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Careers in Science From the Field

Dr. Kent E. Vrana is a Professor and the Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. He received biochemistry degrees from the University of Iowa (BS, 1978) and the Louisiana State University School of Medicine (Ph.D., 1983) and was an NIH postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Embryology at the Carnegie Institution of Washington (in Baltimore, MD). On January 1, 2004, Dr. Vrana assumes the position of Elliot S. Vesell Professor and Chair of Pharmacology at the Penn State University College of Medicine in Hershey, PA.

What is your profession?
My title is the Elliot S. Vesell Professor and Chairman of the Department of Pharmacology at Penn State University School of Medicine. So you can think of me as the chief academic and scientific officer for a small company—and by small company I mean the Department of Pharmacology. We have 17 faculty members in my unit, and a little over 100 employees, and our task is to train the next generation of scientists and clinicians, and we teach them about drugs. So my job is split—about 75 percent research, 15 percent administration and 10 percent teaching.

What are the responsibilities of your position?
From the institutional standpoint, my job is to oversee our teaching efforts and to provide the resources, because in academia, investigators are independent, so my main task for them is to provide them with resources to do good science. At the same time, I direct a medium-sized research group, which at its peak will be about 12 or 15 people: a mixture of PhDs, technicians and graduate students, to do my own research, which is in stem cells and brain molecular biology. So my main task is primarily guiding—as much as you can with a bunch of independent-minded PhDs—the direction of research in the pharmacology field for Penn State. I also have more global issues of how does pharmacology fits with biochemistry and things like that.

Can you describe a typical week in your position?
My day starts at 7 in the morning. I arrive at work, spend the morning doing administration and teaching. That involves a series of meetings to discuss where the department is going, writing grants, reviewing papers, and then the afternoons are blocked off for actually doing science. In that case I'll be not in my academic office, but hopefully in my research office interacting with graduate students, post-docs and faculty in my own research group. It has been a couple of years since I actually had my own research project. I would say about 5 percent of the time I will actually be doing hands-on research, but 50 percent of the time I'll be interacting with folks doing research and guiding their careers. My typical workweek is about 50 to 60 hours. I'm not on a clock—we are all self-driven in academia.

What part of this job do you personally find most satisfying? Most challenging?
The most challenging part is managing people, because as a scientist I have never been trained to do that. So it is helping people resolve problems and seeing that they are reaching their full potential.

The most fun is discovery in general. I am so fortunate that since probably 1978, when I first entered science in a major way--I graduated from college in '78 with an honors degree in biochemistry from the University of Iowa--and from that time on I have never not wanted to go to work in the morning. I started off, I spent a year as a research technician and then four years as a graduate student getting my PhD, and I just love getting up and going in and discovering new things, or being part of that, so interpreting data. And then the neat thing about being in academia, as opposed to industry, is I set the direction of our ship. So, if I get a wild hair that I want to study Alzheimer's disease, we can, and I have had several times in my career where I have just gone off in a new direction because I felt like it and I pursued my intellectual curiosity. That is the beauty of being in academic science: you choose the direction of your research. That is the most fun, is deciding where we are going to go and then contributing to new knowledge.

What is the greatest benefit of working in this field?
The greatest benefit is two-fold. One part is just discovery. We do things every time we publish a paper. It might not be earth-shattering, but so far my group has published maybe 100 papers, every time we do, it is something that no one else has ever done before; otherwise it is not noteworthy. And in some cases it has been really high-impact. In the stem cell field, our work with parthenogenesis, or activated eggs, had not been done in mammals before, and we did it in non-human primates. It is the thought that you are doing something that no one else has ever done. That is the high point, knowing that I am one of the world's experts in a small area of science. In the enzymes that we study, I am probably one of the top 3 or 4 people in the world that work on that enzyme. We all have a little bit of hubris, a little ego in us—the thought that I am contributing to science, but knowing that I am doing it at such a high level really gets me going.

What are the biggest challenges facing your field?

The public discourse and debate over whether or not we should be applying these technologies to human tissues. We would be doing these experiments with human cells right now if we were allowed. So we are doing a lot of experiments with monkeys, and we just started some experiments with human cell lines that are permitted by the President's guidelines. But it would be really nice if we could be doing these experiments with human eggs.

