Webinar Review: HBI Career Chat with Stephanie Courchesne

Our trainees review webinars in their given fields and share abstracts to help colleagues outside their discipline make an informed choice about watching them. As our program bridges diverse disciplines, these abstracts are beneficial for our own group in helping one another gain key knowledge in each other’s fields. We are happy to share these here for anyone else who may find them helpful.

HBI Career Chat with Stephanie Courchesne

Stephanie Courchesne, Senior Advisor in the Office of the Director at the National Institutes of Health

September 30, 2021

Harvard Brain Science Initiative

Sara BellAnalysis by Sara Bell:

Available on YouTube, the Harvard Brain Science Initiative hosts a Career Chat series consisting of informal chats about careers for scientists outside of academia. This episode within the series features Stephanie Courchesne, a Senior Advisor in the Office of the Director at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). After receiving her PhD in the neuroscience program at Harvard she transitioned to a career focusing on science communication and program evaluation & management at the NIH. Within this webinar, Stephanie describes the roles she plays at the NIH and how an AAAS fellowship got her there. She also highlights key skills that are important to transitioning to any career after graduate school.

As a Senior Advisor in the Office of the Director at the NIH, Stephanie’s position requires her to coordinate projects across all of the individual institutes that comprise the NIH. Specifically, her position involves management of money used to support interdisciplinary scientific programs covering a wide variety of challenging topics in up-and-coming areas. She describes her position as having three main roles or buckets of activities that she does day to day. The first bucket contains both legislative and internal policy management tasks. On the legislative end, she oversees communication between NIH and congress members while also keeping track of pending legislation that may impact the funding and operations of the NIH. Her responsibilities in internal policy mirror the legislative ones as they ensure that the NIH institutes are meeting funding requirements for training, research output, and project management. The second bucket contains strategic planning activities. To sustain the 20+ scientific programs under the NIH, senior advisors are tasked with identifying potential investments where the NIH can help researchers tackle current challenges. Whether through technology development or the creation of open access databases, they work to catalyze growth within a variety of research areas. The last bucket contains all other miscellaneous tasks related to assisting the Director. Overall, Stephanie’s role combines science communication and project management across a wide variety of scientific research.

As a self-proclaimed “science dabbler,” Stephanie describes how her role allows her to tackle important scientific topics from a big picture perspective in a fashion opposite to the high levels of specialization in academia. If you as a graduate student are hoping to step away from the wet lab but still be involved in progressing science, then a career in science policy or management may be for you. The way Stephanie transferred to her current career was through the AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellowship. This fellowship places fellows into one of many federal agencies with science-focused components such as the NIH, Department of Defense, Department of Justice, and even the Department of Education. Fellows interview with the available agencies and are placed in one depending on rankings done by both the fellows and the agencies. Here, Stephanie points out that science policy is difficult to define since it encompasses many different positions with a variety of responsibilities. Under the AAAS fellowship and in science policy careers many people have different experiences. So, she suggests that if science policy sounds interesting, reach out to a variety of professionals in the field as each will have their own unique perspectives and roles that they play. If you’re interested in learning more about the AAAS fellowship, check it out here.

As a final piece of advice, Stephanie reminds us that it’s important to be comfortable with your gaps in knowledge and equally important is a willingness to learn. For any career path, knowing how to analyze and distill complex topics down to a few key points is key to successful communication across various audiences. The analytical thinking and analysis skills you develop during a PhD will help you learn quickly and weed through the details to pick out the key points. The science supported by the NIH is broad and ever changing, so when evaluating your next career steps ask yourself this: are you interested in highly specialized, deep dives within narrow subjects or are you interested in an overarching view of current and developing scientific directions.