You can find her on Twitter @Steph_Guerra and at www.stephguerra.com
Undergrad: Carnegie Mellon University, Class of 2012; B.S. in Biological Sciences and B.A. in Hispanic Studies
Graduate: Harvard University PhD in Biological and Biomedical Sciences (cancer therapeutics), graduated in 2018
Current Job Title: AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the Veterans Health Administration
What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?
My love for science truly blossomed in college. In fact, I thrived in our first-year biology course so much so that my professor pulled me aside one day and asked whether I would be interested in joining his lab as a research tech. I spent the next four years going in and out of his lab on weekends, in between classes, any time I could find the time. My friends called me “Bio” because I was the only one in our group who actually enjoyed the subject. My research in my undergraduate lab was very basic developmental biology work- I studied how the sea urchin embryo developed! It taught me a lot about the value of model organisms and how seemingly basic discoveries can ultimately make a huge impact in biomedical fields.
A huge turning point for me was when I spent the summer before my senior year of college interning at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This was my first exposure to how working in the lab could lead to direct patient impacts. I loved the idea of working more closely on issues that would improve the lives of others. And this became a general trend in my career, moving closer and closer to the patient. In graduate school, I worked in a research lab to develop new cancer therapeutics using cancer cells and mice as preclinical models. And my first job out of graduate school is working in the Veterans Health Administration as a science policy fellow tasked with building clinical and research infrastructure so that Veteran patients have access to a variety of services including opioids safety, pain management, and the best cancer care possible.
Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.
During graduate school, my love for science communication and engagement strengthened. I found I most enjoyed speaking to non-scientists about my work and took every opportunity to translate scientific findings to new audiences. Part of this work happened within the science outreach organization Science in the News. It was here that I developed strong connections with other graduate students who also held a passion for their lab work and for communicating it to the public. These colleagues continue to inspire me every single day as we have all gone on to pursue diverse careers, all of which involve some form of scientific translation. This pattern has continued throughout my career with my colleagues and cohorts being my primary source of support and inspiration.
Another individual that I deeply admire is Dr. Angela DePace. She is a professor at Harvard who runs her own research lab and despite the many pressures of being a junior professor, she still pursued multiple passion projects outside of her lab work including the establishment of a fully funded initiative to increase the civic engagement of the scientific community. Through the Scientific Citizenship Initiative, Dr. DePace aims to make science more socially responsive and responsible by empowering scientists to collaboratively engage with their communities through both curricular and extracurricular offerings. She also teaches and writes about science communication and is widely recognized for her mentorship. I find it really inspiring that she works so diligently for these important aspects of scientific training that aren’t often valued in the traditional academic system.
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?
Honestly, graduate school itself is really just a whole series of never ending moments of doubt. It can be truly miserable, but also extremely refreshing. Much of the doubt that I had during graduate school stemmed from being surrounded by incredible classmates and lab-mates and trying to figure out where my skill sets and passions fit in. To overcome these persistent feelings of doubt, I decided to hone in on what made me happy. I followed my happy throughout graduate school, participating actively in extracurriculars, founding new organizations, organizing events, and leading teams of my peers. I took on each new adventure and chose new challenges based on what got me excited to work long hours both in the lab and outside of it. After doing this for a few years, it became clear that I had a true passion for translating technical scientific information into language that anyone could understand. My doubts became less about my own self-worth, and more about what exciting things I could possibly do next! Another big component of this journey was finding mentors and colleagues outside of my lab environment who shared these passions. You can do this through extracurricular activities, professional societies, unique conferences, or even social media like Twitter!
Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.
Most of the twists and turns in my training and career path came from situations that might initially be viewed as ‘failures’, but instead turn into opportunities. I’m a strong believer of things happening for a reason but you also have to actively make that reason a reality. Here are a few examples.
I came into graduate school with this naive idea that if you’re smart and work hard, your research project should be a breeze. And boy, was I wrong. I spent my first year of graduate school working on a research project that ultimately failed. There was a good three months that I spent trying to salvage it before I finally had to call it a loss. To be honest, I felt a lot of embarrassment about having to switch to a new project and thought that it would set my timeline back. But this first true experience with failure, even in the face of hard work, made me appreciate that some things are outside of your control- and also, just because a project did not make it to publication, doesn’t mean that it is a failure. I learned a lot through the process including what types of topics excited me and this helped me to pivot my thesis work to focus primarily on therapeutic discovery.
During my fourth year of graduate school, I was extremely jaded by the concept of academia. Specifically how you work extremely long hours that often do not translate directly into deliverables. Plus, you are paid very little for your efforts. In my head, the exact opposite of academia was consulting and I became very interested in pursuing this as a career. I spent months and months preparing for the intense case interviews that you must pass to become a consultant and even spent many days at workshops with large consulting firms. I felt so ready to become a consultant, working long hours on a variety of projects. I was convinced that to be passionate about your job meant working long hours (thanks, graduate school!). While I performed well in my first round interviews, I completely CHOKED during the in-person second round interview at my dream firm in my dream city. I did extremely poorly on the case interview, I was tongue tied, and I could barely get through it without bursting into tears at my own disappointment. Looking back, I am extremely thankful that I did not get that job. I was closing way too many doors to other careers way too soon. And I could not imagine not working in policy where I am now. Serendipitously, I think choking during a major job interview was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.
My interests outside of the lab include science communication, science policy, and community engagement- all related to science, but more about how science interacts with society. I love getting out of the lab!
I have a few examples of how I incorporated these into my work. First and foremost, I gave a talk to a non-scientist audience about my thesis work. This was a really fun challenge to figure out ways to explain my work and its importance to people who don’t pipette at a bench all day. I even used many of the graphics from this talk during my actual thesis defense. Something that I wish I had done for my written thesis is write a supplementary chapter about patient access to precision medicine. This was a health policy topic area that I loved learning about as I worked to develop new therapies for lung cancer patients. I’ve seen others add supplementary policy chapters to their thesis and I think it’s a really awesome way to contextualize your work. Though I did not write about societal impacts of science in my thesis, I still had the opportunity to do a lot of writing for various blogs, organizations, and essay contests in my free time. I loved taking the time to step back from the bench and think deeply about the big picture. Once I realized that I loved the time back away from the bench more than the time at the bench, that’s when my career path in science policy was solidified.
Is there some advice you could share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.
A mantra I always followed in graduate school and beyond has been “ask for forgiveness, not permission”. It’s so important to forge your own path forward and sometimes that means participating in activities, organizations, or opportunities that no one before you has done before. In graduate school I took multiple cross-registered courses at the business school, the school of public health, the law school, you name it. This wasn’t something that students in my graduate program often did but I wanted to follow my passions outside of the lab. I also participated in a philanthropic consulting project and was the first biomedical PhD student they ever had apply for the program. I founded a brand new science engagement event that is now in its sixth year running. I helped develop a center for scientific citizenship. Through all of this, I did not ask my PI if it was okay for me to do any of these things- I just knew that I would be able to balance the hard work in the lab with the challenging work outside of it.
I also found that when I took on one new project or passion, it opened up additional opportunities. For example, I became interested in the concept of scientific reproducibility so I wrote a blog article on this topic. This blog article was found by a company who then invited me to join them as a consultant. Once I had that experience as a consultant, I felt confident enough to apply to the philanthropic consulting project where I worked on a project related to improving biomedical research integrity. And then all of this led me to collaborate with multiple companies to put on a symposium on research reproducibility on my campus. Each one of these experiences expanded my network and gave me new insights into what sort of career I wanted to pursue after graduate school.
A few additional pieces of advice:
- Talk to lots of people at all levels of their career- those ahead of you in career path, below you in career path, and your contemporaries
- Connect to communities on Twitter through appropriate hashtags such as #scipol, #sciengage, #scicomm
- Seek out fellowships and internships for career transitions
- Always check the emails your listservs send you- they often have great opportunities you’d never find otherwise!