Anna SantaMaria, Ph.D.

Anna SantaMaria, Ph.D.

A fellowship at NIH can successfully launch your career in almost any direction you choose. To have a successful trainee experience at NIH, I knew that I wanted to take advantage of everything NIH had to offer early-career scientists, including activities beyond the bench. For me, it was a networking-inspired leadership opportunity that gave me the confidence to pursue an exciting new career path.

Many opportunities begin with networking

When I came to NICHD as a postdoctoral fellow, I was excited to have the amazing opportunity to learn from and network with top researchers from around the world. Successful networking is something that takes practice. It requires not only meeting people but also leaving a lasting impression on them. Finding a niche of people within the larger NIH community is one way to make meaningful and lasting impressions with colleagues.   

Right away, because of the open lab concept, I was able to meet many fellow researchers from my wing in building 35A. I attended NICHD Office of Education events and served as the chair of the NICHD Fellows Retreat. But I knew that I had to find a way to tap into the broader scientific community at NIH, and I began to meet trainees from more of the 27 Institutes and Centers.

An unexpected leadership opportunity in the face of challenge

When I began networking with the broader NIH community, I learned that a group of fellows from the National Biosafety and Biocontainment Training Program (NBBTP) were looking for fellows from across NIH to help launch a safety committee on campus for and run by trainees. I jumped at the opportunity.

The mission of this committee, called the Fellows Safety Committee (FSC), is to provide a conduit between the trainee community and the Division of Occupational Health and Safety (DOHS); educate fellows of all backgrounds on the basics of safety in the laboratory, field, and healthcare; analyze safety risks associated with biomedical and basic science research; and encourage career opportunities within the discipline.

I am passionate and knowledgeable about safety, especially coming from a graduate school laboratory that specialized in synthetic organic chemistry. I was voted in as an officer and became a founding member of the FSC in December 2019, just months before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Despite the importance of FSC’s mission and its early successful engagement of trainees from all over NIH, it was a near casualty of the pandemic-induced shutdown. I was the last member standing and needed to find a way to reinvigorate the committee.

I demonstrated my ability to lead by tackling the problems facing FSC head on. To increase FSC outreach, I leveraged recognition from the NIH Office of Training and Education (OITE) through the Fellows Committee (FelCom), and FSC became an official NIH-sponsored activity. I emphasized the spectacular leadership opportunities that FSC offered to fellows and the benefits that the committee could provide to NIH, such as researcher buy-in, safety culture improvement, enhanced reputation, and solidification of NIH as a leader in lab safety.

I was able to recruit two amazing officers, Dr. David Mallick (NCI postdoc, Co-Chair), and Audrey Heffner (NICHD graduate student, Secretary and Outreach Coordinator). Together, we ran several educational events, hosted speakers, participated in NIH-wide events, and increased our membership.

How the FSC leadership experience helped my career

My leadership and service to NIH through the FSC helped to bridge the gap between my technical skills at the bench and my soft skills. The opportunities I had to work directly with NIH administration and DOHS professionals built my confidence and gave me unique perspectives on potential career paths.   

When I began searching for potential positions I was interested in after my postdoctoral fellowship ended, I knew that I still wanted to impact biomedical research, but I wanted to move away from the bench. I began looking at different career options that incorporated my scientific skill set as well as my leadership skills. 

In particular, I wanted to learn about the types of industry positions that would fit into my preferred career path. I decided the best way to learn more about potential industry career paths was to reach out to someone with a career trajectory that interested me.  

Using my newfound confidence from leading the FSC, I took a chance and reached out for an informational interview with someone with a career path that matched my aspirations. I introduced myself and explained that I would love the opportunity to speak about her career path and get advice on the transition from academic/government research to industry. It went better than I anticipated!  

I was hoping for some advice—maybe a few local contacts to connect with and some information on what her day-to-day work experience was like. Instead, after an amazing and engaging conversation, she told me that there was a position that she thought I would be perfect for and sent along the job posting. I applied immediately, and the rest is history.

My experiences at NIH, including my leadership involvement with FSC, networking activities with the NICHD Office of Education, and leading projects within my laboratory, were experiences that instilled confidence and helped me stand out to potential employers. The breadth of knowledge and expertise that can be found at NIH is staggering. Find your confidence-boosting opportunity and take advantage of it!