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Erin Walsh, PhD

Erin Walsh, PhD

Congratulations to Dr. Erin Walsh on her appointment as Director of the NICHD Office of Education!

Dr. Walsh, former postdoctoral fellow in the Woodgate laboratory at NICHD, served as the NICHD Office of Education’s Associate Director from 2019 to 2020 and Acting Director since the end of 2020. As Director, she will continue leading the office in the creation and management of training programs for all NICHD Division of Intramural Research (DIR) and, Division of Intramural Population Health Research (DIPHR), postbaccalaureate, postdoctoral, and clinical fellows and graduate students. Prior to her postdoctoral studies at NICHD, Dr. Walsh attended Penn State University, where she earned her PhD in cellular and molecular biology.

Please join us in congratulating Dr. Walsh on her new appointment as the next Director of the Education Office. Learn more about her early interest in science, meaningful mentorship experiences throughout her scientific career, and the life lessons she’s picked up along the way in her Q&A with The NICHD Connection.

When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in science, and what has your career path looked like?

I’ve been obsessed with science since I was a child. My mom bought me books about the solar system; as a nurse, she frequently took me into work with her on Take your Child to Work Day; and one of my favorite holiday gifts was a microscope—my mom even helped me prepare a blood smear so I could look at red blood cells, which I thought was so cool! At the same time, I was frequently setting up pretend classrooms in my bedroom so I could read to my little sister and our stuffed animals. 

Later I realized that biology was, by far, my favorite subject and in high school my career plans were to become a high school biology teacher (my AP biology teacher was one of my role models). In college I briefly considered a career in environmental law, but the first time I stepped foot in a cell biology lab I was immediately sucked into the world of research. I felt this incredible drive to absorb as much information as I could about genetics, molecular biology, and biochemistry and couldn’t wait to tell my family and friends about the latest scientific discoveries—yes, I’m a self-proclaimed nerd! I always loved school, so graduate school was a no-brainer for me. Like many other trainees, I ended up having to change labs during my third year; but this actually turned out to be a positive experience for me as I landed in a wonderful lab with an incredibly dedicated and supportive mentor (another strong role model for me!), plus several other graduate students and lab staff who became very close friends.

After graduate school, I did my postdoc at NICHD in Dr. Roger Woodgate’s lab, and I was offered an adjunct lecturer position teaching undergraduate biochemistry. Not only did I find teaching enjoyable, but I also found it extremely rewarding and energizing to build mentoring connections, on the individual level, with students who would come to me for extra help or for graduate/medical school advising. Thinking back to my childhood and early career plans, I suppose I always had a strong internal drive to teach and mentor. When Dr. Yvette Pittman offered me a detail position in the Office of Education, I jumped at the opportunity—and (as much as I hate cliches!), the rest is history!

Do you have any mentors that stand out? What makes them memorable? 

Yes! I have had many incredible mentors, and I think this is the key to perseverance and success for any professional. To be honest, my positive AND negative mentor experiences stand out; I have developed my own mentoring style by reflecting on both. Notably, I always found it particularly helpful when my mentors have been honest about their own struggles and vulnerabilities. It’s important to be mindful of the fact that we are all humans with our own strengths and accomplishments, failures, setbacks, and personal issues. On the other hand, the more difficult situations have been with mentors who had too much on their plate to prioritize the mentor-mentee relationship at that time. Though challenging, these situations have helped me remain mindful of time management so that I can do my best to carve out time for my mentees.

Throughout the pandemic, many fellows have encountered struggles with their home and work lives. What are your thoughts on persevering through difficult times? 

Reach out to others for support (friends, colleagues, mentors)! Don’t be afraid to be honest about your struggle(s) and definitely don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are so many outstanding resources available to you at NIH and all it takes is a quick email to set up an appointment. In fact, my office can help facilitate an email correspondence on your behalf—just send me a message (erin.walsh@nih.gov).

What do you want fellows to know about the NICHD Office of Education? 

We create training resources and programming to fit the needs of our community of fellows. To make sure you get the training and career development you need, always feel free to provide us feedback and/or let us know if you have ideas for workshops, seminars, or other programs! 

What is your top piece of advice for NICHD fellows? 

Don’t avoid difficult conversations. You don’t necessarily have to tackle them alone (see below), but avoidance delays, and can exacerbate, concerns and conflicts. Not only will communication help you resolve so many of your professional conflicts now, but it will also give you practice for managing conflicts that arise down the road. And yes, conflict is an inevitable fact of life. Plan for a productive and effective line of communication and be prepared to receive feedback. Remember that not everyone will view a situation from your perspective but discussing it will help ensure understanding and resolution. You can always schedule an appointment with me for guidance/support on how to have a difficult conversation (erin.walsh@nih.gov). You can also reach out to the NIH Office of the Ombudsman for support (https://ombudsman.nih.gov/).