SDB Conference at Portland: A Ph.D. Is a Lot More Than Just Your Research

I attended the Society for Developmental Biology Conference held at downtown Portland Marriott from July 19 to July 22. This is a conference attended by around 600 to 800 developmental biologists from a wide range of research topics. As a graduate student in my 3rd year, I went to the conference for the opportunity to talk to as many attendees as possible about my research, their research, their research-related and non-research jobs/careers and to analyze the current job market for Ph.D. graduates. In addition, I volunteered to help with registrations and general public navigation at the conference.

The highlights of this year’s meeting for me were the encouragement for scientists to be more approachable and share more common stories to bring the community together, the theme table session, the non academic careers seminar and the poster sessions. Not to forget the cheap thrills of getting Sharpies in all possible colors and shapes at the different vendor tables! Whatever motivates you to read more papers, right?  😉


One of the talks for the opening night of the conference was by Dr. Renee Reijo Pera that was very enjoyable. She is a well-known scientist and PI in the field of reproductive biology. She not only spoke about her science and time-lapse imaging technology, but also about being human and approachable as a scientist. This talk made a lot of people uncomfortable, as it was not all about research and her discoveries. On the other hand, there were a few that connected to her stories and felt that we need to come closer and be more open as a community. With this, I was excited to see some fresh topics during the course of the four days after this great start to the meeting.

Next, there were approximately 12 themed tables arranged for lunchtime discussions. It was very nice to see that SDB had included a theme table for how the LGBTQ community can be made to feel more included in science.

The theme table that I chose was “A Ph.D. is not enough, get involved in the science culture.” This table was led by Dr. Graciela Unuguez from New Mexico State University. She came across as a very energetic and proactive person in communicating to her fellow PIs and also with all the trainees attending the meeting. While the session itself did not bring to the table new information about the existing science culture, it was eye-opening for me to see a PI talk so openly about it.  Science culture here refers to the culture within the group of developmental biologists; the expectations as a trainee and a mentor, the unspoken norms, the unsaid rules, the implied judgements, etc. Various topics such as gender equality, the image of a scientist, dress code, work ethics, and the mentor-mentee partnership through a training period were covered in this discussion. I have to say, this session encouraged many of us to consider how to fit or not to fit into the science culture. I respect and like Dr. Unuguez for how she conducted this and every other session in which she was involved.

The next session that I was looking forward to was the non-academic careers in science. The panelists were communication specialists at SDB, a senior editor for PLOS One magazine, a the podcast owner from “This Week in Science” and a senior research scientist from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. While this session weighed more on the science communication part of the careers, it also had an employee from the industry. This session had quite a good response in numbers of doctoral students, postdoctoral students and PIs. A lot of concerns were raised as to how to pursue a career beyond academia, whether we can come back to it, and how the PIs can help facilitate this transition for their trainees. One common aspect that all the three scientists at non-bench work careers shared was that they missed the lab environment but not the lab work as such.

Speaking of flexibility in non-academic careers, I was surprised and pleased to hear from the senior editor that she works entirely remotely from Portland. Not all of them indicated that they earn more than what a postdoc would, which was also surprising for me. Things that I discovered in this session were an AAAS fellowship for science policy, that working at NIH is awesome to build contacts and learn more, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, and the science communication fellowship by OMSI in Portland.

The poster presentation session at this conference was from 8-11 p.m., but as per my previous experience at this meeting, I had people stopping by my poster and talking to me from 8:15 p.m. to 10:45 p.m. It was very nice and also exhausting. I think I was maybe the only one presenting a primate study in this meeting, and one of the few reproductive biology presentations for the meeting. 

If there are things that I would like to see in future conferences, they would be a theme table to discuss “How is an academic career of a staff scientist viewed: pros and cons” and to hear from representatives of the marketing, entrepreneurship and industry careers in the non-academic route.

As a graduate student who is always thinking “what next after this?” all the sessions that I have mentioned here reinforced my belief that the qualities we carry with us after completion of Ph.D. and it is not just the finding that “Gene A is responsible for X metabolism or development.”

A Ph.D. is much more than just your research. Dive in with curiosity and you never know what you will bring back with you each time. 

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