Zélia Worman

Zélia Worman, PhD

Zélia Worman, PhD, is the Director of Researcher Engagement and Education for Velsera, Cambridge, Massachusetts, a precision-medicine focused company that empowers diverse biomedical research communities and accelerates medical breakthroughs to positively impact human health. At NICHD, Dr. Worman completed her postdoctoral training from 2016–2018 in the lab of Henry Levin, PhD, senior investigator in the Section on Eukaryotic Transposable Elements. There, she studied the contribution of polymorphic transposable elements in the development of mental illness and neurological disorders.

Researcher engagement and education wasn’t Dr. Worman’s first career move following her postdoctoral work. When she first joined Velsera (at the time Seven Bridges), she served as a program manager for the company. Prior to that, she was a support scientist and scientific program manager at the NASA-funded Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH), Houston, Texas, a position she spoke about as a career panelist at the 15th Annual NICHD Fellows Retreat on May 31, 2019.

Curious about this unique career trajectory? Check out our Q&A with Dr. Worman to learn more about her work at Velsera and the winding path she took to get there:

What did you do as a program manager when you first joined Velsera?

At Velsera, a company formed from Seven Bridges, PierianDX, and Ugentec, and led Cancer Genomics Cloud and SPARK platforms for the National Cancer Institute and Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN), respectively. This means that I ensured the fulfillment of all contractual obligations for my programs and created and managed project roadmaps, while ensuring company priorities. I engaged with legal, engineering, product, marketing, and financial teams regularly.

Some of the things I do include talking to our government and non-profit clients (NCI and PanCAN) regularly to make sure the platform we are building (features, datasets, and tools we have) are in alignment with their vision and what the researchers need. I then use this information to discuss with internal teams in the engineering and product departments to understand when we can deliver to our client and check whether there are roadblocks I can help with. Once the tool or dataset is released, I help train researchers on how to make the most of it by teaching our users how to use the platform.

What do you do now as Director of Researcher Engagement and Education for Velsera?

Given my involvement in teaching as a program manager, my role at Velsera has evolved to leading all outreach and engagement activities for our team. In this role as the Director of Researcher Engagement and Education, I lead a team of community engagement staff who 1) provide support to researchers using our platforms, 2) educate students and investigators on how to use the cloud for their research, and 3) connect healthcare and life sciences to reveal the true promise of precision medicine—a continuous flow of knowledge between researchers, scientists, and clinicians around the world.

How did you decide when to make each career shift?

As a postdoc at NICHD, I always enjoyed the research aspect of the work, but I also enjoyed mentoring students and looking at the big picture. The more I worked on the project, the more I wanted to make a broader impact by leading big initiatives and engaging with researchers.

To see how I could do this, I volunteered and participated in extramural activities and classes across the NIH throughout my time as a fellow, including working as a detailee at NHGRI in the Office of Education and Community Involvement Branch. I knew for a while that I wanted to make a career change, but since I was not 100% sure on what that was, I explored a lot. My mentor, Dr. Henry Levin, was incredibly supportive and provided guidance and opportunities for growth throughout my time as postdoc. Once I was confident that I wanted to try program management as a career, I started applying for jobs.

At first, I was just getting a feel for what it was like to apply for jobs outside academia—for example how to build a resume. Then I received a couple of interviews and was eventually offered a position that was too exciting to refuse.

My next career step was to work for the NASA Research and Education Support Services (NRESS) as a support scientist. There, I supported the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) as a scientific program manager. I helped in programmatic development and portfolio analysis, and I became an essential member of both the Science and Operations teams.

In particular, I helped streamline the procedures for writing funding announcements and led the writing on several funding opportunities. I also helped develop outreach efforts at conferences aimed at informing potential proposers about TRISH’s mission and research objectives. One of my proudest achievements was leading the effort to start a young investigator’s award, “Go for Launch,” which resulted in two successful transitions to independent positions in the first year.

While with TRISH, I had the opportunity to participate in cross-cutting initiatives throughout the institute and learn about health technology companies and innovative research topics. In addition, I was honored to be one of the founding members of the TRISH Diversity initiative aiming to increase equality and access to space health funding to traditionally under-served communities.

Although I loved my job with NRESS and TRISH, a new opportunity arose with Seven Bridges, for which I would have opportunities to interact and manage projects with and for the NIH. The exciting world of cloud computing and the amount of publicly available health data made me want to change my career from NASA to Seven Bridges (now Velsera).

What is the job application and hiring process like for program management?

The job application requires a resume (maximum of two pages) and a cover letter explaining why you’re interested in the job and why you’re a great match for the position. I went through several rounds of interviews.

The first interview was with the recruiter to make sure my expertise and salary expectations aligned with the job. The second interview was a team interview, where I presented my NICHD research. Following that, I had three individual interviews (with my future manager, the department manager, and a future colleague). After a total of five interviews, I was offered the position.

What do you find the most challenging about your work?

The most challenging moments as a program manager (or director!) are when there are competing priorities for the same resources. We must maintain the delivery of milestones within the requested timelines of our multiple stakeholders. This requires coordination between me, other program managers, and leadership from different teams (product, marketing, technology, and others). This can be quite difficult to manage. Communication and organizational skills are especially important, as is maintaining the big picture of what is best for our customers, researchers, and the company.

What do you find the most rewarding?

The most rewarding moments for me are when we deliver above and beyond what the costumer was expecting within time and budget, and we can teach researchers how to take advantage of a new product, using our platforms. During the training and engagement sessions we provide to universities and NIH staff, watching researchers and students discover something new is incredible. For those who have taught a class before, it’s the equivalent of seeing students “get it,” and they can then build their own ideas on how to make their next project succeed.

What type of career progression is available in program management?

Depending on the company, there are several career paths one can take in program management. At Velsera, you can grow into a leader and participate in strategic development of a particular disease area to support research and precision medicine. You can also change your career path to focus on other areas, such outreach and engagement (which was the case for me!), or you can become a principal investigator and write grants that are exciting to you and the company.

Since program management touches most areas of the company, you get a high-level view of how a whole organization operates (with some specificity to your area). The growth possibilities are numerous.

What skill sets are helpful for people who’d like to enter a program management career path?

For program management, outstanding communication and organization are a must. The ability to give a great presentation is very useful, since program managers interact with stakeholders on a regular basis. You should also be comfortable prioritizing work (your own and your team’s) and managing the needs and concerns of internal and external stakeholders. Understanding how to manage a budget is also helpful.

Some companies require or prefer a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, but it’s not always needed if you can demonstrate the equivalent skills.

Were there any workshops or programs at NIH that helped you prepare for your career transitions?

I took the introduction to PMP at Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences (FAES), which was very helpful to understand some key concepts, such as “milestone,” “deliverable,” and “critical path.” If those words mean nothing to you, a project management course would be great to take! FAES doesn't seem to have the exact offering anymore, but this Project Management Essentials course is similar.

I also volunteered a lot during my time at NIH. I was part of FelCom as the Co-chair of Service and Outreach (a passion of mine!), and I wrote for The NICHD Connection and participated in organizing the NICHD fellows’ retreat. These activities provided a way to explore opportunities outside the lab, and they helped me in my research as well, as I was able to keep the big picture in mind throughout my postdoc.

Do you have any final tips for fellows who are thinking about a career path similar to yours?

Try things outside of your comfort zone! There are lot of cool things out there—inside and outside the NIH—that are interesting, engaging, and need your expertise. Start by looking at detail opportunities, ways to volunteer, and explore how your interests could become your career.

Above all, have fun! Being a fellow at NIH has a lot of benefits, including enjoying your time as a researcher while learning what your next career move could be.