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Harvard cell biologist, Audrey Sporrij, on building a career strategy

Audrey Sporrij: PhD Candidate in cell biology joint-program between Harvard University & Utrecht University

Audrey Sporrij is a PhD candidate at Harvard University, where she works with hematopoietic stem cells in the Zon lab. She is fascinated by developmental and stem cell biology; you can hear the awe in her voice as she describes how amazing it is that something so big and complex as a human being can come from something so small, and how equally incredible it is that this intricate developmental process succeeds so much of the time! Yet for all of the excitement that Audrey finds at the bench, she already knows that she won’t be pursuing a career in academic research.

As every graduate student (past and present) knows, there comes a time in every graduate career where the goal shifts from learning new things to simply getting the project done. You stop experimenting (so to speak) with new ideas and repeat the experiments that you need to strengthen the narrative of your thesis, spending lots of time meticulously tying together loose ends. To Audrey, this goal shift feels more like plugging holes in a scientific story than true learning. She much prefers the early days of pursuing a PhD, when students have more freedom to try a series of shorter-term experiments. “I would do better as a sprinter than a marathon runner,” she tells Nick, and if academic projects are more of a marathon than a sprint, she’ll happily find her niche as a scientist outside of the lab.

Setting Short-Term Goals

Audrey admits that she hasn’t always had a clear path for her career in mind, but has confidence in her ability to make rational decisions. She places a lot of value in making sure that she is always moving forward by setting clearly defined short-term goals for herself. She knew she was interested in developmental biology, so she pursued a series of related but distinct steps in pursuing that interest: an internship in cancer biology followed by one in stem cell biology, education at a smaller university followed by education at a larger institution, studies in her home country of the Netherlands followed by a PhD in the United States. Each step of the way she worked on a timeline; she even has a personal time limit for her PhD, which is much easier said than achieved. A PhD in the Netherlands would take four years, so she set a goal to graduate with her doctorate in five years and is currently on track to do just that. It’s all about not remaining stagnant and taking the right next step, even if the endgame is not yet in focus — very fitting for an academic sprinter.

I would do better as a sprinter than a marathon runner.

Audrey Sporrij

The next step in Audrey’s journey will likely be in the world of consulting or biotechnology; she is currently the co-president of Harvard’s Consulting Club and works in the Harvard Office of Technology Development. One of the things she loves about studying at an American university is the ample opportunity to explore during the course of your PhD. For the longest time Audrey didn’t know herself what it meant to be a consultant, and now she finds herself at the head of a group that organizes panels and events designed for other students to learn the answer to that question and ultimately determine if it is the right next step for them. 

So often scientists only think of themselves at the bench, asking themselves what kinds of experiments they can do, but graduate school teaches you so much more than how to experiment. “[As scientists] we are experts in problem solving, we are resilient, we can keep track of the bigger story,” Audrey beams as she details what scientists can bring to all kinds of jobs. As far as she is concerned, it doesn’t really matter where or when you find that place where you can make the best contribution to society or find the pinnacle of your personal fulfillment; as long as you carefully consider what is right for you and where you can do your best, then you’re taking the right next step.

Audrey’s Favorite Books

Once a Scientist is made possible by support from our listeners! Each week, we ask our interviewee to tell us about their favorite books. If any of these reads catch your eye, you can support the show by using the links below to buy a copy for yourself!

Notes for this episode were written by Caroline Sferrazza.

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