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.

What did you study in your PhD program?

Neurobiology, with a specialization in development & regeneration.

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

No, I didn’t. That uncertainty was unsettling for me since I had decided that I wanted to be a scientist by age 12 and a Ph.D. neuroscientist by age 16. I had always had a curiosity and aptitude for biology, and hoped that I could contribute to treatments for disease over the course of my career.  Since I like to have an end goal to guide my decisions, I started thinking about career options right away.  My fellow students and I realized that we weren’t really sure of what PhDs could do other than become a professor. So we started a seminar series about careers in bioscience*, which is still ongoing today at the University of Washington.

*Liza’s note: videotaped talks from past bioscience career seminars are freely available on this site

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

The policy debate surrounding stem cells, coupled with a seminar that I organized about careers in science policy, let me to declare my intent to pursue a science policy career by the beginning of my third year of graduate school. As I started exploring specific issues in science policy, I determined that my primary interest was to better connect the discoveries we were making in academia with the needs of society.

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

Definitely. Once I decided that I was heading for a career in science policy, I looked for opportunities to gain knowledge and experience in the field. I took a class and went to seminars in fields ranging from global health to environmental sciences, but I was eager to do more. So once again, I got some friends with similar interests and we started a student-run organization called The Forum on Science Ethics and Policy (FOSEP). Our mission was to promote dialogue among scholars, the public, and policy makers. Even today, I count FOSEP as one of my most meaningful professional experiences.

What did you do after grad school?

I imagined that Washington D.C. was the best place to shape policy that would enhance the benefits of university research and education for society. I successfully applied for an AAAS science & technology policy fellowship and had a great experience working on research, education, and innovation policy in the Senate and at the National Science Foundation.

But I didn’t feel that I understood academia well enough to know how to nudge the system without inadvertently harming all that is great about our universities.

So I went to university to work from within. At the University of Colorado, I was a fellow in science policy research and then assistant director for an interdisciplinary bioscience institute. I met a lot of brilliant people were working on side-projects like informing  policymakers,  improving water filtration in the developing world, conducting interdisciplinary research to look at complex problems in new ways, or revamping  their undergraduate curriculum. But I also saw first-hand how difficult it is to do those things within a system that rewards publications above all else. I met many who faced the same challenges at other universities, too. So once again, I gathered friends, volunteers, and some of my contacts from Washington D.C. to help address this challenge.

What do you do now?

I’m founder and director of a new non-profit program called Emerging Leaders in Science and Society (ELISS). A couple of ex-FOSEPers joined me as co-founders, the American Association for the Advancement of Science is hosting and advising us, and we have dedicated team of volunteers helping to launch ELISS.

Like programs such as AmeriCorps, ELISS is a competitive program that will build leadership skills through service to society. However, participating in ELISS doesn’t require taking a year off or moving to a new city. It is designed as an extracurricular, volunteer activity that students will undertake in conjunction with their regular course of study.

ELISS fellows from graduate programs in many fields – humanities to science to engineering to law – will work on multi-campus teams to link knowledge and practices from across the country to address societal challenges in areas like energy, health, and education. Fellows will present their findings online and in a final briefing for national leaders in Washington DC. We will begin recruiting from five partner campuses this Spring for our pilot class to begin in January 2014.

Of the skills you developed as a grad student, which are most useful to you in your current position? Which are you happy to leave behind?

While I don’t use specific knowledge and skills that I learned in grad school, I still think like a scientist. The design of ELISS is grounded in theory; research in social science, psychology, management, and other fields; and what you might call “real-life experiments” from my career and other programs.  But the most useful to what I do today were those transferrable skills that I gained largely through my extracurricular activities: project management, working with a diverse team, program planning, diplomacy, etc.

Are there any skills/tools/habits that you need in your field but didn’t develop during your grad school training?

Though I learned important lessons from figuring things out on my own, I could have benefited from more mentoring or workshops in areas like project management and communication for non-technical audiences.  I wouldn’t have wanted to spend precious time in a for-credit business class, but would have liked someone to turn to for help figuring out specific issues that we had in creating an organization, marketing, etc.

What’s a typical day for you like now?

I walk into the next room and boot up my computer. I work with a nationally distributed team via video conference, phone, and online collaboration tools.

What’s the best thing about your job? Do you miss anything about bench work?

There is nothing better than pursuing your passion and finding lots of others who share the same passion along the way. The thing I miss most about working in a wet lab is the mindless pipetting. I’m serious! Computer jobs don’t offer the same mental downtime to listen to NPR or shoot the shit with your colleagues.

Where do you see yourself going from here?

I feel like I’ve been on a career bushwhack since grad school, cutting a new path in search of this overarching goal, and have finally found a place to dig in for a while. Some truly amazing folks have joined me on this big adventure. We’ve got lots to figure out, but I know some amazing things will come from the community we build together.

Any words of wisdom for current grad students who might be interested in making a transition like yours?

I urge people to find their passion and use it to  guide choices about both personal and career development. Keep in mind that there are many paths from there to there. As management guru Jim Collins astutely points out, passion by itself isn’t enough. You must also find what you’re good at and what people will pay you to do. It sometimes takes a while to find the center of that Venn diagram.