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Outbreaks and Safety Concerns in Biodefense Research

Careers in Science From the Field

Dr. Ernie Takafuji is the Assistant Director of Biodefense Research Affairs at the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Prior to his current position, he has had a prestigious career history with the Army, holding titles such as Commander and Director of Walter Reed Army Medical Institute of Research, and Commander of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. He is also responsible for helping Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii build a biomedical research program.

What is your profession?

I am Assistant Director for Biodefense Research at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). NIAID is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and is located in Bethesda, Maryland.

What are the responsibilities of your position?

My responsibilities include developing and monitoring the biodefense strategic plan and research agendas for NIAID. I represent NIAID/NIH on several interagency biodefense coordinating committees to ensure coordination and cooperation across Federal government agencies and the military. I also work closely with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response.

Can you describe a typical week in your position?

I lead and participate in meetings, conferences and discussions on various aspects of the NIH biodefense research program. I meet regularly with senior policy and program staff from the NIH, the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense. I also meet periodically with leading scientists and chief executives from private industry to discuss new approaches in biodefense research and to encourage those companies with promising ideas to apply for Federal funding.

I also frequently respond to media and congressional inquiries regarding NIH biodefense research activities.

What part of this job do you personally find most satisfying? Most challenging?

Most satisfying: Knowing that the time and effort that you have dedicated to something of great importance is resulting in products that will enhance the public health preparedness and response posture of the nation.
Most challenging: Collaborating and partnering with other institutions, agencies, and departments; engaging different disciplines of science in research on projects of national importance in a resource-constrained environment.

What is the greatest benefit of working in this field?

Knowing that your efforts have made a difference is personally satisfying and rewarding.

What are the biggest challenges facing your field?

Integration of the latest advances in science and technology into new product development in a timely and cost-effective manner.

What are the skills that are most important for a position in this field?

Knowledge of science and/or medicine; leadership skills and training; listening skills and consensus-building skills in highly technical areas; ability to express your thoughts and ideas clearly in oral presentations and through written documents (strong communication skills are a necessity).

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?

Familiarity with how research is conducted. In my particular job setting, familiarity with how the Federal government and Congress work and operate is critically important, as well as appreciating how research is conducted down to the bench level. At the NIH, familiarity with the grants process and other funding mechanisms is important.

What type of education background is required?

An individual in my position at the NIAID should have a strong foundation in the biological sciences and familiarity with biomedical research. Program manager experience and graduate level education is a must, preferably at the M.D. or Ph.D level. Not having a doctoral level certificate will limit opportunities for leadership.

What are the typical entry-level job titles and functions? What entry-level jobs are best for learning as much as possible?

Entry level jobs at the NIH could be in a post-doctoral fellowship in one of NIH's 27 institutes and centers. As experiences are gained, an individual will develop a broader appreciation of the scope of the mission and the research processes operating at the NIH. In my situation, I obtained my background research and development experiences while serving in the United States Army in various laboratory and research command positions. Since many of my Department of Defense experiences were in biodefense, the transition to the NIH in the area of biodefense was very smooth.

What are the salary ranges for various levels in this field? Is there a salary ceiling?

The salary scales are in line with the Civil Service appointments and commensurate with level of education and experience.

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

First, obtain a solid background in one of the sciences. Second, check the websites regularly for employment or training opportunities. Third, recognize that the initial position within the NIH that you will probably seek may not be your last career position, for there are numerous opportunities for advancement between institutes and centers of the NIH.

Submitted by: Melody Parsa 2004 intern