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From Ph.D. to Safety: Brown BioCon Recap

This past October, Safety Partners had the opportunity to speak at Brown University’s BioCon Seminar.

The BioCon Seminar series is focused on bringing in speakers, with higher degrees in the life sciences, to speak with post-docs, graduate students, and med students about diverse career paths outside of academia.

Each seminar features speakers that discuss their career path, their day-to-day work, and their advice for students and post-docs. This session featured two Safety Partners’ speakers, Dina Lloyd, Consulting Safety Officer (CSO), and Dana Zafiropoulos, Quality, Research, and Training (QRT) Specialist.

Dina graduated from Tufts’ Ph.D. program and Dana graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Ph.D. program before joining Safety Partners. Since both Dina and Dana have successfully made this career transition from academia to environmental, health, and safety (EHS), they shared their experience with Brown students and post-docs and answered questions.

The discussion focused on how to find a career outside of academia and what careers in EHS look like, including a day in the life of a Safety Partners’ CSO.  They focused on issues like work-life balance, what it’s like working with clients, how their work has been impacted by COVID-19, and what Safety Partners has done to offer flexibility during COVID-19.

Here’s a summary of what was discussed.

How did you first learn about a career in safety?

Dina Lloyd: “I wanted an industry job at the bench to use my skills – at first, this was hands-on columns.”

Dina used this background to apply to learn more about biology and biosafety – she had lots of experience with chemistry and that experience put lab managers at ease.  After training with the Safety Partners’ team, she could start working with clients with confidence that she could enhance their EHS programs and spot any red flags.

Dina didn’t know a doctoral could be applied to EHS. She had roles prior to Safety Partners that were safety-oriented – like lab management or organizing waste and she realized she liked the aspect of helping people and found this was possible in her role as a Safety Partners’ CSO.

Dana Zafiropoulos: “I learned about the existence of this type of role through the MassBio.org job board.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

What initially attracted Dana Zafiropoulos to a role in safety, was realizing she could get more of a ‘human’ aspect in a scientific support role. In grad school, Dana only interacted with her co-workers in the lab. Now, her job encompasses much more –learning new scientific techniques, teaching, and training people, researching regulations, and gaining exposure to benchwork at many biotechnology companies.

Writing is also a part of Dana’s role as QRT (Quality Research Training) Specialist. Our QRT team is a big differentiator, the team offers support to our consultants through a year-long mentorship for new hires, ongoing support for all staff, including regular in-office hours, continuous research and staff training on new or updated regulations, and continuous review and updating of our training materials and manuals.

What does a day on the job look like?

Dana: “To give you an idea of a day on the job it includes meetings, today I’m creating a gap analysis for the client – giving them recommendations to improve the safety program. Then I’m meeting with someone I’m mentoring and helping them learn how to manage clients with specific safety programs.”

Dina: “Today my day involved writing emails answering questions, and then an institutional biosafety committee (IBC) meeting required for rDNA permitting where I’m writing up the minutes and sending them to the client to sign off. Then I’m scheduling another client IBC meeting, and creating waste profiles (basically identifying the contents being shipped and hazard categorization to reduce the cost to ship waste).”

“I also drove to a client where I do COVID compliance work and did a walk-through of the lab to make sure the waste containers were closed and labeled correctly. After this, I researched procedures for animal care facilities. I also conducted checks on the eyewash stations and safety showers.”

What is work-life balance like in this career?

Dana answered first, mentioning that in her role at Safety Partners she can set up her schedule with flexibility – she creates family time and work time then she sticks to it as much as she can. She may do a little work on Sundays but keeps Saturdays as family days. With COVID-19 dictating less daycare support, she sometimes makes up daycare time at night when her children are asleep. This is very manageable compared to a career in academia.

For Dina, she used to work twelve hours a day in academic science.  Dina loves cooking and baking, as well as eating out on weeknights, which she’s able to do now that she is in a career with a work-life balance offered at Safety Partners.

How did you find Safety Partners? What was the interview process like?

Dana shared how she conducted her job search by looking at the MassBio job board which is an active resource for the life science community in Boston.

While searching for alternative careers that could still use a Ph.D. background, she wrote copy for science videos and developed science test questions to build experience.

For the interview process at Safety Partners, Dana made sure to first have a good resume. The next steps were a phone interview followed by an on-site interview.

Dana was prepared for her interview discussions by sharing examples of how she improved safety programs at other positions, and what she did in those roles that related to safety and she also included writing samples.

For Dina, she networked in the Kendall/Cambridge area and MassBio. She also attended and presented at the Gordon conference held in New England, but the organization holds small topic-specific conferences throughout the world. She went on a ton of interviews and there was one at a big company that even took her out to dinner, then nothing! She moved on, and soon enough she was having a conversation with an old graduate student contact and they shared more information about Safety Partners thinking she would be a great fit there.

