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From Academia to the Marketplace

From Academia to the Marketplace
Post-docs explore alternative employment opportunities at job fair.
By Cassie Chew

Firm grip, palm-to-palm and three shakes. Those are the elements of a positive first impression-giving handshake and among the pointers a group of more than 300 postdoctoral professionals received at a day-long conference and career fair designed to help them make the transition from academia to the marketplace.

Sponsored by several economic development and business groups in Maryland, organizers of the First Annual Post-Doc Conference and Career Expo encouraged these science and technology professionals to continue their careers in the region.

“We’ve dreamed about you, thought about you for the past six months and we are here to help you move along your career in Rockville, Montgomery County and Maryland,” Sally Sternbach, executive director of Rockville Economic Development Inc., told students who convened late last month at the University of Maryland’s Shady Grove campus, just outside of Washington, D.C.

About 4,000 postdoctoral professionals pass through the area each year. The newly-minted Ph.D.s conduct research at federal labs across the Washington metro area, at agencies such as NASA, the National Academies, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Naval Research Lab and the U.S. Army Research Lab.

In addition to promoting the region’s businesses as a place to advance their careers, the conference sessions encouraged entrepreneurship and introduced the post-docs to nontraditional career paths.

“Academics is a wonderful place to be, but it’s not the only place to be,” said Dr. Carol Nacy, founder of Rockville, Md.-based Sequella Inc., a biotechnology firm that researches treatments for tuberculosis.

Starting your own company requires having an idea that fills an unmet need, said Nacy, and it doesn’t hurt to have a billionaire on your team. Sequella, in partnership with other companies, received a $25 million commitment from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help researchers find new treatments for tuberculosis, which kills more than 2 million people each year.

Nacy started the firm after more than a decade of infectious disease research at a federal lab and three years at a start-up biotech firm.
Chemical engineer Dr. Kendra McCoy may be taking Nacy’s entrepreneurial philosophy to heart. McCoy is in her second year at the U.S. Naval Research Lab, where she does experiments aimed at using computers to detect biological organisms.

McCoy received her doctorate from the Georgia Institute of Technology and is choosing between extending the fellowship or making the move to a research company. But regardless of which path she chooses, she plans to continue developing her entrepreneurial goals.

“It’s not a straight path, but I know what the end goal is,” McCoy said.
Dr. M. Crina Frincu, a second-year fellow at the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease, says she might be happy working in health care policy, a somewhat nontraditional route for post-docs. She came to the United States from Romania in 1999 to study infectious diseases at Georgetown University.

“Academia forces you to focus on a narrow field, and I want a broader vision,” Frincu said, adding that she likes the interface between science and society and started missing daily human contact by working alone in a lab.

Dr. Mary Kamande, a native of Kenya who earned her doctorate in chemistry from Louisiana State University, is just six months into a two-year fellowship at Baltimore’s National Research Council. She said she is leaning toward the private sector.

“I want to work for a company where I can continue learning and be mentored,” she said, while waiting in line to speak to an exhibitor.
More than 30 local companies signed up to meet with post-docs, said Rick Harris, vice president of the Tech Council of Maryland, one of the event sponsors. The companies had to have jobs available in order to reserve exhibitor space at what organizers hope is the first of many job fairs.

The Henry M. Jackson Foundation didn’t disappoint, sending recruiters on a mission to fill 160 job openings. “We hire a lot of post-docs, so we like any chance we get to meet candidates,” said recruiter Nicole Mazzella.

“This is the perfect place for recruiting,” agreed Dr. Michele Stone, a senior scientist at Rockville-based Canon U.S. Life Sciences Inc. The company is looking for two people to assist in the development of a device that will help physicians improve diagnoses.

But for some post-docs, research is still a more attractive option than a career in the private sector. Dr. Brian Melde, who studied chemistry at the University of Minnesota, falls into that category.

“Right now, I like what I am doing,” said Melde, who has just finished his second year as a fellow at the Naval Research Lab.

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