Ask An Expert

An advice column featuring our STEM experts, who are here to answer all your questions about studying, working, and being a human being in the world of STEM.

How do I explain a prolonged absence on my resume or an abnormally low GPA in one semester on my internship applications?

 

“Life seldom goesas scheduled,’ and your academic career is no exception. Be transparent and authentic and explain that you experienced a new cycle in the ebbs and flows of academic performance and learned that you’re resilient, u-turns are allowed, and you now understand the corrective steps and work necessary to rebound and maintain resolve.” – Nicole Jackson

“Explain an absence or your GPA truthfully. Be direct (to keep it short) and prepare 1-3 sentences on the topic to anticipate the question. End with how you’ve learned XYZ from that and how you don’t anticipate it will impact what you’re applying for. “- Jeanie Nguyen

 

“Depends on the audience of the application. If it’s a smaller program, you might want to reach out to the coordinators and chat with them about the matter. Honesty can go a long way. If you must write about the matter in your application, you could also briefly state the challenge (which caused the lower performance) and how you overcame it. Now, if you have several semesters of less than stellar grades, you may need to be more particular about the opportunities you apply for. Some are very competitive and you may not have a very good chance. Others may be more open to students with diverse experiences. I was laid off from a job once and was unemployed for about 8 months. I explain the event and the work I did in the role since my departure was involuntary. It usually is not an issue because I’d already graduated and I spent the 8 months being as productive as possible to find my next gig. As an undergrad, you may need be open to different types of internships which might have more flexible selection criteria.”- Dr. Carla Cotwright-Williams

 

Nicole Jackson is a technologist. In her latest role, she will apply sentiment analysis to machine learning to support market research and product innovation for some of the largest brands in the world. Nicole is currently a part-time student pursuing her Ed.D. with a concentration in Mind, Brain, and Learning in support of her interest in neuropedagogy and learning technologies. Nicole Jackson is one of 125 women within the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s IF/THEN Network and has been featured by Google Arts and Culture, California Academies of Sciences, and the International Surgical Science Museum in physical and virtual STEM exhibits.

 

 

Jeanie Nguyen is a healthcare strategist at Gilead Sciences. Jeanie’s work focuses on healthcare access, equity, and innovation. With a breadth of experience in the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, Jeanie has worked across product lifecycles from early planning/R&D, launching new products/commercialization, to sunsetting products. She was pre-med while earning her Bachelor’s Degree at Harvard University, but has since applied her STEM interest at the intersection of healthcare and business. From a first generation/low income background, Jeanie is passionate about mentoring and helping others navigate the education system and intern/job applications.

 

 

Dr. Carla Cotwright-Williams is a mathematician with 15+ years of experience in academia, U.S. Congress, Private Industry, and the Federal Government.

When you look back on your undergraduate experience what do you miss and what don’t you miss?

 

Looking back upon my undergraduate career, I miss the experience of taking various math and statistics courses. I attended a smaller HBCU, therefore, fewer math courses were available. Although the selection available was very informative, it left me wondering what more [was out] there and could I learn more?

I also miss the opportunity to speak with a TA if needed. TAs definitely bring a different perspective, given they are closer to the students compared to the professor. Mentorship from the professors, however, and camaraderie between the students was abundant. These types of relationships allowed me to have the confidence to continue my studies and ultimately have a career in data analysis.” Ariel Leslie

Dr. Ariel Leslie is a native of the DFW metroplex. Upon graduation from Plano East Senior High, she attended Texas Southern University in Houston, TX, where she obtained a BS in Mathematics and Health Studies. Dr. Leslie then received her doctoral degree of University of Texas at Arlington in Arlington, TX, in December of 2019. She studied and published in the area of computational/mathematical neuroscience, specifically Mathematical Modeling of G1D Glucose Transport Deficiency Epilepsy with a focus on EEG patterns to help identify the plausible mechanism that causes G1D epileptic behavior. While in graduate school, she was one of eleven National Science Foundation Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) scholars. Dr. Leslie obtained awards for her research and teaching abilities. She is currently a Data Analyst at Lockheed Martin. Dr. Leslie enjoys spending time with her family and friends, volunteering, and teaching children all about STEM. Sharing crucial information about education and helping others is her true life passion.

What course do you wish they offered in undergrad but didn’t and why?

