Finding My Niche in the Scientific Ecosystem

Rebecca Carlson
posted: 8/31/2017
listed in Fellows

In the past, I have often made choices by process of elimination. I knew I wanted to major in engineering, but what kind? Well, I didn’t think I had a particular gift for building things with my hands, and I wasn’t particularly passionate about physics. So, among the more established engineering fields, that really only left chemical engineering. Excited, I dove into this major at Michigan State University.

As an undergraduate, I refined my research interests within chemical engineering to immunology and bioengineering. In the past couple of years, I have followed a similar decision-making method in my thinking about my future career: I haven’t been very interested in industry or science policy, while communications, grant management, teaching, and even research seemed interesting but not as my sole long-term focus. Thus, academia appears to be the main option still on the table, an area where I hope I can be involved in research, teaching, and also some leadership or science communication activities.

Overall, this is not necessarily a poor approach to making decisions. However, I have noticed that often when I eliminate options I tend to discount them too completely, focusing only on the option that remains in order to reduce residual internal tensions and stay focused on my goal. While admirable, an all-consuming focus on one ambition can cause us to lose sight of the bigger picture, or what I like to think of as the ecosystem of scientific discovery.

This summer, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to acknowledge my own take in the bigger picture of this ecosystem (and come to terms with areas of personal shortsightedness) through an internship at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as Hertz Fellow in Global Health and Development. My project involves landscaping strategies to overcome challenges in delivery of a therapeutic for infants in developing countries. Since the field I am working in is still in its infancy, rather than combing through the literature and finding one or at most a few solutions that are clear fits for our needs, I have had many discussions with experts in disparate fields to try to triangulate in on the approach(es) with the most potential to fit our needs.

No one group that I have talked to has offered a perfect or clearly superior solution, but nearly every conversation has added an important piece of the puzzle, bringing me and my team closer to making an informed decision. I have learned from academics doing basic research on infants or applied research on formulations and from pharmaceutical companies at a variety of stages in product development. I have also had discussions with groups who may know nothing about our therapeutic solution but have valuable experience with clinical trials.

While I am not interested in – and likely don’t have the ability to do well in – all of these positions, the entire range of scientific work is essential for successful completion of my project and the overarching goal of the Foundation’s: to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. I am so thankful that many of the people I have talked with are immensely passionate about and have spent decades developing expertise in areas that alone may not seem remarkable to me, but together can be transformative. For instance, one leader I was talking to explained how she and her team were so invested in their clinical trial that they were distraught and even shed tears when, after a successful Phase II trial, the Phase III results showed no beneficial effect for their therapeutic. Now, she and her team have been generous in sharing their experiences in the hopes that when our product reaches clinical trials, we will achieve success.

In addition to learning from external Gates Foundation partners, I have gleaned many insights from my coworkers. This year’s intern cohort includes students interested in business and administration, global development, global and public health, policy, epidemiology, education, and many other areas, working across the Gates Foundation’s programs. As I have learned about fellow interns’ projects, I am always struck by how each area is critical for meeting an essential societal need. I certainly can’t fill all of these niches within the ecosystem, but I am grateful that my fellow interns are stepping up to these challenges using their specific skills and passions. And in talking to full-time employees who graciously to take time to chat with a summer intern, I have learned that personal niches within ecosystems can change dramatically over time. Many of my coworkers have transitioned from experience in academia, industry, or a combination, before finding their current fit at the Foundation. Maybe that niche will change again in the future, but for now they are filling an important role and gaining skills that they can use in their next experience.

Every day when I walk through the front door at the Foundation, I pass a sign that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Through daily interactions with coworkers and external partners with a breathtaking range of personal and professional experiences, I can’t help but realize how true this statement is. So this summer, I will strive to contribute all of my talents to my project and fill my niche, however small it may be in the grand picture of the Gates Foundation’s goals. While I still see academia as the best niche for me within the vast scientific ecosystem, my experience at the Gates Foundation has better equipped me to reach out from the ‘ivory tower’ to collaborate with others, accelerating solutions for global health so that science may go far through the work of many rather than fast through the work of few.

Rebecca Carlson is one of the first recipients of the new Hertz Fellowship in Global Health and Development and is currently interning at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of the Fellowship. She graduated from Michigan State University (MSU) in the Spring of 2017 with a degree in chemical engineering and will begin her PhD in Medical engineering and Medical Physics (MEMP) at through the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology in the Fall of 2017. While at MSU she conducted research in Dr. Walton's Applied Biomolecular Engineering Lab and had summer research internships at the National Institutes of Health and Harvard. These experiences fueled Rebecca’s passion to combine computational and experimental methods in her future research with a particular interest in applying these methods to study autoimmune diseases, such as lupus.