How Sabine Blankenship went from neuroscience researcher to professional networker
After completing a PhD and postdoc in experimental neuroscience labs, Sabine Blankenship had no desire to run her own lab. Here she describes how her passion to study abroad led her from experiments that had become frustrating to outreach she finds invigorating. She now works in the German Consulate General in San Francisco, where she helps set up international research collaborations and keep the German government abreast of US advances, particularly in renewable energy and regenerative medicine.
Tell me about your job
It’s part of the German foreign service. My job title is scientific liaison; we are installed in scientifically important cities like Washington DC and Boston. We’re the first point of call for setting agendas for visiting VIPs, maintaining networks, and fostering collaborations across industry and academia in the two countries.
Why did you go to graduate school?
In Germany you enroll straight away in a specialty. For me it was biology and biochemistry. The last 9 months of that is a research project, and that led to my PhD. That is the notion that everybody had; everyone goes on and continues a PhD. I should have started to explore career options sooner.
But you did seek out non-laboratory experience. Was that important?
After university, it was my sincere desire to go abroad. I went to Cairns, Australia; the enrollment fees for a programme in biomedical work were too high, but a program in tourism also included courses in management and business. I figured that would be good for anything that I needed to do in the future. And when I came back to Germany for grad school, I did a certificate in economics. When I applied for the consulate job, there was an interview question about what I had done that would indicate that I was interested in science management, and that was one of the things that I could point to.
Tell me about your postdoc
I didn’t want to be a PI, but I thought a postdoc was something I could do to go into industry and to have a fun year abroad. There are a lot of scholarships in Germany that fund postdocs in the US.
When I started at my postdoc at UCSF, I wanted to know how the brain works. It was purely interest-driven, and I didn’t think about what career would come of it. I had done recordings in oocytes before, and I was moving to dual patch clamp recording in neurons. It was slower than I thought. I didn’t enjoy patching, and I had to force myself to do it. After a couple years, I had this moment where I realized, “Life is too short; if you don’t enjoy what you are doing, you need to find other things.”
What clued you in to the job you have now?
I had visited the UCSF careers office; they have this systematic process where they help you explore different career options. I became interested in science policy. The German Scholars Organization had organized a careers fair, and I saw the consulate job advertised. I had no notion that consulates were looking for scientists.
What appealed to you?
In a postdoc, you’re very deep into your tiny part of your protein, and I wanted to have something that was more general. Here, you have focus areas –but it’s very broad. I just learn new things all the time. And I have colleagues—the civil servants get transferred every three years–that have seen the world. It makes for a wonderful work environment.
Tell me about one of your favorite memories on the job.
There was a stem cell researcher from Germany who was part of a workshop at Stanford University, and he brought his jazz band over—his singer and three or four more people. I got to announce that following the scientific presentations there would be a jazz concert. That was one of those perfect moments mixing culture with science.
What advice do you have for other scientists looking for jobs?
Once I visited the career office it opened possibilities. If I had known about them sooner, I could have explored more. One regret that I have is that I applied for only one job, and I got it.
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