Bioscience Careers

February 6, 2019

RECAP: Dr. Karen Peterson, “Hope Is Not A Plan: Coaching Scientists for Success”

Dr. Peterson was born in Washington DC, the home for her
family for many generations and spent 5 years there before her parents made the
decision to move out to Livermore, CA. At the time, this town was known for two
things: being home to the Lawrence Livermore National lab, and as a place where
the cows outnumbered the people. This strange dichotomy of scientists and cowboys
provided a unique backdrop to the rest of Dr. Peterson’s childhood, where most
of her friend’s parents also worked at the lab. In fact, it wasn’t until she
was in high school that she met somebody whose family wasn’t involved in the
lab. The proximity of so many world class researchers meant that all of their
children were part of an excellent, but competitive, academic environment where
it was a hard-fought battle to even be in the top 10% of the class.

When it came time to choose an undergraduate institution,
Dr. Peterson went against the grain of many of her classmates by reaching
outside her comfort zone and leaving home to go to UC Berkeley for undergraduate,
instead of the more comforting and familiar atmosphere at UC Davis where many
of her peers went. While there, she majored in genetics and became involved in
research, where she found herself falling in love with science and her lab. In
retrospect, it is clear to Dr. Peterson now that what she really fell in love
with was the people, and the sort of welcoming and invigorating environment
that can exist amongst a great group of people. But hindsight is indeed 20/20,
and at the time Dr. Peterson was convinced that getting paid by the government
to continue doing science in pursuit of her PhD seemed like a pretty great deal
at the time. Interested in drosophila research, she set her sights on Indiana
University—the place to be for that field in the 1980s. Acceptance in hand, she
moved all of her worldly possessions to Indiana to start graduate school that
fall, and promptly learned two important life lessons. First and foremost, she
would always be a California girl and secondly, location really does matter.

Excitement dimmed in the face of living in a place that made
her unhappy, Dr. Peterson stumbled upon the first fork in the road her career
would take. While participating in a departmental journal club on genomic
imprinting, she became very excited by the idea and learned that there was
actually a well-known faculty member working on the subject at McGill
University in Montreal. Undiscouraged by her previous move, Dr. Peterson
applied to McGill University and a little more than a year after first arriving
in Indiana, set off for Montreal to begin her doctoral studies anew. She would
go on to receive her PhD from McGill, but only after the entire institute
migrated to San Diego. Her journey through graduate studies was not smooth,
however, and would have a great influence on her later career choices. If asked
about her mentor during her PhD, Dr. Peterson would tell you that if anything she
had an anti-mentor. With her time and thoughts consumed with worrying about
this central conflict she had with him on a daily basis, it gave her very
little time to actually think about her science. She would urge anyone to avoid
sticking it out in a situation where your attention isn’t focused on your
research. If you feel consumed with constant personal conflict during graduate
school, be concerned. Your science should be the focus of your thoughts and
energy. Despite this obstacle, Dr. Peterson would stick it out, and eventually
left San Diego for a postdoc in Seattle.

You might be wondering why anyone would continue in academia
when they had such a terrible experience in graduate school, but Dr. Peterson
was determined to ensure it wasn’t just the bad environment which had given her
an unfavorable view of academia. And after two and a half years working at the
bench as a postdoc in the lab of Dr. Charles Laird, she had her answer—no, she
did not like academia. This wasn’t because she had a horrible postdoc
experience however, quite the opposite! Dr. Laird was the mentor that she
needed after her graduate studies: an amazing human being, he was a scientist,  philosopher and a gentleman. Dr. Laird gave
Dr. Peterson just what she needed while in his lab, which was space to examine
what she needed to be happy, room to explore her future career options, and
time to recover her devastated self-esteem from the trials of graduate school.
After this period of exploration, Dr. Peterson did a personal inventory and
came up with good evidence for why exactly she should leave academia, mainly
that she hated grant writing. This is not the only thing she learned during her
postdoc though, Dr. Peterson also discovered a love for the Fred Hutchinson
Cancer Research Center. There weren’t that many politics, and while there she
felt surrounded by supportive people. In addition, many people at the Hutch
have had their lives touched by cancer, and they are there to make things
happen for other people battling such a devastating disease. This love for the
Hutch would become another driving force that would lead Dr. Peterson to where she
is now.