“The more I talked with everyone at Safety Partners,” Dina said, “the more I was interested in learning about the position and what the company did. I got more excited with all the information.”

“The process to interview was straight-forward: a phone screen then an onsite interview with 3-4 people,” Dina said. Dina also recommends using LinkedIn, learning the skills that you want to build, in addition to building your soft skills.

Learn more about our opportunities on our Career page here.

When asked what it’s like working with clients, here’s what Dina and Dana had to say.

Dana: “Some clients love when you arrive because they’ve been needing your help, and some are only doing it (safety management) because they’re supposed to, so you might have to win them over. With these clients, you’ll have to change your approach on how to talk with them.”

Dina: “Feel out how to communicate with the client and notice how they prefer to communicate: email vs in person. Some clients can be argumentative and difficult, so document as much as possible on what regulations you’ve given – it’s different for all clients. You can be really in-line and in step with clients that you love too.”

Dina works 16 hours a week with one client. Once you show value, you can work more. Dina also said, “there are lots of meetings in this role. It’s a lot of hands-on.”

In shedding light on the role and company, Dana shared how we’re (Safety Partners) not regulatory agencies, we’re here to help clients get past problems. What matters most in this role, Dina thinks, is the personality of approaching a problem and how you interact with someone to solve it.

How has your work been impacted by COVID?

It changed the focus of the work. Dana said, “We had to make sure we knew the CDC guidelines and Massachusetts guidelines, putting together policies and training for clients. We also held webinars to inform clients on what they needed to implement on-site.”

“We also had to learn how to adapt with Zoom – conducting a walkthrough and regulatory inspection with a computer instead of in person.” Dana also said, “We didn’t slow down too much business-wise, and we actually got busy. We used to have a lot more freedom to go onsite, we now have to reduce capacity 50% on-site so we have to request beforehand.”

Dina said, “a couple of clients were open the entire time.” “These clients had deadlines — they couldn’t stop and couldn’t suspend timelines; it was really consistent for me.” However, this was not true for all CSOs. “If the clients were more responsive in person and not over email they had to adapt and find that balance.”

How has Safety Partners accommodated COVID-19 work flexibility?

Dana had no daycare for her child for months, so she worked the same amount of time but worked at night to make up the time. If other employees couldn’t manage that, Safety Partners offered different ways to help with flexibility. “Some people had to go part-time, and Safety Partners was completely understanding about that,” Dana said.

What area of your background and education help you most in your role now?

Dana: “Waste management in graduate school – I worked in a lab working with radiation lab, controlled substances. I helped dispose of a controlled substance by looking at regulations and talking to regulators for the best way to do things.  I had to look at regulations and why you were doing things. Writing and people skills – interacting with all types of people were key skills. Some advice? Be super nice to facilities employees as well as admins and receptionists, they help with supplies and getting you through the door!”

Dina: “I have always been the liaison to facilities at all my universities. In both labs, I helped with expansions. I helped negotiate the price and put in orders for glassware. Strategically putting yourself out there, with people at Brown, both departmental and janitorial staff – is a good way to get between the barriers.”

“Be curious, develop communication skills. If you’re interested in alternative careers, contact people to learn more and ask questions.” Dana also mentioned, “A helpful quality to have in the role is people skills. We recruit scientists into this position, and many people don’t have an EHS background when they start. We can teach you regulations, but we can’t teach you people skills.”

“We provide each new staff member a full year of mentoring because we understand it’s a different type of role. We assign everyone a QRT mentor and CSO team leader.”

And finally, Dina said “I’ve never felt as supported as I have been at Safety Partners, versus my graduate career. I always have someone to reach out to, no competitive feel, or that you’re doing something wrong. It makes me want to learn more and gives me the ability to look at a problem differently.”

Final words of advice:

We hope this recap of the virtual Q&A at Brown BioCon with Dina Lloyd and Dana Zafiropoulos gives you a better understanding of what a career outside of academia looks like as well as what a career at Safety Partners looks like.

Here are additional resources and organizations for outreach on alternative career paths from Dina. She was a member of these organizations while she was job hunting during grad school:

  • New England GWISE – There are local chapters in many of the large universities and hold a fall/spring day-long workshop to help women in STEM, which sometimes have career panels.
  • Northeastern Section Younger Chemist Committee is part of the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society (NESACS) which is a subsection of American Chemical Society (ACS) – NSYCC holds an annual career-focused conference with panels and how to prepare for interviews etc.
  • Boston Postdoctoral Associations – they have an annual career symposium.

Interested in a career in safety and making a difference? We are hiring! To learn more about careers, professional development, and life at Safety Partners, check out our Careers page here.

This blog was written by Emily Smith, our Digital Marketing Manager.

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