NINDS's Building Up the Nerve

All About Grants: Discovering Strengths to Advance Your Research Career (Part 2)

November 17, 2023 NINDS Season 4
All About Grants: Discovering Strengths to Advance Your Research Career (Part 2)
NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
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NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
All About Grants: Discovering Strengths to Advance Your Research Career (Part 2)
Nov 17, 2023 Season 4

Listen in for the second of two special guest episodes of NIH's All About Grants podcast! In this episode, host Dr. David Kosub invites NINDS's Building Up the Nerve co-host,  Dr. Marguerite Matthews, and the Director of the Division of Biomedical Research Workforce at the NIH Office of Extramural Research, Dr. Ericka Boone, continues conversations unveiling the "hidden curriculum" of scientific training. They share experiences and perspectives on how personal growth and professional development intersect, setting a plan to identify your strengths, reiterate the importance of engaging your network, the power of communication, and much more.

The first guest episode featured Building Up the Nerve's other co-host, Dr. Lauren Ullrich: 

All About Grants
Inside Cancer Careers

Transcript available at

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Listen in for the second of two special guest episodes of NIH's All About Grants podcast! In this episode, host Dr. David Kosub invites NINDS's Building Up the Nerve co-host,  Dr. Marguerite Matthews, and the Director of the Division of Biomedical Research Workforce at the NIH Office of Extramural Research, Dr. Ericka Boone, continues conversations unveiling the "hidden curriculum" of scientific training. They share experiences and perspectives on how personal growth and professional development intersect, setting a plan to identify your strengths, reiterate the importance of engaging your network, the power of communication, and much more.

The first guest episode featured Building Up the Nerve's other co-host, Dr. Lauren Ullrich: 

All About Grants
Inside Cancer Careers

Transcript available at

[00:00:00] Lauren Ullrich: Hi everyone. I'm Lauren Ullrich.

[00:00:04] Marguerite Matthews: And I'm Marguerite Matthews and we're your hosts of NINDS's Building Up the Nerve.

[00:00:09] Lauren Ullrich: We're popping into the feed again to bring you part two of our guest episodes of All About Grants, a podcast from the NIH's Office of Extramural Research. If you missed part one, check in our feed on September 15th, 2023.

[00:00:23] Marguerite Matthews: This episode features an interview with me, Marguerite, and Dr. Ericka Boone, director of the Division of Biomedical Research Workforce at the NIH Office of Extramural Research. In this episode, we discuss discovering strengths to advance your research career.

[00:00:38] Lauren Ullrich: If you wanna hear more from the All About Grants podcast, you can find it in any podcast app. 

[00:00:44] David Kosub: [MUSIC]

In our previous conversation, we talked about that hidden curriculum, things like networking and communication and mentoring, skills that you probably have, and maybe some other ones that are really important for your potential research career. But how do you get to know these strengths, and actually use them to amplify your professional development? My name is David Kosub, and this is NIH's "All About Grants."

[00:01:08] Narrator: From the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, this is "All About Grants."

[00:01:14] David Kosub: All right, well, welcome to the show, everyone. I am glad to say that we have two guests for this second in our two-part conversation on what we think early career researchers should know. We have first, we have Dr. Marguerite Matthews; she's a program director, but also, most importantly, she is a cohost of another podcast here at NIH, one that we heard from on the previous podcast. This one is "Building Up the Nerve," from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. And we also have Dr. Ericka Boone, she directs the Office of Extramural Research's Division of Biomedical Research Workforce. And I welcome you both to the show.

[00:02:03] Ericka Boone: Thank you, David, it's great to be here.

[00:02:05] Marguerite Matthews: Yes. Thank you for having us.

[00:02:06] David Kosub: All right, we're going to be talking to ya’ll, because ya’ll are really interested in the future workforce, and how you can align your gifts and your strengths to your professional career. But to do some level-setting throughout this conversation, we're going to be talking about professional development and personal growth, do ya’ll mind, like just kind of talking about what we generally mean about that.

[00:02:25] Ericka Boone: I think that when we're talking about that, or when I'm talking about early career investigators, many of them are struggling to find that to navigate their own pathway with regards to the conduct of their research career, but also staying true to their authentic self, I find that this is where understanding your personal motivations and your professional goals and how they align really kind of come together and meet.

[00:02:50] Marguerite Matthews: And as part of my work as a program director at NINDS, I interact with a lot of trainees who have a lot of stress and anxieties around their future careers, and so I think it's important to take a step back, and for them to be able to see the entirety of what they bring to their work, not just their ability to publish papers, their ability to get grants, or even present to really great presentations at conferences, but also to think about all of the other skills that are going to make them really strong professionals that will allow them to advance in their careers.