The big thing that set Dr. Peterson on her current path,
however, was the amount of outreach she became involved in during her
postdoc.  While still fitting in full
days at the bench, she would spend time participating in a program to learn and
disseminate a module on scientific inquiry from CalTech to teachers from the Highline
School District.. She also worked as a lecturer with Dr. Roger Bumgarner for a
four day workshop to teach people about biotech. And as if there wasn’t already
enough on her plate, Dr. Peterson also became involved in the Association for
Women In Science (AWIS) as outreach co-chair—a position that would later help
her get one of her first jobs out of her postdoc [but more on that later]. During
this time of exploration, Dr. Peterson also became heavily involved in science
writing, where she wrote about cancer and networked with the Northwest Science
Writers Association [you can find them at, a fantastic group if
you’re interested in science writing]. You may be feeling overwhelmed reading
about everything Dr. Peterson was involved in [I felt overwhelmed just
listening!] but being involved in this many different programs was just her way
of creating her baby turtles, as she liked to say. The metaphor works pretty
well: in your young professional life, it’s important to make as many contacts
and network as much as possible. Each opportunity is a baby turtle, but not all
baby turtles will survive to adulthood—so make as many as possible, especially
if you’re not quite sure which one you want to survive to adulthood. Knowing
the right person, having your name said in the right circle, all of these
things contribute to being in the right place at the right time and having one
of those baby turtles return as a job.

This is exactly what happened for Dr. Peterson: fresh from
her postdoc, she would land two half time positions. One of which was due in no
small part to her previous involvement with AWIS, because UW astrobiology
professor Dr. Woodruff Sullivan was looking for someone to work in the outreach
Project ASTRO—focused on partnering professional and amateur astronomers with
K-12 teachers—and had heard of the outreach work done by AWIS. Her other half
time position was also born from her many attempts to send baby turtles out
into the world. During her postdoc, she became involved in Lee Hartwell’s
interdisciplinary program at the Hutch, as one of several postdocs that were
heavily involved in the development of this program. And so at the end of her
postdoc, when Dr. Hartwell was searching for someone to take over as the
interdisciplinary scientific liaison, an administrator who knew of Dr. Peterson’s
previous work put her name in his ear and she received a call asking if she was
interested in the job because she had proven she would be a good fit from her
outreach work and previous involvement with the program. The moral of this
chapter of her life, Dr. Peterson emphasized, is that if you’re not sure what
you want to do it’s essential to get out there and get involved in as many
things that interest you as possible—send those baby turtles out into the world
in droves.

Two half time jobs quickly became exhausting however, and so
Dr. Peterson began searching for alternatives. Luckily—if luck is what all of
her hard work and networking can be called—she managed to become full time in
the Hutch interdisciplinary scientific liaison position. Around this time, she
began creating more connections—and baby turtles—in earnest. She became the co-founder
of the Student Postdoc Advisory Committee while listed as a staff scientist at
the Hutch. She also run for election the Board of Directors for the National
Postdoctoral Association. if postdoc professional development is something that
interests you, try to get elected to the NPA board. Start by volunteering for a
committee for a year or so and then try to get elected, there are usually 4-5
openings and only 6-7 candidates, so the chance of success is quite high. This board
position gave her insider knowledge of a national network, and suddenly the sky
was the limit. In fact, Dr. Peterson’s involvement with the NPA Board of
Directors would lead to her next full-time job as a leader in postdoc
professional development as the Fred Hutch Director of the Office of Scientific
Career Development. She asked the Fred Hutch senior leaders to start the office
and they asked her to write her own job description because of her previous

At this point in her life, Dr. Peterson’s work mostly
entailed career counseling and coaching. She would help people explore what
they wanted to do next, even if they felt lost and unsure, by leveraging her
massive network of Hutch alumni. If people were interested in science writing
or biotech she helped those people by connecting them with others who already
work those jobs by setting up informational interviews or internships. Part of
her job description is also to give strategies for conducting a successful
interview. And clearly, this level of mentoring and career strategizing pays
off for the Hutch: from 1999 to 2016 32% of Hutch postdocs would end up in
tenure track faculty positions, 18% would move to industry, and another 17%
would become staff scientists. Although not many Hutch scientists leave
science, the Hutch is still supportive of this path by hosting speakers from alternative
careers every First Friday of the month, as well as offering travel awards and
scholarships. Dr. Peterson still works on professional support for Hutch
postdocs, and reviewing CVs, resumes, and cover letters while also giving
negotiation advice still makes up about half of her job description these days.

The work that takes up the rest of her professional time
currently, was also born of work she was already involved in. With her past
experience of a rather traumatizing graduate career characterized by conflict
with her advisor, Dr. Peterson became known for being an excellent source of
advice for others struggling with challenging mentors, or in difficult
professional situations. Deciding to make it official, Dr. Peterson was asked
to be the Hutch Scientific Ombuds and was once again asked to write a job
description for her new role as an Ombuds. [if you think about conflict
resolution as a ladder where a courtroom is the top rung, an ombuds represents
the lowest rung. Any discussion is confidential, barring extreme circumstances,
and an ombud’s job is to help people solve interpersonal conflicts without
involving lawyers]. 80% of her time as an ombuds is spent consulting and the
other 20%Dr. Peterson helps resolve conflicts through facilitated discussions.
Any major University will have an ombud’s office [shout out to Chuck Sloane and
Emma Phan, the wonderful ombuds at the UW office], and this is also generally
true for government groups andsome businesses. Formal training in conflict
resolution comes through multiple channels. One is through the International
Ombudsman Association, which organizes a three day meeting that helps people
understand the tenants of being an ombuds in terms of being neutral,
independent and informal. For example, Dr. Peterson takes no notes in her
meetings as an ombuds because then there is nothing to subpoena. In a similar
vein, she resists testifying in a court of law unless absolutely necessary. She
also received training for her position through mediation training at the King
County Dispute Resolution Center, which was one of her most helpful trainings.

