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Career Spotlight: Neil Lamb

 

Director of Education-Biotech

 

Basic job description:

HAIB is a non-profit biotechnology institute with a major emphasis on biotech/genetic education across the state of Alabama. I oversee this effort, which focuses on incorporating biotechnology into the High School Coursework, providing training workshops and labs for area teachers, developing distance learning programs and creating opportunities for public education and dialog about issues surrounding biotechnology.

 

Type of Education/Training Required:

There are not many educational outreach positions across the Biotech sector at present so the requirements for the position vary from company to company – at minimum a BS in a biotech-related field (genetics, molecular biology) with some additional specialized training. 

 

Special Talents or Skills that Contribute to Career:

A passion for teaching and the ability to communicate across a variety of audiences are very helpful.

 

Salary:

This varies dramatically from company to company and is somewhat tied to the individual’s background and experience.
 

What is your educational background?

I received my B.S. from Auburn University in Molecular Biology, followed by a Ph.D. from Emory University in Human Molecular Genetics. After a short postdoctoral stint, I took followed a career sidebar and worked as the communication director for a large local church in Atlanta. It was there that my communication skills were honed. I returned to a faculty position at Emory after a couple of years and developed a high-throughput genomics facility to serve the DNA collection, storage and genotyping needs of the faculty. In 2005 I became the Director of Education for the Department of Human Genetics at Emory and focuses solely on education and outreach, both within and outside the academic setting. In Fall 2006 I began my current position at HAIB, in Huntsville, Alabama.

 

Why did you choose this career?

I love teaching – plain and simple. I’m happiest when explaining genetic or biotech concepts to a group of students, healthcare professionals, policymakers or the man or woman at the supermarket. My position at HAIB allows me to do just that. There is an enormous lack of information (or abundance of misinformation) about genetics, genetic technologies and the role of biotechnology in health and disease. I have the privilege of working to turn the tide to produce genetically literate students and individuals.
 

What steps did you take to obtain your current position?

In all honesty, it was a combination of very vigilant in-laws and being in the right place at the right time. My wife’s family lives in Huntsville, where the Institute is located. For years, they’ve kept their eyes open for genetic positions in the area, in the hopes of getting their grandchildren to Huntsville! When the institute was announced, I received a flurry of emails and phone calls. So I knew about HAIB, but they didn’t know about me. A few months later I was at a meeting in Cold Spring Harbor and was talking with another scientist about careers in genetic education. Unbenownst to me, he sat on the scientific advisory board for HAIB. So the conversation quickly became a discussion about what the institute was planning for educational outreach and how nicely that fit my background and qualifications. A few weeks later I was invited for an interview and offered the position. Needless to say, there were some very happy grandparents that day!
 

What suggestions do you have for others who would like to break into this field/profession?

Recognize that you may have to enter the field one step at a time. While many recognize the need for faculty or directors devoted to education, the reality is still slow to gain traction. You might need to begin by teaching one or two courses at your university, or organize an outreach effort to high school students or the public. Build on your successes and expand to include other groups and programs.
 

What is involved in a typical workday?

It really varies from day to day. I may spend time reviewing or developing biotechnology lab exercises and talking with High School teachers about how to pilot these in their classrooms. I’ll often be in the lab working through these activities to identify and fix potential trouble spots. I try to spend time each day reviewing new discoveries or publications in the field and thinking about how to incorporate these into classroom sessions or talks in the community. I’m also collaborating with the local community colleges to help craft a training program for the future biotechnicians who will work at area biotech companies. Lastly, I may find myself in front of a civic group or in a faith-based setting, talking about genetics and biotech as part of a public outreach effort.

 

What do you like the best about your work?  The least?

I love the people with whom I interact. My first day at HAIB I was introduced to the members of the Partnership for Biotechnology Resource (PBR), a group of academic and corporate folks connected to biotechnology in North Alabama. The folks at PBR quickly became a key partner in our education efforts and have been a treasure trove of support and ideas. I also really enjoy my interactions with the students, teachers and public. I love the opportunity to teach and share the wonder and power of genetics and biotechnology with folks across the spectrum, from elementary students to senior citizens.
 

What frustrates me the most is actually a product of the field’s success. I find it very challenging to keep up with all the advances in genetics and biotechnology. There are so many resources to read and follow that I often feel like I’m trying to drink from a wide-open fire hydrant.

 

Do people tend to stay in your field for a long time or is there a lot of turnover?

As long as there are new discoveries to be made, there will be a need to teach others about those findings and their impact on life. While the path to career advancement is less straightforward than might be found for example, on an academic track, there are opportunities to work on larger and larger education projects.
 

Generally, those of us in this type of education arena tend to stay for long periods of time. Change and progress are incremental in this field and you need to adopt a long-range view and a large dose of patience.

 

What are your career goals?

I’m in a very good place right now in terms of my career, with the support and resources to make a difference in this field. I see myself with HAIB for a very long time.

 

In what ways does your degree help you with this job?

I could never talk coherently about genetics and biotechnology without my Ph.D. in the field. It is a definite asset. While not actively engaged in “wet-lab” research, the toolkit I developed during my training is put to good use developing, deploying and assessing our different educational programs. At the same time, let me be clear that many of the world’s most successful teachers do not have advanced degrees. Teaching is often intuitive and many of my colleagues, particularly those in the K-12 arena, do an incredible job without any additional letters after their names.

 

How does your current position compare to working in other settings, like academia or industry?

I straddle both academic and industrial cultures in my job at HAIB. I work to develop and implement grant funded programs, but do so in a very collaborative world with K-12 students and educators, entrepreneurs, business and government leaders and philanthropic agencies.

 

December 2006

 

The American Society of Human Genetics, Incorporated

9650 Rockville Pike Bethesda, Maryland 20814

society@ashg.org 1-866-HUM-GENE (301) 634-7300

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