Finding that spark that helps you fall in love with a career path

By Jody Enck, PhD.  Cornell BEST program communication specialist

Reconsidering career paths is more common than one might imagine.  In some ways, it’s like falling in and out of love.  We meet lots of interesting people, but sparks fly only when we meet someone special.  We put all our energies into figuring out if that really is the ONE.  What happens if the “forever after” you planned changes?  The story I share below is not mine.  It emerged from an interview I conducted with PhD student, Sabrina Solouki, as I tried to learn more about what Cornell’s BEST (Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training) program means to its participants.

Sabrina Solouki, PhD student in the field of immunology and infectious disease. Photo provided by Sabrina Solouki.

As a young adult, Sabrina knew she wanted to help people, and she contemplated a career as a medical doctor.  She particularly enjoyed biology classes as an undergrad pursuing the pre-med program.  When she took what she describes “an amazing immunology course,” sparks flew!  Her pursuit of a future in medicine led her to do an internship with a group of volunteers working in Nicaragua.  There, she found really spartan conditions.  Clinics lacked basic equipment and supplies necessary to address people’s medical needs.  A big eye-opener for Sabrina was the fact that the medical plight of the residents was largely on account of the existing socio-political environment.  She began to question her decision of pursuing a career in medicine.

Sabrina working as a medical volunteer in Nicaragua where she had an epiphany that she could help a far greater number of people through a career in immunology rather than a doctor helping one patient at a time. Photo provided by Sabrina Solouki.

When she came back from Nicaragua, Sabrina had an epiphany.  She could better advocate for patients if she applied her skills to affecting broader health policy than if she pursued a career as a medical doctor.  Rather than prescribing medications on a patient-by-patient basis, she could try to influence the health of vast numbers of patients by focusing on health policy issues.

Science policy had become Sabrina’s new passion.  On returning to UCLA, Sabrina refocused her studies from applied medicine to more basic medical research so she could develop the depth of knowledge research skills she would need to be a credible policy professional.  She supplemented this with a minor in political science to bring a career in health policy into sharper focus.

She came to Cornell as a PhD student with an aim of pursuing science policy.  One of the things that attracted Sabrina to Cornell was the BEST program, which would afford her a glimpse of what a career in science policy looked like. In addition to providing information about relevant courses on campus, the science policy track of the program facilitates networking with professionals working in science policy, and sponsored trips to Washington D.C. to engage elected officials and their staff on issues such as funding for scientific research.

The Mission of Cornell’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program is to give PhD students and postdocs the chance to test-drive specific aspects of various careers through flexible, experiential, engaging opportunities.

A highlight of the BEST program for Sabrina is its adaptability.  The program helped Sabrina realize her dream of being an advocate for as many people as possible by integrating cutting-edge science into health policy. “Program staff do a great job of helping BESTies [as program participants are called] connect with resources they otherwise might not even know about, and thereby provide a unique educational experience” she says.

Pursuing her passion has been the cornerstone of Sabrina’s journey so far. The sparks that fanned her initial interest in immunology drove her to pursue a PhD in Immunology and Infectious Disease at Cornell.  Juggling her Ph.D. research while also serving as president of a graduate student group called Advancing Science Policy Group (ASAP) that emerged in part through the auspices of the BEST program has helped deepen her understanding of the interplay of biological processes and socio-political environments affecting public health.

Sabrina Solouki, third from left, and other Cornelians meeting in Albany, NY with James Tierney (center in white shirt), Assistant Commissioner of Water Resources for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Commissioner Tierney spoke with the group about the role of scientists in the policy arena. Photo by Susi Varvayanis.

Over the last few years, Sabrina has made multiple trips to Albany, NY and Washington D.C. to engage in policy activities co-sponsored by BEST and ASAP.  She participated in a 4-day workshop called Catalyzing Advocacy through Science and Engineering (CASE) through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to help her understand appropriations and the budget process in Congress.  For all these opportunities to feed her passion in science policy, she says she has she has the BEST program to thank.  “Up until fall 2017, the BEST program reinforced my interest in science policy and gave me tools I otherwise never would have had.  It set me up to have a really great career in science policy.”

A chance encounter with a visiting attorney specializing in intellectual property rights and patent law further defined Sabrina’s journey. She suddenly realized a whole other avenue that meshed her interest in advocacy and science. To explore this further, she worked with Susi Varvayanis, executive director of BEST at Cornell, and other BESTies Jin Liang, postdoc in the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology, and Madhur Srivastava, PhD student in Biomedical Engineering, to host a Patent Law Review Panel at Cornell.  Co-hosted by ASAP, GPSPAFC, and the BEST program, the panel consisted of four STEM scientists that shared their experience about transitioning into patent law. The panel discussion was followed by a networking luncheon during which students could interact with the panelists.  Sabrina considers the support she received from BEST to be invaluable. “I felt like the BEST staff helped to create an experience just for me.”

Sabrina, left, moderating a panel discussion about intellectual property rights and patent law at Cornell University. Photo by Susi Varvayanis.

By interacting with people that walk the walk in intellectual property and patent law, Sabrina has found lasting love. She now knows that a career advocating for new technologies and discoveries “makes me feel like I can make the kind of difference I’ve always wanted to make.  It combines the best of both worlds – advocacy through the integration of immunology and science policy.  It’s great to feel those sparks exploding.”

During her time at Cornell Sabrina has taken complete advantage of the BEST program. The program has served as a catalyst for a career spark and empowered and encouraged her to immerse herself in the pursuit of that career.

While experiencing sparks may well signify the beginning of a career, it is far from the end. Passionately pursuing a career choice requires dedication and drive. The BEST program can provide access to a variety of opportunities to fan those initial sparks and help craft a set of experiences through which they can explode into an enduring career that you love.