In preparation for the 13th Annual NICHD Fellows Meeting, The NICHD Connection is offering a sneak peek at the career of Dr. Anthony Hickey, NASA support scientist and one of this year’s retreat career speakers. Dr. Hickey spent two wonderful years as a postdoc at NICHD working under Dr. Henry Levin’s mentorship. His work involved characterizing retrotransposons and their insertion sites in the yeast genome. Check out our Q&A with Dr. Hickey and get your own questions ready for when you can meet him in person this May.
Can you tell us a little about your role as a Support Scientist to NASA’s Space Biology Program?
The NASA Space Biology program funds research projects that characterize how biological systems respond to spaceflight, or spaceflight-like conditions. Scientists seeking NASA Space Biology funding must submit grant proposals, which are peer-reviewed in a manner similar to grants submitted to NIH. My primary responsibilities are to assist the Space Biology Program Scientist at NASA in:
- Making programmatic decisions regarding what type of research the Space Biology Program plans to solicit proposals for
- Writing NASA research announcements/solicitations
- Summarizing the highlights of peer review and conducting the final selection of proposals
Because space biology research covers many different topics in biology, including genetics, immunology, and microbiology, the position calls for someone with a diverse background in biological sciences, as well as the ability to convert complex scientific information into language that non-scientists can understand.
What’s your typical day like?
With this position, there really is no such thing as typical day, as each day has its own unique challenges and tasks to complete. One day, the focus of my work may involve helping the Program Scientists write and release a solicitation. Another day, I may be spending my time assisting in the selection process of grants. On other days, I may be on travel to the other NASA Centers across to country, to interact with our colleagues at NASA Ames Research Center in California or the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and exchange information.
When did you start thinking about a career like this? Were you always interested in space biology?
I kept an open mind about my career choices early on. I was not inclined to go the traditional academic research route, and my approach when looking for a new job was to apply for any opportunities that aligned with my skills and training. A chance to work with NASA is an incredible opportunity, and I consider myself most fortunate to have been selected for this position.
How did you find the NASA position?
What was the application/hiring process like? Did it take a long time?
My hiring process was relatively quick. About four to six weeks after submitting my application, I was contacted for a phone interview for the position with the hiring manager and one of the scientists. A week or two later, I was asked to come in person to the NASA Research and Education Support Services (NRESS) to interview face to face with the NASA Space Biology Program Scientist. I was offered the position about two weeks thereafter.
Which skill sets from the lab do you think best apply to becoming a support scientist?
While my current position is not a lab bench position, I believe that my extensive background in multiple scientific disciplines has helped prepare me for the job. My research career began with Drosophila genetics, then changed focus to microbial disease, and then eventually immunology. As a postdoc, I worked in yeast genetics and bioinformatics. This multidisciplinary research and training has provided me with the diverse skill sets required for a support scientist involved in Space Biology Research, which encompasses many different topics of biological research.
What activities or resources at the NIH helped prepare you for your career transition?
Networking at NIH and within NICHD. It was at an NICHD retreat that I met Shana Spindler, the editor of The NICHD Connection, who introduced me to the world of writing science content articles for nonscientists. Even though I thought I was good at translating scientific jargon into “layman’s terms,” my experience writing for The NICHD Connection helped me fine tune my writing abilities, which are important in my current position. I also highly recommend using the resources in the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education, especially the resume building resources. They gave me some of the best advice I had ever received regarding writing a clear and potent resume/CV. I recommend that current NIH postdocs seek OITE resources if they have not done so already.
What do you find most exciting about your career?
The fact that I work with NASA! It really doesn’t get more exciting than that for me. Up until this point in my career, I have taken the fact that we conduct most of our experiments on Earth for granted. Add the variables associated with spaceflight to a biological system, and one will not only begin to observe some fascinating effects, but one will also soon come to appreciate how existence on the Earth has truly shaped the biology of all living systems. It’s quite humbling really. I enjoy my role as a support scientist in helping this important research work progress. The most rewarding aspect for me is that I learn new and fascinating science and technology in the process.
What do you find most challenging?
My day in this position is anything but routine. Each day has its own challenges and requirements, and one needs to be flexible, multi-task and prioritize quickly. You would think that working in a lab setting would help someone prepare for such a scenario, but that is only partially the case. While flexibility and adaptability are required to perform experiments, scientists (at least at the postdoc level) are usually focused on one or two main objectives at time, whether it be getting enough data for a manuscript, or finishing a postdoc grant application. In my current position, projects and priorities are constantly evolving, so you really need to learn quickly how to prioritize and time your efforts accordingly.
Do you have any advice for fellows who are thinking about entering a similar career field?
Yes. Take time outside of your (already busy) life in the lab to develop your soft skills. Participate in steering committee meetings. Help organize an event. Contribute articles to a scientific newsletter. All of these things are not only resume builders but they will help you acquire necessary skills to be successful both inside and outside the lab and network outside of your usual sphere. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when looking for jobs. What I mean by this is if you see a position that looks interesting, even if it is not in your direct area of expertise…apply! I honestly thought when submitting my application for my current position that even getting to the phone interview stage would be a long shot. I knew, however, that I would love the job if I got it. I didn’t want to be the one to disqualify myself, so I applied anyway.
If you have questions or comments for Dr. Hickey, please contact him at AnthonyJHickey@gmail.com.
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