I’m back!

posted in: Updates | 11

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a post. The last substantial post was Biotechnology: communication and politics back in May! I’m slowly getting back into blogging as time allows, such as with the DNA for dinner, and I have quite a few drafts that need to be polished before publishing, half written posts that came about when I just couldn’t ignore some interesting biotech or ag news item despite my best efforts to stay away from Twitter. Just in case anyone’s interested in what I have been up to in my absence, here’s the details…

My summer job was to serve as a mentor for 10 wonderful, talented undergrads from all over the US. They were at Iowa State for a program called “Research Experience for Undergraduates” that I would recommend to any young people interested in science. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the students got free housing and food, plus a generous stipend. They got to work side by side with researchers at ISU all summer. For many of them, the research will result in a publication – a significant achievement for an undergraduate. The goal of the program is to allow students an opportunity to try “real” science, hopefully encouraging them to go to grad school, or, in some cases, helping them realize that research is not for them. Students who might not otherwise get a chance to do research are selected, such as those from small liberal arts universities and minority students.

My specific job responsibilities included taking care of administrative details such as in-processing to the university and helping to run weekly luncheons with scientists. The best part of the job was getting to organize field trips and go with the students. We went to Living History Farms, where students learned about farming methods from pre-colonization all the way to modern methods. We smelled and tasted local produce and other foods at the Des Moines Farmer’s Market. We spent a day at a conventional hog farm, seeing pigs from birth to adulthood. We learned about the medical side of research through a visit to the Mayo Clinic and about commercial agricultural research through a visit to Pioneer. Each trip was an adventure that was even more fun for me because I got to experience it through their eyes. REU is a wonderful program and I’m honored to have played a small part in it.

When I wasn’t running around to field trips or taking students to the social security office to get new cards, I was writing. And writing. And writing some more. Nights blended into days as I let my drive to write dictate when I slept and when I woke. I spent a lot of time at Vesuvius Wood Fired Pizza, where the authentic Italian pizza is so delicious and the atmosphere was quiet but not too quiet. The staff was very tolerant as I arrived at 11am when they opened then finally looked up bleary eyed as the diner crowd started to pour in, having spent the day on data analysis or re-writing a chapter for the millionth time.

The result of my labor is titled “Novel approaches to improving qualities of maize endosperm”. I will post parts of my thesis little by little in case anyone would like to read them, I’ll figure out a way to post it without having one huge long post.

At the end of July, my mom visited me in Iowa to help me pack the house, just as I was finishing my PowerPoint for my defense. She was there for a week but it seemed like much less as all of a sudden it was Friday the 22nd, the day of the defense! My mom stayed with the movers (yes, the movers came on the defense day, it was the only day they could come!) while I set up the snacks and projector for the defense. My best friend who now lives in another state even drove up to see the talk! My friends and colleagues from all over the university got to hear me give a mostly smooth talk, interrupted only a few times by me saying “ok, let me restate that, I’m getting ahead of myself” or something similar. It was really a comfort to have so many friends there to support me. After the seminar, everyone cleared out and it was time for the real questions.

My committee was great. They had really good questions, most of which I did well enough on, although I had to stop and take a breath when diagramming allele frequencies in my corn populations on the white board. I was nervous, although far less than I expected to be. No huge flaws were discovered, and I was announced as Dr. Bodnar. I’m still surprised that none of them called me on my long convoluted introduction that discussed everything from food insecurity to evolutionary plant breeding, but I suppose they were more concerned with my actual research.

It seemed fitting to go to Vesuvius for dinner, and then to my lab manager’s house for a going away party. My major professor’s daughter made lovely cupcakes that said “Congratulations Dr Bodnar” letter by letter! It was great to catch up with everyone, especially since I hadn’t spent much time in the lab over the summer. I didn’t even get to help in the fields this year, and didn’t get any sweet corn from our research plots. I still can’t believe that part of my life is over. Iowa State holds so many memories and so many wonderful people. I miss them very much.

There wasn’t much time for reminiscing, though. On Saturday, we had the trip to the hog farm, then Sunday it was time to head out! Pete and Peppy (the cats) were in their carriers, and Devin and Leila (the dogs) had their leashes hooked near the back door of my Matrix so they couldn’t climb into the front seat. Snacks and clothes filled the rest of the back, and my mom and I barely had room up front. We stopped in a great Marriott in Ohio that allowed all 6 of us to stay for a reasonable fee, and arrived at the townhouse on Monday at about 5pm. This is the townhouse that I rented sight unseen because it is impossible to find a place that will take four pets! It’s… ok. Let’s just say I was ready to move out before I even moved in. I didn’t have time to even think about finding another place, though, because I started work on August 1st!

