Postdoc pathfinding (Part 1)

Dr Beth Linas is the Manger of Research and Science at Vibrent Health, a health technology company whose goal is to use data-driven and evidence-based solutions for preventing, monitoring, diagnosing and treating diseases.

Prior to this role, she served as a Science & Technology Policy Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) with the Smart and Connected Health Program, and the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research effort at the National Science Foundation.

Beth completed her postdoc fellowship in Infectious Disease Epidemiology at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health where she also completed her PhD (2014) and Masters of Health Science (MHS, 2010). Her research and policy interests include the application of computer science to advance health as well as understanding how to develop and scale evidence-based digital and mobile health platforms to improve health outcomes.

Beth is passionate about and works to promote scientists who communicate science. She tweets from @bethlinas.

The Research Whisperer was approached by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to feature a couple of their great fellowship stories. We were happy to showcase the fantastic opportunities available to scientists through their programs. If you’re interested in applying for the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowshipapplications are due November 1! Please note: you must hold US citizenship, or dual citizenship from US and another country.

If you know of non-US schemes that do similar things, please comment with links so that your colleagues can be aware of them and follow them up! 

Photo by Mike Enerio |
Photo by Mike Enerio |

I am a trained infectious disease epidemiologist. I attended graduate school to gain a specialised understanding of the theory and scientific method of this cornerstone of public health, whose goal is to analyse patterns, causes and effects of human health and disease conditions in population; to understand epidemics.

PhDs are trained to be professional thinkers. We are expected to think big, study difficult, extensive and puzzling scientific questions that require tenacity, patience and extreme focus. Traditionally, to do this, many trained epidemiologists remain in the halls of academic institutions funded customarily by federal grant dollars.

As a graduate student, I trained under individuals who did just that. In fact, my mentor was an MD, PhD; he had completed both medical and graduate school, and the subsequent training required to be a licensed physician researcher. Today, he remains faculty at the institution that granted him his PhD, first as junior faculty and now as a full professor. Academia is what he lives and breathes (although, he does see patients in a clinic). This is not a knock on my mentor. I received excellent training in epidemiologic methods, social and behavioral determinants of infectious diseases, as well as critical thinking, manuscript writing, grant development and more. I was fortunate to have such a focused and present mentor.

However, I was never interested in remaining in academia.

I have always considered epidemiology and its surveillance and research methodologies as tools in a tool box, a public health tool box.

When I was near completion of my degree, I looked for guidance from my dissertation committee and other faculty members on potential job opportunities outside of the halls of Schools of Public Health. I was met with surprise, shock, some anger and zero leads as to what I could do as an epidemiologist, the public health discipline designed specifically to examine populations (outside of a research setting)! Most remarked that they had never worked outside of academe, some recommended other researchers to talk to and others just said, “good luck.”

Thankfully, the skills that are required to complete a PhD – tenacity and grit – come in handy when trying to find real paying jobs. While a graduate student, I was selected to present my dissertation research at a conference on digital health (the specific area of epidemiology that I was doing research on and interested in moving into).

It was while at this conference that I met a scientist who worked in this area of public health who also happened to be a program officer at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and was beginning to fund research in this area. I admired that she was trying to pave the way for this new research topic at the federal level and she invited me to her office to speak with her about her work. I also admired her for being a forward thinker in health sciences. Our country needs more women recognised for this sort of work!

I spent a full day at the NIH with Wendy. For those who understand how busy program officers are, this was quite a generous act of mentoring. She was a trained psychologist and working in the Office of the Director at the NIH in the Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research growing the mobile health (mHealth) research and training program. We spoke about my passion for translating evidence-based public health research into actionable insights and it was then that she mentioned and recommended that I apply for an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF). I had never heard of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I did know of Science Magazine but did not know that the AAAS was the entity behind it. Now I know, my ignorance seems a bit shocking and utterly embarrassing.

After doing a deep dive into the history, reputation and purpose of the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowship, I found out that it’s a fellowship for scientists and engineers to learn about science policy while simultaneously contributing their knowledge and analytical skills to the policy-making arena. This led me to connecting with two alumni from my graduate program who were serving as fellows at the State Department, making me realise that my tool box of epidemiologic skills was a perfect match for this fellowship. I also realised science policy was a specific way I could apply my interests in translating public health research around digital health into actionable insights.

It was from these experiences that I decided to start my application to become a AAAS S&T Policy Fellow.

Here’s Part Two of Beth’s story about becoming an S&T Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.