What are the skills that are most important for a position in this field?
You've got to be bright. You must be bright and well trained. You need an analytical mind and independence. If you have those inherent things, then it is just a matter of getting into the right PhD program and then finding the right mentor to guide your development. But you are not on the clock, as I said earlier, so you have to be self-driven and independent, and then you just have to have an inquiring mind.

What kind of experience, paid or unpaid, would you encourage someone to gain if s/he is interested in pursuing a career in this field?

It depends. If you are going to be a research scientist, then there is no substitute for research. As a graduate director at Wake Forest University, before I took the chair at Penn State, what I would tell students is that entering the summer after their junior year, they should get into a laboratory. I am not talking about an industrial laboratory where you analyze samples over and over and over again, but a research program. It is far better to get into a laboratory where you are actually discovering stuff, and you know if it is right for you, than to take an additional course and get an A. Because in the sciences, as opposed to, for instance, medicine—where you learn to treat patients, you go in, you see them, you treat them and you go on to the next one—well, in the sciences, you will go in and do experiments. I once went 9 months without an experiment working, and so you need to know that that is right for you, that you can put up with that type of deferred gratification. Plus, you hang out with lots of rats and other lab geeks, like me, and that is not exactly interacting with human beings. So you need to spend some time hanging out with geek scientists and making sure it is right for you.

What type of education background is required?
You are going to have to have an undergraduate degree in the sciences, although my best student ever had a chemistry degree and an English degree. The ability to write is way under-appreciated. He was so good for me because he wrote so well. But you are going to need an undergraduate degree in one of the sciences, and you are going to need, to be in my field, a PhD in one of the sciences. It does not matter which one.

What are the typical entry-level job titles and functions? What entry-level jobs are best for learning as much as possible?
It depends on where you go with your career path. One of my big deals is that the PhD is one of the least under-employed, or unemployed, degrees. Less than 4 percent of the people with a PhD do not have a job. First off, that is because there are so many jobs available, and so a lot depends on what you want to do. If you want to be a research scientist, then the entry-level job is called a post-doctoral fellow. That is like a resident is for medicine, so you become a doctor, and then you still have to go to a residency program to get advanced training. The same is true of a PhD; you get your doctorate, you spend three years in fellowship training. That is the entry-level job for most folks. But then, the types of titles from there are that you can become an assistant professor (the entry level in academia), a staff scientist (entry-level in industry), or with a PhD you can go straight to law school and become a patent attorney, and they make tremendous sums of money. You could go into business administration—for instance at Wake Forest and at Penn State, there are dual PhD-MBA degrees so you can enter on the administrative side of science. You could be a research fellow at some place like the National Research Council, or the National Academy of Sciences, where you learn public policy in science. But in general, I would say the two major entry-level jobs are the staff scientist in industry and the assistant professor in academia. I would guess that covers probably 60 to 70 percent of all PhDs in the biomedical sciences.

What are the salary ranges for various levels in this field? Is there a salary ceiling?
There is no salary ceiling, but it just depends on how hard you work and how lucky you are. Typically, one of the things that most people do not understand is that we have such a shortage of or such a need for PhDs in the biomedical sciences that we pay you to get your PhD. So there is no tuition, and we pay a salary typically between $18,000 and $20,000 a year for PhD students. After you get your PhD, if you stay in the post-doctoral track, your entry-level salary after your PhD is generally $35,000 a year. If you go into academia, as an assistant professor, my guess is it is probably in the $55,000 to $65,000 a year range. In industry you can add 20 percent to that. But the tradeoff is they tell you what to do, when to do it, and all of those are good things, mind you—you do not have to write grants or anything—but they compensate a little bit better.

Then as you move up the ranks, the typical full professor is at about $100,000 a year, a chair of a department will close on $200,000, and in industry what will happen is you will end up in the $110,000 to $140,000 range. It will hold pretty steady there unless you move into administration. Once you hit about $200,000 you are going to hold steady unless you become the president of a company or something.

What special advice do you have for a student seeking to qualify for this position?

The key is to work harder than anybody else. It pays to work smart, but people recognize a go-getter. This is true in any aspect of business: if you go in there and go the extra mile, no matter what level you are, do more than is required of you. If you can do that, you will be a success in any aspect of business.

Submitted by: Chris Moore, spring 2004 intern