Steering Your Own Course: From Bench to Policy

By Ashley Huderson

As a young African-American woman in science, I have a deep respect for the saying “To whom much is given, much is required.” While my PhD journey in biomedical research was initially driven by my love of science, I ultimately decided my passion was not solely for bench research but for more science-driven health policy work. Transitioning from molecular-trained bench scientist to a health policy scholar can be daunting; I was not able to find much written information on how to make this transition. My search for career guidance ultimately led me to Dr. Ann Bonham, Chief Scientific Officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), and Dr. Judith Bond, President of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). Fascinated by their stories, I interviewed these women so others can draw from their experiences. Talking with them not only opened my eyes to additional possibilities for using my science degree, but they showed me the strength, power, and responsibility that comes with being a leading woman in science.

Q: How did you know you wanted to step away from the lab bench and pursue other options? Once you decided to leave the bench, what steps led you to your current position?

Dr. Bonham: I had a laboratory for 20 years while working at UC Davis. During this time, I served as a faculty member, division chief, department chair, and executive associate dean while continuing my NIH-funded research. Coming to the AAMC gave me the opportunity to discuss opportunities and policies to support the full spectrum of medical research – from fundamental discovery to community engagement research to health care system redesign to evidenced-based solutions to address health disparities – on a national scale.

Dr. Bond: I got interested in public policy and policies that affect scientists pretty late in my career. It wasn’t until I was a professor, and it evolved rather than being a decision made where I stepped away. Even until my retirement from Penn State, I had a lab going. So it was not really a step away, but it was when I was in the research arena and had established my research program that I got into public policy.

Q: What will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of women scientists?

Dr. Bonham: The obvious things that come to mind are: Will there be funding for my research? Is there a career pathway for me? And how do I establish a work–life balance that I’m happy with? These are perennial challenges that have faced women for a number of years. And I think they will continue to be challenges for 20-, 30-, and 40-year-old women.

Dr. Bond: I think it is finding the right “niche.” There is a lot of work involved in this process. You have to find mentors; they are very critical in any area you go into. Then you have to reconcile in your own mind where you want to go, what you want to be spending most of your energy on. Sometimes that is not so easy.

Q: How do you feel about so-called “traditional and non-traditional” science pathways, as well as the push to keep basic scientists at the bench?

Dr. Bonham: In terms of traditional and non-traditional, I think the recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) biomedical workforce report added some clarity to these terms. Fundamentally, about 43 percent of scientists go into academic research (tenure and non-tenure). Looking at the range of experiences basic scientists have, we should replace those terms with the broad scope of research and science opportunities for PhDs. They should be encouraged to go into a field to do what they do best, which includes a variety of opportunities.

Dr. Bond: I do not like the words traditional and non-traditional to describe career pathways. For the past 20 years, fewer than 50 percent of all our PhD graduates in the biomedical sciences have gone into research-intensive, tenure-track academic positions. It has never been the majority, and the percentage continues to decrease. So in reality, that has not been “traditional,” but people have thought of it that way. This idea to “push” to keep basic scientist at the bench is also inappropriate. What the PhD gives you is a critical way of thinking, a way to problem-solve, an understanding of how science works and how we accumulate scientific knowledge, what kinds of technologies are used to get the answers, and what the promise of science is.

Q: What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership, especially in the sciences?

Dr. Bonham: There is no silver bullet in terms of a particular barrier. I think there are multiple ways to respond to the individual needs of women who have chosen for some reason not to pursue leadership roles. We also should look at women in leadership positions and figure out how they have been successful in getting to their positions.

Dr. Bond: I think there are multiple reasons. First, there is a drop-off between training and professional career advancement. Usually this happens in the 30-year-old range, and women are concerned about childbearing. Geographically, some women are tied to a certain location, limiting their opportunities. Second, many do not have the confidence that their male counterparts have, which affects aspiring to leadership positions.

I read a book early in my career that showed me how men and women grow up differently in the spirit of competitiveness. Though that has changed significantly, I think it is that mentality that you are going to have to “compete and fail, that things won’t work, that things will be rejected, things will not work out the way you planned.” Also you’ll be criticized; you have to be able to deal with that. You must get up and keep fighting.

Q: If you could go back in time, what three pieces of advice would you give to your 30-year-old self?

Dr. Bonham: I actually have four questions I would have asked:

  1. Am I doing what is important and meaningful, and that I love right now?
  2. Where do I want to be professionally in five years?
  3. Do I have an appropriate network of colleagues and friends I’m helping and who are helping me get to my goal?
  4. Am I giving back enough to all the people who helped me along the road, and am I giving to people coming up behind me?

Dr. Bond:

  1. Look for models or examples of what you want to be. Try the best things you see in different models.
  2. You can’t do everything! You can’t play tennis and be a great athlete as well as be great at the bench as well as be a great advocate for research. You have to be selective with what you put your energy into. Sometimes that means you have to put off some things, but not necessarily forever.
  3. You have to get all the help you can. Utilize all resources to help propel you where you want to go.

As I near the end of my PhD work, I look to Doctors Bonham and Bond as examples of how to break the mold and explore options. These extraordinary women not only mastered the art of science at and away from the bench, but also successfully navigated male-dominated professions. Their different journeys led them to branch out while remaining loyal to their passions. As I continue my journey as a scientist, I will continue to look for examples of women who have blazed trails before me and not only left a path to follow, but also leave valuable advice along the way.

—Ashley Huderson is a former intern in the Health Care Affairs department at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). She has a certificate in Health Policy through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and is a PhD student at Meharry Medical College. She can be reached at ahuderson06@mmc.edu

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