May 2011

How do you do that?

Going from foreign postdoc to science policy analyst.

Jonathan Gitlin is a science policy analyst in the Policy and Program Analysis Branch of the Office of the Director at the National Human Genome Research Institute. He received his Bachelor of Science in pharmacology from King’s College London and his doctorate in pharmacology from Imperial College London, after which he did postdoctoral fellowships at the Scripps Research Institute and the University of Kentucky. Gitlin also is a contributing writer for the online publication Ars Technica, and he taught international science and technology policy at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.

When I started at King’s College London as a fresh-faced pharmacology undergraduate back in 1994, I had no idea my future would involve living in Washington, D.C., or working in science policy. Sure, I had an interest in politics, policy and how the world worked in much the same way that I had scientific curiosity about how cells or organisms or pathways worked, but I’m not sure I grasped back then that these interests intersected and that it was possible to make a career at that intersection.

While I was working on my Bachelor of Science degree, I spent a year working in a lab at the National Heart and Lung Institute, part of Imperial College, and evidently did something right, as I was offered a place in their graduate program. I still didn’t quite know what I wanted to do when I grew up, and a doctorate seemed like a good idea in general and a useful way to spend three years thinking about an answer. I did start to have inklings that being a research scientist might not be my ideal choice; the daily grind of repeating immunoassays and feeding cells was much less interesting than organizing collaborations with other groups or learning firsthand from some truly talented scientists. The most enjoyable part of the process was the months I spent writing up my thesis, a statement that still garners some strange looks from colleagues.

Although I’d learned quite a lot about vasodilator pathways, inflammation and cyclooxygenase during my time in graduate school, I still wasn’t much closer to discovering my optimum career. So I did what most new doctorate holders do at this point and found a postdoctoral position. I’d spent most of my life living in London and figured that if I were going to move, California seemed like a good place. I liked the idea of selling my car, packing a couple of bags and flying halfway across the world for a year or two and then coming back to make use of the new techniques I’d learned.

Coming to America

I accepted a position working on cardiovascular disease at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla. Around that time (2002), there was a growing realization among postdocs in the U.S. that something was amiss with the postdoctoral experience, as evidenced by ever increasing numbers of scientists leaving the bench.

My research project had a lot of downtime waiting for mice to breed and so on, so I got involved with the Scripps postdoc organization, the Society of Fellows. SoF did a range of things at Scripps, from arranging a distinguished lecture series and research symposia to organizing social events. Back then, there was little official career development provided to the postdocs beyond workshops from faculty members on grant writing. This ought not to have been that surprising, given that our PIs were training us the way they’d been trained, but with so few postdocs going on to faculty positions, the career needs of everyone else were being underserved.

Taking matters into our own hands, SoF started organizing workshops and talks about nonbench careers for doctorates. Peter Fiske came and gave a talk on other ways to use your degree, and the take-home message was to work out what you most enjoyed doing and then match that to a career. It’s a theme that is echoed a lot in Career Insights, but it’s important advice. It’s a lot easier to wake up in the morning if you’re looking forward to your day rather than dreading it.

I knew that I enjoyed writing and the process of communicating science to the wider world. I also knew that there were important decisions that affected the way science was conducted and that I wanted to be involved in the process. My first real experience with science policy was representing SoF on a lobbying day in D.C. organized by the Joint Steering Committee for Public Policy (now the Coalition for Life Sciences). I joined a handful of other young researchers from California on Capitol Hill and spent the day meeting with our elected officials and putting forth the case for science funding and highlighting some of the concerns we had with the system.

I also had begun to realize that scientists needed to do a better job communicating with the general public. Much of our work is funded with public money, and that brings with it a responsibility to let the taxpayers know what we do with it and why it’s important. I also noticed there was not a lot of great science journalism out there; this was before the proliferation of science blogs and scientist bloggers. Wanting to do something about this, I started contributing science articles to the technology website Ars Technica. This served several functions: It helped me look busy in the lab, and it let me work on my writing skills, especially for a nonspecialist audience.

La Jolla to Lexington: talk about culture shock

By now I’d been at Scripps for two years, and it was time to move on. Personal circumstances meant I wanted to stay in the U.S. rather than returning to London, but this also meant I’d have to take another postdoctoral position. I found what looked like a great project at the University of Kentucky that combined the techniques I’d learned at Scripps with the biology of my doctorate degree. Despite an interesting project and a supportive PI, I knew my talents lay elsewhere. I was most interested in science policy, but the standard route from the bench to the Hill involved the American Association for the Advancement of Science policy fellowship program, and that was restricted to U.S. citizens only. Knowing that I would have to create my own path, I looked at the skills and experience that would make me an attractive candidate and worked on getting them when I was not running experiments.

I continued to write for ArsTechnica, covering science policy when possible, and began attending meetings like the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy in order to start meeting people in the field. I also started working with the National Postdoctoral Association and chaired a committee for two years, followed by a two-year term on the board of directors, where I served as vice chair for a year. A friend on the faculty at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy suggested I teach a class on international science and technology policy as a way to broaden my résumé.

When I arrived in the U.S., it was only supposed to be a temporary stay, but once I realized that I wanted to be in science policy and not science, that began to change. Since my wife and I had planned to move back to London, I hadn’t even applied for permanent residence, something I’d need in order to work as anything other than a researcher. Returning to the UK to work in policy wasn’t really an option, as I was well versed in the U.S. system by then. My professional network was mainly based in D.C. and Bethesda, and since that’s where science policy happens, that was where I needed to go.

Once I had my green card and was able to look for positions outside of academia, I was fortunate enough to see a position advertised at the National Human Genome Research Institute. I knew that a friend from my days at Scripps had moved there to work in policy several years ago (in fact, you can read about her career path in the February 2008 issue), and I contacted her to see if it would be worth applying, to which the answer was yes (this proves the value of maintaining a network). Despite not having been through the AAAS Science Policy fellowship program, my résumé was attractive enough to land me an interview, and I started working as a science policy analyst at NHGRI in 2009.

So what does my job actually entail? There’s a fair amount of writing – our yearly congressional justification for our budget, issue briefs for senior leadership, meeting reports. Staying abreast of the various issues that our institute has a stake in is a major part of my job, whether those issues are the latest developments in the court case involving Myriad’s BRCA gene patents or the possible regulation of the direct-to-consumer genomic test market by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. NHGRI recently published a new strategic plan, and we’re starting to see the first applications of the sequencing revolution in the clinic, so it feels like an exciting time for the field. Importantly for me, there’s always something new to do or to learn. And yes, I do wake up in the morning and look forward to going to work.

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