my research was not progressing, so I sought opportunities away from research where I could feel competent, that my contributions were valuable, and that were enjoyable. Many of these activities were similar to the types of service that I did as an undergraduate, such as Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) and Brain Awareness Week, so in a way I continued on the path I’d started before starting graduate school.

This list doesn’t include everything I did, but this it will give you an idea of the ways in which I was involved as a graduate student outside of the lab. I served on committees related to recruiting a diverse pool of graduate students. I was a founding member, vice president, and then president of Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (GradWiSE). For two summers I was a mentor in a program that provided underrepresented, undergraduate science students with an intensive summer research experience in preparation for graduate school. I participated in both neuroscience and genetics science outreach programs in public schools and at the local science museum.

All of these experiences helped me to develop a unique set of skills, including the ability to work on collaborative projects with every possible campus constituent from students and faculty in other departments to senior staff and administrators.

I should also note that once I switched labs I had two years to finish a PhD with a brand new project. At that point I put most, if not all, of the extracurricular stuff on hold.

What do you do now?


PhD to Online Travel Guru

May 3, 2013

In this edition of One Branch Ahead, we hear from Scott Mackenzie, a recent neuroscience PhD and founder of the travel tricks-and-tools website, Hack My Trip. Oddly enough, I discovered his website long before I knew who Scott was, or that we were in the same graduate program – I was researching travel credit cards and my search brought me to his site.

Wondering what a neuro PhD is doing writing a travel blog? Read on to learn how his graduate school experience prepared him for this venture, what he misses most about science, and where he sees himself going next. Oh, and does he get better travel service now that he books his reservations under Dr. Mackenzie?

What did you study in your PhD program?

I originally examined ERK/MAPK signaling in the context of learning and memory, very similar to my undergraduate research. However, I switched labs in my third year to study developmental neuroscience instead, looking at regeneration of the zebrafish lateral line. My original advisor and I just didn’t click, but fortunately it was a pretty smooth transition despite the radical change in focus and starting from scratch.

When you first started the program, did you know what you wanted to do after grad school?

I don’t think I’ve ever quite known what I want to do, but I did know that I didn’t want to become a professor. At that time I was thinking about a job in science policy. Planning for the future is important, but I have tried to remain open to new opportunities as they appear.

How did your career plans or goals change by the time you were finishing your PhD?

I started a small travel blog in my last year of school as a hobby, eventually building it into a small business, and also learned a lot from some of the speakers we invited for the Bioscience Careers Seminar Series at the University of Washington. I decided I like doing entrepreneurial things, and a business setting might be more interesting.

Were you involved in any organizations or activities while in grad school that helped lead you to where you are now?

Yes, I was a senator for the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, treasurer of the Neurobiology & Community Outreach Organization, and chair of the Bioscience Careers Seminar Series. These different groups taught me, respectively, how to work as part of a group to reach consensus, how to create and fund new activities, and how to organize others to host events for a public audience.

A lot of what I currently do as a blogger is very similar. I have to reach out to industry contacts, organize events to interact with my readers, and find opportunities to collaborate with fellow bloggers. I am generally an introvert, so I’m glad to have had practice putting on a brave public face.

What do you do now?


PhD to statistical epidemiology

Feb 27, 2013

The goal of the one branch ahead series is to demystify that leap we all must take from grad school to the great unknown that lies beyond. While the careers profiled here may inspire goals and illuminate future possibilities, there remains a gap between here (grad student) and there (successful professional) and with it, a question: How do you make the transition from grad school to a nascent career?

This installment of the series features answers graciously provided over email by a friend who recently finished his PhD in physics/computational neuroscience. Read on to learn how he became a statistical epidemiologist, why he turned down post-doc in Paris (!), what he wished he had learned during grad school, and where his work has an impact now. Be sure to read the last question, where he gives advice for current students that is both widely applicable to grad students and particularly useful for those with technical/statistical aspirations.

What did you study in your PhD program?

My PhD is in Physics, but my thesis area was computational neuroscience: math and biophysics of single neuron computation.  Lots of time with pencil, paper, and computer.

When you first started the program, did you know what you wanted to do after grad school?

I really never thought that far ahead back then.  In undergrad, the major I ended up sticking with was Physics Education – I trained to be a high school physics teacher.  I taught for a year after graduating, but realized quickly that I wasn’t done with my formal education.  I went to grad school to learn more, without really thinking about career implications beyond that a PhD in Physics wouldn’t hurt.