 

I would have benefited from a course that introduces scientific career paths both in and out of academia. In my first year of college, I took a required course for my major (Kinesiology), which explained the types of careers one could pursue. Research or teaching were an afterthought. It wasn’t until my third year of college that I discovered I was interested in science, through talking to professors and graduate students. I think when students are selecting their field and taking introductory courses, it would be beneficial to understand what “going to grad school” and “being a researcher” can mean in any discipline.” – Amanda Finn

Amanda Finn is a Ph.D. student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the Department of Nutrition Sciences. She was fascinated by the human body in her early education, and intended to become a podiatrist until her junior year of college. She read a peer-reviewed article discussing the pathophysiology of type 2 diabetes and was motivated to keep asking questions about insulin resistance. Amanda then received research experience and professional development training through the Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) program at her undergraduate institution, California State University Long Beach. She decided to apply to doctoral programs that would allow her to study clinical populations and continue to learn about insulin resistance, endocrinology, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Amanda currently works with Barbara Gower, Ph.D., and is narrowing her research interests for her master’s thesis and eventual dissertation. She is open to different future career opportunities and wants to become a strong leader that can give back to underrepresented communities wherever she ends up. She hopes to give students a positive mentee experience with inSTEM because she experienced firsthand the benefits of mentorship throughout her education.

What tools or strategies do you use to balance work and life?

For me, the most powerful realization about work-life balance has been accepting that it will be a constant balancing act. You always have to be mindful of your bandwidth and energy levels to adjust as needed. There will be times when you need to put in the overtime and feel exhausted. There are times when you take a longer lunch and you cannot feel guilty about it. I like to put guardrails around my overtime, such as, I will push for three weeks until a deadline and then I will make sure I have protected time to recover appropriately.” – Jeanie Nguyen

Jeanie Nguyen’s work focuses on healthcare access, equity, and innovation. With a breadth of experience in the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, Jeanie has worked across product lifecycles from early planning/R&D, launching new products/commercialization, to sunsetting products. She was pre-med while earning her Bachelor’s Degree at Harvard University, but has since applied her STEM interest at the intersection of healthcare and business. From a first generation/low income background, Jeanie is passionate about mentoring and helping others navigate the education system and intern/job applications.

When interviewing for post grad job opportunities what words or phrases during the interview should I be listening for to indicate that this is a good opportunity vs. bad opportunity?

“During an interview for a post-grad job, listen for growth plans. The first growth plan involves your career path. There should be a clear established career ladder for your position, with time milestones. Verify this plan aligns with your expectations. The second growth plan involves the product or service the company offers. There should be a road map to show how the company plans to grow its offerings or customer base. This impacts the financial health of the company and your paycheck. Interviews are a two-way interaction.” – Robert Jaynes

Mr. Robert Jaynes is a Mechanical Engineering Manager in Robotics and Automation at Omnicell. He has 25+ years of design experience, creating automation for the Plastics and Medical Healthcare Industries. In the course of that time, Mr. Jaynes has been granted several U.S. and Canadian patents as an inventor for medical tools, packaging automation and robot guidance systems. His passion is innovation. Philadelphia is his hometown and Pittsburgh is his post-college residence.

Which soft skills did you have the most difficulty developing?

The following soft skills are not only the most difficult skills to develop, but also the ones that require constant “gut checks” to determine if you actually have them, or are able to exhibit them not only in every situation, but also those most difficult ones.  Teamwork, patience/empathy for others, time management, and effective communication are the most difficult soft skills to have and to develop.  The reason is that each and every one of us come to the table with our own set of experiences that influence our perceptions of ourselves and each other.  For example, the soft skill of teamwork was a difficult soft skill for me to develop, because I find it very difficult to work with colleagues who I perceive to be “users” who cannot or do not want to do their part of the work.  Therefore, as a defense mechanism, I found myself “sizing” up my colleagues on a given project looking for signs that would indicate whether the colleague was a “user.”  This resulted in me missing out on the experience of exchanging ideas and finding a common purpose with others.  Although teamwork is a soft skill that I may not have mastered, I am constantly evaluating my perceptions to make sure that I am not permitting my experiences to hinder both my personal and professional growth that comes with having and applying the above-mentioned soft skills. – Kezia Cook-Robinson

Ms. Cook-Robinson is a privacy and compliance professional who has 20 years of progressive experience in healthcare privacy and compliance focusing on privacy, security, privacy management, digital health and health IT, and data governance. She is passionate about protecting consumers, achieving legal compliance, and enabling companies to innovate and grow. Ms. Cook-Robinson aims to always contribute in a way to simply bring out the best in herself and others.

 

Was there ever a role you applied for and landed, but didnt feel 100% qualified to do?

