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Environmental Factor

November 2011

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Students explore career opportunities at Superfund meeting

By Rebecca Wilson
November 2011

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and Danielle Carlin, Ph.D. at the meeting

Birnbaum, right, encouraged students to find ways to extend their skills to become the ideal candidate in the marketplace. Seated beside her is Carlin. (Photo courtesy Joseph Rey Au)

Katryn Eske and other trainees at the meeting

Eske, left, and other trainees learned that some of Birnbaum's best opportunities came through serendipity. (Photo courtesy Joseph Rey Au)

Superfund Research Program (SRP) trainees and postdocs were given a rare opportunity at this year's SRP Annual Meeting - a chance to discuss their careers with NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. Birnbaum was joined by representatives from academia and industry, and showed trainees that there are fulfilling careers beyond the bench.

More than 75 trainees and postdocs attended the panel discussion on Sunday, Oct. 23, prior to the commencement of the main meeting Oct. 24-25 in Lexington, Ky. The meeting was one of the largest yet, with more than 250 SRP grantees and stakeholders gathering to meet, share news and research results, and find new ways to collaborate.

Over the course of the discussion, passion, flexibility, and communication were named as the keys to success for young scientists launching their careers. Birnbaum advised the attendees, “Find ways to extend your skills so you are an ideal candidate. Figure out what you're doing. Figure out how to write.”

“Don't be an extended graduate student and worker bee,” she added. “After you complete your Ph.D. and your postdoctoral research, you can try something new. There are many opportunities out there.”

“This was an excellent message for students,” said Danielle Carlin, Ph.D., a health scientist administrator for SRP. “There are tremendous opportunities available to our trainees and I hope that they came away seeing that the world is wide open to them.”

Steve Shoemaker, a DuPont employee in the company's Corporate Remediation Group, added that even though the economy looks bleak, the jobs are coming. He pointed out that most of the workforce is over the age of 50, especially in industry. Therefore, hiring will have to occur, just to maintain the same workforce numbers. 

Most of the panelists remarked that they did not spend their entire careers in one area, and many transitioned between two or even three employment sectors at some point in their careers. They told attendees that job seekers need to stay flexible and open to different opportunities. “Sometimes [career paths] don't always make a lot of sense. But if you follow your passion, then you will have a successful career,” said panelist Jerri Martin. Martin abandoned a career in research to teach, and is currently with the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection.

“It was refreshing to hear the panelists' career paths,” commented Katryn Eske, a University of Kentucky doctoral student who attended the discussion. “I'm always asked what I want to do when I finish my degree, and it was good to hear that the panelists didn't always have a specific end goal in mind early in their careers.” 

The panel discussion is a first for the annual meeting, and is part of an effort to increase student participation and networking. Students also participated in a poster contest and a lunch with SRP program staff during the meeting.

(Rebecca Wilson is an environmental health information specialist with MDB, Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Superfund Research Program and Worker Education and Training Program.)

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