From Academia to National Labs and Federal Air Force Bases

March 14, 2017

We interview Dr. Bryan Crable. Dr. Crable is a Research Scientist at UES, Inc. in Dayton, OH. UES, Inc. is a subcontractor providing scientific talent to the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. He is currently working on microbial degradation of polyurethane and corrosion of underground fuel storage tanks.

Thanks for allowing ASM to interview you, Dr. Crable. Can you please provide a brief summary of your career path?

BC: Thanks Eleanor, happy to. After my undergraduate degree, I worked with a small environmental engineering/consulting firm in Uniontown, PA. I then became interested in going back for a M.S., primarily for career advancement. I had the opportunity to go to Duquesne University to work in Dr. John Stolz's lab on the metabolic transformations of arsenic. At the time, roxarsone was widely used in the poultry industry and there was considerable interest in understanding its fate in the environment.

I then realized that I wanted to further study microbial metabolism and applied to the University of Oklahoma for my Ph.D. I worked with Dr. Mike McInerney, studying syntrophy - essentially a coordinated metabolic interaction that is the bottleneck step in the global anaerobic carbon cycle and requires the exchange of electrons between species. I also took this opportunity to write a Fulbright Fellowship, which was funded. Thus, I went to the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands for a year during 2010-2011. This was a great opportunity to go abroad while keeping my syntrophy research moving forward with a different model system. I then accepted a postdoc position at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and moved there in early 2014.

How did you choose your postdoc position at ORNL, or what attracted you to that position?

BC: I was at the 2012 ASM General Meeting (now ASM Microbe) and had my first introduction to ORNL. The next year I ran across an opening in Dr. David Graham's Microbial Physiology group. I realized it was an exciting opportunity to work on the biogeochemical cycle of mercury - which the World Health Organization considers one of the most pressing human health issues facing the world. It also provided opportunities to develop my own projects and work closely with great collaborators. Further, there was an opportunity to be a part of the Ecosystem Networks Integrated with Genomics and Molecular Assemblies (ENIGMA) project run out of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

Aside from that, it was clear that ORNL took great pains to make sure the postdoctoral experience provided more than just bench space in exchange for cheap skilled labor. For example, there were opportunities to serve in leadership positions — I joined the Oak Ridge Postdoctoral Association Executive Committee for one year, which provided terrific leadership training. ORNL also sponsored great seminars and workshops on career development.

What types of criteria did you use when choosing your current position?

BC: I wanted to be within a few hours' drive of Western PA for personal reasons so location was important. At the same time, I was looking for a challenging position that would provide exposure to new and different ways of thinking. AFRL provides a group of people from diverse backgrounds such as physics, molecular biology, materials science, biochemistry, plant biology, etc.

Additionally, I experienced great working relationships with colleagues at my previous institutions, and I really wanted to make sure the group I joined was friendly and collegial. AFRL certainly continues this trend — they helped me get up and running in the laboratory quickly while simultaneously navigating some of the bureaucratic hurdles associated with working on a military installation.

If you look back at your graduate-school career and compare that to where you are now, what helped you the most?

BC: When I was in graduate school, I applied for almost every funding opportunity that came along. This was important for my professional development and it's something I don't see a lot of graduate students pursuing. It allows a graduate student to establish a record of receiving funding which, in addition to a strong publication record, makes a newly minted Ph.D. highly marketable. I continued this during my postdoc at ORNL and left with nine peer-reviewed publications and nearly $160,000 in external research funding. This was a strong start into the "real world" job market, and graduate school/postdoc appointments offer tremendous opportunities to go after readily obtainable funding. I also think that slogging it out and learning the ropes of the funding process on a graduate proposal is preferable than competing for an NSF Fellowship or DOE funding without any previous funding record. Further, it helps develop budgeting and project management skills — skills that might not be honed in graduate school if all of your support comes from established projects.

Also, I had the opportunity to develop great relationships with my colleagues who I now routinely rely on for feedback on papers, grant proposals, projects, etc. We act as sounding boards for ideas and maintained great working relationships and friendships beyond graduate school. Developing those relationships is incredibly important for a career.

Same question for your recent postdoc position - what helped you the most regarding your new position?

BC: While I was at ORNL, it became infinitely clear to me that there was more to a scientific career than technical excellence. I began to read books on organizational management, marketing, leadership, etc. I realized that a lot of the professional skills that employers desire are developed during graduate school but in an informal way. Your postdoc is an appropriate time to start thinking more about a framework for further development of these skills. In a postdoc position, you are expected to be independent from the start — capable of navigating bureaucracy, developing an idea, executing it, and arguing for the resources you need to do the work you were hired to do. This is the perfect time to focus on developing these skills.

What advice do you have for current graduate students, recent graduates, and other early career microbiologists?

BC: The best advice I have is to network. I also realize that I was told to "network" as a student, but didn't quite know how to get started. In fact, I did what everyone else was doing — running around shoving my business card into someone else's hand, never to be heard from again. I have since learned that this isn't networking!

So, what does networking look like? Essentially, it looks an awful lot like developing friendships with people in the same field as you. Is there someone whose research interests you? Great! Send them an email and ask to have a brief chat with them. Offer to share your research or forward a scientific article that may be of interest to them. Do you have a colleague who could benefit from talking with someone you know? Great! Introduce them to each other. Talk them up to each other. Both will keep you in mind and will be more likely to return the favor, helping you make the connections that will take you to the next step. Also, don't forget to keep your connections fresh by sharing funding announcements, research developments, etc.

ASM offers wonderful opportunities for networking — remember that person whose research interested you? Call them up and grab a coffee with them at the annual meeting. Don't be afraid to interact with people you know outside of your field, or even science. Remember, it's a small world!

It's important to have some balance between work and your personal life. How do you try to do this?

BC: You're right — it is easy to get caught up in work and forget about a personal life. This is particularly true in science because of the rather transient nature of the scientific workforce. Since starting graduate school, I conducted research at seven institutions. These have involved short moves and moves across the ocean!

It's important to get involved in something outside the lab — something that can help you forge friendships with people who don't know or care what the best brand of pipette is. My hobby is highland bagpiping and I have played the pipes since I was eight years old, becoming fairly accomplished. Piping is a small community, and yet for every move I made, I have found a pipe band within an hour's drive. I also like to get involved in the local community and was elected by the Oak Ridge City Council to participate in the city's Environmental Quality Advisory Board.

I'm sure everyone has a hobby they did before science and grad school and it's important to try and continue that as best as possible. Don't miss the opportunity to reconnect with that hobby once you're out of graduate school.

Something that often gets lost is that science by its very nature can be conducive to a rewarding personal life. Yes, we work long hours (and generally are always working). However, for the most part, we exercise substantial control over where and how we work, and at what times.

We would like to thank Dr. Bryan Crable for taking time out for this interview, and for providing valuable advice and insights to microbiologists at many different stages of their development.

Author: Eleanor Jennings

Eleanor Jennings
Dr. Eleanor Jennings is a Principal Microbiologist at Parsons Corporation.