Sequencing a Career in Biomedical Sciences

Today’s post features Dr. Dara Missan, a biomedical scientist, who loves to sequence DNA and currently is employed as a clinical laboratory research scientist. How to choose the right school, program, and research advisor are major decisions for any graduate student. What happens if does not work out?

It is not uncommon for students to switch their research adviser but switching schools is in its own entirety.  Dara was kind enough to share her experience about realizing she was on a bumpy road to a PhD and how packing her bags for another school, although scary at the time, was one of her best life decisions. Dara’s story is another great example that one should always push to learn and expect success. Here are ten up, ten down with Dr. Missan.

What is your current position? How long have you been at this position?

I am currently a clinical laboratory research scientist at Fry Laboratories, L.L.C. I have been working here for a year and a half.

What early influences help cultivate your interest in science?

Since I can remember I have always been interested in science. Growing up I was really into rock collecting and I just found it fascinating. My parents were always supportive of my love of science and encouraged me to pursue it. I loved doing science fair projects and loved looking at the stars through the telescope. When I was older my focus shifted to other sciences. I decided earth science wasn’t something I wanted to pursue and biology was more interesting.

Dara strikes a pose and shows a scientist can have fun outside of the lab.

Dara strikes a pose and shows a scientist can have fun outside of the lab.

How has your upbringing shaped you?

My upbringing has completely shaped who I am. My parents were incredibly supportive but strict, and education was always most important in my family. I wasn’t allowed to do anything until my homework was done and my parents never accepted anything less than my best. However, my parents always told me that I could be whatever I wanted to be as long as I could support myself.  If I wanted to be a dancer, or even a plumber, they were completely supportive as long as I was the best one I could be.

Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised on Long Island, in Commack, NY

What challenges did you experience during your graduate work? What advice would you give when selecting an advisor?

I actually had a rough graduate school beginning. I started off pursuing a PhD in Biomedical Engineering, without having an engineering undergraduate background. My program that accepted me funded my first year; however, I didn’t realize this program was a poor fit until I got there. I didn’t get the support I felt I needed and was pretty much forced into a laboratory that wasn’t right for me. I also didn’t get along well with my advisor and I felt constantly like a failure. It was a hard decision for me, because I felt like I was quitting on myself. I instead decided to finish with a Masters in that program and pursue my PhD at a different school in Biomedical Sciences. Little did I know, it was the best decision I could have ever made. I had learned so much from my first graduate school experience about what I wanted in a PI and mentor, so it was incredibly easy to figure out what I was looking for. I also learned that your project isn’t half as important as having a good mentor. I realized that your mentor is way more important  than your project and I was lucky enough to be in a laboratory where I loved both. My advice would be to pick your mentor based on your needs to help you finish your degree. If you need a more hands on mentor, or a completely hands off mentor, you need to find one of those, because that is what is going to help you finish your degree and get you through the hard times. As for struggles, once I was in my new PhD program, I had the typical struggles of every graduate student; experiments not working, the stress of each milestone we were required to hit to move on in the program, committee meeting drama (though to be honest my committee was actually amazing and helped incredibly), the frustrations of your project not coming together as fast as others, where you feel like you are spinning your wheels and things are just not going to form the paper you need to graduate etc. The aspect I loved the most was that I had a mentor to support me during those times and help me through. He was an optimist when I was a pessimist and it was a great relationship.

How did you find your current job? What are some of the challenges you face when deciding to move cross-country?

I was lucky to find my current job –it was one of those in the right place at the right time. My boss is actually my cousin’s neighbor. He was over her house for a party for her son, and my proud parents as usual, were talking normal conversation with him and when they found out what he did for a living, had to brag about me. When he heard about my background as a clinical laboratory scientist and that I was finishing my PhD, he told them to tell me to send a resume. Since I didn’t really want to do a traditional post-doc, I sent it right away. I actually didn’t hear back from him right away and when my parents ran into him again at another function, he told them he never got it and to send it again. So I did. Everything from there happened pretty quickly. They flew me out to interview and I was offered the job. After thinking about it, I decided I really wanted to move closer to my parents and I always knew I didn’t want to stay in NY. I originally wanted to live in California, but Arizona is beautiful and family is important to me. I will say financially, moving across the country was a huge struggle and I am still working my way out of that debt, but I love living here, and enjoy my job so I know it was worth the sacrifice.

Dara is also a certified Beach Body Trainer! Here she is flexing some muscle.

Dara is also a certified Beach Body Trainer! Here she is flexing some muscle.

What aspects of your job do you not like to do? What are the most rewarding?

As with any job there are things you do not like. For instance, I am not a fan of writing grants but I do write them quite a bit. Additionally, because we are a small business, I do some technologist work that really only requires my bachelor’s training. However, I am a team player and I help out any way I can. Plus I do like that I can keep my clinical laboratory technologist skills up to date. I do enjoy when I get to play around with some experiments while designing new lab tests or when I get to perform molecular DNA sequencing, since it is something I was always interested in learning how to do. I am very excited when I do DNA sequencing! I also really enjoy going to conferences. I get to travel a lot and see what is going on in the clinical world.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

For me, its grant writing. Partially because I dislike writing them, and partially because you put in all this time and effort and then don’t get the grant anyway, or they don’t even review it. It is definitely frustrating.

Who is your role model and why?

My role model has always been my mother. She was always such a hard worker and always believed in me and made me believe in myself. She was always independent and strong and really showed me that women can do anything they set their minds to. She had to work really hard to have to achieve things in life for nothing was handed to her growing up. I really respect the hard work she put in to better her own life, as well as the life of both me and my sister.

What advice would you give a young student deciding whether or not to embark in a career in the sciences?

If you are passionate about science and interested in learning, then science is the best career option. For me, I have always loved science. Though the area of science I am passionate about has changed over the years, I do not regret deciding to pursue my career in science. Those days when you discover something amazing, even something small is worth all the hard work and struggle of things not working. Those are the days that scientists live for. When something clicks and a failure turns into a success!

Dr. Blog

Dr. Blog holds a PhD in chemistry and draws on his years of industrial and life experience to offer honest career advice for the advancement of young scientists.