Distinguished Alumni Share Career Advice at the Life Sciences Symposium

The annual Big Data in the Life Sciences Symposium, funded by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, was held on May 23 at Alumni Hall, Hopkins Centre for the Arts, Dartmouth College. Thanks to advances in technology in recent years, scientists have been able to study biological systems and accumulate vast amounts of data. Through a series of scientific talks, the symposium aimed at highlighting the extraction and analysis of data through efficient data mining methods, as well as the novel biological insights that analyses of data have revealed. Several distinguished speakers in the field of the life sciences, including professors and alumni from the School of Graduate and Advanced Studies, the Thayer School of Engineering and the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, shared their knowledge on efficient data mining methods in the investigation of biological systems as well as advice on transitioning from academia to life science industries

Three speakers at the symposium, alumni from the School of Graduate and Advanced Studies, shared their experiences as graduate students at Dartmouth as well as career advice for the “real world”, including how to look for the ideal job, facing and using criticism in the workplace, as well as how to make use of available opportunities while in graduate school. One of the speakers was Sarah Pendergrass, who received her PhD in Genetics from the School of Graduate and Advanced Studies at Dartmouth in 2009. Prior to this, she received an M.S in Biomedical Engineering from the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth. Today, Pendergrass is an Assistant Professor at Geisenger Health System, a Research Associate at Pennsylvania State University and runs her own lab, Pendergrass Laboratories, which specifically focusses on high-thoroughput data analyses and data-mining projects for uncovering the genetic architecture of complex traits.

Pendergrass spoke of the difference between career and vocation, stressing that starting a career isn’t just about getting a job, but it is about getting a job that you want, and a job that uses your skills and interests. She also said it helped to be in an environment and with people that you would like to work with. “Finding something that you’re really passionate about can really help you go through the challenging times,” Pendergrass said.

She particularly highlighted the obstacles one may face in a career as a scientist, including workaholism, the fear of failure, the imposter syndrome, and being a woman in science. “There will always be more work. Always,” Pendergrass said. She spoke of the importance of taking breaks, and experiencing what’s outside one’s own field of research by reading books or immersing oneself in art.

She said that as a researcher it is easy to feel overwhelmed by a problem, making it hard to determine whether something is just innately hard or if that something isn’t what one should be doing. In this vein, she told a story of how even one of her favorite authors, the critically-acclaimed Neil Gaiman, felt a moment of imposter syndrome at a gathering of great writers and scientists, only to be greeted by Neil Armstrong who also felt that he didn’t belong at the gathering. She stressed that if a famous author and the first man on the moon could feel like imposters, it is natural for everyone to feel like an imposter from time to time.

On being one of the few women of science in the world and facing the difficulties that come with it, Pendergrass said she hopes that through her work and in moving ahead she will pave the way for more women to get into science. “If we don’t have diversity of background and diversity of gender then we cannot solve this problem. Maybe I can help open that door for people,” she said.

She spoke of the fear of failure, and warned against comparing oneself to others. “Comparing yourself to people, especially people who have been working at something longer than you have, may hold you back. It might be nice to think of them as inspiration rather than competition,” Pendergrass said. Referring to the Dartmouth motto, vox clamantis in deserto, she lightheartedly said that while working on her PhD she sometimes did feel like a voice crying out in the wilderness, but stressed the importance of hanging on, to keep moving, and remembering that one is never alone as a PhD student. Pendergrass ended her talk with impressing that there will always be criticisms. “But it is important to realize that what your path is may be the right thing to do at the right time. She reminded PhDs that they are not alone in figuring out the way business works, which is not part of a PhD training, although a PhD itself offer so much possibility. Pendergrass ended her talk by saying, “My PhD is magic.”

Read more career advice from other graduate alumni, Yolanda Nesbeth and Shinchiro Fuse, in the next part of this article.