“Yes! Applying and being selected for a role can create doubt.  I believe that is healthy and, in many aspects, realistic and motivating. Consider: why are you in a new role? You may have been promoted or may have left a work setting for a range of reasons – lack of career growth, wanting to make a change from an area that no longer has interest, or an unsatisfactory work environment. 

Applying for a job involves matching your interests, experience, and competencies to a position’s description.  This is typically followed by interviews and, if a good fit, a job offer.  Not feeling 100% qualified, sometimes called “imposter syndrome,” is an opportunity to develop a plan to ensure that your on-boarding to this new role provides a strong start.  That you have landed the role is a major commitment by your new employer, demonstrating their confidence that you are the right person for the role.  But you also have a lot to learn in executing skills and learning workplace culture. Build your tool kit, have a plan, and do all you can to have your first 90 days productive in learning your role and gathering intel on what you need to do to be successful in this role.  Don’t rely on one perspective.  Engage with your supervisor and others, ask for a buddy to help you learn the ropes.  The reality is that you were clearly qualified enough to be hired but now begins the harder work of learning how to do it and to do it well. Jonca Bull-Humphries

Dr. Bull is the Vice President of PDD Consulting, a clinical research organization that focuses on clinical and regulatory expertise over a range of therapeutic areas. Her work consists of guiding teams on the strategic development and implementation of clinical trials of innovative medical products. Dr. Bull has over two decades in policy development and advocacy of the importance of clinically meaningful inclusion of minority populations in clinical trials.

 

When and how did you figure out what you wanted to pursue as a career?

 

It may sound cliche, but I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a physician. Early on, I enjoyed helping people in my community and finding ways to improve other people’s lives.  Having that goal in the back of my mind drove me do my best in school and obtain my bachelor’s degree in biology. What solidified my decision was working in the emergency department as a scribe during my transition between undergrad and medical school. I saw the need for bilingual female physicians and used that as my motivation. Claudia Perez

 

Dr. Perez is a Dallas native who attended University of North Texas for undergrad. She is a first generation high school and University graduate. She enjoys volunteering in her community and spending time with her family. 

 

What is something you wish someone told you after graduating from undergrad?

 

I wish someone would have first reminded me that my undergraduate years were meant to be an opportunity for me to explore and start noticing what direction my brain and heart were pulling. Reminded me to trust where they were taking me and to try to figure out the WHY I was being pulled one way or another. I wish someone would have sat me down, looked me in the eye and reminded me to not minimize myself, my interests and intentions. It’s all learning, it’s all useful because it tells you something about who you are, where your strengths are and what lights you up. I wish someone would have reminded me that careers are not one stop destinations, they are winding and evolving and it is wise to keep honing and reinventing yourself as a professional and person. 

I wish someone would have reminded me that even after undergrad we often start at the bottom of the hill, it’s ok if your first job out of undergrad is not the perfect job, it most likely won’t be! But that’s ok, trust the path and follow your instinct. All jobs have some good and some bad, so be strategic about what skills and connections you grow. And also don’t forget to enjoy the moment, I have been guilty of spending so much time looking forward that I forget to slow down and take in what is happening now. Life after undergrad is also building time, it’s still exploring time so don’t forget to enjoy the time and the journey.”  Karen Andrade

Karen Andrade is a Consultant in the Science, Systems Thinking and Equity space. She is currently working with organizations like the UCLA Center for Diverse Leadership in Science and the Association for Science and Technology Centers. Karen completed postdoctoral fellowships at Stanford and the University of California, Davis, where she led biomedical and environmental health research to benefit marginalized and vulnerable communities. Karen earned a Ph.D. in Environmental Science, Policy & Management from the University of California, Berkeley. 

 

Do you have any tips on how to give and accept constructive criticism?

 

The most important tips regarding giving constructive criticism are to ensure that 1) the criticism is absolutely necessary; 2) the criticism is constructive (i.e., useful, timely, directed toward a modifiable action or product), 3) you are the appropriate person to give the criticism considering your position and any possible consequences or retaliation; and 4) you are specific and clear about what exactly you are criticizing and provide strategies to improve it.   Regarding receiving constructive criticism, the most important tips are to 1) focus on the aspect of your work or performance that is being criticized, rather than interpreting the criticism as a critique of your person; and 2) learn to show gratitude and appreciation for criticism because criticism makes you better and although you may not feel that way at the moment, most people criticize you because they want to see your work or your performance improve.”  – Valene Garr Barry

 

Valene Garr Barry is a Postdoctoral Research Scholar at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She completed her PhD at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Valene’s research investigates methods for early detection of disease risk and the association between body composition and risk for cardiometabolic disease in women. She serves on the NSTMF’s inSTEM Advisory Council. 

