Based on personal experience, Nina Dudnik highlighted the lessons learned and transferable skills gained when moving from academia to beyond the bench at the 2015 Naturejobs Career Expo in Boston.
Contributor Diana Cai
As a teenager, Nina Dudnik, now CEO of not-for-profit Seeding Labs, was fascinated by agriculture and genetics. After graduating from Brown, she spent several years working with scientists in developing countries on agricultural development projects. This included spending a year in a rice research lab in Ivory Coast. There, Dudnik was struck not only by the innovative scientists she met but also by the sparseness of the lab. There was only one PCR machine, and scientists had to wash and reuse equipment like pipette tips. Other labs she visited in Africa were in similar conditions. When she returned to the US to begin a doctoral program at Harvard, a wealth of resources was available to her. Dudnik started using her spare time to collect unused lab equipment and send them to researchers in need of them. This was the beginning of her path to what is now Seeding Labs.
Reflecting on her journey, Dudnik scoffs at the idea that careers other than academia are considered “alternative”. Unlike popular portrayal where inspiration suddenly strikes, it’s a slower, but important, realization, says Dudnik. Upon graduating, Dudnik started Seeding Labs, relying on skills she had acquired through her science education to help her through the process. She shared with the audience these ‘transferable’ skills:
Self-directed learning. As a result of their education, scientists know how to consult available resources to find answers they need and address uncertainties. When she first started Seeding Labs, Dudnik had little business experience but relied instead on her academic training to use resources to learn what she needed to know.
Asking good questions. Scientists are trained to ask specific questions for their experiments. Dudnik explained that instead of starting Seeding Labs with the goal of creating “equality for all scientists everywhere in the world,” she asked how she could increase access to lab equipment. The directed question helped lead her to defined actions.
Experimentation. By the nature of their lab experiences, scientists know how to tinker with problems and work around failures. This skill makes them less averse to risk and more adaptable to new environments, a useful quality when venturing outside a defined career path.
Protocol development. Those in Dudnik’s company who had not been scientifically trained froze at the prospect of having to develop a protocol, she recalled. They were unsure if they were doing it the correct way. Protocols aren’t set-in-stone but rather function as guidelines, Dudnik explains, offering a way for organizations to save time and troubleshoot problems as they arise.
Data analysis. According to Dudnik, for any organization, the ability to analyze data is extremely valued. “Being able to understand what to measure, how to measure it, how to understand the results and analyze them, and how to present them to people…are skills that [scientists] have been working on for years,” she said.
In addition to the skills scientists naturally acquire through their training, Dudnik emphasized the need for them to actively develop a few additional skills:
Public speaking and being able to “communicate what it is that you do and why it’s important,” according to Dudnik, is particularly critical. “I can’t tell you how important it has been for me,” she added.
Management skills, Dudnik said, are also important. People can be different, and the ability to motivate and work with all types of personalities is very helpful.
As Dudnik learned when she started Seeding Labs, grant writing to communicate business goals is essential for funding. Practicing this skill as a trainee would be extremely useful.
In regards to networking, “It is just talking to other people!” Dudnik said. She advised everyone to print business cards and go out to meet people. “It’s critical for everything you want to do now.”
“Take stock of the things you do for fun [and] the things you do in your spare time,” said Dudnik as she concluded her talk, encouraging the audience to determine their interests. Her career, she noted, emerged out of her passions, and she urged audience members to identify their passions, even if they fall outside the confines of a laboratory.