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Transitioning from the Bench to a Career in the Federal Government


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Eli Kane

This resource has been adapted from the webinar Transitioning from the Bench to a Career in Science Policy, which took place June 15, 2021. Watch the full recording on Neuronline.

Dr. Vijeth Iyengar is the brain health lead and technical advisor to the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Aging at the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

 

Dr. Vijeth Iyengar

Being trained as a cognitive neuroscientist, I’m very familiar with SfN and have fond memories (somewhat) of that mad dash and scramble to submit and prep abstracts and posters for annual meetings and the sheer joy of being able to share one’s work with the community. A brief bio was shared of each of the panelists so instead of re-telling you what's in it, I thought I’d spend a few minutes sharing my journey from academics and graduate school to a role in the US Federal Government that sits at the intersection of research, programmatic design, implementation and evaluation, and public policy. I'm trained as a cognitive neuroscientist and commenced graduate work in about 2010 in a lab that employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the neural mechanisms of episodic memory in humans across the lifespan.

This was really fascinating and invigorating work and I was surrounded by smart, supportive, and capable colleagues and advisors throughout the process.

I recall from day one of graduate school that I was dead set on an academic career--your typical tenure track position at an academic or research institution. About 4 years into my graduate school, just after receiving my masters and en route to a PhD, I begin to realize that, for me, there was an imbalance that didn’t sit well with me of what I call the time to impact ratio. This sentiment was also echoed by other peers across other labs. Specifically, one could spend many months and years on a project and the outcome, i.e., a publication, could be appreciated by few or, if you're super lucky, by many. I was envisioning more of an impact that was not so many degrees removed from the end user, a beneficiary of my research. In parallel, around that time the US Federal Government was pushing out exciting new initiatives, such as The BRAIN Initiative, and beginning to infuse the principles of behavioral economics into the design of public policy. This was the beginning of how neuroscience and psychology would help shape public policy for years to come.

At that time—around 2013 and 2014--careers in science policy or adjacent to science policy, as described by Nicole, were discussions of non-tenure-track paths and they weren't so common. Now, they have become normalized. That is great to see. While in graduate school, I decided to change paths and start to re-engineer my resume to make it more appealing to a career in public policy, government, and this intersection of science, policy, and programmatic design. After dozens, if not hundreds, of informational interviews, coffee chats, and calls it became clear that there were two paths for me to pursue this new passion. One was consulting and the other was applying to fellowships that would serve as pathways for me to enter the Federal Government. I applied on a whim, some would say, to the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF), a two-year fellowship operated by the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and was selected through an exhaustive screening process to be a PMF Fellow to the US Administration For Community Living, an operating division of the US Department of Health and Human Services. I started this fellowship in September 2016, about five years ago.

The agency's mission, which I'm involved with now, is to maximize the independence, well-being, and health of older adults, people with disabilities across the lifespan, and their families and caregivers. Additionally, the agency is a critical component of the US Federal Government's efforts to provide services and supports to older adults--a population group that is going to grow in the coming years and decades to come--people with disabilities, and their families and caregivers.

Briefly, my role at the agency falls under three broad buckets: One, as a program officer for the agency's Alzheimer’s disease programs initiative, I provide management oversight and technical guidance to dozens of grantees nationwide that are implementing evidence-based and scientifically grounded interventions for family caregivers in prisons and with dementia. Anything from reducing caregiver stress and burden to applying the latest science to improving the care for persons with dementia fall under the purview of this grant program.

As the agency's brain health lead, I leverage a lot of the technical skills and expertise I acquired through graduate school and follow the latest advances in our scientific understanding of the modifiable risk factors in maintaining one's brain health to curate and create educational programmatic activities and content for beneficiaries of our agency’s grant programs and other activities. A lot of this work is held in conjunction with other operating divisions within the US Department of Health and Human Services, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes on Aging. And, finally, as a technical advisor to the US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Aging, I developed briefs, talking points, presentations, and web content to facilitate current work activities on topics of aging brain health in long term care services. In addition, I facilitated his engagement with global efforts on aging, including representation from the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

Listed below are some of the goals of the agency and some of the skills that I found particularly useful when carrying out the duties, roles, and responsibilities I had while at the agency.

 

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