Business, Science, Communication, Clinical Trials, and More: NYSCF Staff Share the Many Faces of STEM CareersNews
There are many ways to pursue a career in STEM, and not all of them involve becoming an academic. Last month, as part of the NYSCF Academy for Science and Society’s career development activities, students from NYC Department of Youth & Community Development Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), joined several NYSCF staff for a panel discussion highlighting a diverse range of career paths in STEM.
The discussion featured Gene Editing Scientist Manali Nikte, Scientific Outreach Manager Sandra Capellera-Garcia, PhD, Associate Vice President of Business Development Geoff McGrane, and Associate Director of Clinical Research & Regulatory Compliance Lisa Voltolina, MS, MF, CCRP, CIP.
What is your role at NYSCF?
“My role at NYSCF is to identify ways that we can leverage our resources and capabilities to work with other institutions,” said Geoff. “I was really attracted to NYSCF because of its platform technology [The NYSCF Global Stem Cell Array®] and its ability to impact many different patient populations.”
“I also came to NYSCF because I was interested in its drug discovery platform,” added Lisa. “In my work, I help organize and recruit people to participate in our studies.”
“I am a scientist for the functional genomics team at NYSCF,” said Manali. “We know genetic variations can impact disease, so my job is to work on gene editing projects that use CRISPR to explore this.”
“I’m a scientific outreach manager, which means I help scientists and NYSCF as an organization to communicate science in a way that is accurate, effective and engaging,” remarked Sandra.
What inspired you to pursue this career path?
Lisa began her career in publishing, but became interested in research when she began working for a research group in Oregon.
“When I moved to Oregon, I was working as an administrative coordinator, doing grants and contracts for a research group at the Oregon Health and Science University’s Office on Disability and Health,” she said. “And it was through that position that I got my first taste of research and clinical trials and what it means to be a study participant.”
“Around that time I learned that I’m epileptic, and that I needed to be treated. And it was while I was being treated and having many side effects from the drugs that I learned clinical trials that led to the discovery of the drugs that treated me typically excluded women,” she continued. “So I decided that I was going to commit to a career in clinical research, specifically in clinical trials, because I didn’t want people like myself to suffer the side effects of drugs that were not tested appropriately.”
Manali’s interest in science started when she was in school.
“I always loved biology,” she recalled. “I remember seeing bacterial colonies under a microscope when I was a teenager and being so excited.”
“I also saw a lot of animals in a zoology lab in my school, which I thought was pretty cool. Then after doing a lot of wet lab work, I realized I wanted something less monotonous and more challenging with the added advantage of my research helping people. And I saw genomics as an intriguing way to bring people better medicines.”
Sandra began her career in the lab as a stem cell researcher, but was inspired to pursue science communications via her PhD work.
“Progressively throughout my research career I realized that I really enjoyed communicating about the science I was doing, and learning about other people’s projects” she shared. “The skills you develop as a scientist can be applied to more than one specific field or setting, and I really tried to explore different career options that fitted my interests.”
What is something you wish people would have told you about pursuing your career?
“Everything is a process where you put building blocks together,” remarked Geoff. “For me, I found going to business school as a good way to pivot my career. And once I was there, I did internships to get my feet wet in the life sciences space, took a lot of classes in the area, and spoke to people who were involved in it.”
“I actually stopped taking science and math classes when I was still in high school, because you had to choose between an arts track and a science track,” said Lisa. “But what I found was that if I put myself out there and asked questions and was willing to show people that I was going to put the work in, people became willing to work with me and teach me, even though I didn’t have the scientific background.”
What surprised you the most about your job?
“I didn’t expect that at times I would have to ‘drive the car’ so to speak, and make my own decisions,” laughed Manali. “I assumed I would be following someone else’s instructions all the time, but that hasn’t been the case. I’ve also been surprised by how collaborative the job is, and how much you have to learn about what others are doing to function as an effective team.”
“I had to adjust to the level of multitasking in my role,” added Geoff. “Also I learned to expect the unexpected. I got taken into our conference room on my first day on the job to meet with our CEO, our CFO, our Chief Business Officer, and one or two board members as part of a workshop to talk about how to commercialize some of our technology. So you never know what you’re going to get.”
“I agree, sometimes things are thrown at you unexpectedly, and I’ve learned to let go of my perfectionist tendencies and try to prioritize, which has been a big thing,” noted Sandra.
Are there any projects you’re working on right now that you find especially exciting?
“We’re developing a cell replacement therapy for age related macular degeneration (AMD) – basically making eye cells to be transplanted into the back of the eye for people who have central vision loss,” explained Geoff. “We’re at a juncture where we’re figuring out what we want to do strategically with that program and how to accelerate it, which has been exciting.”
“I’m also very excited about the AMD project, since that will be NYSCF’s first clinical trial,” agreed Lisa.
“I really love working with research subjects, so I’m happy that we’ll have this partnership with Columbia and will get to follow these subjects for at least for five years during the clinical trial, and then for another 10 years after that to see how their quality of life improves,” added Lisa.
“One of the parts that I enjoy the most is grant writing,” said Sandra. “As an organization, we fund our science through philanthropy money, but also we apply for grants. We have to make sure the science is well communicated and that it’s clear to the grant reviewers that the science is worth pursuing, and that’s a very exciting process.”
What tips do you have for networking?
“I think that this time of COVID can be actually a good opportunity because people work online a lot,” Sandra pointed out. “I think it is very valuable to put your CV on LinkedIn and describe yourself, your experiences, and your interests. I didn’t have many mentors in the scientific communications field when I was starting out, so I actually reached out to a lot of people on LinkedIn and asked for informational interviews to learn about their roles and careers.”
“Don’t be shy about asking somebody to connect you with someone else,” advised Geoff. “You should just make it as easy as possible for them to actually connect you: you can even give them a few sentences written out that you would like for them to send to the person.”
“One little point that helped me as a student early on was to have an elevator pitch ready,” noted Manali. “It should just answer three questions: who you are, what you do and what you’re interested in.”
And for those who dread networking? Lisa advises making sure your work speaks for itself.
“I hate doing anything related to networking,” she admitted. “I’m very much an introvert. What I found in my career was that if you do your work really well, then people notice it and your reputation will follow you, which at least takes a bit of the burden off networking.”
What is the best career advice you have received?
“It’s important to make a good first impression,” said Geoff. “I think people make judgments about you probably relatively quickly. And if you’re seen as somebody who’s got a strong work ethic and you’re willing to learn and to improve, then people remember that.”
“I once had a mentor say to me that there is always opportunity in chaos,” recalled Lisa. “So as a regulatory specialist, your job is often to look for mistakes, and they’re not mistakes you made, but you’re still responsible for fixing them. But the opportunity in chaos to me was an important message because not only is it an opportunity for me as a regulatory person to shine, and figure out how to resolve issues, but usually there’s a root cause that, if you address it, can turn the program into something even better than what it was before.”
“I think it’s important to always remember the big picture, so even if your work gets messy or frustrating, you can remember why you began this journey in the first place, and that can help motivate you,” added Manali.
“It sounds simple, but trust your gut feeling, and believe in yourself,” advised Sandra. “A career can take whatever shape you want, and it can grow and evolve with you.”