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URMC / Education / Graduate Education / URBest Blog / November 2019 / Yes, You Can Do a Fellowship and Graduate

Yes, You Can Do a Fellowship and Graduate

By Candace Wong, PhD Candidate in Toxicology

I wasn’t actively looking for a fellowship. I was a fifth year graduate student, working hard to figure out what I needed to do to wrap up my studies to defend. However, a wonderful opportunity presented itself as a fellowship and things ended up better than I could have imagined.

As a first year, I began attending the URBEST Workshops and Career Stories.  I started to put some of these skillsets – cold emailing, meet-ups at conferences, one-on-one career chats – to use over the past couple of years. I honestly wasn’t sure exactly what would come of making these connections, but I was just happy learning about different career paths. As I continued communicating with these mentors and forming stronger relationships, I was presented with a summer fellowship opportunity that one of my mentors thought would be of interest to me. It was a summer fellowship through the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) North America in Washington DC. I would be working with the Food and Chemical Safety Branch helping to determine current reference values for heavy metals in foods, a field of toxicology that I was interested in pursuing in the future. Because this fellowship was in Washington DC, I would have to take a 3-month hiatus from my graduate work. Was this even possible as a graduate student? At the time, my understanding of the graduate school pathway was very straightforward and linear, the same path that all of the older students before me had taken. However, after conversations with my PI, Tracey Baas, and past students who had completed fellowships during graduate school, I felt confident in pursuing this fellowship.

The fellowship experience at ILSI North America was amazing, and I am extremely grateful for it. The work I did was quite a different experience than the work I was doing in graduate school. For one, I wasn’t the one physically doing the experiments. I worked in an office setting and the majority of my time was spent on reading papers, writing, and making presentations. This was helpful as I got to practice my presentation skills on a weekly basis.  One of the unique aspects to this fellowship was that I had guidance from the Summer Fellowship Subcommittee, a group made up of members from academia, government, and industry. This made it easy to have career chats with toxicologists from many fields to get a better understanding of the different career options available and what to potentially expect if I were to also go down that path. It was interesting to see the different perspectives and how well toxicologists from academia, government, and industry worked together to tackle common issues. I was also able to get a better understanding of risk assessments and the bigger picture of how toxicology can be useful in these assessments. 

Returning from the fellowship, I feel much more confident in many aspects – as a young toxicologist, as a future employee, and most importantly in myself and my abilities. As a graduate student, it can be difficult to imagine what working in the “real world” is like. The fellowship gave me a great opportunity to get a taste of what life would be like once I graduated, not only in the sense of the type of work I would be doing but also the small things like office culture and being on conference calls. It also helped me put my current graduate work into perspective. It was insightful to see how published toxicology studies were used in risk assessments so that I could better put my own work in perspective. Even though I had to put a pause on my graduate work for a couple of months, I feel that I came back a stronger student with a refreshed mindset. While the fellowship is technically over, what I have learned will still stay. I am now working towards finishing up my work here at the University of Rochester, excited and confident with what my future career path has in store.

Tracey Baas | 11/8/2019

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