Want to get career advice from alumni mentors? One click connects Biosciences trainees & postdocs to graduates for career conversations
“I asked myself, what was I getting a PhD for? I needed to find out.”
Keyla Badillo, PhD, 2019, Genetics
By Nadine Taylor-Barnes
October 30, 2020
Have you ever wanted to know more about careers, but were afraid to ask? Don’t know where to start, or whom to ask? Problem solved.
Now, Stanford Biosciences graduate students and postdocs can connect with, and get advice from, hundreds of alumni mentors through a new online mentoring program called BioSci Connect. After registering, trainees can find alumni and former postdoc volunteers, with similar backgrounds or career goals, and discuss a range of topics, from handling important decisions to seeking advice during their training and job searches. Discussions may even evolve into on-going professional relationships after graduation.
“Being able to speak one-on-one to alumni about their professional lives is crucial, and the more alumni we have, the better,” said Stevie Eberle, M.Ed, assistant dean and executive director, BioSci Careers. It is the organization devoted to the academic, personal, professional and career development of Biosciences trainees, postdocs, and medical students, that is spearheading the program. “Before, in order to have these candid conversations, you would have to ‘know someone’ through your family or circle of friends. Now, everyone has the same access.”
According to Eberle, trainee mentoring has become increasingly important as the scope and variety of biomedical careers have multiplied. “While faculty advisors guide academic life, helping trainees develop research skills, identify interests and careers; alumni, it turns out, are perfectly suited for the other side of the equation. They provide an inside look at life-on-the-job, be it scientists at biotech firms, editors at science journals, policy directors at the NIH, or principal investigators setting up new labs,” they said. Trainees can ask alumni tough questions about navigating career transitions, identity in school and the workplace, balancing careers with family life, and more.
New graduate Christophe Toukam Tchakoute, PhD, 2020, epidemiology and biostatistics, decided to contact alumni and was astonished by the array of career options they described for him.
“As graduate students, we spend years concentrating on one research topic and think academia is the only career available to us,” he said. “I found I needed to talk to alumni, who had been in my shoes, hear about their work, and envision myself in those roles.”
During his career search, he spoke with five BioSci Connect alumni mentors to explore careers in biostatistics, while also considering a postdoctoral fellowship at a northeastern university. One mentor, founder of a small biotech company, connected Tchakoute to his network of venture capital firms to discuss positions in a Boston startup. At a prominent Bay Area biotech, Tchakoute spoke with Stanford PhDs who described the culture of being part of a team and working towards strategic goals.
What has he decided to do after graduation? Tchakoute just accepted a position at 23andMe, Inc., the consumer genetics and research company, as a scientist and biostatistician.
Alumni’s way of giving back
Alumni are enthusiastic to join in the discussion, judging by the four hundred who have already signed up for the program. Remembering mentors, who gave them advice that helped shape the path of their careers, alumni see it as a way to pay it forward.
“It wasn’t even a question of joining BioSci Connect as a mentor!” said Keyla Badillo, PhD, 2019, genetics, one of Tchakoute’s mentors and a life sciences management consultant at Eversana Consulting, a firm that helps early-stage to large biotechnology companies and pharmaceuticals launch therapeutics.
“It’s essential to talk to trainees,” she said. “They need to learn about all the professions available to them along a continuum that ranges from basic science research to translational research to the creation of therapeutics. After years of pre-clinical research as graduate students and postdocs, we need to get our discoveries out of the lab and into the world,” said Badillo. “I tell trainees, ‘Decide where you fit in, and what best fits your personality.’”
For Badillo, it is consulting. “Consulting is very fulfilling, with everyone working towards the same goal,” she said. “When a therapeutic is launched and gets to patients, I am proud that I was a part of that process. Since the majority of our projects turn out, there is constant gratification,” she said.
Do the PhD graduate scientific skills immediately apply on the job? Badillo responded with a resounding yes. “We already have the ability to turn data into something that will be useful. The critical thinking, the data analysis, the research is the same. It’s just a different field and different data.”
She said her research now parallels basic science research. “A pharmaceutical firm will come to you with a question but doesn’t know how to go about getting the answer. That’s where your skills come in.”
Stanford Biosciences’ unique mentoring culture
Sheri M. Krams, PhD, newly appointed senior associate dean of graduate education and postdoctoral affairs, and professor of surgery, immunology, said BioSci Connect is integral to the strong mentoring culture that distinguishes Stanford. “Alumni mentorship, along with our strong faculty training and mentorship, create a welcoming, respectful, and supportive environment so that each student can achieve their full potential as a scientist.” Krams credits William S. Talbot, PhD, professor of developmental biology, for his stewardship of BioSci Connect and its successful implementation during his tenure as senior associate dean of graduate education and postdoctoral affairs.
As part of this culture, Krams counsels trainees to think ahead. “Trainees and postdocs need to think strategically about their futures early on,” she said, “and explore careers in the academic, private and government sectors. Trainees can then participate in professional skills courses, research opportunities or experiential training that will prepare them. We are here to help them on that journey.” (Badillo, in fact, made her first forays into job search a few years before graduation by contacting a BioSci Careers counselor for guidance.)
Krams went on to explain that trainee-alumni mentoring through BioSci Connect helps satisfy an important aspect of the NIH T32 training grant requirements. “Three years ago, the NIH developed additional guidelines for the professional and career development of trainees, and mentoring figures prominently in how trainees are prepared for their chosen future careers.”
BioSci Careers manages BioSci Connect for home programs
In order to make it effortless for Biosciences departments to participate immediately, BioSci Careers is managing BioSci Connect with a three-year license covering all home programs and related groups, at no cost to them. Eberle and mentoring specialist Marlene Scherer Stern, M.A.Ed., help home programs and their trainees get started by collaborating with department chairs, program directors, and student services officers, offering demos and workshops. They designed a new website, where trainees and alumni register, and communications materials that home programs can tailor and use for their communities immediately. There is also an option that provides for departments to create their own online groups. Scherer Stern added, “The home programs to date that we have collaborated with have been instrumental in expanding our reach.”
Eberle said. “I hope everyone will tap into our new mentoring platform,” they said, “and while on our site, take a look at all of our other offerings in individualized counseling and coaching, curriculum, and connections for careers.”
How BioSci Connects works
- Alumni register to volunteer to connect with students and trainees
- Students/trainees register to participate and seek a connection
- Home and satellite programs will have the opportunity to form “groups for targeted conversations and interactions.
To learn more, go to: Stanford BioSci Connect: https://biosciconnect.stanford.edu
To learn more about BioSci Careers, go to: https://med.stanford.edu/bioscicareers.html