 

What is your best advice for someone about to start their Ph.D.?

 

“My biggest advice is to take the time to understand yourself and the rules of your field. It is important to have a good understanding of who you are and why you are pursuing a Ph.D. It helps to guide you and provide the motivation when times get hard (and trust me, they will). Oftentimes research doesn’t go the way you want and it can feel discouraging at times. Knowing why you are pursuing a Ph.D. will help to weather these storms. Also, remember that every field is different so take the time to learn the rules of your field. Like anything in life, it is hard to succeed if you do not know how you are being measured. This knowledge can be gained through conversations with your lab mates, advisors, and other mentors. You will be better equipped to excel in your Ph.D if you understand your why and the rules of your field.”  Emmanuel Johnson

 

 

Emmanuel Johnson is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Information Science Institute. He completed his PhD at University of Southern California at the Institute for Creative Technologies. Emmanuel’s research seeks to utilize artificial intelligence methods to build personalized learning system.

 

 

 

What is your philosophy on learning and how do you approach learning something new?


 

“Learning is a fundamental human activity. From the moment when we take our first breath, our bodies and brains are engaged in learning new things: how to get our mother’s attention when we are hungry, how to defy gravity by learning to stand and walk, how to read, and so on until the end of our days. I believe that continuous learning is essential to happiness and perhaps even survival, whether we are college students, professionals at work or enjoying retirement. How boring would life be without the daily delight of a new word, new route to work, new cooking technique, new data point, a new algorithm?”

“I think of learning in different categories, each requiring a different approach: academic learning, physical learning, and fun learning. For academic learning, I figured out that I need a lot of repetition. Especially if I am not familiar with the subject or simply don’t care about it. For this type of learning, my most impactful approach is to get a tutor or join a study group so that I can be exposed to a few different ways of looking at the subject at hand. My study groups in college are probably the number 1 reason why I was able to graduate. Some of my classes were very difficult and the professors did not have time to explain things in a way that I could process, so I would look for other students or teaching assistants who could. The more a concept or process would show up in my academic career, the better I got at it. I also noticed that when I delved deep into a subject I would start to dream of the answers to problems, or become more proficient in a language. This type of learning prepared me for my professional career. I have learned that my best way of excelling at a job is to learn from as many people and documents as possible, let all the information ‘be loose’ in my brain, then organize it with repetition. Physical learning is much more difficult for me. I am not naturally athletic and moving my body in ways that are unnatural to the way I learned to move as a child are a continuous challenge. However, I have learned that when my brain hurts from trying to learn line dancing, tennis, or hiking a difficult terrain (well, difficult for me…) it means that my brain is developing new pathways which are essential for brain and body health as I age. Getting a good night’s sleep is required for recovery and processing for both academic and physical learning. Fun learning is the everyday joy of figuring out something new. This takes very little effort and gives me great pleasure. Reading the newspaper, talking with strangers, trying a new craft or even watching a (high quality!!) youtube video are eclectic ways of keeping the mind and body engaged. It can also be very relaxing to learn something random. And you never know when you will use the information in a trivia game.” – Mayra Montrose

 

Ms. Mayra Montrose is the Senior Principal for Civil Space business development in the Space and Airborne Systems Sector at L3Harris.

 

How do you contend with anxiety on the job or in school?

 

“I think the first thing that should be done is acknowledging that you are having an anxious thought or feeling. From recognition comes understanding, and by understanding how anxiety manifests itself within your mind and body you can build a healthy management strategy. For me I always try to first determine if there is anything that I can do about my perceived ‘source’ of anxiety. Sometimes this is possible, but oftentimes there is nothing ‘in particular’ that is causing my anxiety, it is just a general feeling. Or I am anxious about something that I have no control over whatsoever.”

“For manageable cases I will often try a few anxiety techniques. Controlled breathing, going for a walk, talking to a friend, hugging my cat. For the times where I can affect the source I will try and enact a plan to do that. For example, if I am anxious about a presentation, I can practice in front of peers, I can reread and edit it, and/or I can record myself saying it. Just remember that confronting your anxiety is an act of bravery that you do not need to do on your own.” – John Montalbo

 

 

John Montalbo is a Data Scientist with Tarrant Counties Auditor’s Office; specifically, the Risk Evaluation and Consulting (REC) department.

