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August 2011

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Interns enjoy program of career narratives

By Josh Zeldin
August 2011

Debbie Wilson, center right, chatting with group

Host Debbie Wilson, center right, chatted with panelists as interns began to fill Rodbell Auditorium. (Photo courtesy of John Maruca)

left to right, Stavros Garantziotis, M.D., Patricia Jensen, Ph.D., Stephanie London, M.D., Dr.PH., David Malarkey, D.V.M., Ph.D., and William Higgins, Ph.D.

Seated, left to right, Garantziotis, left, who led off the discussion, Jensen, London, Malarkey, and Higgins, right. (Photo courtesy of John Maruca)

Patricia Jensen, Ph.D.

Jensen recalled the sheer joy she felt when she was awarded a $12,000 annual stipend in graduate school to do what she loves doing. The income, even at that near-poverty level, helped her gain the confidence to keep striving to realize her goals. (Photo courtesy of John Maruca)

William Higgins, Ph.D.

For Higgins, the panel discussion was the beginning of a busy day at NIEHS. Later on, he presented talks directed toward students trying to get into graduate school and for ones aspiring to attend medical school. (Photo courtesy of John Maruca)

interns with a show of hands

As this show of hands suggests, the interns stayed engaged throughout the program and participated in the question-and-answer session that followed the panel presentations. (Photo courtesy of John Maruca)

intern Amanda McLean

Neurotoxicology Group summer intern Amanda McLean was one of several in the audience with questions for the panelists. (Photo courtesy of John Maruca)

group photo of interns

The following week, the class of 2011 gathered in front of the main NIEHS building for the program's traditional group photo. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

As part of the NIEHS Summer Internship Program (SIP)(, five panelists gathered June 23 to describe their career pathways and answer questions about their experiences in biomedical research. The panel discussion, titled “Career Opportunities in the Biomedical Sciences,” took place in the NIEHS Rodbell Auditorium and was organized by SIP coordinator Debbie Wilson.

Following a short introduction by Wilson, the panelists took turns informally discussing their professions in the field of biomedical science. From backgrounds as varied as growing up with parents who were physicians as career models, to breaking away from a blue-collar family's expectations, the panelists recounted the various paths that led them ultimately to where they are today.

With candor and humor, the personal narratives helped an audience of young people, still unsure of their exact career directions, realize that others had shared their uncertainty and still managed, through persistence and, sometimes, sheer serendipity, to find success and satisfaction in their biomedical careers.

Lessons from experience

Physician researcher Stavros Garantziotis, M.D., a principal investigator in the NIEHS Laboratory of Respiratory Biology (LRB) who is also involved in clinical research, was the first panelist to speak. Garantziotis stressed the background and experiences that led him into the field of medicine as a clinical and basic researcher, as well as the happenstance that brought him, finally, to NIEHS.

“Medicine is a vocation, not a 9-to-5 job,” said Garantziotis. You have to have an understanding spouse to be successful.”

Neuroscientist Patricia Jensen, Ph.D., a principal investigator in the NIEHS Laboratory of Neurobiology, spoke of her uncertainty regarding what field of science she wanted to pursue and her ten years in the workplace before she began her college education.

“I've always loved science,” said Jensen, “but you don't ever really know what you want to do early on.” Nevertheless, she insisted, “It's only going to get better, if this is what you truly love. Just make sure you love what you do.”

NIEHS epidemiologist Stephanie London, M.D., Dr.PH., and NTP veterinary pathologist David Malarkey, D.V.M., Ph.D.(, who followed Jensen, reinforced these messages concerning a career in the sciences, and talked frankly about the impact of the extra time and effort it took to complete their dual doctorates.

“You can [still] have a life and all that education,” Malarkey reassured the interns. “I got my first job at 37.”

Vocation motivated by love

For her part, London, who also holds an appointment in LRB, expressed the importance of joy in selecting the type of career to pursue, of finding something, as she said, “That floats your boat.”

 “If you aren't really happy to get a paper accepted in a journal,” London pointed out, “then research is not for you. Whatever you're doing, make sure the reward makes you happy.”

Science educator William Higgins, Ph.D., a University of Maryland professor of biology who also works with the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education, emphasized initiative and the value of networking.

“If you're assertive, confident, smart, etc., you can do whatever you want,” said Higgins, who has received a long list of awards for excellence in teaching, advising, and mentoring students over the course of his nearly 40 year career as a professor.

In contrast to the previous emphasis on education, Higgins argued that the key to success lay not only in what students do or how they get where they're going, but also in the relationships they form along the way.

“I hang out with a bunch of intelligent people all day,” Higgins said of his experience as a student and later professor in academia. “I've never had a [real] job.” As he told the audience, love what you do and whom you do it with, and good fortune will come easily.

(Josh Zeldin is a summer intern with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison. He is a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

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