Postdoc pathfinding (Part 2)

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 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 programs that do similar things, please comment with links so that your colleagues can be aware of them and follow them up!

[Part 1 of Beth’s story appeared last week]

Photo by Mike Enerio |
Photo by Mike Enerio |

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF) application process is in-depth, challenging and long.

I submitted my initial application 1 November, 2014, and it wasn’t until July 1, 2015 that I knew where I was going to be placed. The placement process is much like a medical residency match. The office must choose you, and you must indicate that you are interested in serving in that office (after an extensive week of interviews in Washington, DC).

I was most interested in working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It was the agency I was most familiar with, given my training. I was taught very specifically the process and methods for crafting a grant to match NIH guidelines and regulations, I had been on the campus, I knew people working at the NIH, and I knew those who worked there were trained in public health.

But, to my surprise, I interviewed in the Directorate for Computer & Information Science & Engineering at the National Science Foundation with a program entitled Smart and Connected Health.

Even more surprising, during the interview process I ran into Wendy (from the NIH). She had moved over to the NSF to lead the Smart Health Program. Of course, I took this as a sign but I was also immediately energised by the Smart Health Program mission to develop next generation health care solutions. The program encouraged existing and new research communities to focus on breakthrough ideas in a variety of areas of value to health, such as sensor technology, networking, information and machine learning technology, decision support systems, modeling of behavioral and cognitive processes, as well as system and process modeling. I knew I would be challenged by being a “health person” in a computer science division (as well as being a non-computer scientist) but I was excited by the possibility to work with Wendy, a leader in this continually changing field, someone who understood my epidemiology background and how it could be used in program management and science policy.  I was fortunate enough to match with this program.

As an AAAS S&T Policy Fellow, I was given an opportunity I didn’t even know existed and I learned so much more than I could have imagined. I learned the nuances of federal funding program management (i.e. developing funding announcements, reviewing research proposals and organising peer review panels). I developed and led large workshops on computer science for health research (in both the US and Finland – I got to go to Finland!) and engaged in policy development as the Executive Secretary for the National Science and Technology Council (a council that sits in the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House), Committee on Technology, Technology for Aging Task Force (Tech4Aging), a task force created to develop the federal government’s research strategy to identify key Research & Development (R&D) priorities for technologies that support aging adults.

I was also given the opportunity to work with the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) Program where I served as the technical coordinator for the Health Informational Technology (Health IT) working group. It was here that I provided technical leadership, management and guidance to inter-agency working group in drafting and editing the strategic framework for Health IT in government.

This work may seem outside the scope of my research interests in digital health but it provided me with a complete view for how basic science research is used by the government and translated into policy. I guess you could say it goes from the 5-foot view to the 20,000-foot view! It was invigorating to be a part of an agency whose mission aligned with my priorities as a researcher.

Perhaps the most unique experience during my fellowship was my work in a domain completely foreign to me. At NSF, I was a member of the team tasked with building the White House-sponsored Platforms for Advanced Wireless Initiative (PAWR), a $100 million public-private partnership developed to enable the experimental exploration of robust new wireless devices, communication techniques, networks, systems, and services that aimed to revolutionise the nation’s wireless ecosystem. I have a passion for wireless and digital health but I knew nothing about how the US wireless ecosystem functioned or was developed. Working on this program let me see and understand how important and necessary basic wireless networking is for our country and how, without continual advances to this field, my domain interest of health would not be able to advance.

I was also able to give back to the fellowship as well. Over the course of my time at NSF, through my attendance at many national conferences and professional development workshops, I began to realise science communication is both misunderstood and not very well done by the scientific community itself. Not enough scientists are trained in communication (we are mostly trained to write manuscripts!), nor are they particularly good at it (sad, but true).

The fellowship already has a great platform for fellows to enhance and grow their scientific communication skills through their blog, Sci on the Fly. I took this one step further and created the first Science & Technology Policy Fellowship podcast. I created, produced and oversaw the production of the podcast as an additional forum for scientists to communicate and spark a public dialogue about science and science policy in a format that is rapidly growing. In the time since our launch (May 2016) we have created seven podcasts.

Two years as a fellow flew by and, thanks to the fellowship, I was lucky enough to find a job with a company working with the National Institutes of Health on the ‘All of Us’ program, formally the Precision Medicine Initiative. I am forever thankful to Wendy for all the opportunities with which she provided me, her mentorship and friendship, and I am thankful for the scientific training I received at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, but I am profoundly aware of my life-changing experiences with American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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