A bioinformatics training career panel in the DIB Lab

Note: The below blog post was written by Dr. Saranya Canchi.


(Thanks to Marisa Lim, Abhijna Parigi, and Titus Brown for reading drafts!)

On August 6th, we held a career panel for the Lab for Data Intensive Biology (DIB Lab) The panel consisted of Drs. Tracy Teal, Karen Word and Kate Hertweck, all of whom are friends or alumni of the DIB lab and have built successful careers in biology and bioinformatics training. The discussion was attended by graduate students, post docs and alumni of the lab.

Given the non-traditional nature of the careers, we started the session learning about the career journeys of each panelist leading to their current roles. Interestingly, all our panelists had some shared experiences over time.

Kate learned computational methods and other model systems during postdoctoral training, which led to an assistant professor position at University of East Texas. Kate especially enjoyed teaching while in this position and that inspired her to transition to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center as a bioinformatics training manager, where she developed and taught many Carpentries style "intro to" type lessons. She was also heavily involved in the Carpentries, having served on the executive council. In her current position as an open science specialist at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, she combines her experience in teaching with her passion for open science methods.

Karen got her PhD in physiology, but spent a considerable portion of her graduate time as an educator working at science museums and teaching high school curriculum. She contributed to designing curriculums as well as teaching as part of her pre-doctoral experience, which carried over to her postdoctoral work in the DIB lab. Here she started working with the Carpentries training model, which helped pave the path to her current position as the Director of Education for The Carpentries.

Tracy, like the other two panelists, also had a non-traditional career path, starting with a PhD in computational neuroscience followed by postdoctoral research in microbial ecology and genomics. She decided against a non-tenure track assistant professorship position as that was non-optimal for planning, in addition to the burden of raising one's own capital. She had worked on Data Carpentry as part of an NSF grant during her postdoctoral period, which led to her obtaining a large scale grant from Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for Data Carpentry. The merger of Data Carpentry with Software Carpentry into the Carpentries allowed her to come on board as the executive director for the overall program. She further expanded her skills as a executive director at Dryad, working with data curation and open science tools. In her current role as the Director for Open Source at RStudio, she combines her rich experience in computational genomics, teaching and open science knowledge to help drive the mission of RStudio.

What are the common job titles that are at the intersection of science, training and community management ?

All panelists agreed that job titles can be vague with fuzzy descriptions. While that poses challenges in understanding the required skill set and introduces a level of uncertainty, it also allows for flexibility in defining the boundaries and responsibilities of the role. Looking for keywords like training/support/community in the description can be helpful. Some possible titles include community manager, open source manager, science technician, training specialist etc. It can also be helpful to talk to your friends and peers when looking for jobs as they may be able to provide insights into your strengths, as well as point towards positions (including unlisted jobs) that could be a good fit irrespective of the job title.

How do you find these open ended positions ? Are most of them full time positions ?

The jobs channel on Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement (CSCCE) slack space is a good resource for these types of job postings. Informational interviews are a great networking strategy. It is best to seek out people in interesting positions or at interesting companies and ask about their experience and career path. Such sessions have the potential to become a networking opportunity with the possibility of future job postings being sent your way. Another great networking source is be your undergrad or graduate alumni network. UC Berkeley has a neat template for informational interviews which can be helpful in preparing potential questions.

Positions that rely on grant support typically have a finite timeline. Some open-ended positions are yearly and contract-based. If you are unsure, it is best to ask the hiring manager/HR/recruiter in the initial stages of hiring process.

What are some important aspects to consider when evaluating a position with a company ?

It is important to have lots of latitude to develop the responsibilities of the position as well as for personal growth. The position should allow you to challenge yourself and your team (if applicable) and try new initiatives. There should also be enough scope to read, reflect and engage in professional development to continually improve yourself. While it maybe difficult to gauge prior to starting a position, it is also important to think about the colleagues who you may work with everyday. Working at a company is not the whole experience but rather depends on which team and people you interact with the most. Staff restructuring can significantly change the overall company experience. It is also important to consider the values, vision and cultural fit of the company.

Tracy suggested asking these questions during the interview process: - What kind of values are there at X? - How do you run your meetings? - What are the expectations around communications? - How do you manage employee time away?

She pointed out that consistent answers across employees within a given team/company, which illustrates shared understanding, is helpful in evaluating potential fit.

What types of other jobs can one do as a graduate student/postdoc to gain experience beyond research ?

Academic experience can focus specifically on research skills, rather than outreach/training/community building skills. But to understand aspects of a job broadly it is important to gain experience outside of it. Volunteering and engaging in hobbies can be critical to developing skill sets that are helpful in non academic jobs. Volunteering is a safe route to try new roles while figuring out the career direction you would like to pursue.

It can be useful to look at job descriptions and work backwards. If you are interested in teaching and teaching leadership roles, consider volunteering for The Carpentries, a global organization that focuses on teaching essential data and computational skills! You can also join groups like R-Ladies, PyLadies, coding meetings or start a group of your own. Offer to host an event or help with documentation within your lab or beyond. Kate also shared a resource that she developed for a workshop on professional assets in data science careers. It is also useful to network and talk to people from varied fields to gain a unique perspective.

It is difficult to land a manager/director level position straight out of graduate school or postdoc, since it requires management experience. While not identical to managing employees, mentoring students can provide substantial people management experience in academic settings.

Do you have any regrets about not continuing the scientific research career route ?

Science comes in many flavors. Working in science adjacent fields such as training/ teaching can still offer the opportunity to do scientific data driven decisions while providing rewards such as learner satisfaction, developing open source materials and engaging with a broader community. There are some aspects of the scientific process that you may not get to do in this line of work. Allowing yourself space to process the disconnect and feeling sadness are important to move forward. However, you are constantly learning, adapting and thinking about the impact your current position has on a larger scale of teaching and that can be very empowering.

With the clock moving forward we had to end the lively and inspiring discussion!

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