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Navigating a Science Career: Wistar Alumni Share Their Career Journey at Inaugural Fireside Chat

October 26, 2023

Three Wistar alumni returned to their research roots to participate in Wistar’s first Fireside Chat forum as part of the Institute’s Diversity in Science initiative. In front of a video projection of a crackling fire, the trio spoke with humor, thoughtfulness, and disarming honesty to Wistar trainees about their career paths and what they’ve learned since leaving their respective Wistar labs.

The alumni – M. Cecilia Caino, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Colorado; Kevin Alicea-Torres, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Cell & Molecular Biology at the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao; and Ademi Santiago-Walker, Ph.D. Head of Prostate and CRC Oncology Translation Research at Janssen Pharmaceutical – have diverged on their own unique paths, but agreed that their experiences and their Wistar connections were instrumental in helping them find their footing in academia and the corporate sector. 

Dr. Santiago-Walker, who trained as a postdoc in Dr. Meenhard Herlen’s lab, attributed her smooth transition into the pharmaceutical industry to the skills she learned at Wistar. “I use a lot of the transferable skills I learned in my time here,” she explained. “[Wistar] is a well-oiled machine and there’s a lot of great collaboration, so I had the opportunity to work in a matrixed team similar to what you have in pharma, where you’re working with multiple people from different functions to accomplish your goal.” 

Dr. Alicea-Torres explained that he received his Ph.D. just as the pandemic hit, adding an unplanned layer of complexity to the next step of his career. Although his path wasn’t clearly mapped out, he landed a Mass Media Fellowship that eventually led to a job as a science writer at Telemundo, something that combined his interest in communication with his scientific background. “I used my relationships to establish a network and learn about other opportunities. Networking is crucial, both inside and outside of the science community.” 

Throughout the wide-ranging discussion, the panelists answered a host of questions posed by the audience of trainees, including how to deal with self-doubt, diversifying your skillset, and ways to acquire “soft skills.”

“We’re always working on ourselves,” said Dr. Alicia-Torres. “Be humble throughout the process and be open to the feedback and advice that you receive. People may be observing something that you don’t see, and that might be the very thing you need to address to get that opportunity.”

The event was a joint effort between The Wistar Institute Inclusion Diversity & Equity Council (W-IDE), the Hubert J.P. Schoemaker Education and Training Center, and The Wistar Institute Trainee Association. Long term, the team plans to organize similar events to help budding researchers broaden their skills and learn from real-life experiences. “This event has been an amazing collaboration between a lot of different departments,” said Dr. Jessie Villanueva. “I hope that it’s the beginning of a new partnership between all of us to bring in similar future events.”

The Fireside Chat concluded with a networking reception that featured industry professionals from several local organizations including Spark Therapeutics, American Association of Cancer Research, and the University of Pennsylvania.