Nicole Frank, PhD


Twitter: @theFrankers (not super active)

  • Undergrad:
    • University of Idaho (’05) – Microbiology
  • Graduate School:
    • South Dakota State (’07) – MS – Veterinary Microbiology
    • Idaho State University (’16) – PhD – Pharmaceutical Sciences
    • Arizona State University (’17) – Masters of Science and Technology Policy (MSTP)

Current job title: Associate Director – Immunology, Inflammation, and Infectious Disease Initiative.

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue? 

Honestly had no idea what I wanted to do.  My parents said I was good at science, so I looked at engineering programs and pre-veterinary programs. I ended up at UofI as a Pre-Vet (with everyone else). During school, I took a microbiology class and loved it (mainly the lab) and switched majors. It helped a lot when I learned more about the realities of life as a vet and knew that career path was not for me. It all feels very lucky in hindsight as I certainly didn’t plan this as an 18-year-old. I knew that science or engineering was likely where I belonged in the spectrum of college majors, but didn’t feel a pull towards anything other than a “practical” degree. (My parents would probably tell a different story that makes this sound more intentional 🙂 )

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

There were so many people in my PhD program who helped me as a super non-traditional student finish (baby and FT job). I couldn’t name them all without filling out pages and pages of names. My final PhD advisor was amazing. He adopted me when I needed an advisor (even though my project was totally out of his wheelhouse) and helped me finish the program. We even went to a Gordon Conference together just to try to figure out where to take my project.  I would not be Dr. Frank without him. 

My first supervisor is the one who helped me see that my strengths and skills were away from the bench. I thought I was in trouble when he started assigning my all the reporting duties and tasks. He was surprised I had no idea that I had aptitude in these areas. I would probably have been a lab rat for life if it wasn’t for him.

My supervisor while I was at the VA came from a scientific admin/development background, and she helped me see that this was a viable career path and cheered me on.

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

I suffered from clinical depression in my teens and part of college. This made it hard to care about anything and study. I had some supportive professors, but at the end of the day, it was the medication that helped rebalance everything so that I could focus. I suppose perseverance was the key there. I didn’t let a bad semester drive me away from college.

Also, as a pre-vet major, GPA is king. This turned college into just a focus on getting A’s and not learning the material. Once I changed my major and relaxed about my GPA, my classes were more interesting, and I performed better on assessments. 

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path. 

Haha. I feel like my entire career has been a surprising twist. I started as a research scientist for Novartis working on cattle vaccines. Novartis paid for my MS degree. Otherwise, I’m not sure I would have gone back to school immediately.  I then moved to a state health department lab where I tested water, tracked food-borne outbreaks, ran tests for STD, etc. Next, I moved to the VA as a research scientist working on the cardiotoxic effects of anthracyclines. Through that position, I learned to two really important scientist life lessons, I saw what it looks like to have funding dry up for a previously well-funded researcher, and I was reminded how degrees matter if you want to move out of the lab.

While I was at the VA, I went back to school for my PhD. The VA position eventually ended, but I kept at my PhD. I knew going into that program that I wanted to work in research administration/research development/science policy (I didn’t understand the distinction at the time). This didn’t make my committee happy, but I kept at it and eventually graduated (and had a baby!).

In the final years of my PhD I was hired as the Biological Sciences Department Chair at the College of Western Idaho. During this time, I would work on my PhD in the evenings and weekends and work on biology curriculum during the day. The folks involved in NW PULSE taught me so much and helped shaped a really strong curriculum at CWI that will hopefully help improve the STEM pipeline in the state of Idaho.  

I knew that my scientific skills weren’t going to be enough to help me succeed outside of the lab in these more grey-zone positions and I had my eye on applying for the AAAS policy fellowship, so I enrolled at ASU and earned my MSTP from them. One month after defending my MSTP, I saw the job position for my current position, and it was everything I had ever explained I wanted to do as a job. I couldn’t believe my luck. (I haven’t completely written off the AAAS fellowship, but for my family and where I am in life, this position is ideal). 

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your nonscientific interests into your work. 

My current position is a perfect example of this, but in reverse. I bring my science interest to my administrative work. Research development is usually classified as “science-adjacent”. Basically, I used my administrative skill set to help advance science. In my position I work on grants as a team science facilitator (sometimes as a writer), I work on materials that will be shared with donors, and I get to work with over 150 very talented researchers to help them find collaborators or remove administrative barriers to help them do their job. It’s a lot of fun to do the high-level part of scientific discovery without crying over ruined western blots in the lab on Saturday nights.

Is there some advice you could you share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path. 

Don’t stress too much about knowing what your end goal is, find something that works for you right now and pay attention to your strengths (and what people tell you are your strengths). When something hits your sweet spot, pivot towards that. Science has a huge field of careers, and just because you are on one track doesn’t mean you can’t jump over to something else.

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