What is it, exactly, that pathogenic bacteria do when they're not invading and infecting human hosts? How do they behave in other environments?
Those were some of the questions Lisa Gorski wished to address while a PhD student and postdoc, but did not get a chance to. Now a microbiologist at the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, or ARS, Gorski investigates — among other things — how enteric pathogens attach to, colonize, and survive on fresh produce. As a member of the Produce Safety and Microbiology Research team at ARS, she works alongside her colleagues using molecular biology, genomics, and proteomics to promote the safety of the US food supply.
Gorski, who earned a PhD in microbiology at the University of Connecticut, spent five years as a postdoc at Stanford University before shipping her CV off to various employers in academia and industry. At the time she began applying for jobs, "I actually didn't know that ARS existed," Gorski says. It wasn't until she happened upon an ad for an opening there that she'd even considered working for the government.
"At my heart I'm a bacterial ecologist; I tend to take a holistic view of bacteria in nature and try to see where bacteria fit in their niches. One question that never was answered to my satisfaction in school was: 'What do human pathogens do when they're not being pathogens?' And the job description for this position asked that question, basically," Gorski says. "So I applied for it." At the time, "I didn't know that such a position existed; I thought that you could only do academia or industry and there was nothing in between," she adds.
Gorski interviewed for a variety of positions in all three sectors. She says the academic interview "was the most intense," while her meetings with employers in industry tended to be more laid-back. Her day-long USDA interview fell somewhere between the two, she recalls. "I had to give a seminar, just like in academia. I met with scientists in the unit, I met with administration on the campus," she says. However, unlike her interviews in either industry or academia, "a lot of the interview process … was them letting me know what it's like to work here and what's expected of a scientist here," Gorski adds.
Much like the interview, Gorski says her research career in government is "a mix between academia and industry." Like an academic PI, "I run my own research program," she says. And, like an investigator in industry, she occasionally is commissioned to work on a particular project. Otherwise, she paces her work according to her peer-reviewed, five-year research plan. While members of her microbiology unit share a common mission, each investigator is "fairly autonomous in what we can decide to work on and … responsible for implementing it, publishing, and interacting with people who might benefit from the research," Gorski says.
Gorski and her colleagues are supported, in part, by shared federal funds. But while Congress mandates financial support for ARS, "it's not necessarily enough to cover everything," she says. Consequently, Gorski and her colleagues must write grants from time to time. "While grant-writing is important, it is not as major of an aspect of my job as it is for someone in an academic position," she says.
However, academic PIs have an advantage that Gorski and most of her colleagues at ARS lack: "Access to the continuing flow of graduate students," she says. Another potential downside of her position is that it is subject to the ebb and flow of politics. It can be tough, Gorski says, "having to watch what Congress does, with an eye toward how that's going to impact my research program in the future."
Rather than going up for tenure after a number of years like many academicians do, scientists at ARS are eligible for merit-based promotions every three to five years, Gorski says. During the promotion evaluation process, "you prepare essentially a tenure packet that gets judged by a committee of other ARS scientists. … In this way, you're assessed by an anonymous committee of your peers, and not necessarily by your immediate supervisors," she says, though she adds that they, too, are asked to provide their opinions. The committee takes an all-encompassing look at its peer's career, asking questions such as "How well known are you and your work? Do you have collaborators? Are they domestic? International? Do you publish? In what … journals? Do you bring in grant money?" Gorski says. From there, the group assigns its colleague a grade that correlates with pay.
Overall, the greatest perk of her position is that she is "actually in the lab — doing experiments, crunching data, and gathering everybody else's data. I can work in the lab basically until I retire," Gorski says, adding: "Ask an academic scientist how often they take up a pipetter anymore."
And, much like she was as a postdoc, Gorski says that many people with PhDs are unaware of the various research opportunities in the public sector. In talks she has had with students, Gorski has tried to "get the word out there that this type of job exists and is a viable alterative" to academia or industry.
"I'm really happy at my job," she says. "I get to work in an area that I really like — my work is respected, I still get to publish, I get to go to meetings. And I don't have to be a full-time grant-writer in order to do that."
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