[00:03:34] David Kosub: Building on that, you kind of touched on how you can -- what you can do to apply those skills for your career, how you connect the two. Can you expand upon -- can you both expand upon that some more?

[00:03:46] Marguerite Matthews: From the standpoint of, say, applying for a grant, there are places in a fellowship application or a career development award application where the candidate has to describe their training plan; what they are going to be engaged in in order for them to carry out their research proposal, but also what's going to help them transition to the next phase of their career. And if they don't know, or haven't thought about their skills outside of pipetting, electrophysiology or running animals in an operant chamber, they may feel overwhelmed by what goes into this section, and how to best plan those activities. And so if they have a chance to look inward and constantly be thinking about who they are and what they bring to their field of study, it may help guide them a lot more, and think of very specific opportunities for them to learn and grow.

[00:04:45] Ericka Boone: I think that what Dr. Matthews just indicated is really very important. We're not just a set of technical skills as individuals; we're much more than that. We're often more confident in our technical skills that she just pointed out, though, but we often make lists of what those technical skills are, or we have a plan for development of what those professional skills are, so we have a lot more confidence in what those are and what we need to acquire to move forward in our professional life. But what we don't always recognize are what are some of those talents, gifts, skills or characteristics that we might have in our personal life that we can also bring into our professional life, what are those additional skills that we might need to grow that will also be able to enhance our professional skillsets as well? And that's where I think this being able to definitely know more about yourself, know more about your own personal motivations, where you want to go, where you want to be, what kind of investigator, what kind of scientist -- heck, this even supersedes a scientific career, just almost any career, if you want to just kind of plop in any other career option. But kind of understanding what you bring professionally to the plate, or professionally how you want to grow, is just as important as understanding who you are, and how you want to grow from a personal perspective within that job setting.

[00:06:17] David Kosub: Well, thanks, Ericka, you kind of scared me with those technical skillsets. That's kind of one of the reason I left the lab, but I'm glad to know that there are folks out there who do, and they can apply those. But you also mentioned setting up a plan. Can you talk, or both of you all talk about this plan? Like, how do you make this plan to manage your professional development?

[00:06:38] Ericka Boone: That's a very good question, David. I think that we often engage in trainings, and in our job here, within the federal government. And some of them, I think, are managing what people call -- or learning how to grow some of those soft skills, and they least they call them "soft skills." I don't think that they're soft at all --

[00:07:01] David Kosub: I agree.

[00:07:01] Ericka Boone: -- because I think they utilize those much more in a work setting, especially when you become a supervisor.

[00:07:08] David Kosub: Mm-hmm.

[00:07:08] Ericka Boone: So I think that there should be much more emphasis on that.

[00:07:09] Marguerite Matthews: They can be hard to apply.

[00:07:11] Ericka Boone: Oh my gosh, it's so hard, because when you become an investigator, people don't say to you, or when you launch into your research career, you have to learn how to do all of these other things; manage large teams, manage so-and-so. You've got students, you've got trainees, you've got yourself, you've got your department heads -- all of those things like that. And we're not really thinking about how to set ourselves up for that. But there are some technical -- we call them "technical skills" that are also soft skills, that I also think they could be personal-related skills as well, like conflict management, you know, time management, communication skills -- those kind of things like that, that we could think about automatically. What are some of those other skills that's outside of that technical stuff that we learn in graduate school and as a postdoc that we need to develop? Start there. Ask other people, what are some other technical skills, or what are some other types of skills outside of laboratory kind of skills, if you will, that you needed to learn in order to be successful in your career?

[00:08:14] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah. I think thinking about the end point first and working backwards can be really helpful. And I don't know if what I'm going to say wills care people or reassure them, but sometimes you're just going to have to figure out, "I need this skill. I recognize that I am not communicating well with people. Somehow there are constantly misunderstandings, I feel like we're talking around each other," and you recognize that communication skills, the ability to have interpersonal relationships that go beyond, I like this person, or I don't like this person, can be incredibly effective in helping a person achieve any type of work product that they want, they need to get done, right? And so sometimes you learn the hard way, that this is a skill that I need. Having this conflict with a student or a trainee, as a mentor, I don't know what to do. And you find yourself in a conflict management training. Maybe you thought you had it under control, but you're taking this again. And I think some of this is, we try to plan and think ahead, but often times we recognize either skills that we don't have that we need, or skills that we haven't used -- maybe we had this training or we had these tools and resources earlier in our careers that we didn't use, because we didn't have those types of conflict issues, we didn't have communication breakdowns, or didn't have the need to put together a budget to run a lab. But now you are in that position where you've -- you know, life circumstances are constantly changing, both in our personal lives and our professional lives that we have to adapt to. And sometimes it's good to just say, "Well, didn't know how to do that, but I'm going to figure it out. I'm going to go online and take a class, maybe my institution or my employer has some trainings that I can get involved with." Some of this will just have to happen as life happens.

