Alumni Career Spotlight

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Dr. Heather Dean started out as an electrical engineering major at Caltech interested in neural networks. She was soon exploring the biological side of such networks and earned a master’s degree in Computation and Neural Systems along with her B.S. in Electrical Engineering. Her time at Caltech set her on the path of neuroscience research, and she went on to earn a PhD in Neurobiology at Duke University. After graduate school, she spent six years at New York University helping to found the lab of Dr. Bijan Pesaran. She is currently an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation where she works on issues related to cutting-edge interdisciplinary neuroscience, data sharing, science communication, and broadening participation. Heather is President of the Caltech Alumni Association.

What is the career path that led you to become an AAAS Fellow at the National Science Foundation?

I thought I would become an electrical engineer partly because my dad is an electrical engineer and my inspiration. He worked on neural networks, so when I came to Caltech, I asked about neural systems. Because of that, I began taking classes and doing research in Computation & Neural Systems, CNS, which led to a SURF with Dr. Gilles Laurent that I very much enjoyed. I spent an extra year at Caltech working on neuroscience research and taking CNS classes, and that turned into a master’s degree. It was really Dr. Laurent that encouraged me to apply to graduate school, and that’s how I became a neuroscientist. After six years of graduate school I was not yet thinking about my next steps, but at an event, I went to say congratulations to a Caltech alum that I understood had recently received a faculty position at NYU. I introduced myself as a Caltech alum, and we had at least seen each other years ago back at Caltech and at conferences. He offered me a postdoc, so it’s because of the Caltech network that I then did a postdoc at NYU.

I was interested in doing something broader than starting a lab of my own; I always enjoyed leadership positions when I was at Caltech. At Caltech I served as the president of the Caltech Y, and at Duke I served on several committees. It was a chance to do something greater than a single avenue of research. I always liked the idea of moving into something that had a broader impact. I applied for the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, received it, and was placed at the NSF this year.

What does the work day of a Fellow at the National Science Foundation look like?

I’m in the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, and I’m working on the big issues that are relevant to all of the programs in my directorate, such as improving the replicability of published findings in research and broadening participation. I’m especially interested in neuroscience, so one thing I’ve been working on is neuroscience policy, both at my job and also on the side through a group I call NeuroPolicy. I bring in speakers to talk about the intersection of neuroscience with policy, media, law, and ethics. NeuroPolicy has been a terrific experience that has allowed me to broaden my network in D.C.

How has the Caltech network helped you?

Being a Caltech alumna… it’s great! I can easily reach out to speakers for my policy group that are Caltech alumni. I got to know my husband because he’s a Caltech alum. He scanned my brain when I first arrived at NYU and when I mentioned I had done this before at Caltech, it started the conversation.  We were later married at Alumni House at Caltech. So the Caltech network has helped me personally and professionally.

What has been your biggest work achievement so far?

That’s difficult to say. In academia I’m proud that I’ve helped start two labs. I was one of the first grad students in my lab at Duke and the first postdoc at my lab at NYU. It was a lot of hard work, but I enjoyed it and am very proud of what we did there. I’m also proud of what is happening now in D.C. – putting together a network of people that are working in neuroscience policy. Two weeks ago I put together a symposium on neuroethics and invited people from throughout government – people who are working on neuroscience and new technologies.  The symposium was great and I’m very proud of that.

Can you think of a challenging interview question or situation and how you responded?

There was an interview question for my fellowship that I was almost asked, but I ended up answering in the previous question. An interviewer asked me why I had received both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the same time. I explained that when I was at Caltech, in my senior year I was taking 54 units, the maximum amount you could take without overloading, I was on the men’s varsity water polo team, I was the president of the Caltech Y, a waitress at the Athenaeum, I was TAing a grad-level CNS course, and I went to a conference in Washington, D.C. during midterms.  Needless to say, I did not do so well on midterms. I went to the Dean and told him that I didn’t know what to do, I had always been an A student, and I was overwhelmed. The Dean, Dr. Jean-Paul Revel, said “It’s okay.  You can drop this 12 unit EE class, and you’ll still have a full load. Take a couple of terms off, and come back to us in the fall.” Fortunately I had done the SURF project with Dr. Gilles Laurent the previous summer, and he said he would happily hire me while I was taking time off, so I did research for those nine months. Because of that, he wanted to make sure I had my master’s degree in CNS. After I answered that question, the interviewer told me, “I was going to ask you how you deal with a failure or setback, but now I know, you get a master’s degree.”  I think that very much helped me earn my fellowship.

What advice do you have for students or alumni who would like to do exactly what you’re doing?

I would say that there is often a push to concentrate simply on your academics whether you are a student or postdoc. My advice is to not be so narrow and make sure that you’re gaining many different skills. I very much appreciated receiving leadership training as a member of the ExComm of the Caltech Y and serving in various offices for the Graduate and Professional Student Council at Duke.  Because of that leadership involvement at Duke, I was asked to write a bi-weekly column for the Duke Chronicle. All of these experiences certainly helped me as I progressed to the next point in my professional life. Don’t box yourself in – make sure you’re getting a broad variety of experiences – get the writing experience, get the leadership experience, and build your network.

What is the best career advice you have received?

I had an advisor tell me that the job you’re most likely to get is the one for which you’re asked to apply. So build your network, make sure people are aware of what you’re doing, and when an opportunity comes up, whether or not you think it fits, make sure you at least explore it. It could become your dream job, or it could just become a good opportunity to practice applying and interviewing for a position. Regardless, it will help build your network.