Interview by Kris Langlais, PhD
In this Former Fellow Follow-up column, Kris Langlais shares his informal interview with Kenna Shaw, a former Weinstein lab postdoctoral fellow. While at the NICHD, Kenna made the jump from the bench to a position in science communications. Read below to see how she did it!
Kris: What is your current position, and what do you do?
Kenna: I'm a Scientific Project Manager at the National Cancer Institute, where I help to manage The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) program. I manage top-level decisions and dig deep into the selection of projects. My time is spent working with the scientists and contractors that make the research possible. I deal with the small minutiae of communications all the way to which tumor types the program will ultimately focus on. I like the breadth of work and how valuable the work is for the entire research community since the mantra is "share the data, share the data, share the data." Every day is something new since the overall field is new to me. I am not only learning new project management and scientific management skills, but I am also getting more knowledge in "science content," specifically cancer genomics. I like the mix of being in the program side at NCI because there is always something new.
Kris: Did you prepare for the move while at NICHD, and if so, what did you do?
Kenna: The preparation for the career move was really a fellowship at the National Science Resource Center (NSRC). I thought I was interested in science education since I had done a Fulbright in Chile and done science education while a graduate student. But I needed more "chops" to get a "real job." After the NSRC I became the Director of Education at the American Society of Human Genetics.
Kris: How did you make the transition from postdoc to the fellowship at NSRC?
Kenna: Actually, I had a relationship with both organizations at once. I was a fellow at NICHD and worked at the NSRC part time.... this was okay as long as I made sure to spend a full day at the bench.
Kris: What was your thought process here? (Leaving the bench)
Kenna: For me it was a no-brainer. I realized that my passion was more about learning broadly instead of learning deeply---more about being broadly enabled than deeply trained. Plus, I was scooped. So, in a situation where I was 6 months pregnant and just scooped, the thought of continuing at 80 hours a week in the lab screening Zebrafish all day, well, was not that appealing when I knew I was also passionate about communicating my excitement about science to others. Science education/communication was something I had long been interested in.
Kris: Briefly describe your career path from NICHD to your current position at NCI. Any interesting challenges to share?
Kenna: [ After the NSRC fellowship ], I was the Director of Education at the American Society of Human Genetics, where I wrote and was awarded my first grant as a PI from the National Science Foundation. I developed education and training programs there. Then I was recruited to start a new venture at Nature Publishing Group to develop an online learning system for undergraduates. I was the executive editor there and left because I could not relocate my family to Boston. So even though I thought I had my dream job, I had to move into a new direction. This was a hard decision because it is not one I would like to necessarily recommend---I chose money over passion. Science education doesn't really offer a lot of job security (unless you teach), and it sure doesn't pay the big bucks. With a growing family (I just had my second kiddo at the time), and with my husband working for a start-up, I chose the federal government for security and more "growth" potential in the short term.
Kris: Any tips for fellows who want to use their scientific expertise in a career away from bench? How to explore? How to prepare?
Kenna: I think that people need to think about this before they jump ship and move to a different career. I know lots of folks who have a PhD and then expect that they can be a senior level position in anything they do next. Often, you have to "start over" and get trained in the content of a new area. But the nice thing about the PhD is how fast you learn the new content, the new context. That's the power of a PhD---learning to quickly dig deep and become independent in a new content area, ready to think deeply about it. Not that many degrees prepare you like that. But it doesn't mean you can just jump in without a little grunt work!
Kris: Where do you see yourself in a few years? Long-term goals?
Kenna: Who knows! I have to admit that 5 years ago I never saw myself as a federal employee, but I actually think that given the right opportunity, that couples project management with the ability to use a broad skill set, I might be anywhere!