Panel Advises Aspiring Scientists on Finding Career Paths

Bowdoin professors and alumni present a panel conversation on careers in science

Bowdoin professors and alumni present a panel conversation on careers in science

Reported by Raleigh McElvery ’16

Scientists are used to following rigorous procedures and predicting specific outcomes — and yet even in the most controlled environment, in science and in life, an element of uncertainty always remains. That uncertainty is something to embrace, according to participants in the Nov. 11 panel conversation “What Can I Do With a Degree in Science?” in Main Lounge, Moulton Union.

Co-sponsored by Bowdoin Career Planning, the Office of Health Professions Advising, and several academic departments, the six-person panel comprised professors and alumni representing a variety of science-related pursuits in academia, industry, biotechnology, finance, and more. The theme of the night, said Director of Health Professions Advising Seth Ramus in his introduction, was “happy accidents.”

Serendipitous discovery was indeed a recurring motif, as most panelists admitted to stumbling upon their current interests partly by happenstance. Trista North ’96, an assistant professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, reminded students that unpredicted results often lead to exciting discoveries.

“You can have your hypotheses,” North said, “but sometimes having an open mind is what makes us take great leaps forward — so don’t get too down if things don’t work out the way you thought they would.” Bowdoin’s Visiting Assistant Professor of Chemistry Yi Jin Gorske agreed. “Some things in life that you may think are mistakes at the time can turn out to be worthwhile,” Gorske said. Gorske encouraged the audience to remain receptive to unexpected possibilities, as the path to a career in science is often far from linear.

It’s not always easy, either — but that can be a good thing. Ryan Nelson, a visiting professor at Bates College and former postdoctoral fellow at Argonne National Laboratory, reflected on the ultimate value of his own difficult transition from the academic sphere to the workplace. “I really had to figure things out for myself, and that’s a hard skill to learn,” he said. “Before shooting off an email to your professor, try figuring out the problem on your own.”

The panelists showed that experimentation, a central component of scientific research, is also an important part of pursuing a career. Discovering what you don’t want to do helps determine where your interests lie, said panelist Ken LeClair ’77, director of gene and cell therapies at the pharmaceutical company Novartis. “Don’t be afraid to fail – if it doesn’t feel right, get out,” said. “You can’t force a square peg into a round hole. John Thorndike ’02 drove the point home: “I’m on this panel to tell you that you can drop out of a Ph.D. program and still be okay.”  Thorndike, a physics major while at Bowdoin, is now managing director and deputy chief investment officer at The Investment Fund for Foundations.

To those fearing departure from the Bowdoin bubble, research geophysicist and filmmaker Dan McGrath ’06 offered encouragement, saying that the resourcefulness of Bowdoin students equips them to face challenges in all aspects of life. “There is a certain set of skills that you learn here at Bowdoin: the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that apply to every field of work,” he said.

Though the panelists’ advice stemmed from their own journeys, Ramus concluded that these words of wisdom apply to all students — not just science majors. “Everyone here at this table is doing something they love,” he said. “And that’s not because they’re doing science, but because they have found something about which they’re truly passionate.”

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