How did your career plans or goals change by the time you were finishing your PhD?


PhD to science policy and beyond

Feb 14, 2013

In this installment of one branch ahead we hear from Melanie Roberts, who during her neuroscience PhD program and the half dozen years since has accomplished quite a bit.

While at the University of Washington, feeling that a discussion of nonacademic careers was lacking (kindred spirits!), she and a group of students started a fantastic, and still ongoing, seminar series on alternative bioscience careers. To promote dialogue between scientists, policy makers, and the public, she teamed up with friends to form the Forum on Science Ethics and Policy. She continued to pursue her interest in science policy through a AAAS science & technology policy fellowship at the National Science Foundation, and that experience motivated her to create a new non-profit program called Emerging Leaders in Science and Society, which will be making its debut at 5 partner campuses (UW included!) next year.

Read on to learn more about these experiences, her advice for current graduate students, and why she actually misses pipetting.


PhD to a biotech startup

Feb 1, 2013

In this third installment of Q&A’s with recent grad-school-grads, a friend who recently defended his PhD tells how he made the transition to a small biotech startup. Read on to learn how his active involvement in programs outside his PhD helped him prepare, what he wishes he had learned during grad school, what a typical day is like for him now, and more. Be sure not to miss the last answer, where he offers quite useful advice on preparation and networking for those currently in grad school.

What did you study in your PhD program?

Bioengineering, but that doesn’t narrow things down much because of the breadth of the field. I developed biosensing platforms for studying carbohydrate-mediated bacterial adhesion. In short, many bacteria, including E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Helicobacter, are known to bind to carbohydrates that are expressed on the lining of human tissues (e.g., the gastrointestinal tract). Binding is the first step in pathogenesis, so it is important to understand the binding targets and the conditions necessary for binding to occur in order to prevent infection from these bacteria. Traditional methods for studying these interactions are laborious and do not provide the necessary throughput to make reasonable progress in the field, which is why we investigated various high-throughput biosensing platforms.

When you first started the program, did you know what you wanted to do after grad school?

Broadly, yes. Specifically, no. Coming in, I knew that I was not interested in academia. Beyond that decision, however, I had very little idea of what type of role I would want after graduate school, and I had even less of an idea of what roles might be available to me.


PhD to consulting

Jan 18, 2013

This is the second entry in a series of Q&A’s with recent grad-school-grads. In this post, questions were answered – over email – by a friend who completed her PhD in 2011 and is now working at a big 3 consulting firm. Read on to learn why her career goals changed during grad school, how she made the transition to consulting, and what her advice is to others looking to follow a similar path.

What did you study in your Ph.D. program?

Biophysics- specifically, the biochemical and biophysical processes that govern protein folding.

When you first started the program, did you know what you wanted to do after grad school?

I started graduate school knowing two things 1) I loved and was good at teaching 2) I was not a big fan of being at the bench. My original plan was to become a chemistry/biochemistry professor at a liberal arts university where I could be very involved with students in the classroom and run as minimal of a research program as possible.

How did your career plans or goals change by the time you were finishing your Ph.D.?

I came to realize that professorships at the best liberal arts colleges still involve a non-trivial research component, and that was something I was not truly passionate about. At the same time, I was not convinced that getting a 100% teaching job, for example at a community college or a high school, would be truly satisfying for me. Also, while my graduate research went smoothly and the benchwork that I did was pretty straightforward and involved some fun advanced techniques, the thought of continuing to do similar work for another 4-5 years in a post doc was not at all appealing.

I wanted to move into a position where there was significant opportunity to leverage both science and my general problem solving skills. In retrospect, many elements of academic science are not well-aligned with my personality: I function best when I am working directly with people and up against frequent, hard deadlines with deliverables that have very clear, tangible impact. My lab work was diametrically opposed to almost all of these personality traits, as I was almost always working on projects by myself, under a loose timeline at best, producing data that very few people would ever see. Thus, I generally found it very personally unsatisfying.

I was first introduced to consulting in a product development class in my third year of graduate school that was led by a former consultant from one of the big firms and was taught primarily based on case studies. I loved that the work combined both science and general problem solving skills, and provided the opportunity for significant project turnover. That was when I started seriously considering consulting as an option.

Were you involved in any organizations or activities while in grad school that helped lead you to where you are now?