Alumni Profiles Series: Jacqueline Robinson-Hamm

 September 30, 2020

Jacqueline Robinson-Hamm, Ph.D.

Dr. Jacqueline Robinson-Hamm received her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering (BME) at Duke in 2018. While at Duke, she was involved in the student committee of the BME department to propose and implement changes to the curriculum, active as a part of the Planning Committee of Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE), and became an Associate Editor for The Journal of Science Policy and Governance. Currently, she is working as a science policy analyst at Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB).

What were your career aspirations when you were still in graduate school and how have they changed?

Like most of you, when I applied to graduate school I wanted to stay in academia and do the traditional postdoc-to-PI route. However, by my third year I realized that it might not be the right choice for me. During the previous year, I’d taken a bioethics course that I really loved. We talked about the bioethics and a little bit of the policy of genome research. While I had taken similar courses, I don’t think it had occurred to me before what policy might look like as a career. My professor, Dr. Subhashini Chandrasekharan, then went on to join the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, and my discussion with her about this role prompted more career exploration in that field for me.

My research project at Duke was about genome engineering. I slowly realized that instead of being excited about my research or my results, I was more preoccupied with the bigger picture, the ethical questions and implications about the work I was doing. I found myself reading articles about this particular topic for fun or looking at companies that specialize in this kind of work. It progressed from there: I spent time during my fourth year doing numerous informational interviews across this space, including science writing, science communication, science policy, and even science investment hedge fund analysis. By the middle of fourth year, I was quite certain that I wanted to work in science policy. I am lucky that I am indeed able to be in this field.

What do you think are some of the challenges you face in your current field and position?

I think many non-academic and non-research-based jobs suffer from this challenge: things can change in an instant. While that sometimes happen in research, for the most part, it was relatively easier for me to roughly plan out my next couple of months, and last-minute changes did not affect the overall schemes or goals of the research. I have always been a regimented person, and I love having plans and sticking to them. Knowing my own personality and my concern about my ability to adapt to such changes, I would always ask this question in informational interviews. What became obvious to me was that no matter what job or career path I would be taking, I would have to learn this particular skill.

My current role focuses on science policy with FASEB. FASEB is a federation, meaning our members are scientific societies. Every statement FASEB issues is a consensus statement with potential for input from all societies. In science policy, the Federal Register is very important: it is the center of many of the documents we are looking for and where the requests for comments and information are published. Each morning, we read the Federal Register and track meetings or requests of interest, which typically are from NIH and NSF. Depending on the response request, we draft comments that include ideas from different FASEB member societies regarding the issue, which eventually will be published and submitted to original agency that published the request in the Federal Register. When a request for comment is published in the Federal Register, I will typically write a draft response and bring that to my subcommittee, the Training & Career Opportunities Subcommittee, for input. Occasionally, requests are published that we did not anticipate. These sometimes have a really quick turnaround, so all of a sudden, you just have to do it. I think learning to flip things on tight deadlines has been rewarding, but at the same time, I also find it to be a challenge. Fortunately, my current job has a very collaborative environment, and I feel confident that I can rely on people that I am working with – this is a big source of support for me to deal with this particular challenge.

What do you think are the most important skills needed for your position? Do you think these skills can be obtained through graduate school training?

For my current position, it is pertinent to be an excellent writer. We need to be able to convey information clearly in a small number of words, and it needs to be able to reach a broad audience – even when the information itself is very technical. It comes in a form of being able to provide enough background for everyone to understand the issue at hand, and also, in our case, to be able to provide a sound argument: how did we come to this conclusion, what are the implications, why do these issues matter, and whether there are any better alternatives.

Unfortunately, in graduate school, this particular style of writing is not common. Writing a scientific article, a review chapter, or a book for your work are all very technical writings targeted for specific audiences or readers. Conversely, especially in policy, we have to think of the stakeholders who are meant to read what we are writing. This is critical, because our intended audience depends on the statements we are writing, and they range from the general public to different committee members at various agencies, policy makers, and scientists. I believe that this is a huge skill that, for the most part, people do not practice much in graduate school partly because it is not required.

Opportunities in graduate school to build this particular skill are unfortunately mostly unpaid. For example, for me, was a really good opportunity to not only practice more lay term writing, but was also really helpful in preparing me to go into the science policy field. Many scientific and humanities societies have newsletters or blogs, and they generally welcome trainees to contribute or pitch ideas. Even if they do not publicly advertise them, I encourage you to reach out to someone at the society and ask. You can also start a blog to practice explaining science news or policies that you find interesting, or books that you have read. There might also be some courses – perhaps outside of your direct discipline – that might allow you to work on these skills in a more structured manner.

Another big skill, but one that often fails to be displayed in the resume or during interviews, is critical thinking. So much of what we do is commenting on proposed policies or recommendations – we have to critically assess them: what do we love about them? Why do we think they will work? But also, what audiences do these not consider? Will these work in smaller institutions, or with a smaller budget? What’s the aim of this rule? How will it be implemented in different scenarios?

For me, I found myself practicing critical thinking outside of my research through my participation in student government. When it came to resolutions or the budget plan, I would go through them the way I would read a scientific paper. You can apply that skill to the news, or even to the medical billing statements! I think a lot of practicing your critical thinking is applying it in situations that you care about – you have to be somewhat invested in order to really practice those skills.

What advice would you give to current Duke graduate students?

While you are in graduate school, do as many informational interviews as possible. They are incredibly valuable, and you should be speaking to the people in positions that you want or will be qualified for. Within a single career field, do not stop at just one person – you would only get one person’s experience, one person’s opinion at one particular company. It is better to get a much larger lay of the land. So in your career explorations, I think that if you can do one or two informational interviews a month for a year and a half or longer, you would be mentally prepared for what the reality of that career would be. You would be surprised at how often cold emails work and how willing people are to help you out, especially if you can find common ground with them. Use LinkedIn to find commonalities, and the Duke Alumni Network also has a really great search feature so take advantage of that!

Find an extracurricular outside of research related to your passions. It might be the department student group, or it might be the student government, or maybe coaching a sport. Having something outside of your research will be beneficial not just for you personally; it can be a valuable addition to your resume and, depending on what you choose, it can also help you explore careers. I can’t imagine being where I am now without my involvement with our student group in the department, with WiSE, and with GPSC. Activities outside of research create a wealth of opportunities. I think it’s a mistake to stay in your discipline, in your comfort zone, when there’s so much community that you could be involved with and helping to create.



Felicia Lim
Felicia Lim

Ph.D. candidate, Molecular Cancer Biology

Felicia Lim is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Molecular Cancer Biology. Her research focuses on how hormones affect our immune system and how this influences their ability to fight cancer cells. She also participates in the Global Health Doctoral Certificate Program as she is interested in using her expertise in research to enter science diplomacy and global health. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, listening to music, and hiking.