How to Stretch out into other fields: visit to What Can You Be With a PhD? Career symposium

As academics we all sometimes wonder “What is there on the other side”? In this case I’m not talking about the supernatural; I just mean the world outside of academia. I wanted to discuss a little bit about a symposium that I went to recently at NYU’s medical school called, “What Can You Be With a PhD?” This is a question many grad students worry about, and that people have asked me as well. Maybe it was expected twenty or thirty years ago that after you got your PhD you went directly into an academic faculty position somewhere. With dwindling opportunities for academic positions and decreases in government funding to work individually it seems that this is not a given anymore. I attended this seminar so that I would have answers for people looking to me for career advice. I am happy to report that there are, in fact, a number of opportunities if you are willing to stretch out a bit.

The main theme of the sessions in this symposium was that grad students needed to be willing to step into a field for which they were not immediately an expert. We spend so many years at a lab bench earning our stripes to be called one of the “experts” in what we do. It’s scary then to think about moving into a field that is not what you trained for or where you are even qualified. What I learned in the symposium sessions, however, is that in taking a risk to try a non-academic career, you could be rewarded with a job that you really love.

The first session I attended focused on working in the government on a policy level. Many people reading this would probably think that they don’t have enough background in politics in order to get involved in that kind of a job. I learned from the panel that there are great resources that you can use! Two of the speakers were fellows in the American Associate for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Policy Fellowship Program. They were willing to take one to two years to step away from scientific research to go and work within the government. They advised policy makers on decisions related from everything from Global Warming, to Public Health, to Domestic Security. What’s more, once they had the background in working with policy makers they were able to transition to permanent positions. These people stepped out of their respective fields into a totally new area and found that they could be successful at it!

The other most interesting session centered on Scientific Journalism. How does science get communicated to the public? Somebody has to write about new research being done in a way that is accessible to all people (other than yours truly here). As scientists we are forced to write in order to communicate our ideas. If you find that you really love this process, why not pursue it as a full time career? This was the main point of the writers on the Scientific Journalism panel. Just stretch out and write a few pieces and send out a few “pitches” as they called them. You can get started and there are a number of resources to help you begin. One member of the panel is currently on the board for the National Association of Science Writers. She said that they, along with The Open Notebooks have a number of resources to help you get your writing published. All four of the members of this panel agreed that writing about science was what they were passionate about. They were glad that they had taken the chance to put themselves out there and try a career they ended up loving.

Too often I feel that people associate leaving academia with “failing”. This feeling makes us afraid that if we think about or try something else we are setting ourselves up to be failures. If the What Can You Be… symposium has taught me anything it is that this is patently false! In all honesty I still believe that I want to be an academic and I feel that this is what I love and where I can be most successful. What we all should think about, however, is where we can be the most successful. If that’s in academia, that’s great, if that’s in the government or in the media or elsewhere that is equally great! I’ll end this post with the most powerful quote that any of my teachers ever gave me. Dr. Montgomery, my AP Lit teacher said, “If you love doing something you’ll find a way to do it”. So try now even as a graduate student! Look for a fellowship, submit a few articles to magazines, get involved with outreach programs at your school. Stretch out! That’s how you can learn about what you want to do as a career after graduate school

Here are some resources that I mentioned:

AAAS Policy Fellowship Program:

National Association of Science Writers:

Open Notebook:




Hot Yoga! Gibbs Free Energy and why molecules move

Now that we’ve talked in general terms about how molecules and bend and twist and interact I feel that it’s important to cover the idea of why.  Why do molecules move around in the way that they do?  It turns out that the natural world, just like us, can be very lazy sometimes.  Nearly everything wants to get its job done while using the minimal amount of energy possible.  In a more scientific term we say that it a system (which can be anything from an entire animal to a single molecule) always wants to “minimize it’s free energy”.  In our example with biotin and streptavidin, biotin packs its way inside of streptavidin because it uses “less” free energy if it is inside the streptavidin pocket versus in water.  An important way to represent free energy is with Gibbs free energy, represented as: dG or ΔG.  There are two main components of free energy: enthalpy (ΔH) and entropy (ΔS) and are represented in Gibbs’ equation:


I want to talk about them very briefly in this post in the context of my previous work with peptides.  Hopefully this will provide a framework for understanding the more complicated hypothetical stuff that I want to work in in the future.

The first component of Gibbs equation is Enthalpy (ΔH).  Enthalpy is an important function in the field of Thermodynamics, we can think of it as the amount of energy a system can absorb as heat.  We know from our everyday lives that, in general, heating something up breaks it down.  You can think of melting a chunk of metal or putting cubes of sugar into a coffee.  In the peptide world, the movement of heat (or changes in enthalpy), are obtained by breaking and forming bonds like hydrogen bonds.  If putting heat into a bond breaks it then, in general, reforming that broken bond must send the heat out again.  Hydrogen bonding is very important for protein and, in particular, membrane active peptides (MAPs).  A significant portion of my understanding of MAPs comes from working with Dr. William Wimley at Tulane University.  Dr. Wimley’s work with Steve White showed that peptides that are able to hydrogen bond require less free energy to squeeze into a lipid membrane, similar to Biotin squeezing into streptavidin.  Changes in enthalpy can dictate how and when molecules form bonds and how those bonds can be broken as well.


Enthalpy is often opposed or balanced out by changes in the Entropy (ΔS) of a system.  Entropy is a very abstract idea that gains different interpretations from different fields.  Let’s talk about Entropy, for the sake of our Molecular Yoga analogy, as the number of poses a single molecule can take.  If a set of molecules can take three poses: >,  ^, and  < versus, say, two poses >, ^, and ^ then it is said to have greater Entropy.  Molecules like to be able to assume as many poses as they possibly can.  Why would they want to bend and twist in different ways?  Lets think about MAPs again.  Peptides that can move around and form different shapes have greater ability to survive different conditions.  For example, they can better wiggle to get themselves into a membrane.  This thought reminds me also of the paper we discussed a few weeks ago.  A peptide with greater degrees of freedom (i.e. entropy) could be better able to hide RNA that could reproduce it and hence could be more evolutionarily favorable.  The entropy of a system tends to oppose the enthalpy.  Giving up heat leads to bond formation but therefore there are less open bonds to rotate and move about.  Through the balancing of these two components of Free Energy we can try to predict the motion of molecules.


Entropy and Enthalpy are important concepts for understanding thermodynamics and molecular motion.  I hope I’ve provided a little bit of insight into what they are so I can discuss more theoretical concepts.  If you want to learn more you can turn to some of the resources I used in grad school:

Gaskell’s book:   Introduction to the Thermodynamics of Materials ISBN 9781591690436

And also Georgia State University’s website Hyper Physics gives some pretty good interactive examples as well:

Or feel free to stop by and chat with me! Thanks for reading!