If you’re interested in learning more about ombuds, it’s
important to evaluate your ability to perform certain tasks essential to being a
competent ombudsman. For one, it is essential to have empathy with the people
that come to you, even If their problem is trivial in your eyes: if it was
trivial to them, they would have never knocked on your door. Second, you have
to be trustworthy! You need to be the type of person that can convince anyone
that comes to you that whatever they say will go no further than your office.
Third, an open mind will also be extremely important. In many cases, one of the
people involved in the conflict will tell their story first and everything
looks awful, but hearing from the other person(s) involved in the dispute is
essential to hearing the full story. Sometimes it may even result in a paradigm
shift where the truth lies somewhere in the middle of the original, extreme
perspectives presented. And finally, forgiveness. Even if the conflict looks awful
and people seem to be irredeemable, it’s important to remember that there are
many stressors on everyone’s life—both personal and professional—that can
contribute to the creation of a conflict.

In wrapping up, Dr. Peterson gave us a look into what her
average week looks like as she juggles her three jobs—including a brand new one
as a manager of the Hutch’s research ethics education program. Half of her time
is devoted to meetings, and the other half to program management. In these
meetings, she will provide career counseling to anywhere from 2-6 people, and
ombudsing on average 1-2 issues per week. She will often also work with others
across institutions and the country—her national network coming into play
again. There is a huge pipeline of education outreach programs at the Hutch,
and so another chunk of her time is spent participating to keep all of them in
alignment. Discussing her likes and dislikes of her current positions, Dr.
Peterson mentioned her love for her current autonomy where she gets to call the
shots and works when she wants—a wonderful plus for a work life balance and having
a family. She enjoys being able to help scientists focus on their research and
not their problems—to avoid situations like the one she found herself in during
her own graduate studies. Another great thing about her current positions is
she gets to be creative: there is no formula or excel spreadsheet, every
situation she handles is different. Even if it’s the same problem the people
are different, and so the solution can be different every time. This
flexibility also means that there is lots of variety and Dr. Peterson is still
constantly learning. Especially in her position as ombuds, where after hearing
both sides of a story her perspective can shift and her opinion about the
situation changes. All of this work also makes her feel very secure in her job,
she feels very valued by her employer and knows they recognize the great work that
she does every day. That doesn’t mean her professional life is perfect,
however, because when you have that much flexibility it can also result in
being forgotten. Especially with the very specific demands of her jobs, this
means that people in that world—postdocs, faculty—will know her but people from
other fields will have no idea who she is. In fact, for the first time she has
an actual boss she meets with regularly, which Dr. Peterson very much enjoys!
Having someone thinking about you and your professional progress can be
extremely beneficial for your career development. Even with this list of pros
and cons, Dr. Peterson loves her work because most of all, it gives her a
work-life balance. It means she and her wife can go to their adoptive son’s football
games and cheer him on. It means that when difficult times strike their family—her
son was recently diagnosed with deficits in auditory processing and is currently
homeschooled—her flexibility can help them weather the storm.

So if you find yourself thinking about what comes next and
you feel a cold chill down your spine and your mind fills with panic, just take
a few deep breaths. Take an internal personal inventory of your strengths and
weakness. Remember not to go down a path towards a career in something you’re
objectively not good at—you want to be happy in life! Start you’re your strengths,
and most of all remember your baby turtles! Put energy into expanding your
networks so that one of those baby turtles can one day return as a fulfilling
job—or at least a stepping stone to one. And if networking sounds like torture
to you, take another breath. One of the best ways to expand your network is
informational interviews—which are relatively nonthreatening. Plus, people from
biotech often really enjoy meeting for an informational interview because if
you end up being a good fit or candidate, they get a perk if you end up with
the company. Remember to be in your right place in your right time and keep an
open mind. When Dr. Peterson was first involved in the interdisciplinary
committee it wasn’t her lifelong passion. But it opened doors because it meant
she got to stay at the Hutch and work with amazing colleagues like Dr. Lee
Hartwell. And later, this job that seemed unexciting at first would help her
move into her passion because of the skills and tools she got while working there.
But most importantly, successful careers are about people: that’s what
networking is after all, building relationships.

And one last thing, in case you’re ready to start sending
your baby turtles out now, Dr. Peterson is hiring! The job ad has just come out
for a manager to take on management of all the professional development
programs. It would allow you to work closely with the Office of Scientific
Career Development and the Student Postdoc Advisory Committee in a full-time
position. Interested? Just follow this link and check it out: