Alumni Stories: Kenneth Gibbs Jr.
Director, Postdoctoral Research Associate Training (PRAT) Program
Program Director, Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity
Program Director, Division of Genetics, and Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology
National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), National Institutes of Health
PhD Immunology, 2010
"Whereas physician-scientists take discoveries from ‘the bench to the bedside,’ I wanted to take my research from ‘the bench to society.’"
How do you define career and professional success?
For me, success means doing work that I find interesting and important, while also allowing me to be the type of husband, father, and community member that I want to be.
I’m passionate about my work and being able to use my scientific background to make science education and the research enterprise more effective and more inclusive for students. I want to change the culture of science to enhance opportunities for everyone. In my current roles, I enjoy being able to do a mix of big-picture policy work, and working directly with trainees.
How did you decide you wanted to go into this field?
My family story influenced my worldview. Although my grandparents had only fourth and eighth grade educations, growing up in the Jim Crow South, my parents went on to college. My parents always told me to not only “do well” but also reminded me that “to whom much is given, much is required,” and these words have continued to resonate with me. I first became interested in science in high school, when a university speaker described the power of research, saying, “As a medical doctor, you'll likely treat at most 10,000 patients in your lifetime. However, the scientist who discovered penicillin, has treated billions of people worldwide over the past 6 decades.” At that moment, I knew research was for me because of its vast potential to have a positive impact on people’s lives.
After completing my Ph.D. in Immunology, I could see potential applications of my research work, but I wanted to have a more direct and tangible impact. I wanted to work toward understanding and addressing society's broad and interlinking health and educational challenges, especially those that are particularly acute in the black community. I believed I could make a difference in the culture of science, and saw policy/government as a way to do that.
When I was given the opportunity to be a American Association for the Advancement for Science (AAAS) Science & Technology (S&T) Policy Fellow, I seized it. The fellowship program is designed to equip scientists with the skills needed to apply scientific knowledge to benefit society, and it provided insights into how the scientific enterprise functions, along with the skills and connections that allowed me to operate more effectively. The fellowship was a key to opening a door in this career sector because it helped me understand more broadly the world in which science is happening, and the ways in which you can influence the practice and translation of science.
Interestingly, when I told colleagues and mentors that I had accepted the fellowship position, their most common response was, "So, you're leaving science?" Even though I would be working at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and focusing on science workforce policy, and even though the word "science" was in my official position title, I still found myself defending my professional choice!
What are some of your day-to-day activities?
I am program director in the Divisions of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity and Genetics, and Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at NIGMS, where I work on the extramural side of funding at the NIH.
I manage a multi-million dollar portfolio of institutional training and research education grants, individual fellowships and basic science research grants; I talk to faculty or students looking to get fellowships and grants, participate in budget decisions, and monitor the progress of their awards. I worked hand-in-hand with our division director to write the announcement for the new NIGMS T32 which was a great experience, and am working on initiatives to enhance faculty diversity.
I also direct the PRAT program, which is administered from NIGMS and supports postdocs who work in different labs across the NIH. The program prepares trainees for leadership positions in biomedical careers through mentored laboratory research, networking, and intensive career and leadership development activities.
How have you made a difference in your work?
I find it invigorating to have the ability to really make a difference in spaces that I think are important, and I’d like to offer three examples.
T32 Funding Announcement: For example, the T32 funding announcement of October 2017 will bring changes that will literally impact thousands of graduate students each year. I really enjoy working on cultivating a more diverse talent pool in science on a national scale, and ensuring Ph.D. training equips students with the technical, operational and professional skills to move forward in their careers.
STEM PhD Careers: I’ve also enjoyed other opportunities that this job has allowed, like serving on the National Academies Committee on Revitalizing Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century. This committee created a set of national goals for graduate STEM education that can be used by research universities, Congress, federal agencies, state governments, and the private sector to guide graduate level programs, policies, and investments over the next decade.
This topic has been important to me ever since my AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellowship, where I partnered with Dr. Kimberly Griffin, an education researcher, on a project called STEM Ph.D. Careers. We wanted to understand the factors influencing career development of recent PhD graduates, and how they differ across demographics.