What role do you think science communicators will play in the coming years in development of policy and how can we become better science communicators for our communities?

 

“Science communicators must be focused on building community in science in order to become better science communicators for our community. It sounds simple, but community building must be done intentionally, genuinely, and in a way that is culturally responsive to the community that we are seeking to serve. Policies are rules and guidelines that can impact people, and we need to get to the core of our communities to understand what other people want and need to thrive and be properly informed and educated.” – Raven Baxter

 

 

Raven Baxter is a nationally acclaimed science communicator and molecular biologist who works to progress the state of science culture by creating spaces that are fun, educational, and real.

How do you juggle your long-term goals with your short-term tasks and needs?

 

“Planning is an important step in achieving short- and long-term goals. I highly recommend making a to-do list based on priorities. For example, if a student is applying to graduate school while finishing undergraduate students, I would suggest generating a checklist with all the different requirements for the application process such as letter of recommendations, writing personal statements, etc. Each week, the student can accomplish a small goal while keeping tracking of the current assignments and responsibilities to finish their undergraduate degree. In addition, I suggest tapping into their networks (peers, mentors, and advisors) to play important roles in the long-term goals such as asking others to review and edit personal statements. It is very important to create a weekly calendar to reach small but attainable goals. At end of the process all the small steps will add up to complete the major goal.”  – Mary Garcia-Cazarin

 

 

Mary Garcia-Cazarin is a Scientific Advisor in the Tobacco Regulatory Science Program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH); she has extensive experience working across and within Federal agencies to implement disease prevention and public health initiatives.

How do you cultivate wellness in times of heightened stress?

 

 

A first step is to simply accept that stress and anxiety is normal and many external factors will exacerbate our degree of stress (i.e. pandemic). One thing that has helped me personally is to diversify my daily activities across many points of mental and physical wellness. This helps me build resilience in times of anxiety and pressure. You can think of it as a preventive measure of managing stress before it hits (because it will eventually!). Always take the time to care for yourself on a daily basis, whether it is taking a break from work regularly by exercising or practicing mindfulness. Developing a self-care routine is an essential part of wellness. And when crunch time hits, learn to savor the moment when you are done with a particular deadline or project (regardless of the outcome) and remember to always be kind to yourself! – Tarek Fadel

 

Black and white circular photo of Tarek Fadel

 

Tarek Fadel is Assistant Director at the MIT Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine. Dr. Fadel also serves in board and advisory roles in at the Yale Graduate School Alumni Association and the MIT Science Policy Review.

 

 

What was a moment in your career where you felt stuck, and what did you do to help you in that situation?

 

“Thatstuck’ feeling happened three years into my postdoc. I saw a couple career paths but none that interested me, and I didn’t want to try one and get stuck again. After some frustration, I kondo’d my career. This was before the Marie Kondo movement but that is what I did. I pulled apart my day-to-day and asked what brought me joy. When I saypulled apart’ – I looked at everything. From running gels to writing papers to middle-of-the-night lab visits when the freezer alarm went off. I learned that I found joy in conversations around high-level issues, for example why did researchers often use only male mouse models in studies. But, how to translate that, whatever that was, into a career? That’s when I did what I was best at – research. I read about all types of science careers, I did informational interviews with anyone that was willing, and I looked at a lot of job descriptions. In the end, I foundthat’ thing that brings me joy, science policy.” – Diana Pankevich

 

Photo of Dianna Penkevich

 

Diana Pankevich serves as the Director of Innovation Policy at Pfizer where she leads policy development for issues related to clinical trials, including enrollment, diversity, and data sharing.

 

 

 

“I felt stuck in my career when I was an assistant professor. I was having difficulty getting my work published, and I did not feel supported by my senior colleagues. The stress of being an assistant professor was having a negative impact on my marriage. I decided to put my personal life before my career and left my tenure-track position for a research position in the Federal Reserve System. Leaving academia gave me new and important information about how I interacted with my career. I was afraid of failing by not getting tenure. Once the stress of getting tenure was taken away, my research literally took off. After two years of being able to focus on my research, I returned to academia with tenure. I recommend that people be willing to make changes in their career and then learn from them. It’s your career, and it’s very important to make your career work for your entire life (personal and professional).” – Donna Ginther

 

Photo of Donna Ginther

 

Donna Ginther is the Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor of Economics and Director of the Institute for Policy and Social Research at the University of Kansas, as well as a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

 


 

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