There is a noticeable trend in recent times of science graduates pursuing alternative careers in science, to an extent where one might question ascribing the term “alternative” to these career paths. It was thus a rejuvenating experience to chat with Jessica Bryant, who followed her love for scientific research by pursuing the “traditional” career path of a post-doctoral researcher in academia. Jessica was a former GGR student in Dr. Shelley Berger’s lab. She graduated with her Ph.D. in 2014, after which she began a post-doctoral fellowship at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France.
Jessica has harbored dreams of having her own lab and pursuing her own scientific questions ever since she worked as an undergraduate researcher at the University of Georgia, studying the cytoskeleton. She came to Penn, like many of us naïvely do, with her mind set on studying the same topic she researched as an undergraduate. However, during her first year at Penn, she was inspired by a talk given by Dr. Shelley Berger to enter the field of epigenetics. She went on to join Dr. Berger’s lab and studied the epigenetic mechanisms governing gametogenesis in yeast and mice. Looking back at her years as a Ph.D. student, she says, “While the challenges and stresses involved in grad school can weigh you down, at the end of six years I still held on to my dreams of having my own lab.” This led her to an academic post-doctoral position, a decision she recommends to scientists who still have a love and passion for science at the end of their graduate studies. She looks at it as a great opportunity to explore a different field of science and encourages students to “find something cool and different from what they’ve worked on during graduate school.” Giving a realistic perspective about her chosen path and future aspirations, she acknowledges the element of luck involved in getting a faculty position, where the supply of life science graduates is greater than the demand. “It is always important to keep your options open and think about contingencies.” she explains. She highlights the importance of the various career talks organized by the CAMB program in keeping her informed about other career options. She points out the great work done by CAMB administrators and Penn career services in providing information to students, as she now notices the dearth of these resources at the Pasteur Institute.
As a post-doc at the Pasteur Institute, Jessica researches the epigenetic mechanisms that underlie the transcriptional control of virulence gene expression in different species of Plasmodia, the parasites that cause malaria. In addition to the translational and social importance of her research in understanding and eradicating a deadly disease, she likes to focus on the basic mechanisms of pathogenesis of Plasmodia in humans. While the quality of the science was an important factor, she does not deny the fact that having the opportunity to experience a different culture played an important role in her decision to move to France. Although she had studied French in college, her French was rusty at best after six years of graduate school. “The first six months were difficult,” she says, “especially while dealing with the bureaucracy involved in getting the necessary paper work and being at a considerable distance from friends and family.” However, the initial transition period gave way to a plethora of great experiences, both professionally and socially. Her lab, like many others at big institutes, is fairly international and this gives her a chance to communicate in English as well as in French. She cherishes this multicultural environment, both inside and outside of the lab. Who wouldn’t enjoy a glass of French wine at the end of a tough day in the lab? “The work culture is very different as compared to working in science in the U.S.” she explains. “You are allowed two months of vacation a year and while you may not publish three or four Nature papers a year, it’s good to slow down a bit and take a breather while, nonetheless, staying productive and motivated.” Maybe it is this change of pace and work culture that have additionally helped her to maintain her love and passion for science.
Funding opportunities and fellowships in France are fairly plentiful, in her experience. She points out that working at large institutes like the Pasteur Institute gives you the flexibility to apply for various fellowships. Additionally, there is a lot of encouragement from European agencies for foreigners to come to Europe to pursue research. She has a fellowship from the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and she mentions the Marie Curie fellowship and the Human Frontier Science program as other potential avenues. While this may all seem a little too good, she does point out that the compensation in France is slightly less than in the U.S. or even other European countries like Germany and Switzerland. This may be a deal breaker for some, but Jessica feels that the increased vacation time, free health care, and other social benefits outweigh the downside of reduced compensation.
Reflecting on her time at Penn, Jessica fondly remembers CELL600 and the friendships she forged while collectively navigating through the first set of graduate school examinations. “And the happy hours of course,” she adds. She also highlights the time she spent as a teaching assistant for an epigenetics course, which she picks out as one of her favorite learning experiences at Penn. “If there’s one thing CAMB could change, it would be to encourage students who show a genuine interest in teaching to pursue more [teaching assistant] opportunities and work with PIs and professors to make these positions more accessible,” she asserts. She emphasizes the value of teaching and mentoring, whether one stays in science or chooses to follow a non-academic career path.
Jessica concludes our conversation with some advice for current graduate students. “Learn bioinformatics!” she says emphatically. “In the current world of scientific research, most questions involve the use of sequencing and having a basic knowledge of bioinformatics will benefit you and shield you from relying heavily on bioinformaticians throughout your career.” Jessica’s story provides hope and encouragement to current graduate students that are struggling with the stresses of graduate school and questioning their love for science. Sometimes, all it takes is a change of scenery and work culture to reinvigorate your passion.