Between writing, I was looking for positions with the USDA but they weren’t really hiring, with the budget cutbacks and all. I even applied for some regulatory affairs positions with big ag, but I’m overqualified (PhD rather than Masters) so didn’t even get any interviews. I went to a job fair at ISU, and while some of the jobs seemed sort of interesting, I really didn’t want to be another plant geneticist at Monsanto. I also really didn’t want to be an academic researcher scrambling for grants for years and years until maybe getting tenure. After teaching biology lab last fall, I knew teaching wasn’t for me either.

I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to go into some sort of science policy or science communication career. I’ve always felt the pull back to government service. Thankfully, my spouse is great at finding about neat opportunities and he told me about the Presidential Management Fellowship. Since the 1970s, this program has placed young people with graduate degrees into government bureaucracy. It’s a much needed injection of youthful creativity combined with advanced education that allows the US government to avoid getting stuck in the past (well, there are only so many of us, but we try!).

The application process is pretty rigorous. First, I had to convince Iowa State’s grad college to start an advertising campaign so they could accept nominations – because your school must nominate you for the program. Then, an online personality test determines if we are fit for government service. Finally, an all-day in-person interview that we had to pay our own expenses to get to. There was an individual and a team briefing exercise and a writing exercise. The applicant pool started at about 9000 and 850 were selected to be finalists. After being selected, we have to find out own jobs. I went to the PMF job fair in Washington, DC (paying my own expenses, again) but just wasn’t really that excited about any of the offerings. There were a few positions I could see myself enjoying, but they weren’t really career starters. Then, I went to happy hour. No, really.

GovLoop, a social networking service for government employees had a happy hour for new PMFs. I was tempted to stay in the hotel to grade finals, but decided networking was more important. At the bar, I bumped into an NIH employee that was previously a PMF but was now Special Assistant to the Director of HR at NIH. When I said I was a geneticist, he asked if I’d applied to NIH. My response: “NIH has jobs for PMFs?” NIH’s intern program was in a state of flux with a new program director coming on board, so they hadn’t advertised. I went back to the hotel and immediately applied. I was interviewed over the phone, and after waiting nervously for weeks, got a call at 7pm the day before my graduation ceremony that I had a job!

So, I’m a Presidential Management Fellow at the National Institutes of Health. What does that mean? This program has to be the single best opportunity in all of the federal government, and possibly anywhere else. For all of you grad students out there reading this, here’s the scoop:

It’s a two year fellowship, starting as a GS-9 with non-competitive promotion to 11 after the first year, and to 12 after the second year, assuming you stay with NIH (if you’re not familiar with these numbers, Google GS pay scale – it’s not extravagant, but it’s pretty nice after 6 years of research assistant pay).

During the two years, you are expected to do rotations lasting between 3 and 6 months with different offices. The location and subject matter of the rotations, among all 27 of the institutes, is up to the intern. I’m focusing on communications and legislative affairs, but will also try my hand at budget and grants management (we have to do 2 “core” rotations in budget, grants, administrative officer, or human resources). We get to meet with the executive officers of every institute (they are like the CEOs) and pretty much have a golden ticket to have an hour meeting with any higher level staff person we want (except maybe Dr. Collins, although I haven’t asked!). It’s networking heaven. We are also encouraged to get involved in NIH wide activities and committees. Oh, and I almost forgot, $2500 per year for personal development! I’m using my funds to get a certificate in Legislative Studies at Georgetown. Oh, and one more thing – we can do an external rotation anywhere in the US government. I’m trying to get a rotation on the Hill approved.

The NIH philosophy on this seems to be that the PMF program (and a few other intern programs) is the best way to grow their own managers. They’ve been involved with the program since the mid-80’s and the ranks of NIH are peppered liberally with former PMFs.

For anyone interested in NIH, they also have a ton of great programs for students from undergrad to post-doc levels. If you’d like more info on those let me know and I’ll try to help you find it. Same with the PMF program – they will start accepting nominations in mid September, so if you have any questions about applying please contact me ASAP.

So, that’s where I am, and how I got here. Now I just need to figure out what a former soldier with a doctorate in corn genetics and a blog about biotechnology is doing at the National Institutes of Health 😀

Thanks for reading my story!

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Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!