Spotlight Interview – Sarah Ellinwood, Ph.D.
1. Tell us about your background (both educational and professional).
I received my BS in Biology from Roanoke College in 2012 and my Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Maryland, College Park in August 2017. My doctoral research focused on understanding the molecular mechanisms by which Mycobacterium tuberculosis (the bacterium that causes tuberculosis in humans) evades the immune response to cause disease. While I enjoyed the scientific aspects of my work, I knew from the start of my Ph.D. that I didn’t have long-term career aspirations in doing bench top research. And, like many others in graduate school, I was unaware of other career options for science PhDs besides academia or industry.
Unfortunately, my graduate program at the time provided limited resources for helping students transition beyond the bench, so I sought mentorship outside my department by joining Women In Bio and attending meetings and networking events around the DC area. I started connecting with like-minded women and learned more about the exciting careers in fields like science policy and science communication. After realizing that I enjoyed talking to people about science much more than doing science at the bench, I began searching for jobs in the science communication field.
Following graduation, I began working as a medical writer for a Bethesda-based CRO called Technical Technologies International (TRI), which offers a variety of services to different organizations, with a primary focus on the NIH. More specifically, I was providing regulatory writing support for clinical trials sponsored by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). TRI was a great first step out of graduate school, as I learned a lot about clinical trial development and the latest progress in the cancer field. While I was satisfied with my work, I also wanted to explore the more creative aspects of medical writing and communication, which led me to my current job as an Associate Analyst and Medical Writer at Verge Scientific Communications in Tysons, VA. Here, I work alongside a team of seasoned communication professionals to help up-and-coming biotech companies craft and tell their scientific stories. I’ve been at Verge for a year now and have loved every minute so far!
2. What are your top three tips for women who are just starting their careers?
My first piece of advice would be to keep an open mind – something that people often told me when I began my first job out of grad school. Many people think that their first job after graduate school will be the career trajectory they stick with until they retire, but this is usually not the case. If you are dissatisfied with your current position, you should not settle and instead explore alternative opportunities. My suggestion would be to active in your community and continue attending networking events and having informational interviews with people in different careers. Reaching out for advice never hurts and, based on my experience, people are generally happy to help because they’ve been there.
A second piece of advice is to never be satisfied. By this, I mean, always keep learning and talking to others. Even if you have a job that fulfills you, continue to network in professional circles and strive to learn new skills. There is always a value in making new connections! In fact, the way I landed my current job at Verge was through connecting with the founder/president of the company on LinkedIn. I met with her for coffee to learn more about science communication agencies and her career path, which ended up turning into an impromptu interview and eventual job offer! In conclusion, you never know who you will end up meeting and where it might lead you.
Lastly, remember to leave the ladder down for others. Even as you advance in your career, it is important to mentor those that are more junior to you. During graduate school, I met so many people who supported me and offered much-needed advice, and it was pivotal in helping me get to where I am today. It is very important for me to pay it forward, and I always enjoy talking to graduate students/post docs about my experiences and science communication careers.
3. What are some of the biggest challenges women still face in the life sciences?
One of the biggest hurdles for women in life sciences is that they are often not taken as seriously in their area of expertise compared to their male counterparts. I’ve seen this frequently on social media, particularly on Twitter, where prominent female scientists often have their knowledge and expertise questioned and are sometimes even perceived as egotistical. Women with strong leadership abilities also have the additional burden of walking the fine line when being leaderly and authoritative, as strong and assertive women in life sciences might be considered difficult to work and get along with. This bias rarely exists for their male colleagues who behave the same way. While we’ve made great strides in combating sexism in life sciences, we still have a long way to go.
4. Tell us how you got involved with WIB, what do you do for the organization, and what being a part of WIB means to you?
I learned about WIB during my first year of graduate school. A senior graduate student who was involved with WIB was advertising an event that was sponsored by the organization, and I decided to attend. I found the meeting to be extremely informational and signed up for student membership in the WIB-Capital Region chapter so I could meet other like-minded women and find potential mentors. In the beginning, I largely focused on attending meetings and networking events, but as I learned more about what WIB had to offer I began seeking opportunities to volunteer and hone my leadership and communications skills. I volunteered as chair for our chapter’s Mentors, Advisors, Peers, and Sponsorship (MAPS) University program for two years, followed by a two-year tenure as co-chair for our chapter’s communications committee. I loved working with our chapter leadership and wanted to stay involved as a volunteer, but also wanted to challenge myself with a new role, leading me to my current position as Vice-Chair for the WIB National Communications committee.
WIB has been such an essential and important part of my life, particularly during graduate school. WIB helped me develop relations and identify mentors in different fields – something I could not have gotten from doing bench work all day. I found a network of supportive women with whom I could discuss issues that I wasn’t comfortable talking about in a graduate school setting, and I learned how women can empower each other to overcome obstacles and be the best versions of themselves. Moreover, WIB gave me the opportunity to grow professionally and hone my soft skills. At the same time, I learned the value of giving back to the community, particularly to graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. Without a doubt, WIB has been influential in my journey of self-discovery and learning.
5. What is the most exciting and personally fulfilling aspect of your current work?
The most exciting part of my work is the fact that I get the opportunity to collaborate closely with different biotech companies who are working in exciting areas of research, ranging from cancer to inflammatory diseases and beyond. Each day at Verge presents new avenues to learn and explore. A fulfilling aspect of my job has been helping companies that are developing potentially life-saving therapeutics shape their narratives and talk about their science in a way that both excites and inspires others. Being a part of their journeys and walking alongside them through their successes and challenges has been a truly rewarding experience.
6. What is the best leadership advice you have received and from whom?
My undergraduate research advisor had a knack of giving good advice, and the thing that stuck with me the most over years is this: Do what you need to do in order to be successful. If you want something, work towards achieving it, and don’t allow hurdles and other people deter you (this in no way implies that one should resort to unethical practices, of course!). During graduate school, this advice motivated me to be pro-active about my career, get out of my comfort zone and become involved with WIB. Even now, as I am in my current role, his words motivate me to keep learning and growing within my organization and beyond.
7. What does success mean to you?
To me success is an overall feeling of fulfillment. Despite facing several setbacks during graduate school, I kept the end goal in focus and worked hard. While the journey has been difficult at times, I am proud of my achievements and where they’ve landed me. I feel truly fortunate to get to work with such an amazing team and clients, doing what I love every single day, and in that way I feel like I’ve been successful.