Don’t Take No for an Answer
By Amy Hein, PhD, Director of Scientific Workforce at Ripple Effect
As early as grade school, I can remember being fascinated by how the brain works. Mental health disorders ran in my family, and role models like Jane Goodall only drew me further to the field of psychology (and later, a very well-trained border collie named Napper). By high school, I was certain I wanted a career in biomedical research and even did an internship in an addiction lab. My future looked crystal clear. But, as they say, the best laid plans often go awry…
As certain as I was about my destiny, I also knew that my high school sweetheart (who I later married) was equally destined for a career in the Air Force. Envisioning a future of frequent military moves and uncertainty, I realized that success in an academic, or even industry, career was unlikely. I had always been so sure of my next steps, but I found myself at a loss for what to pursue; I didn’t know what a non-academic future in biomedical research would look like.
Now, in looking back at my journey, I come back to a few key decision points that shaped my life. And at each one of them, the key to my success was not taking no for an answer.
“You’ll only be a dishwasher.”
It’s 2008, and I’m three years into my PhD program at the University of Colorado Boulder. Things were great, until I was faced with a big decision: my Air Force husband was reassigned from Colorado to New York. When we married, we made a shared commitment to avoid long-distance relationships—a promise we intended to keep. So when he was reassigned, I had to consider throwing in the towel on finishing my PhD.
I spoke with a number of faculty at the time about my options. Could I leave my graduate program with only a Master’s degree? I was told that if I did, “you’ll only be a dishwasher.” How supportive… That comment scared me, and it also made me determined. Somehow, I was going to find a way to move to New York and finish what I started. In the end, I was able to complete my final research projects at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC), fly back to Colorado to defend my PhD, and complete a science policy fellowship at the National Academies of Science during my postdoc at URMC—without ever having the position of dishwasher. Silver lining: I learned about many cool opportunities for Master’s level graduates, so I can give more helpful advice to scientists with that background.
3 Rejections, 1 Internship
Fast forward 3 years: it’s time for us to move again, this time to the Washington DC area. I applied to many science policy positions and got three interviews: two for AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships and one for a federal policy position at the NIH. The interviews went well, but in the end, I received rejections from all three for different reasons. To say this was discouraging is an understatement, but I was convinced that this was the right place for me, and I wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
So, I went back and talked with two of the interviewers about their different reasons for the rejections—one was financial, the other was bureaucratic—and I worked out an arrangement to come on as an independent contractor supporting the NIH office as a AAAS fellow. It was a great fellowship year, teaching me so much about not just science policy at NIH, but also the wide world of non-bench careers. After my fellowship, I did some additional scientific advising at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and then at the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP)—the latter a client that I now support for Ripple Effect. This persistence paid off and set me up nicely for my next career step.
Work-life balance and finding the right fit
It’s 2015, and I had been with Ripple Effect supporting grant administration at CDMRP for nearly a year. I was feeling great about having made it in a non-academic scientific career, but life was bigger than just my work. I had two children (and would later have a third), a long commute, and a spouse frequently traveling for business. I was feeling stretched thin, and I needed more flexibility to balance my job with my home life.
I finally decided to jump off the deep end and start looking for part-time, remote work that would give me more hours back in my day. When I told my company, they were incredibly supportive and transitioned me into a part-time, mostly remote role. Since then, I have been doing project management in different forms, and I couldn’t be happier. I love the flexibility that I have and the impact that I make at so many levels—within my company, with scientists looking for new careers, and through supporting federal research agencies.
This transition only happened, however, because I was honest with myself and honest with my company about what I needed. I wasn’t going to remain locked into a situation that took a toll on me and my family. So, when I refused to take no for an answer, I was delighted that Ripple Effect said yes.
Come join me Tuesday, April 9 11-12pm in CEL 2-7536 to hear more about some of these past experiences and what I do now at Ripple Effect. As the Director of our Scientific Workforce, I am responsible for an exciting mix of project management of federal contracts, building relationships with clients, and recruiting and managing staff who support biomedical research policy and programs. As a leader at a woman-owned small business, I also think strategically about how to keep our internal operations and client support as competitive and high-quality as possible. I look forward to talking with you and answering your questions! If you’d like to be included in a small lunch noon – 1 pm, email Jennifer_Brennan@urmc.rochester.edu
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