Dr. Raul Rojas
Dr. Raul Rojas is a staff scientist at the NIDCR in the Section of Biological Chemistry. During his time at the NICHD, Dr. Rojas conducted research as a postdoctoral fellow in two laboratories. First, he worked in the lab of Dr. Juan Bonifacino, where he studied the molecular mechanisms and machinery of intracellular protein trafficking. Second, he spent one year in the lab of Dr. Ajay Chitnis examining the same protein trafficking pathways in the developing Zebrafish. The NICHD Connection caught up with Dr. Rojas to learn more about his transition from postdoctoral researcher to staff scientist:
What does a staff scientist do? What’s your typical day like?
Most staff scientists I believe have at least three main responsibilities. These responsibilities include: planning and running his/her experiments, supervising the work of more junior scientists, and aiding the lab’s principal investigator with multiple administrative chores.
I normally spend 10 hours per day at the lab. I start my day by meeting briefly with the postbac fellow who I am currently working with. We go over the experiments that will be done that day, and we review data from previous experiments. Then I focus my attention on my own experiments, and I get them going!
I normally use incubation times to do my reading and to complete the administrative duties I have to finish that day or week. Examples of these duties include purchasing lab reagents and lab equipment (microscopes for example), maintaining equipment, participating in institutional committees, and reading and reviewing manuscripts in preparation for the lab.
What motivated you to enter this career field?
The two main reasons I pursued a staff scientist position after completing my postdoctoral work included my family’s desire to stay in the D.C. area and the fact that I really, really like to work at the NIH. The NIH is a place where one can pretty much pursue and test any hypothesis in the field. The NIH also has a vast and rich scientific community always willing to share ideas and collaborate to advance one’s projects.
Beginning with your time at NICHD, what sequence of opportunities led to your current position?
I transitioned directly from my postdoctoral position at NICHD to the position I currently hold (Staff Scientist, Section of Biological Chemistry, NIDCR).
Please describe the application/hiring process to become a staff scientist. Did it take a long time?
Staff scientist positions are listed in multiple places, including usajobs.gov, the Intramural Science Group Members listserv (a listserv run by the Office of Intramural Training and Education, OITE), and various NIH institutes’ websites. I found my position while reviewing the NIDDK site.
The job announcement required me to send a current CV and a short description of the research I would do once I joined the lab. After a couple of weeks, Dr. Larry Tabak, my current supervisor, invited me for an interview. A few weeks later, I was invited to a second interview. At that point, I was asked to give a seminar and to meet with some lab members and some NIDCR faculty.
It probably took a month from the time I first applied to my position to the time when my supervisor offered me the job. It took a while (three months) though for the administrative folks to process and finish the paper work. In total, it took four months from the time I applied to the day I started.
What aspects of graduate and/or postdoctoral work will translate well into this career field?
All! The ability to assemble a research proposal and execute the proposed experiments is important. I also rely on my previously learned communication skills to share my research in seminars, lab meetings, and in writing. As a postdoc, I also had the opportunity to supervise summer students and postbacs. That experience, I believe, helps me interact with and supervise some of the more junior members of the lab.
Importantly, as a postdoc I had the opportunity to collaborate with various groups from the intramural program as well as groups from outside the NIH. That is something that I continue to do in my job now.
Are there any particular resources that might help those interested in becoming a staff scientist?
Staff Scientist positions are hard to come by since many times a senior postdoc in the lab is promoted to a staff scientist position. Sometimes, however, a lab may want to introduce a new technique or line of research into the group. I believe staff scientists have the knowledge and experience to implement those tasks.
People should monitor as many websites as possible. Again, good places to search are usajobs.gov, job postings placed on the different NIH institutes’ sites, and even the FDA site. I would also recommend that people join the forums and listserv put together by the OITE.
Do you have any additional advice for fellows (either graduate or postgraduate level) who are thinking about entering this career field?
I would advise people to be very proactive in looking for these positions in as many places as possible. Most likely, no one is going to seek you out to offer you a position!
Staff scientist is a position that offers a lot of intellectual freedom, but at the same time, one has to work on a project that is related to the main research line (or direction) of the lab. If you are OK with being part of such a setting, then a staff scientist position is the right job for you!