[00:10:17] Ericka Boone: And it's not always from a perspective of what you don't have, right? Often times, that gift and talent is that thing that someone is always asking for you to do time and time again. They're asking for your suggestions -- or they're asking for you to serve on panels to do X, they're asking for you to engage with undergraduates in order to help them to gain skills during their summer internships, or someone is asking for you to mentor them officially or unofficially -- often time, it's those kinds of talents that we don't know that we have that are the things that we are best at, and that if we learn how to capitalize on that, it will, one, recognize them.

[00:10:58] David Kosub: Mm-hmm.

[00:10:59] Ericka Boone: We could learn how to grow those types of behaviors or skills. For example, when I was participating in a leadership development class years ago, I was asked to identify 20 personal skills that -- or 20 personal strengths that I had. And I think I got to about 7, and I froze; I couldn't think of a whole lot more to write down on that piece of paper, and I got stressed about it. And so I asked someone, "Hey, how are you completing this part of your homework assignment?" And they're, like, "Well, if you get stuck, go ask someone." So I did. And people kept pointing out things to me that they thought I exhibited as a strength or a talent, that I didn't even realize I was doing, much less that I was doing it well. So once I realized that there are things that I'm doing just on a natural basis, I could capitalize on that for my own personal growth, but as well as my professional growth, because now, I'm taking opportunities to learn how to better utilize and how to better grow that skill. But then I'm also applying it more so to my work, because I've recognized it, I called that thing "a thing," and now I'm using it in order to help other people, but also to grow in and of myself as well.

[00:12:18] Marguerite Matthews: That's a great point, Ericka. Thank you for mentioning that. Leaning on people who know you well and know your work has been life-changing. And just a little side note to the audience, I used to work for Ericka, and she has certainly pointed out some things that I had within me that I didn't really recognize were strengths to be utilized in the workplace, but also that I've used outside of work.

[00:12:49] David Kosub: Calling that thing "a thing" is definitely a truth. You all are definitely reiterating a lot of the points that we were hitting on in our first part of this conversation, the communications engaging with people, networking, talking to people as much as you can. I mean, these are critical pieces to what a scientist should become. These scientists -- you're no longer an island, you're supposed to be working together, collaborating, learning from each other, growing from each other. You're not going to know everything, so maybe you can find out where those strengths and weaknesses on yourself are, and use that to help you know that, so you can catapult into your next career. I think that also might be just some part of the trepidation that some early career researchers might have, is just knowing how to identify their strengths, or what they're weak in, or maybe not as strong in, I should probably put that way. So yes, these are great pieces of advice to kind of keep folks thinking about that.

[00:13:47] Ericka Boone: David, I wanted to point one thing out before you move on.

[00:13:49] David Kosub: Absolutely.

[00:13:50] Ericka Boone: And you said you're "no longer an island." And I think that we have to banish this whole concept of being an island, right?

[00:13:58] David Kosub: Mm-hmm.

[00:13:58] Ericka Boone: We have to do everything on our own, we have to be everything on our own. We have to know everything in this particular area, because we are called "experts" on that. But we don't have to be. We couldn't possibly operate on our own. We have to rely on other people in order to build our professional skillsets. But we can also rely on them to build our personal ones as well. Not only will we benefit from that growth, but others can benefit from that as well -- that is key to helping us to -- I don't want to call it "proliferate" within our scientific career.

[00:14:32] David Kosub: Mm-hmm.

[00:14:32] Ericka Boone: Now, Dr. Matthews is excellent at that. She has mentees that she calls "deeslings” and you should see them coming up to her at conferences, because I feel like -- and I really truly am trying to grow into this as a human, as a person in leadership here at NIH, at whatever level it is, right, that it takes a whole person, it takes that whole self. You do have those technical skills and knowledge, the experience behind you, but it's also you as a person that can help bring someone else along and help them grow in their own personal and professional life. Or you can be a barrier for them as well. And so that is one of the more important things, or one of the more important points that I want to make, is that we're not just doing this because we want to get better at public speaking, you know -- grow those soft skills -- they're not soft -- grow those other kinds of personal skills, because you just want to do that for yourself -- I want to be a better public speaker. I think, and what we're trying to do is that we are trying to, one, grow people's knowledge, or grow knowledge in scientific areas, we're trying to improve public health. We are also trying to extend and expand the future of the biomedical research workforce as well, and how best can we do that, by, one, staying current on scientific knowledge, breakthroughs, research areas, etcetera, understanding who we're impacting with the policies and programs that we're developing around here, but also relying on our own selves and our own skills, our own whole self in order to make sure that we are communicating well.

