Melody Brown Burkins, Women in Science Luncheon

On May 1, 2012 by Grad Forum

Melody Brown Burkins, Senior Director of Research & Strategic Initiatives at the University of Vermont (UVM), visited Dartmouth recently and spoke at a Women in Science luncheon. During her time as a graduate student at Dartmouth, Melody served as President of the Graduate Student Council (1998-1999), and also won the Hannah Croasdale Award for excellent in research and teaching. She has recently been appointed Dartmouth’s Graduate Alumni Rep to the Alumni Council.

Asked why she chose Dartmouth for her graduate studies, Melody explained that Dartmouth was one of two top choices and the deciding factor was that Dartmouth’s Earth Sciences program was more flexible, allowing her to take a variety of classes and explore her options, whereas the other program she was considering was very structured and specific. It was her experience at Dartmouth that first sparked her interest in policy. As a graduate student, she participated in many long-term ecologic programs that were funded by the NSF (National Science Foundation). Despite all of her exciting, albeit grueling, projects—working under the scorching sun in the Jornada Desert in New Mexico (“I think I only passed out once,” she jokes, “it was hot”), and then in the vastly different, freezing climates of the Antarctic—Melody found her interests expanding outside of research.

“I was fascinated by the science, but I really wanted to learn about how these projects were funded, and who was paying for it,” said Melody. She was thrilled when she was selected for the National Congressional Science and Technology Fellowship–a fellowship in which, according to Melody, “clueless scientists were thrown into congress.”

The position called for concise, non-scientific writing and communication and, through some trial and error, she realized that the strategies that would have been very appropriate in academia were not as effective in her new position—she needed to change her approach, and quickly did. “I was learning from people who were younger than me and had so much more experience in this world than I did,” she revealed, adding, “I learned to be very humble and realize that even with my expertise, there was still a lot to learn.”

She was soon offered the role of Special Legislative Assistant, to Senator Patrick Leahy, and, not long after, The University of Vermont, having heard what Melody had done for them from DC (in terms of science and policy) offered her a position there. “They wanted me to take programs that had a lot of investment but no funding and secure funding for them with support from the delegation. It was a perfect fit!” she explained.

On the flip side of her developing career path, Melody and her partner were (and still are) raising a family together, and the demands of her various positions required them to make some decisions regarding childcare and work. To make the balancing act less tedious, her husband (whom she met at Dartmouth) decided it would be best for the family if he became a stay-at-home dad, and Melody continued to pursue her career goals. This dynamic has worked beautifully for them, and now he is exploring a new career as a singer/songwriter—a venture he originally began as a graduate student, at Dartmouth.

Aside from having a supportive family, and being adventurous and open to change, Melody encourages students interested in non-academic work to network, and to realize that their application process may need to be self-guided since many advisers will not have connections outside of science. She also urges individuals to remember that their graduate degree does not mean that they will be experts in any field they choose to venture into; hard work, and the willingness to learn and adapt are key. For those who see themselves in managerial positions, Melody stressed that everyone benefits when you give your team trust and support, “what people need is to be heard and then championed. Invest in your people first.”

Asked about her future plans, Melody happily mused, ” I’ve thought about taking some time to write a book or a course, perhaps on how to get scientists talking together, and how to get their points across to non-experts, and therefore how to obtain funding–basically the stuff I most struggled with when I first started. But really, I’m open to whatever paths may present themselves!”

by Tennile Sunday

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