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 Emily Mason, Graduate Student
Susanne Tranguch is a Vanderbilt alumna who received her Ph.D. in cell biology in 2007. Since then she has held a position as an editor for Cell Press, and now works as a grants editor at New York University. I recently spoke to her about her time at Vanderbilt, and how she got to where she is now.
Emily: First, can we talk about what you did and whom you worked with while you were at Vanderbilt?
Susanne: I started in the fall of 2004 in the cell biology program where I worked with Dr. Dey [Dr. SK Dey, now the director of the Division of Reproductive Sciences at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital]. I actually got my masters at UNC Charlotte with a former student of his and she suggested that I come do my Ph.D. with him. I did rotations and matriculated through the IGP program but I came to Vanderbilt to do research with him. I finished in three and a half years. While I was doing rotations I was still working in the lab so I could do my project and incorporate what I was learning with the other rotations. I got my degree in December 2007 in cell biology.
My dissertation was on progesterone receptor co-chaperones in implantation through the early stages of pregnancy. In his lab I was exposed to a bunch of different projects, which I think made me successful in publication rates.
You graduated in 3.5 years -- that’s very impressive, by the way -- then what happened after graduation?
Susanne: My mentor was planning to move to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital so I was planning to do a short post doc with him and help the lab move. We had 60-some strains of knockout animals and packing those up and moving them is kind of an ordeal, so I helped him do that. He suggested that I start looking for jobs because he thought it would take me a long time, but I think I only stayed with him for six months. I was interested in editing jobs, so I took a job at Cell Press in Boston.
What brought you from Cell Press to where you are now at NYU?
Susanne: My boyfriend was in New York City, so I started looking for another job. I really enjoyed working at Cell Press, I was the editor of a reviews journal but also helped with another publication. We were going through some restructuring so I was able to be acting editor of three or four of the reviews journals. I did Trends in Neuroscience, Trends in Immunology, Trends in Molecular Medicine, so I was expanding my breadth. My journal was Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism. I knew everything about the uterus, but I had forgotten what a beta cell and alpha cell made in the pancreas, so it was kind of a steep learning curve. But it was a very enjoyable place to work. When I was looking for jobs in New York City, I was kind of getting tired of editing. Maybe if I worked in a primary journal it would have been different but trying to commission reviews, and coming up with the latest and greatest when there are so many journals and so many review articles, I felt that it was harder to keep up with what’s really going on. You can go to meetings, but [as an editor] you’re not really in the trenches anymore. I think I would have stayed there longer if I hadn’t fallen in love with my boyfriend, but I stayed there three years and I think that was a good amount of time for me.
When I was looking at jobs I was applying to foundations, and I was looking for other editing jobs like at Nature medicine, and I had done some lab visits with editors where you go around and visit labs and give little talks about how to write a paper, and how to publish a paper. One of the things I kept noticing was that a lot of PIs would say, “Oh I would love to have an editor here, so I could work on my grants and my papers.” Typically they would have post docs working on it but a couple of big PIs had an in-house editor. I realized you learn so many skills being an editor and Cell Press had great training, I’m sure Nature did too, but you learn how to package things.
I emailed Michelle Grundy [Assistant Director of Graduate Programs in Biomedical Sciences at Vanderbilt] and said, “I’m looking for jobs in New York City.” I always liked what she did. She has a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology yet she’s working with students. I emailed her and talked to her about what I could do, and I told her I’m in this editing department maybe at a university with a PI, and so she gave my resume to Joel Oppenheim [Senior Associate Dean for Biomedical Sciences at NYU] and he gave my resume to Vivian Lee who was Dean of Science at the time. I came, I interviewed, I said what I wanted to do, and they kind of created this position.
What led you to want to go into more of a writing and editing position rather than research?
Susanne: I was really exhausted. You know, it’s so tiring and it’s a hard life. My PI worked every day -- there at 6 am -- and I was strongly encouraged to do the same. I did really enjoy it but I also would end up choosing the lab over anything else in my life. I just felt like it was a good stopping point for me. If I was going to continue to go down this path, I don’t know when I would have been able to leave. I didn’t really trust that I would ever stop.
I knew I wanted to maybe have a family one day, and I didn’t want to have to write grants for my money. I think the determinant was really the toughness of that whole career. Sometimes when I go visit my old lab I think, “It would be fun to work here again.” But then my mom says, “Don’t you remember how tired you were all the time?” It was a tough decision but I felt like it was an instinct. I needed to do something else.
Can you talk a little bit about what your daily life is like?
