My grandmother often remarked that I had been here before, which meant that I was an old soul.
More than knowing what I wanted as a child, I anticipated the future with a sixth sense. This remained true until the end of graduate school. I finished my PhD in chemistry, and all of the anecdotal evidence about transitioning to a job seemed false. Companies were not showering me with job offers.
The route of academia would require a postdoc, and I needed respite from laboratory research. For the first time in my life, I had no plan. I applied to everything frantically. Rejections abounded except for an Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health Fellowship at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Thankfully, you only ever need one “yes”. As an Environmental Health Fellow, I informed science policy and regulations by assessing the efficacy of EPA’s current and past drinking water research objectives. In this role, I was able to understand the duality of research – how science informs policy and how policy directs research. Ultimately, I realized that I would better serve science policy by returning to research. As such, I chose not to renew the fellowship and began a postdoc in exposure science with an esteemed principal investigator (PI) who had recently left the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
For two years, I explored what it would be like to become an academician. In the lab, I analyzed pesticides in baby food and baby formula, breast milk, and serum; bisphenol-A in urine; and flame retardants in human brain tissue. I even obtained an interview for a tenure-track position, an increasingly rare feat. I had begun the postdoc with a newly found momentum that I wish I had when I started graduate school.
As all good things come to a transition in life, my postdoc funding was dwindling away, and it was time to “evolve” once again. Furthermore, I found myself without a plan. I did not want to enter the world of academia, but I did enjoy research. Thus, I decided to pursue employment at CDC. After all, my PI just left there, and I should be a frontrunner for those positions via networking.
If the PhD was an Olympic test of perseverance, then finding employment at CDC proved to be maddeningly similar. After 13 months of networking and four interviews for four separate jobs, I received a “yes”. As mentioned earlier, you only ever need one “yes”. Currently, I am a research chemist at the CDC where my work focuses on elucidating levels of tobacco exposure biomarkers in urine, serum, and saliva using robotics (imagine the love child between WALL-E and a Coke bottling machine).
As a consequence of anxiety, agitation, and discontent, my career trajectory has been directed by not only my gut feelings, but also my determination and yielding to the “yes” moments. “The journey is as important as the destination” was a cliché I used to ridicule until now.
With the passing of another holiday season, I customarily visited my parents. At my mother’s request, I finally began tossing junk from high school. We found my senior book and laughed nostalgically at 90s fashion and how young we all looked.
As I continued to skim through the treasure troves of adolescence, I saw where I had written what I wanted to be – a doctor at the CDC. Fourteen years later this teenage declaration seemed eerie to me, but my mother was not surprised. She reminded me that my grandmother always used to say that I had been here before, and for the first time, I believed grandma might be right.