Alumni Spotlight: Erika Adkins Scholl

The BRET Office of Career Development presents Alumni Spotlight, an interview with a former BRET PhD student or post-doc and written by a current BRET trainee. Hear how Vanderbilt has shaped an alumnus’s career path, skill set, and network, as well as what career advice they have to give. For more information or if you are interested in writing an Alumni Spotlight, contact Kate Stuart.
Written by Dikshya Bastakoty, Graduate Student, Department of Pathology, Microbiology & Immunology
Erika Adkins Scholl is a Research Associate at the University of Utah. She studies pediatric epilepsy using juvenile rat model. Her career path since Vanderbilt, she recalls, has been full of ‘serendipity’.
Erika and her husband David Jason Scholl both graduated from the Vanderbilt Pharmacology Graduate Program in 2000. Following post-doctoral fellowship at University of Copenhagen, Denmark, Erika moved to University of Utah, and eventually joined her current lab, where she started working on the rat status epilepticus model. Erika shares that using mouse models without any previous experience, was difficult, but also gave her new insight into the study of human diseases. She loves her research, and plans to continue as a Research Associate.
Erika’s husband Jason took the non-academic career path following a few post-doctoral stints. He is currently the Director of Toxicology and Pharmacology at SuperGen Inc. Erika shares her (and her husband’s) career paths and the fun or challenges of the dual scientist lifestyle in the full interview.
Can you describe your current job?
Erika: I think of myself as kind of a staff scientist. My current position is Research Associate. It is not well-defined at the University of Utah, but it is somewhere between post-doc and research track. I get the benefit of doing experiments, writing grants, and writing papers without having to worry about providing for employees. I get to have the fun without so much of the stress.
Where do you see yourself headed in your career? Are you interested in moving into tenure track position in academia?
Erika: Based on my personality, I enjoy the position that I am in, so I see myself continuing on where I am now.
What do you study in your lab?
Erika: I study pediatric animal models for static epilepsy. It is a recurrent seizure that is medically incorrigible, common among the elderly and children. I came from a very molecular background, and for the past six years, I have been working with the animal model of epilepsy. We use juvenile rats as our model. There are lots of drugs for adults with epilepsy, but not much work has been done for pediatric epilepsy. The drugs that work well for adults with epilepsy are not necessarily the best for pediatric epilepsy. With our juvenile epilepsy model, we are trying to develop drugs that are good for children rather than for adults.
How did you get to your current position after receiving your PhD from Vanderbilt?
Erika: There is a lot of serendipity in the way things worked out. I went to Denmark for a post-doc in an area of research that was very similar to what I had done during my PhD at Vanderbilt. I had worked on a biophysical method of studying dopamine transporters in the laboratory of Dr. Randy Blakely during my PhD. While I was in Denmark I got married and we had a child. After being thousands of miles away from our families, we decided to move closer to where one of our families was located. So we moved to Salt Lake City where my husband’s family is from. I came here knowing that I was going to be here, and then tried to find a lab that fits my experience. I think one of the mistakes I made was that I was too narrow in my view. Because I hadn’t done any animal work before, I had dismissed that as something I wasn’t comfortable with. So I did a second post-doc that was not very close to my previous field but still in the field of transporters. Through that experience, I learned that you need to really love the work you do, or else it becomes just a job. So I stepped out of my comfort zone and joined a lab that studied epilepsy, using animal models. I had never done any animal work, but I really liked it. Until that point animal work had kept me from considering many good labs, but after I finally took that plunge I was really glad I did. Being able to look at the whole picture from molecular biology all the way to animal model gave a very different perspective to the research. I think now, in vivo and in vitro studies need to be much more integrated than they currently are. 
What insight do you have for current PhD students on how to land the first job after PhD, and how to secure a good post-doc?
Erika: I think it is important to keep an open mind about things, but go with what you like. Don’t be afraid to let life take you places. In choosing a lab for post-doc, go with what you instinct tells you: try to get honest opinions from people in the lab. If you are going into the same field, get opinions from your advisor. If you are going into a different field, then get ideas from other people in your department or committee. A good fit with your advisor is as important in post-doc as it is in graduate school. Also, figure out your own style of work so you can find a good fit for you. In your final years of PhD, go to meetings, find labs that may be of interest for a post-doc, and talk to the PI or the members of lab. That way you can get the real idea of the work and the lab environment, and also get honest opinions from lab members. Also, if things are not working out in a lab, it is better to leave early than to try to go through with it. It is better for your career to leave early than to have a not-so-productive, long post-doc.
What are the skills that you use right now, that you feel like you didn’t learn during your PhD training?
Erika: I have felt very fortunate in having my PhD from the Pharmacology Department. The training was really great, and I had a great experience in my lab too. One skill that I think I need a lot -- although it is not something that can really be taught -- is the ability to juggle a life outside work. During PhD for most people, your life revolves around PhD. But in the real world you have responsibilities of a family, and being efficient is something that you have to learn very quickly. Efficiency is not emphasized in the PhD lifestyle and culture, and it isn’t something that can be taught, but it might be helpful for students to be aware of the need for time management and work-life balance.
What was the career path of your husband?
Erika: My husband [David Jason Scholl]’s experiences with post-doc weren’t very satisfying, and he became more and more sure that academia was not for him. But you can get values out of experiences that are negative. Going through these post-docs, he strongly felt was that he wanted to help people in a more immediate kind of way. He had worked for a Contract Research Organization (CRO) in Utah in the summers of his undergraduate experience and after college, and he had become the study director before he started graduate school. When he came back after our stay in Denmark, even though the CRO had dissolved, the people he had worked with were at different places, so he had a lot of contacts.
After graduate school, he did environmental epidemiology for the State. Then using another contact from the State, he worked for a large pharmaceutical company in Utah called Myriad. He then got a (DAT) toxicology certification and became a diplomat of the American Board of Toxicologists. He was a toxicologist at a couple of different pharmacological companies. Then he moved to a medical device company. They needed an engineer who had toxicology experience. He wasn’t an engineer but he applied anyways. Because they never found an engineer with a toxicology experience, they hired him as a toxicologist. The lesson to learn here is that even though it may not be something you normally do, be persistent, network, and don’t rule yourself out as unqualified. Let the people on the other side decide if you are qualified or not.
What challenges do you find in managing the dual scientist lifestyle with different career paths?
Erika:  It works out well for us because my time is more flexible since I am in academia. My husband has a more rigorous and structured schedule. Academia is limiting in terms of moving up and pay scale, which is opposite for my husband’s field. So I am able to enjoy academia without compromising the finances, while my husband is able to keep his rigorous schedule without compromising family care.
What career advice do you have for current PhD students?
Erika:  My PhD became a very good base for me to build upon, so I stay in touch with my advisor and some other people. If you do have a good experience at Vanderbilt, make sure to pull from that network for the rest of your life. Other advice I have is that if you really want to go into academia, then it may be better to stay in a closely related field because the body of knowledge that you have already built can be a great advantage for you.