Immunology doctoral graduate, science communicator stresses importance of making connections

Jory Weintraub spent many, many hours in the laboratory while pursuing his doctorate in immunology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “And while I really enjoyed that, it was the time I spent teaching that impacted me the most,” the doctoral graduate says. Weintraub now directs science communications for the Duke Initiative for Science & Society, and he believes effective communication is essential for those seeking careers in the sciences. “The scientific and academic landscapes are changing so rapidly now … The days of simply focusing on your research are long gone,” he says.

Jory Weintraub

Jory Weintraub

We asked him a few questions about the professional development that made a difference in his own education at Carolina, and what he thinks graduate students need to know before they enter the job market.

What are the most significant aspects of your work?

I’m currently wearing a couple of hats in my position at Duke University. One is as the science communication director with the Duke Initiative for Science & Society. In this position, I teach undergraduate and graduate courses in science communication to Duke students – primarily STEM majors. I also offer science communication workshops to Duke faculty and postdocs. These courses and workshops are designed to help scientists and engineers communicate their work and its relevance more effectively to diverse audiences.

The other hat I wear is as the director of Duke’s Broader Impacts Resource Center (BIRC). I created the BIRC as a resource to support the Duke research community in its efforts to develop and implement activities that communicate the broader impacts, or societal relevance, of their research. Many funding agencies and foundations stress the importance of broader impacts and use it as a criterion on which to evaluate funding proposals, but most scientists and engineers receive little or no training in how to develop, implement and assess outreach associated with their research. So, the BIRC provides this support, with the goals of helping researchers write more competitive grants and conduct more impactful outreach.

All of this work is drawing on experience I gained initially as a graduate student and postdoc at UNC, including work on science education, science outreach and science communication, with particular emphases on increasing diversity in the STEM disciplines and faculty development.

In reflecting back on your years as a graduate student at Carolina, what are your favorite memories of being a student here at UNC-Chapel Hill?

As a Ph.D. student in the microbiology and immunology department in the School of Medicine, I spent the majority of my time in the lab, running experiments. And while I really enjoyed that, it was the time I spent teaching that impacted me the most and started me on a trajectory toward a fantastically rewarding career in science education, outreach and communication. The connections I made with students, and the rewards I felt when I was having an impact in the classroom, were truly inspiring to me.

I also think back on the tremendous experience I had just being a student at Carolina. I cherish my years on campus, the amazing experiences I had interacting with faculty, staff and fellow students, and the magic of taking in a Carolina football game on a beautiful fall day or cheering on my Heels against dook in the Dean Dome. Perhaps most exciting for me is the fact that I’m currently reliving a lot of this through the eyes of my daughter, Claire, who is a junior at Carolina and is having an amazing undergraduate experience. Being able to share that Carolina connection with my daughter is priceless!

Are there any specific examples of support – fellowships, mentoring, other – that helped you advance your academic and professional goals?

I was extremely fortunate to receive a Royster Dissertation Fellowship from The Graduate School, which broadened my horizons greatly, exposed me to incredibly diverse ways of thinking, conducting research and communicating, and allowed me to expand my network of colleagues and friends that continues to flourish to this day.

I also had the incredible good fortune of being mentored by Dr. Ed Neal, then director of UNC’s Center for Teaching and Learning [now the Center for Faculty Excellence]. He was instrumental in fostering my understanding of, and passion for, education and of introducing me to the scholarship of teaching and learning. He opened my eyes to the world of instruction, broadening my horizons beyond the lab bench and helping start me on my path toward a career in science education, outreach and communication.

What do you think graduate students most need from professional development today? Why?

The scientific and academic landscapes are changing so rapidly now, and I think The Graduate School does a fantastic job of expanding the types of training and professional development that are offered to grad students at Carolina. The days of simply focusing on your research are long gone. It is now essential to provide students with training and professional development in grant writing, communication (including the ever-shifting social media landscape), teaching, mentoring, collaboration, teamwork (especially in an increasingly interdisciplinary and global academic environment) and many other skills and tools that were not traditionally emphasized when I was a graduate student. I also think it is important to expose graduate students to the diverse options that exist for non-traditional career paths, both within and beyond academia, and UNC’s Graduate School does a fantastic job with this!

Do you have advice or thoughts to share with current UNC-Chapel Hill graduate students?

Throughout my career (starting as an undergraduate) I have had a history of pursuing things (scholarship/fellowship opportunities, job opportunities, etc.) that seemed to be a bit of a stretch for me, with the attitude that “it couldn’t hurt to try.” While I certainly haven’t gotten every scholarship, grant and job for which I’ve applied, I’ve often been pleasantly surprised by the opportunities that have been afforded me. So, I tell all students to be open to trying new things, stretching themselves in new directions, and not being afraid of failure.

Also, as cliché as it sounds, there is nothing that will be as important as the network you build, and it is never too soon to start building that network. Be a good colleague, go the extra mile to be helpful when you can, and do it all with a positive, team-oriented (non-ego-driven) attitude. Not only will it make you a more pleasant person (and more appreciated colleague), but people will remember your efforts and it will make a difference to them (and to your career success).

Finally, cherish every minute you get to spend at Carolina, because it is a truly amazing place and it will always have a special place in your heart, no matter where your career path takes you. GO HEELS!