At the time I started this work, I was shocked at how little empirical research there was on what was happening with the postdocs and how they make career decisions. Surprisingly, we discovered that over the course of their training, the postdocs we interviewed said they became less clear about their career goals than when they started graduate school. That speaks to the need for more structured career-development activities early on in their training. I always say career preparation needs to happen early and often. We really need to push this conversation to the undergraduate level. We also need to think about career and professional development, not as something that takes away from one’s time in the lab, but as something that supplements your ability to be a professional.
We also found that, even controlling for important factors such as faculty relationships, and research productivity, women and scientists from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups were much less likely to express interested in academic research at Ph.D. completion. This speaks to the need to make sure that graduate training environments support students from all backgrounds.
Importance of Diversity: My interest in diversity has been a thread throughout my career, because in addition to being the right thing to do, I truly believe we’ll only be able to advance as a society if we are able to harness everyone’s contributions. For example, I had three colleagues, all black women, who were great scientists with first-authored, graduate school papers in PNAS, Science, and Nature. However, they all left science because of their graduate school experiences. This was not only a loss for them, but also, and more importantly, a loss for science. In my current role, I lead strategic planning efforts to modernize undergraduate and pre-doctoral diversity programs.
Working in a large national organization can be challenging, but I do enjoy the larger impact I am able to have in policy.
What are the top skills necessary for success in your field? What is the general culture where you work?
As a PhD scientist, you have the quantitative, problem solving, and critical thinking skills. You have managed a big project, worked independently and resourcefully. You’ve raised money, set goals, managed time and budgets, and oftentimes taught students in your labs.
For a career in policy, you need to add to the mix: communication and diplomacy, teamwork, and asking the right people for help. You need to be able to learn quickly; that is, you need to be able to come up to speed on a wide variety of issues and types of science. In the lab, one can often get increasingly focused on a single topic, but in my job, I need to be able to be knowledgeable about a wide variety of topics. Lastly, you need to be able to communicate the significance of your research and your work to a wide audience.
How should current trainees make the most of BioSci Careers’ services?
Start early in your academic career! Have BioSci Careers help you assess your talents and interests and start your career planning to ensure you get the experiences you will need. Partnering with professionals, who can guide you in everything from CVs and resumes to internships, is critical, whether you're moving to a new field or staying in academia.
How did your Stanford training prepare you for your career of choice?
My lab environment was one where I had to be pretty self-directed, and while that was hard as a second year graduate student, it has really helped me to move in a number of different career directions seamlessly. I have also made lifelong connections at Stanford that have been key in my career progression.
What advice do you have for current trainees?
Think of yourself as a scientific professional rather than a student. Graduate school is a training ground where you are going to grow your scientific expertise, and you will use it in any number of ways that will contribute to science, your community, and the world. In fact, many of the skills that I took for granted as a laboratory scientist are actually quite valuable in other contexts.
Establish credibility: Do your job well because credibility opens doors, and success follows success.
Realize you have transferable skills: Many graduate students and postdocs are unaware of the transferable skills they pick up during their scientific training: identifying relevant problems, synthesizing information, understanding the difference between data and evidence, and drawing conclusions from evidence. These and other skills are valuable in many professional contexts—and if you're a Ph.D. scientist, you possess them to an astonishing degree.
Learn about many career opportunities, in research and beyond: It's not just "academia or industry." From policy to business, nonprofits or government, opportunities to use your Ph.D. are many and diverse. In fact, 75-85% of today's Ph.D. scientists have careers off the tenure track. If you're interested in using your training outside of the lab, don't feel bad about it.
Be intentional about your career planning: There's a disconcerting moment in the training of many Ph.D. scientists when they realize that, while they have acquired phenomenal knowledge and skills, they don't know what the future holds professionally. There's only one thing you can do: Take charge of your career planning, now.
Passion should drive your choices, not fear: Whether it's the "postdoc clock," or the notion that "once you leave academia, you can't go back," many forgo opportunities in industry, consulting, policy, or other domains. Know your values and make career decisions congruent with them.
Learn to network: Many scientists are uncomfortable with networking and self-promotion. But a successful career requires more than scientific competence: Connections to people open doors, giving you opportunities to demonstrate what you know. As a scientist, your job is to accurately describe a phenomenon; in this case, the phenomenon in question just happens to be you. So don't think of it as self-promotion; think of it as clarifying yourself, your skills, and your achievements to those who need that information. Ask for help, and go for it.
For more on opportunities in this job sector, see Government/Non-Profit Research and Policy.