Victoria R. Polonis, PhD, is the Chief of the Dept of Vaccine Immunology for the Military HIV Research Program at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (
). Developing a vaccine against COVID-19 is on everyone’s mind, so now is a good time to spur students’ interest in scientific research career pathways. We interviewed Dr. Polonis to ask her how she got into the field, what she does on a daily basis and advice to guidance counselors. Here are her responses and key tips as you guide students.
Expose students to STEM opportunities.
Dr. Polonis was15 and a HS sophomore when her family saw a PBS TV special on BioMedical research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). She lived nearby, so Dr. Polonis visited RPI with her parents. She ended up volunteering for 2 summers for a Virologist working on Lassa Fever Virus models. After that she set her sights on medicine and research.
Help youth find opportunities to shadow physicians, or volunteer/intern at local hospitals or laboratories. Help students enroll in YouthWorks Summer STEM placements.
Help students be well-rounded.
Good verbal and written communication skills, focus, attention to detail, organization, and inter-personal skills are as important to succeed in scientific research/STEM as math and memorization!
Explain how research scientists start out.
Newbies in the lab will do menial tasks, called scutwork. Cleaning labware, autoclaving, and basic lab chores are common. You have to be open to scutwork to earn the chance to be in the lab.
Dr. Polonis worked in the lab developing experiments to research questions related to an HIV vaccine. She and her staff took samples from trial participants to measure how the immune system neutralized viruses. She traveled all over the world setting up clinical labs, since HIV is worldwide. Now as the lab chief, she spends more time on oversight, data analysis, attending meetings, writing manuscripts and preparing presentation.
Talk about career paths for medical research scientists.
Dr. Polonis entered the ROTC to help offset the cost of her education, and stayed in the military, now working at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. She could also have gotten into teaching, business-biotech firms, management, or medical school, then clinical practice.
What Dr. Polonis wishes a guidance counselor would have told her!
Do not doubt yourself and have confidence in your abilities. Sometimes you need to be aggressive; deferring to others doesn’t always work. Look out for your own career; go after what you want.
On the practical side: Listen to your advisors and learn from those senior to you. Don’t pursue something you don’t like just for money or to please others. Take your time, set your sights on the goal and during the difficult times (like writing a thesis) tell yourself, “This too shall pass” because nothing is always easy or fun—but with persistence you’ll reach the goal. A college degree is very important to advance in scientific research, so investigate all possible funding sources to avoid debt.
What is wonderful about medical research.
What Dr. Polonis loves about research is the feeling that you are contributing to the world and to the potential health of human kind. Also, being the first one to see a result, any result that could be a small piece of the puzzle, is exciting and wonderful!
for Dr. Polonis’ tips for students to succeed.