Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this monthly series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: "Where are they now?".
Irene Aninye earned her PhD in Molecular and Integrative Physiology (MIP) in 2012. She currently serves as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. In this capacity, she conducts laboratory research to study the genetic pathways that regulate thyroid hormone action in the brain. She also works as an Adjunct Faculty at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, where she teaches biology courses.
What was most surprising about your career path? Or, what has surprised you most about your current job?
The opportunities are endless. When I decided to pursue graduate school and a PhD, all I knew was becoming a professor or working in industry. As I have journeyed to this stage, I am still learning of more career and extracurricular opportunities that allow me to feed all the passions and interests I have. Especially at the NIH, they really esteem using your training in science to pursue any career in science – policy, communications, outreach, administration, research, education, etc. These are not referred to as “alternative” careers, but just careers.
What is the most interesting, rewarding, and/or challenging aspect of your job?
The most rewarding part of my job is the mentoring and training. I love getting a new summer student or fellow to join the lab who I can work with and train. I’m an educator at heart, so introducing new concepts or techniques that we use in the lab and watching them grow in skill and intellect is the best part of my job in the lab, and even the classroom when I teach.
The most challenging aspect of the scientific research (at least academic research) is the pressure to secure grant funding. It is stressful to always be in the middle of an application or preparing for another. The uncertainty of budget allocations to biomedical research is not as stable as it once was. Hopefully, it will be once again.
What has been the most valuable transferable skill you gained from graduate school?
My people skills. Laboratory research can be isolating, but at Illinois, there were so many auxiliary opportunities to get involved. I joined planning committees for my department’s symposia and seminars, served on the board of the Black Graduate Student Association and worked with the Graduate College and OMSA. These experiences have helped make me a well-rounded individual, and that transfers into any career choice and work environment.
What experiences made an impact on your career choice?
My students have made the biggest impact on my decision. For every student that came for a summer undergrad program, and then later enrolled at Illinois for graduate school, or the ones I taught and they stayed in the sciences, I love it. Last year, I ran into someone in the hallway at work who recognized me. She stopped me to say that I was her chemistry tutor in undergrad, and that I really helped her get through those courses. I remembered her, and she told me that she was just finishing her residency and starting a private practice in ophthalmology. I will never forget how proud and yet humbled I felt in that moment to be an educator. Not everyone is bound for a STEM career, but if I can equip my students with the tools and confidence to make an informed decision, and not a scared one, I feel I have done my part. Being in a career that has that type of impact on a regular basis is what I wanted to do, and I now have the opportunity to do it.
What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?
Be open to the possibilities. You are smart and can do the work. But take the time to get more than book knowledge out of your graduate program and experience. With a university like Illinois, there are so many other service and leadership opportunities at your fingertips. All these experiences are resume worthy, so don’t trivialize them. Grad school is a safe time and place to explore these interests. I’m not advocating leaving your primary responsibility behind, but remember that while your peers are gaining on-the-job experience, you’re still in school. How can you position yourself to be an equally competitive candidate?
This interview is part of the monthly Grad Life series called "Where Are They Now?" which chronicles the career paths of recent Univeristy of Illinois Graduate College alumni. Interviews are conducted by Laura Spradlin. Laura contributed to Grad Life throughout its first year. She is an alumna of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Illinois and studied English and French at Illinois Wesleyan University.