2019 Career Panel: Careers in Academia
by Senegal Carty, GMS PhD Trainee
Date: April 3, 2019
Dr. Kelly Conn; Associate Teaching Professor, Graduate School of Education at Northeastern University
Dr. Dennis Jones; BUSM Nancy L.R. Bucher Assistant Professor, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
Dr. Kathryn Martin; BU Precollege STEM Program Manager
Dr. Elizabeth R. Whitney; BUSM Assistant Professor Department of Anatomy & Neurobiology
After gaining an intimate knowledge of how to navigate an academic environment, many doctoral degree holders have the skills and desire to guide others along the path to building an illustrious career in the sciences. At the panel discussion on careers in academia organized by BU’s BEST and led by Dr. Barbara Schreiber, Associate Professor of Biochemistry and co-PI (along with Dr. Linda Hyman, Associate Provost of Graduate Medical Sciences) of BU’s BEST, four professionals from different areas of academia spoke about what their jobs mean to them and their paths to success. Dr. Kathryn Martin, Precollege STEM Program Manager at BU, encourages young minds to join the scientific community by organizing summer programs for high school students. Dr. Elizabeth Whitney, Assistant Professor in BU’s Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, teaches both dental and medical students. She also mentors students who are learning to become educators themselves and heads a lab that focuses on the neuropathology of autism. Dr. Kelly Conn, Associate Teaching Professor at the Graduate School of Education at Northeastern University, helps to train STEM educators on an international level – she teaches students based within the U.S. and in Hong Kong. Dr. Dennis Jones, BUSM Nancy L.R. Bucher Assistant Professor, recently joined the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine as a Principal Investigator and will be heading a lab focused on the lymphatic system’s involvement in cancer progression in addition to giving lectures.
For Dr. Martin, an experience mentoring an undergrad was a clue that a career in academia might be right for her. “I really enjoyed building relationships with students,” she explained. After her PhD, she sought a high school teaching position and, through an informational interview, became well-placed to take a position as a substitute teacher, eventually working her way up to full-time. Her experience with high school students is now an excellent asset in her work. Dr. Martin’s response to an audience member’s question about the best piece of advice she had ever been given was, “If you don’t tell your story then someone else will impose it on you.” She explained that as a PhD graduate with unconventional career goals, it was important for her to counter other people’s preconceptions of what positions doctoral degree holders can and should hold.
Dr. Whitney’s journey into academia is another that some would consider unusual – before her PhD, she worked as a physical therapist at Massachusetts General Hospital and volunteered as a Gross Anatomy teaching assistant at Simmons College. During her time as a TA, she also gave some lectures and was hired at Simmons the year after she began her volunteer work – a turning of events that shows the value of her advice to the audience to “Be willing to volunteer and do something that’s not your dream job”. Eager to learn more about basic science, she later applied to Boston University’s School of Medicine, earned her PhD in Anatomy and Neurobiology and was hired as a professor soon after.
For Dr. Kelly Conn, who discovered her love of teaching while helping to establish labs in township schools in South Africa, intercultural competence and a passion for social justice are crucial for her line of work. Her zeal for nurturing young minds was apparent as she described volunteering at her children’s school to help foster their love of science. Dr. Conn transitioned to her current line of work from a position as principal investigator of a lab that focused on Parkinson’s disease research. Leaving basic science was not a simple choice for her after years of working towards that type of career, but for Dr. Conn, the rewards of applied science were worth the switch. One of these is the clear progress she can see her students make as she implements ever-improving teaching strategies, which is very different from the slower advancement of basic science. “I can go in and see change every day,” she said.
Dr. Dennis Jones, who took his position as assistant professor just last November, holds a PhD in Immunobiology from Yale and did postdoctoral training at Massachusetts General Hospital. Eager to explore his options, he took advantage of an opportunity to spend nine months working at an intellectual property law firm during his postdoc. “I think graduate school should be a time of introspection,” he said, encouraging the audience to truly get to know themselves before deciding on a career. Although he decided against going into law, the experience taught Dr. Jones to write with care and precision, a skill that he utilizes regularly.
For graduate students, teaching often becomes a significant part of their work as they take on mentorship positions. Through writing grants and giving presentations, PhD students also learn how to communicate complex concepts to a range of audiences. These skills, along with others gained through opportunities such as internships and volunteering, clearly served all the panelists well in their diverse career journeys into academia. Their inspiring stories gave the audience a wealth of ideas on how to make the most of their own time in graduate school.