Career Interview: Chris Gunter, PhD

Associate Director of Research, Marcus Autism Center & Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta
Associate Professor, Emory School of Medicine

ASHG: If you could go back to when you were a trainee, what is one piece of advice you would give yourself for your current career?

Dr. Gunter: No one piece of advice would have helped me, so I am going to bend the rules and share the three pieces I give all the time as a set.

  1. Network. You are constantly making connections and have no idea now how they will be useful later. That’s how I have landed all of my jobs.
  2. Be creative: if you don’t see the position out there that’s right for you, make it up. I’m now in the fourth job that I worked with the employer to create. I think this will become only more common as science changes.
  3. Do NOT let anyone else define “success” for you. Only 8% of current PhD students will end up in tenure-track academic jobs. Academic faculty is now the “alternative career” and there are a whole constellation of successful careers available to you. Don’t internalize old-school thinking that you can only be successful as a university PI.

ASHG: What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?

Dr. Gunter: Least favorite: paperwork. Like 99% of any jobs, it’s the paperwork that constantly tries to drown you in a professor position.

Favorite: gosh, this is hard to pick. My post-doc advisor used to say that science is all about relationships, and coming back to academia at the same place I did my PhD has let me pick up a number of great relationships, as well as forging new ones. [See “1. Network” above!] I’m enjoying working with colleagues to start new projects, and mentoring them to pursue their scientific visions.

ASHG: What do you think the future holds for the field of genetics?

Dr. Gunter: Two important trends I see are computation and communication. If I was training in genetics now, I would try to learn some programming as early as possible. Those who are able to manipulate large datasets to ask scientific questions are going to have an advantage, with the plethora of large resources being generated by NIH and other entities.

Second, I think our field needs better science communication. We’ve been relying on journalists or other media to get our message out for us, or focusing on only talking to each other in the form of publishing papers and speaking at conferences.

With the advent of crowd-sourcing and social media, we can reach directly out to people and explain our science. Non-scientists want to hear about your work, and they want to hear it from you!

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