Vanderbilt basic science alum Q&A: Sonja Fulmer

The School of Medicine Basic Sciences has seen remarkable and diverse students come through its doors, collaborate and learn from distinguished faculty, then graduate from one of our nationally ranked departments. But where are they now?

They go on to become leaders in basic science fields at notable institutions, universities, governmental entities, and research and development companies. Some of the places our alums have gone on to work at are U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Pfizer Inc., Food and Drug Administration, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, to name but a few. And some even decide to stay at Vanderbilt!

Headshot of alum Sonja FulmerMeet Sonja Fulmer, PhD’14, a graduate of Chemical and Physical Biology Program who is now the deputy director of the Digital Health Center of Excellence in the Center for Devices and Radiological Health at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

We sat down with Fulmer to discuss her experience studying basic science and how it played a role in her successful career.

What activities at Vanderbilt had the most significant impact on your career path?

I appreciated Vanderbilt’s focus on highlighting and explaining different career paths. While I was completing my Ph.D., the BRET Office held a series of “alternative” career seminars. The seminar speakers explained how Ph.D.’s in biomedical sciences contribute to many different industries, beyond following a more traditional path in academia. I had originally planned to pursue an academic career path, hoping to be my own PI and direct my own research group, but I found that learning about alternative career paths showed how I could impact the world in other ways.

Although I will always dream of experiments that I could have done and scientific problems that I could have solved, I feel that I’ve found the right path for me at the FDA. I remain driven by the same desire to improve public health but now I apply my training not to designing experiments and writing grants, but to shaping the regulatory policy for digital health. Who would have thought?

Were there any specific mentors or professors who played a crucial role in shaping your career aspirations?

My principal investigator for my graduate work, Brandt Eichman, was consistently supportive of my professional growth while I completed my Ph.D. Whenever I checked in with him about pursuing a project to advance my experience in science policy, he encouraged me to take advantage of opportunities, including participating in internships during the time I would otherwise be in the lab.

In addition to Brandt’s support, Bruce Damon, program director for my degree program, played a crucial role in my career progression. Damon informed me of the postdoc fellowship program that led me to the FDA. As a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, Damon connected the dots between my interest in science policy and a new scholars program developed by AIMBE. This fellowship allowed me to make connections at FDA that led to a permanent position and was the start to my (to-date) 10-year career in FDA policy development.

In what ways did your involvement in additional projects or internships during your time at Vanderbilt contribute to your current success?

Thanks to Brandt’s support, I was able to participate in several projects and internships beyond the traditional scope of Ph.D. lab work and dissertation writing. I was a Legislative Policy Intern for Life Science Tennessee, which is a state-wide, non-profit organization that strives to advance and promote the life science industry in Tennessee. During my internship, I organized the group’s advocacy days in Nashville and Washington, D.C., to connect industry and academic representatives to state and federal policy makers.

I also co-created Vanderbilt’s first Students for Science Policy program to help Vandy graduate students and postdocs learn how scientists influence policy decision-making throughout the government. This program, like the BRET careers program, provided seminars on science policy topics that are not traditionally included in academic training.

I also participated in the Nashville Adventure Science Center’s Communication Fellowship program, which enabled me to hone my science communication skills. Effective communication is a vital part of all scientists’ work. Developing this skill has been crucial for me throughout my career. In my current role, I need to be able to explain complex topics to other scientists and engineers, lawyers, public health experts, patients, and healthcare providers.

How did the networking opportunities provided at Vanderbilt contribute to your professional connections and career advancement?

Let me first admit that networking was not top of mind while I was in graduate school, in part because I thought I didn’t enjoy it much. I’ve since come to find that there are ways to enjoy and benefit from networking opportunities, even if it doesn’t come easily to me. First, find a networking buddy that will go to events with you. Then, have a few topics in mind that you like asking people about.

What skills or knowledge gained during your time at Vanderbilt have been most valuable in your current role or industry?

I can’t underestimate the value of the scientific education I received at Vanderbilt. The courses, research, and people all contributed to my multi-disciplinary understanding of basic sciences and their application to human health. This education has formed an important foundation for the work I do now, which also spans many disciplines and clinical problems.

Beyond the science, my graduate program at Vanderbilt contributed to the development of important “soft” skills, such as developing an ability to clearly and concisely present on complex topics, as well as asking the right questions about those topics. When presenting to leadership who have limited time to hear all the nuances of an issue, the clear articulation of options and impacts is crucial. When you are the leader making a decision, thinking critically and asking the important questions can make all the difference in successful leadership.

How has the interdisciplinary nature of biomedical research training played a role in your ability to collaborate with professionals from different fields in your career?

The FDA includes experts across all scientific disciplines and beyond, including legal, public health, education, and management experts. I need to be able to negotiate with, influence, and collaborate with them all to achieve our public health goals. I studied at the intersection of three fundamental sciences to complete my degree in chemical and physical biology, leading to my development as an interdisciplinary scientist. Now, as the deputy director for the Digital Health Center of Excellence, which also sits at the intersection of technology and healthcare, I manage a team of experts across many engineering, technology, and clinical disciplines. Our work extends across the FDA and the whole of government to advance the development of safe and effective digital health technology. Because I have an interdisciplinary background, I can advance solutions to problems that require collaboration from diverse groups of experts.

Looking back, is there any advice you would give to current biomedical students based on the lessons you’ve learned in your career?

Two important things… The first, demonstrate your interest in a career path. Second, tell someone what you’re interested in doing. Tell lots of people. You never know who may be able to help you find an internship or connection that can help you along the way. If you’ve demonstrated that interest (by learning more, participating in an internship, and taking on those challenges), the people you tell will see how you can be successful in those roles and make connections that can advance you on your career journey.