Susanne: Well I work from 8:30-5:30 or so, and basically I edit grants all day long. We have a digital form and PIs submit grants to me and I comment on the figures, I mark it up and track my changes. I do what I did as an editor for review articles but they’re grants, so I talk about whether their aims actually make sense and whether it’s all packaged nicely and whether their experiments actually make any sense in relation to what their aims are testing. It’s like acting as another reviewer, but I’m not really critiquing the science or critiquing their aims. If that’s their aim, I make it the best that I can.
I’ve also started teaching little workshops on lessons learned from grants I’ve edited, common mistakes. In the fall, I’m teaching a grant writing class for faculty, and that’s been fun to do. Hurricane Sandy disrupted the class, so since Sandy I’ve actually been working on a few other initiatives. We have to relocate a few buildings and people so I’m working with relocation efforts. I’m on this committee to help them if they need to request any extra support or need to know how to communicate with the NIH about providing updates. My position is so interesting because if there are things that I want to get involved with I can.
I’ve also been working with communications a lot just because it’s a skill set that I have. I’m one of the few scientists in an administrative office so a lot of times they’ll look to me and ask, “what do you think the PIs will think of this?” and even just drafting an email, PIs look at things differently than what an administrator would think would be useful to them. I’m still editing a lot but now I’m also doing other things. It’s a neat place because I can kind of explore what I want to do.
Since February of last year I’ve also enrolled in a part time MBA program, so I’m learning some things that are completely foreign to me. It’s interesting, and my boss has been really supportive. I think that’s why she’s put me on so many things to see what I’m interested in. Once I graduate, which I hope to do in December of this year, I can see what else I can do in the capacity of my position.
Let’s talk some more about the grants that you edit. Are they from all over the university, or is there a specific area that you work on?
Susanne: It’s everyone. I remember the first grant I got was on coal mining. I had to Google some words, because I was thinking, “What are these words, are they spelled incorrectly?” but no they were, like, coal mining technology words. I do all sorts of critical grants, from medical school, to one on facial reconstruction, to more basic ones. Today, for instance, I did GABAergic neurons and addiction. I still get to read a ton of stuff, which I like.
So you are pretty well rounded in your job?
Susanne: I think so. Sometimes I can’t even remember what I read during the day, so I don’t know how much it sticks in! With science you can kind of read anything and know if it makes sense or not. It’s actually easier for me to edit things that aren’t in my field because, if I don’t understand something, a reviewer might not either; whereas, when I read something in my own field, I find myself asking all sorts of questions that I know the reviewers probably aren’t going to. We don’t have that many pregnancy people here, so I don’t run into that problem very often.
Do you think there’s anything about Vanderbilt that really helped prepare you for where you are now?
Susanne: A lot of it was my PI. He always had me help him with reviewing papers and reviewing grants. Just publishing that much you really learn how to package a paper and he was good at that. There were so many papers I used to see as an editor that are great papers, and you know they could be good but they’re just not telling the story well. I think my PI has a knack for that, and I think that has helped me a lot with editing.
I also think knowing people like Michelle that are in alternative careers is really helpful. I had a good relationship with Roger Chalkley, so I’ve called him up to talk about training grants at NYU, and he’s helped a lot. It’s kind of interesting to see this university coming from a different university. You learn how things work at different places.
Is there anything you wish that you had taken advantage of at Vanderbilt that you didn’t?
Susanne: For my rotations it would have been fun to do something completely different than what I intended to do, like doing something with worms or flies. I had done my masters work in mice, so exposure to something different would have been good.
Do you have any advice for anyone going through grad school right now?
Susanne: Value your mentor. I still talk to my mentor once a month. He nominated me for so many things, and he was always so supportive. I think he’s provided so many opportunities for me. I probably wouldn’t have gotten a job at Cell Press without a post doc if it hadn’t been for my publication record. Of course I worked hard, but it was also from his support and his pushing me all the time.
Also, network at meetings. I also feel like I’ve made a lot of connections on LinkedIn. Don’t be afraid to ask people, “What is it like working there?” just to help you figure out what you like. Don’t be afraid to create a position that doesn’t exist. A PhD has so many more skills than we give ourselves credit for. The way I think is obviously a lot different than how a finance person thinks, and it’s a neat thing to recognize. It’s a neat degree to have.
Do what you love, but do what you’re good at too because you will end up really liking it. If you don’t like research, then don’t do it. If you do, then stick with it. It’s nice to have a job that I like. I’ve always had really supportive mentors, even at Cell Press and even now. I think that’s because when you really enjoy doing something you tend to work harder and be more successful at it all the way around. Figure out what you like and then some company somewhere will want you to do that for them.