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A biologist and HHMI professor, Kelley initiated a course—Frontiers of Science—that enables postdocs to learn what's required to be an effective teacher. It combines the typical postdoctoral research training with a formal teaching fellowship that gives the young scientists a chance to create course materials and teach undergraduates. Some fellows emerge from the experience ready to combine research and teach (see "Balancing Act", page 7). Others find an entrée into careers outside academia.
Jennifer Blanck Weitz a former HHMI-supported postdoc, went through Kelley's program and is now teaching high school science in Atlanta. "The experience at Columbia changed my life," she says. "It made me realize that teaching full-time would give me a true sense of fulfillment."
"There has been this reframing of what you can do with your degree," says Sophia Colamarino, science director of the nonprofit research organization Cure Autism Now and former president of the Salk Institute's postdoctoral association. "Once people start to see all the possibilities, it is liberating." Colamarino and Gael McGill, both former HHMI predoctoral fellows, spoke about career options at a 2006 meeting at HHMI headquarters for HHMI-supported graduate students and postdocs.
Colamarino described her work to organize a career exposition when she was a postdoc at Salk. She called the event a "celebration of scientific careers" to get away from the conventional thinking that labels any nonacademic job as an "alternative" career. She says it was incredible to watch people discover that their degrees were viewed as valuable assets by employers from a wide variety of fields.
"There are definitely unique skills that you can only get from the 12-hour-days, following-a-problem-for-six-years approach that carry over to anything else you do in life," says McGill, a former cancer researcher who started his own company, Digizyme, which provides scientific visualization and animation. McGill points out that organizing meetings of the Harvard Biotechnology Club as a Harvard postdoc, which brought in area business leaders and investors, made him realize how highly his Ph.D. was regarded in the outside world.
In fact, some PIs, like Darcy Kelley, are actively encouraging their trainees to look beyond the ivory tower and take their scientific training and mindset into other professions. "I think if we could populate the world with people who really understand how to do science," says Kelley, "that would be a good thing."
Photo: Jennifer Altman