Features

Taking Research Beyond the Bench

An Einstein Alumna's Path from the Lab to Global Health

When Dr. Cara Chrisman graduated from Einstein in 2010 with her Ph.D. in microbiology & immunology, she wasn’t entirely sure what her next step would be. The one thing she knew for certain was that she needed to explore options beyond the bench.

As a student, Dr. Cara Chrisman was a member of Dr. Arturo Casadevall’s lab
As a student, Dr. Cara Chrisman was a member of Dr. Arturo Casadevall’s lab
"Even though I loved the lab and my research on fungi, the longer that I was in graduate school, the more obvious it became that I also enjoyed activities that took me outside the lab," she said." From chairing the graduate student council to leading the Einstein Journal of Biology & Medicine and being a writing intern for the public affairs office, I was doing things that didn’t involve running experiments. The only problem was that I was still unclear about what that would mean for my career.

“I had attended many professional development events, but no one was ever able to suggest a clear path for someone in my position, to make the transition from the lab to these other related fields."

Connecting with Fellow Alumni

Prior to graduation, Dr. Chrisman reached out to other Einstein alumni who had pursued careers away from the bench for guidance and, through Dr. Todd Haim, class of 2008, was able to find a short-term contract position at the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI’s) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Development Center.

"Their office needed a contractor right around the time I was defending my thesis and wrapping up things in the lab. So, I moved down to Washington, DC for what was supposed to be a three-month position in an office at the NCI. Ultimately, things worked out and I was able to remain in the position for over a year."

It was during her time with the NCI SBIR Development Center that Dr. Chrisman first realized that working in a place where one was able to keep connected with the science, while also broadening their skill-set to involve other areas, was exactly what she sought. She began exploring other options, particularly those that would allow her to move into global health.

Fellowship Lays Sound Foundation

"In graduate school, I had looked into the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, but hadn’t applied," she explained. "Instead, I ended up applying while at the NCI."

Products that Dr. Chrisman helps to evaluate in her work with USAID, (from left): Multipurpose (microbicide/contraceptive) intravaginal ring and SILCS diaphragm
Products that Dr. Chrisman helps to evaluate in her work with USAID, (from left): Multipurpose (microbicide/contraceptive) intravaginal ring and SILCS diaphragm
She added, "Unless you're also pursuing an M.D. or M.P.H. degree, as a Ph.D. student your focus is on your research. So, even if you’re interested in global health, you’re not likely to know how to go about getting into that field. The AAAS Fellowship provided me the opportunity to do so."

Dr. Chrisman began the AAAS Fellowship in the fall of 2011 as part of the Diplomacy, Security, and Development track and was placed at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) within the Bureau for Global Health.

"At the NCI, I found that I enjoyed supporting the development of new technologies to diagnose, prevent, and treat diseases. So, I was lucky to find an opportunity at USAID that allowed me to merge that interest with my interest in global health," she said.

"In my division at USAID, we support the research and development (R&D) of new technologies suitable for use in resource-limited settings, with a particular focus on sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia."

The division's portfolio includes products that will be used for contraception, such as a new biodegradable contraceptive implants, and multi-purpose prevention technologies, known as MPTs, which prevent unintended pregnancy, HIV infection and other sexually transmitted infections.

She explained, "Through projects with various nongovernmental research organizations, we’re supporting new products like gels and vaginal rings that can help a woman to avoid multiple unintended consequences at once."

She added, "The work is fulfilling because you feel as though these products will eventually meet the needs of women throughout the world, including here in the United States."

Monthly vaginal ring developed by the International Partnership for Microbicides, which Dr. Chrisman helped to evaluate in her work with USAID
Monthly vaginal ring developed by the International Partnership for Microbicides, which Dr. Chrisman helped to evaluate in her work with USAID
She continued, "The connection to the R&D means that I also find my work intellectually stimulating. Since we develop products for the countries in which USAID works, there are many additional factors that need to be considered as part of the R&D process. For example, products need to be affordable, easy to transport, store and use, and they must be stable in high heat and humidity. These factors add complexity to an already long and expensive process."

Maintaining a Global Focus

Although she completed her AAAS Fellowship last summer, Dr. Chrisman is continuing her work with USAID through the Global Health Fellows Program, supporting the development of these new technologies and working with other international donor organizations to align their research.

"Being at USAID puts us in a unique position where the R&D that we support is in direct response to the challenges faced in the countries, such as India, Kenya and Rwanda, in which we work. My experiences abroad have really helped to inform decisions about which types of technologies would be most appropriate for introduction in these nations."

As part of their work, Dr. Chrisman and her colleagues often travel to the countries for which the products are designed. “During our visits, we observe the clinical trials under way,” she noted. “We also meet with the women and couples who may be future users of the products, and what we learn from our discussions with them is integral to the development of products that truly meet their needs. That’s very important, because our goal is to involve them in the process in order to provide products that they will find useful."

Looking Back & Forward

In reflecting on the path she has taken since graduating from Einstein, Dr. Chrisman said, "I absolutely loved my time in graduate school. I had an amazing mentor in Dr. Arturo Casadevall, who allowed me to pursue experiences outside the lab. And I've been very lucky to find a career path that allows me to merge multiple interests and strengths, even though it has meant moving away from the bench.

She added, "While I miss running experiments myself, I wouldn't give up what I'm doing now for all the fungi in the world." She paused a moment and smiled. “And there are a lot of fungi in the world!"

Posted on: Wednesday, July 23, 2014