[00:16:19] Marguerite Matthews: Say that, to underscore the point you just made, relationships are important. It's networking -- we hear that word all the time -- it's a buzz word, it's, like, what does that even mean? And I try to tell the students and trainees at different levels that I work with, think of it as building relationships. People should know your work. They should know about you, because they may be able to see in you something you don't see in yourself, to be able to pull out those skills, or push you to find the skills or to say, hey, you're really good at this, but you could also work on this other thing. And it's hard to know where you have -- where your strengths are sometimes, and what your gap areas are, in some ways not interfering in a way to say, "Hey, I see this in you, I want to help you," or maybe all they can do is point it out, you know? People always say, I think in the youth community that, "Let your haters be your motivators." And sometimes the people that criticize you the most, they might have a point, and say, hey, oh, this thing, yeah, I'm going to work on it. And I'm going to be even better than before. So relationship building is such an important part of our personal and professional world.

[00:17:39] David Kosub: I remember when I was part of the "youth community" at one point in my life. Long time ago.

[00:17:45] Marguerite Matthews: I mean, it was so long ago, I barely remember.

[00:17:47] David Kosub: A long time ago. Well, Marguerite and Ericka, this has been a great opportunity to hear more about your insights, how you can align your strengths to your professional development. Before we go, I always like to leave an opportunity for our guests to kind of leave some final thoughts with the audience, perhaps mentioning something you haven't said before, or reiterating a point you said also, maybe making things more practical for our audience. You know, anything along the lines -- I leave the floor to you all.

[00:18:16] Ericka Boone: I think that a couple of things that I want to leave the audience with is that you're not out there by yourself trying to figure out who you are in this world, whether it's personal or professional. There are other people in your path that can help you in your growth journey, whether it is professional or whether it's personal. There are also other kinds of tools that are available to help you to discover more of your skillsets in other areas, in growth areas for you, for example, Skills Finders is a tool that you might be able to utilize in order to better understand where your strengths, where some of your strengths are, and where you might have some additional growth opportunities. I really feel like, once a person starts to understand who they are more, and understand some of their own personal strengths, you feel a lot more confident in yourself, you feel a lot more confident in your abilities, and you feel a lot more confident in your ability to be able to grow and develop even further. So don't be afraid to think about who you are, where you want to be, what are some of those skillsets that you would like to grow. Ask other people about how they did it, and what are some of the things that they wished they knew, coming into their research career, so that you're not looking like, oh my God, I didn't know that, or I wished that I had known that, I wished that I had developed that, or I wish I had asked that question earlier than before. Just don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't be afraid to gain more strengths and skills in more areas than just your scientific area, because it's really important to help develop you as an investigator, or as a researcher, or a person that's in the biomedical research workforce more generally.

[00:20:03] Marguerite Matthews: I'd add to that, that personal and professional growth is an ever-evolving and iterative process. What you need today may not be what you need tomorrow, or next year, or 10 years from now.

[00:20:18] Ericka Boone: True.

[00:20:18] Marguerite Matthews: And I, for one, continue to build on some of the same skills over and over again. There's not a single communication type of workshop that I have not taken a part of. And I love speaking publicly. I love communicating via social media, all sorts of ways. I think I do it fairly well, and I still believe there's lots I can learn, a bunch of different ways I can grow and become better at that. So this is not something that I think is, oh, I took that one class, and now I'm done, I'm good, I don't need to do it anymore. So think about your -- I guess, don't be afraid to constantly evolve and change, and maybe revisit some things, take on new things. But you don't have to have it figured out. There's no one point in life when you'll have done all the growing that you'll ever do. So your brain may not be growing much anymore, as Ericka and I as neuroscientists know, but certainly there are so many aspects of your life that are going to continue to change, and you should be helping that change along.

[00:21:24] David Kosub: Definitely.

[00:21:24] Ericka Boone: I agree, it's not an either-or, it's both.

[00:21:28] David Kosub: Yeah. And I can always go for some more adult neurogenesis, wherever I can possibly get it. Marguerite and Ericka, truly appreciate this opportunity to hear from you all about how to align your strengths with your professional development. I encourage folks to check out "Building Up the Nerve," the podcast from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; they talk about training and research development -- so check them out as well. My name is David Kosub, and this has been All About Grants. Thanks.


All About Grants