PhD Profile: Dr. Audra Van Wart

Post date: Apr 28, 2014 8:14:24 PM

Audra Van Wart is Director of Education and Training at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. She received her PhD from Stony Brook University in 2005, and is a former Scientific Editor for Cell Press.

Background and career path: As an undergraduate, my experiences interning with genetic counselors and clinical geneticists at Children’s Hospital of Buffalo inspired me to want to understand the inner workings of brain development and function. The PhD program in Neurobiology & Behavior at Stony Brook was a great fit- I was able to perform research rotations with great scientists working in diverse areas of neuroscience, which allowed me to discover the type of experimentation that would best satisfy my drive to understand “how the brain works”. I carried out my dissertation research under a predoctoral NIH fellowship with Dr. Gary Matthews, investigating how the developmental expression and distribution of particular ion channels influenced the function of neurons that carry visual information from the eye to the brain.

I spent the next three years carrying out an NIH-supported postdoctoral fellowship at MIT in the lab of Dr. Mriganka Sur. This was an exciting time for me, performing technically challenging experiments investigating questions relating to the plasticity of brain connections and information coding during development. I was inspired by the intellectual curiosity and drive of people I met, and Boston, like New York, was a hub of great science. I was drawn to lectures and conferences on a variety of topics, and found myself torn between continuing on a traditional academic track, versus pursuing a science-related career that would allow me a broader exposure and purpose. I invested a good deal of time in self-assessment and career investigation, including career fairs, reaching out to “friends of friends” and alumni that went on to non-academic careers, and participating in networking groups like the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA). By this time I was primed by the growing quality and variety of opportunities beyond the tenure-track position, as well as the changing research funding climate (not to mention the challenges of raising a family in Boston on two postdoc salaries!).

When did you leave the bench? When I responded to a job posting for a Scientific Editor for the Cell Press journal Neuron, I was still unsure of whether I could make the leap away from the bench, however a lengthy and hands-on interview process was enough for me to see what a great fit the job would be. Over the three years I spent at Neuron, I was engaged not only in evaluating and handling review of cutting edge research manuscripts, but also discussing fascinating discoveries with researchers at scientific conferences, visiting labs across the country, planning conferences, recording Podcasts interviews, commissioning reviews, planning web content, managing press releases, and special business projects such as design of a new iPad app. In this time I greatly expanded my neuroscience knowledge and network. I was fortunate to enjoy a bird’s eye view of the field, and the technical and conceptual challenges that similarly defined the frontiers across the subdisciplines. I also honed a number of valuable skills at Neuron, including communication, project management, time management, teamwork, and multitasking in an environment where multiple urgent and competing deadlines were the norm.

I decided to leave that position to take advantage of a great job opportunity that arose in conjunction with my husband’s faculty job search (my husband, Greg, is also a Stony Brook alum). Virginia Tech had recently partnered with the major health system in the area, Carilion Clinic, to create the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSoM) and Research Institute (VTCRI) at a new medical campus in Roanoke. There was a clear need for someone to help develop the education and training environment at the VTCRI, and to help coordinate creation of innovative new biomedical and health-related graduate programs for Virginia Tech. Excited to enter on the ground floor of this rapidly growing endeavor, Greg and I moved to Roanoke (along with our two little boys!)- he as a tenure track Assistant Professor, and me as the Director of Education and Training.

What is your current job like? My role is focused primarily on academic program development and coordinating opportunities for research training (undergraduates through postdocs and medical residents). I am co-directing a unique interdisciplinary PhDprogram in Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health, which is welcoming its inaugural class to Virginia Tech this fall. I also serve as an Assistant Professor in the VTCSoM, evaluating medical student research projects. I have had a keen interest in advising students and postdocs on issues of career development. For example, I serve on the PhD Outreach Committee for the Association of American Medical Colleges’ GREAT Group, and I am also a Co-Investigator of a BEST (DP7) grant from the NIH, to devise and evaluate new activities for broadening experiences of biomedical PhDs and Postdocs. Finally, my role involves engagement in a number of outreach activities, such as the Planning Committee of Virginia’s First Annual Science Festival.

What advice do you have for current graduate students? When thinking about potential careers, it’s important to start with, and continuously turn back to, self-assessment. Figure out what motivates you, as well as your skills and weakness, and be realistic about the lifestyle you want, as it may not be compatible with all career paths. Remember that every job has its joys and challenges, many of which can be found in any industry. Stay positive and aim for balance. Wherever possible, reach out; talk one-on-one to alumni or others in careers that interest you- I found this to be extremely helpful. Get involved in organizations that will support you in this endeavor; the HBA’s mentorship program provided an important source of support and information during my postdoc days, and I remain in touch with my mentors and co-mentees.

I am happy to be contacted ( if there are further questions about the positions I’ve held, and I wish you all the best with your career pursuits in academia and beyond!