Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The path I’ve taken

It’s not straight.
The background is important, as it’s shaped many decisions, and I’ve come full circle.

UCSB – Political Science/International Relations major, because I wanted to be a diplomat (really I wanted to travel). Took Biology for non-majors in my 2nd year and decided I wanted to be a Biology major because I loved it so much. I did well in science in HS but was never really encouraged to be a scientist. I didn’t even know how one could be.

Beginning my 5th year, I looked at how much I had to finish that bio degree.  One more year of Physics and a couple of upper division Chemistry classes.  What did I need to finish the Poli Sci degree? Two courses. I switched back to Poli Sci and got my B.A.

Trying to decide how to use my love of science with my degree in political science and a desire to save the world, I discovered Public Health, particularly epidemiology. I applied to Yale’s School of Public Health.  I loved Infectious Disease Epidemiology, and the school’s focus on international research was the perfect fit. By the end of my first year, I decided that to do real work in this field, I needed a PhD.

I finished my MPH (incurring a lot of debt), and began the PhD program at Yale. I worked in vector biology – ticks, sand flies, mosquitoes, tsetse flies. While there, I travelled, ahem, did field work, in Costa Rica,   I took FOUR long years to finish my work on the molecular genetics of the Y chromosome, but overall, worth every moment.

Oxford, England (well, that was mostly lab work), and Kenya.

After my qualifying exams, for a variety of reasons (mostly personal but partly due to changing dynamics at Yale), I transferred to Notre Dame to “finish” my PhD. No coursework, but started over on a new project, this time on mosquitoes and malaria.

Having spent most of the last years working on the vector, the epidemiologist in me wanted to work on the parasite.  I started a post-doc on drug-resistant Plasmodium falciparum in Thailand. The position was based in San Antonio, TX, so I had a US  (NIH) salary, but spent most of my time on the Thai-Burma border. Amazing experience in so many ways – my experience learning about socio-political dynamics proved valuable in this crossroads of cultures, refugees, civil war, and fascinating people.  And the science was interesting too.

Back in San Antonio in between Thai trips, now in my early 30s, I met a rather nice Swiss physicist, just arrived for a two year postdoc.  As that progressed, no worries he said, he had no plans to stay in TX long term. Married at 34, in my last year of post-doc, I started looking for other positions in San Antonio. I had always assumed I’d build a lab like my mentors, a pseudo-family of scientists, mentoring young scientists. At the time, no viable academic jobs came up, and now married, wasn’t willing to move for a job (though I did look at some possibilities).  I settled on a second post-doc at the USDA in Kerrville working on ticks. Lots of people in my field do two post-docs. Great place in many ways, but I found myself sucked more into basic scientific research, and away from the real-world-disease science that my epidemiologist brain wanted to consider.

So when a position came up as a (poorly paid) epidemiologist with the city health department, I decided to leave lab-science. It wasn’t a difficult decision, as it seemed it had been coming on for some time.  My only hesitation was feeling like I was somehow letting down my fellow women in science, that I’d be perceived as “giving up for my husband’s career.” I didn’t feel like that, as he’d have supported whatever I wanted and if that required moving, we’d have worked it out. But I felt the weight of all the women scientists who had come before who helped me get to this point.

I knew once I left I likely could never go back, at least not into Academia. I was surprisingly ok with that. Mentally, I was ready for a new challenge. I had always referred to myself as an “epidemiologist in a scientist’s body.” Now I’d be a real epidemiologist. By chance, I became part of Public Health Emergency Preparedness and discovered a whole new world of emergency management and public health disaster response, thanks to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  By default, I also became the local expert on influenza, disaster preparedness (giving hundreds of talks to local businesses and community organizations, as well as health care facilities). I began to say I was  “scientist in an epidemiologist’s body.” One of the only people with an advanced science degree in the department, that expertise singled me out.

On I went to work for DSHS (Region 8) as the Communicable Disease Program Manager, overseeing all communicable disease programs, and directly managing the TB and HIV/STD programs.  I learned to become the resident expert on those topics. Worked various outbreaks, including a massive TB investigation on the border. Then the flu pandemic, H1N1, first discovered in our region.  Technically, the CDC team did all the real work, my job was to oversee their work, ask them the right questions, and agree with their recommendations, then take that to the directors.

Then I had my second kid. I was 40, finally paid off all my debts. My husband was travelling a lot, and my job was requiring me to travel on a moment’s notice. My work was becoming increasing all about HR  and less about projects. I was good at management but frustrated to not do the real “science/public health” work. Something had to give, I decided to become a SAHM. Yes, with a PhD. Again I worried that I’d be perceived as sacrificing for my husband/kids, but I didn’t feel like I was. It was the best decision I ever made.  I did all sorts of stuff over the next year, had fun with my two kids, got involved in projects locally.

When my husband was diagnosed with cancer I was so glad I wasn’t working full time, but also decided I needed to participate in the workforce at least somewhat, to stay connected, should I ever need to support our family. So an adjunct teaching offer came up at UIW. Perfect timing, and I loved teaching. The pay was pathetic, barely covering my childcare costs, but I was good at it and loved it.  A couple of years into it, a friend who worked with the state Lege sent me a notice for a consulting job with an immunization focused non-profit.  Their mission is advocacy of science-based policy, support of best practices, and immunizations education. I took that on, while teaching.  I was the “Subject Matter Expert” and local rep for the organization, with the intent to build the program in my city. At the same time, an article I wrote about education for a local news website led to a semi-regular freelance gig writing on health and science topics. 

Around that time I reached out on behalf of the immunizations program to the director of a group who did emergency management/disaster response. We wanted his sponsorship of our conference.  He said, “Where have you been! We need you.”  They pulled me in to their Incident Management Team and I spent some time working on infection control procedures for Ebola.  I’ve been called up for other events (outbreaks in immigrant shelters) but haven’t had time.

Eventually, something had to give so I dropped the teaching and started working more hours consulting, and am now on salary part time.  I considered diving into science writing full time, and participated on a panel at the recent science writers conference.  But I think I’ve decided not to invest in science writing as a “real” job, and just stick with my freelance gig. I’ve been pulling back on that though, as my NPO – Immunizations work kicks into higher gear.  My current position has morphed, but I am currently working on two CPRIT grants with UT, in an area more services-research focused than lab based, but again as the SME with my academic background, I’m the bridge between the UT researchers and our organization. I'm also working on developing a local immunizations advocacy network to support science based policy.

So not what I planned when I was 27 doing my PhD. I miss traipsing across the tropics doing field work, I miss some of the discovery of research, but it doesn’t fit with the life I’ve created. And I like the life I've created: scientist, political activist, health educator, mentor, parent, spouse, community activist.


Monica said...

Always a nice surprise when your blog pops up in my reader! You seem to have stumbled upon that elusive "have it all" life, where you've managed to combine challenging work that you love with having a family!

Wishing you all the best,
Monica in Switzerland

Cherise said...

Thanks Monica! As you see I rarely blog anymore. This came about from a science group on FB, where a person asked me to share my professional story of transition from lab science to well, the other stuff. It was clearly too long for a FB post so here it is. (Quick and dirty so could use some pretty pictures ;-))

Hope you're well!

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