Friday, January 9, 2015

"Retrosynthetic Road Map: Identifying career destinations and strategies for success"

That's the working title of my new science blog.

This is something I've been thinking about for a while now and if you've endured any of my overly-excited rubber ducking on the subject, know that I'm very grateful.

 What is this all about, you ask? When I think about my journey, the hard lessons, the successes, my mentors, and all of it, I often think back to how I got here. As a mentor in the big brothers big sisters mentor2.0 program, I've been helping to guide a high school student through a structured curriculum designed to teach them skills about self advocacy, maintaining a growth mindset, and other strategies for success. This program targets at risk youth and students of color and I've been blown away by how much I have learned both from the lessons and from my mentee. I think back to a younger, more naive, Jessica and how things might have been easier if I had learned these lessons. I learned so much from my parents and teachers, and even from my mentors in my undergraduate and graduate labs. But they could not prepare me for everything. Few in my family hold an advanced degree. Even with excellent training as an undergraduate, with few african american, or even female role models in my academic life, I was not prepared for some of the specific struggles I would face. Without any knowledge of the industry in chemistry other than "you can't avoid death and Texas," and "go to a good grad school, get a good job," I still to this day have a difficult time seeing beyond graduation. All I knew, especially back then, was that chemistry was fascinating.

Why? This is a big project, but my experience with mentor2.0 has shown me that students need everything spelled out for them. They are presented a limited outlook on life after college; given only a primary color palette for choosing a career. I graduated in the top 10% of my high school class and I still couldn't see beyond "I want to be a chemist."

I want to go back in time and tell high school Jessica that she could be a pharmacist, or a clinical pharmacist, or a medicinal chemist, or an analytical chemist, or a laboratory technician, or a lab manager, or a member of a small start up R&D team or a member of a big Pharma R&D team, or a lecturer, or a science writer, etc etc. Even when I got my BS, no, even when I got my MS, I had no idea what real chemists do! And I had no idea what I was going to do, especially because internships are discouraged if not forbidden in grad school.

This blog will be designed to tell college Jessica that a MS in chemistry doesn't exist and so maybe she should choose a profession that doesn't require a PhD. It will advise her to get an internship before going to graduate school. I want to give people the nitty gritty day to day and let them know what is really important when choosing a career. I want to highlight the unsung heroes of industry and academia and thereby provide students with a diverse palette of careers to fill the gaps in between college drop out and nobel laureate. I NEED to show high school Jessica that women of color can accomplish anything.

I want to teach college and masters Jessica the importance of self advocacy, how to gain confidence, how to negotiate with superiors in a professional but assertive manner, and how to confront imposter syndrome. I want to provide counter examples- people with no college education who are successful. People who dropped out of grad school, switched majors, got fired, suffered from physical or mental illness and lived to tell the tale. I'd like to redefine failure and redefine success for young people who often see in black and white.

I'd like to highlight alternative careers and those at the interfaces between fields. (Wouldn't it be nice if Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Biochemistry, Chemistry, and Molecular Biology could hang out and be friends?) I'd like to discuss strategies for bridging the gaps, enhancing a collaborative atmosphere, and a growth mindset approach to academics and policy. In conclusion, my blog's mission statement is to highlight voices of successful scientific professionals and students in order to improve the culture of the scientific community. By encouraging communication, eliminating misconceptions, and starting a dialogue about taboo subjects, I hope to identify career destinations and light the way toward a future beyond graduation.

My personal goals for this project are to develop my science writing, project management, and networking skills while providing a resource for highschool and college youth to learn about careers.

As for structure? Each blog post would highlight a member of the community in a particular profession. I'd like to focus on women and minorities in order to build a community and to provide exposure for these groups. The posts would be part interview describing their journey and part infomercial- the good the bad, the pay, the top employers in that field, and the various degrees that lead to it and a representative example of what prerequisites in college (and high school) you might need for it and maybe a discussion of what kinds of colleges you might want to attend. All of this information would contribute to a database that would be searchable by college major or profession. I'd also like the blog to have some other features such as an "ask me anything" section where I answer questions from readers about science or life, pulling from various sources and contacts on a case by case basis. I'd also like to have a literature highlight, technology review, and protocols section.

This is a big project and I'm still in the planning phases. Preliminary hurdles include:

-Identifying contacts and topics for the first few posts
-Composing an interview questionnaire that provides the maximum information with a minimal time commitment.
-Designing a website and determining the overall structure (separate pages/posts for high school, college, or graduate audiences).
-Recruiting collaborators (I can't really do this alone)
-Creating a mission statement and pitch for collaborators and contributors
-Crowdfunding for small gifts (i.e., amazon gift cards) to provide incentives for participation and other funding (site subscriptions, domain name etc)
-Market research to see what's already out there, what needs are still to be met, and to identify sources for content.

I know this blog has a limited audience, but with my new blog, I hope to change that. As a lab rat, being in the spotlight makes me uncomfortable and I have decided to work on that in order to be a stronger scientist and to fulfill my obligations to society by giving back what little I can. If you have any feedback, positive or negative, I would gladly appreciate it!