January 2021 GPS Career Story: Dr. E'Lissa Flores from the Health and Environmental Science Institute (HESI) in Washington, D.C.

January 20, 2021
Graduate and Postdoctoral Success
Dr. E'lissa Flores

Dr. E’Lissa Flores from the Health and Environmental Science Institute (HESI) in Washington, D.C.

You’ve got ~ a minute or 350 words to give us your elevator pitch. Who are you? What are you all about?

I am E’Lissa Flores, and I was raised bi-coastal, in Los Angeles, CA and Rochester, NY. I consider myself a STEM and underrepresented minority advocate. I am passionate about helping others and contributing to advancing the scientific field at large. I love communicating with broad audiences on health or scientific issues to improve understandings and trust between communities and scientists.

Currently, I am a Scientific Program Manager at the Health and Environmental Sciences Institute (HESI). HESI is a non-profit organization, aimed to bring together multi-sector scientists from academia, government, industry, and NGOs to collaboratively identify and help resolve global health and environmental challenges. I co-manage several HESI committees, including the Cardiac Safety Committee, the Genetic Toxicology Technical Committee (GTTC), and the Immuno-Safety Technical Committee (ITC). At HESI, I am also fortunate to be able to continue developing new educational and science outreach efforts.

During my education, I procured various NIH awards, including an undergraduate MARC fellowship, a post-baccalaureate PREP scholarship, and a predoctoral F31 fellowship. However, after receiving my F31 and performing countless experiments, I realized I was no longer interested in grant writing and becoming a PI. I recognized that I gravitated to spending more time conducting science education activities and found fulfillment in science communication to other scientists and the public. While I am a very enthusiastic and outgoing person, I still had to build various communication skills to be an effective science communicator and to find a career that would fit my skills and, more importantly, interests. I undertook this initiative by taking various courses, attending career seminars, and reaching out to former graduate students or conference contacts in my network to expand my knowledge.

As I am relatively early in my career outside graduate school, I too am still learning about new career paths that are out there and acquiring new skills needed for my potential next endeavor. However, the major thing I have learned thus far is to adapt a reasonable work-life balance policy for yourself that works for your household. I am a new dog mom, and I am happy it changed my schedule to be home more (pre-COVID times) and to just relax!

Imposter syndrome? Yes, no, or ongoing?

OF COURSE! During my first year of graduate school, I often felt like the dumbest smartest person in the room. I was scared to ask questions during seminars, lab meetings, or classes for fear of asking a ‘dumb question,’ which I am sure I very well did. I only felt that I belonged after I passed my qualifying exam, 2 years into my graduate education. To overcome my lack of science communication and writing experience during my early graduate school years, I took various courses and workshops to bolster those skills. However, over time, you will feel more comfortable in asking questions and presenting your data the more times you do it. I always have a personal goal to try to ask at least one question during a meeting or seminar. To that end, I challenge you to do the same: raise questions and ask for help or clarification if you need it because it will enhance your confidence, boost communication skills, and improve your project outcomes. And remember, imposter syndrome may emerge when transitioning to a new endeavor or job or when working on a less familiar topic; however, facing adversity certainty develops character, talents, and inspires new passions!

What skills are most important to be successful at your job? How did you gain those skills?

In my personal experience working outside of academia and the lab, the number one skill that is highly valued is communication, both oral and written. It is crucial in my current field to be able to summarize and translate technical information to high-level or lay terms, either in a written report or at a meeting. A main component of my job is to moderate teleconferences (4 – 30 people) and large convenings (80+ people) on various scientific topics, ranging from immunotoxicology to cardiac safety. This type of skill may take some time to develop in order to lead and engage your audience for meaningful discussions while staying on a timely schedule, even for natural communicators. My advice would be gain as much experience as possible while still in graduate school, e.g., write blogs or white papers, join school clubs and committees, participate in science outreach activities, and present your data as much as possible! Here are some of my examples during graduate school that improved my skills:

  • took over 6 science communication courses and workshops
  • presented at every poster session available outside and within my department and school
  • conducted science outreach activities, such as teaching K-12 children science lessons
  • wrote various blog posts
  • went to seminar guest speaker lunches or dinners and asked questions
  • led lab meetings or journal club discussions

When transitioning from graduate school to my first job, I took LinkedIn Learning courses and shadowed various colleagues calls and meetings, whether it was related to my project or not – this helped me gain a sense of their style of communication and to learn what works well, especially in particularly challenging situations. When I began running my own teleconferences, I would practice and write out a full transcript with prompts that corresponded to each slide in my presentation or agenda items. I also asked for past documents as references to gain insight on how to write specific reports and asked colleagues to peer review my reports before I submitted the reports. Based on my passions, such as science outreach and diversity and inclusion, I continue to research and write articles on side projects for myself or for various companies I worked for. While I still feel nervous or uncertain here or there, it has almost become second nature to lead events or initiate new projects. However, learning is forever. I continue to learn, especially from my colleagues, because there are always new or improved ways to engage respective audiences and guide more meaningful discussions.

Dr. E’lissa Flores presented her GPS Career Story on Wednesday January 27, 2021 at noon. Although you missed the opportunity to ask her questions, you can still watch her Career Story at the Graduate School's YouTube Channel. To find out when the next Career Story will be held, check our calendar.