Mengying Li, PhD, is a staff scientist at the National Cancer Institute, where she supports epidemiological research on lung cancer and melanoma. Dr. Li completed her postdoctoral fellowship from 2017 to 2020 at NICHD with Dr. Cuilin Zhang. During her postdoctoral studies, Dr. Li investigated the risk factors and short- and long-term consequences of gestational diabetes for women and their children.
Check out our Q&A with Dr. Li to learn more about her career path in epidemiology, how she transitioned into being a staff scientist, and what it is like to work in such a position!
Q: Where did your interest in epidemiological research come from?
I decided to pursue a medical education, which starts at the undergraduate level in China. As an undergraduate at Peking University in Beijing, I earned a five-year Bachelor of Medicine degree. It also included a year-long clinical internship, during which I became very interested in using evidence to inform clinical practices. Epidemiology is the tool to generate such evidence.
At the end of my undergraduate program, I decided to pursue a career in public health and enrolled in the Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH) program at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. I eventually enrolled in the PhD program at Johns Hopkins, where I studied child health and development. I continued with epidemiology research on gestational diabetes during my postdoc at NICHD.
Q: As an epidemiologist by training, what do you work on at NCI?
Under the supervision of Senior Investigator Dr. Maria Teresa Landi, I lead the operation of two multi-center studies on melanoma and lung cancer. My responsibilities include:
- Overseeing the collection, quality control, and processing of data, clinical records, and medical images
- Receiving multiple types of biospecimens
- Managing study personnel, contracts, budgets, and ethics requirements
Outside of these projects, I also have opportunities to lead research projects, which includes analyzing data, preparing manuscripts, and mentoring trainees.
Q: How did you find your way from your NICHD postdoctoral work to your position at NCI?
At the end of my postdoctoral fellowship, I applied for positions in different sectors that would utilize my epidemiologic training well. I set up job notifications in various job platforms, which would send me updates daily. I think I saw the posting for my current position on Google Careers first.
The application required a cover letter, CV, and a statement of research interest. I was invited for a video call with the PI, and then I had half-day onsite interviews with the branch and the team. These were traditional interviews covering interests, experiences, career plans, etc. The application and interview process took about a month, and the administrative process to approve the position took three to four months, which is the normal expectation. The COVID pandemic might have also slowed the process a bit.
Q: What's your typical day like?
My day usually starts before 9 a.m. I spend a couple of hours responding to emails requesting immediate input from collaborators, team members, and the PI; this usually happens first thing in the morning and throughout the day as needed.
Over the course of the day, I work through issues down my priority list, and I hold regular and ad hoc meetings with team members, collaborators, and/or the PI. Some days, I work on tasks requiring a longer, focused stretch of time—such as data analysis, literature reviews, and writing.
Q: What do you like best about being a staff scientist?
I love to engage with our team and trainees and play a more active role in managing projects. It is a good opportunity to contribute to science from a different angle and to build my managerial skill set. The skills I practice the most in my current job are planning, prioritizing tasks, managing timelines, problem-solving, communicating technical and interpersonal information, building the team, mentoring, and delegating tasks.
Q: What types of obstacles do you encounter as a staff scientist, and where do you seek out mentorship?
Some of the bigger challenges are juggling multiple priorities, learning new skills in managing projects and people, and further development of technical expertise. So far, I have participated in the Staff Scientists and Staff Clinicians Career Enrichment Program (SCEP) offered by NCI, through which I found invaluable mentorship from my career network, the program’s organizers, and peer staff scientists.
Q: Were there any workshops or programs at NICHD that helped you secure your current position?
Many of the programs that I participated in while at NICHD were very helpful for me to obtain my current position, particularly in improving my soft skills and networking to better understand available job opportunities. These included:
- The SciPhD program offered by NICHD
- Training sessions for the Three-Minute-Talk competition
- Workshops on general interviewing skills
- OITE’s Workplace Dynamics and Management Bootcamp series
Q: Do you have any final tips for fellows who are thinking about becoming a staff scientist?
Besides showing scientific productivity in the form of publications, presentations, and awards, it is also important to build soft skills and network to become informed about available opportunities.
There are so many types of soft skills you can build. I think a first step for fellows with a primarily academic background is to build self-awareness and self-understanding. This will help you to recognize your strengths and preferences, and to identify what experience you already have in different areas. For this purpose, I highly recommend the Workplace Dynamics series offered by OITE at the NIH as a starting point.
My advice for networking is for any job in general, and not just limited to staff scientist positions. First of all, talk to your peers! They are in the job market too and could provide you with the most current and in-depth insight about potential opportunities; plus, we are great support for each other at this criterial period of transition, during which many of us find stress.
NIH also has a very active community of fellows. Joining career panels, interest groups, and scientific/career events can connect you with like-minded fellows (look out for emails about such opportunities). Further, many career events offer a great opportunity to find out about the variety of career paths. The ones I found helpful were the Annual NICHD Fellows Retreat and the SciPhD program, which invited panelists from different career paths.
More broadly, I like to connect through LinkedIn with alumni and professionals in career paths that I am interested in understanding. Even if you don’t know the person previously, you’ll be surprised at how readily folks are willing to help.
OITE Resources on Different Career Paths
Check out the OITE Career Services page to learn about:
- Where to after your postdoc?
- Exploring careers in academia
- Exploring careers beyond academia
- Resources for residents and clinical fellows
- Professional development resources
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