Great Chemistry: Pure science degrees and the nonprofit sector

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In the fourth year of her undergraduate life sciences degree, Polly VandenBerg realized working in a lab just wasn’t for her. She was studying neuro-electrophysiology as part of her thesis at Queen’s University, and a small lab on campus had become her home away from home. She loved talking about her research and describing it to her friends, but found the work itself tiring and isolating.

“When I graduated I knew what I didn’t want to do,” she says, “but I didn’t really know what I did want to do.”

She decided to dive in a different direction and spent two years offering employment support to people with social disabilities. This was emotionally draining but not as intellectually stimulating as she had hoped, so she eventually got into the health field and started working in research communications for nonprofits.

“I always thought I would end up either working in health care services in something like physiotherapy, or working in a lab,” says VandenBerg, who today works as the manager of research knowledge translation at the Canadian Diabetes Association (CDA). “I never thought I’d be working in the health charity doing what I do, but I’m really happy that I am. It’s a great way for my creative side and my science side to mesh together.”

The nonprofit sector holds many possibilities for someone with an undergraduate degree in pure science. Since the force that drives a lot of nonprofit organizations is the desire to achieve some sort of environmental or medical gain, a lot of funding is put into scientific research. This opens up a huge door for anyone with expertise in chemistry, biology, physics, molecular biology, biochemistry, or any other fundamental science.

At CDA, VandenBerg manages all research knowledge translation, which involves taking complicated jargon-filled scientific information from researchers and turning it into something everyone else can understand. She writes for professional scientific journals, like the Canadian Journal of Diabetes, and in lay terms for consumer publications that update donors on the research they’re funding. She also works closely with the fundraising department to provide them with stories of research success they can package and send to prospective donors. She says someone with a background in pure science is the perfect person to convey these messages.

“I think for a long time research programs were perceived by the public as a bit of a black hole. Money went in to research and it was sort of seen as this big mystery,” says VandenBerg. “Now what we’re trying to do is to unveil that mystery a little bit and say, ‘here are all the really cool and interesting things that happen with the money you donate.’ I think part of it is the competitive nature of fund development right now that we really need to be talking about our research successes, and someone like me is absolutely the person to do it.”

This kind of knowledge translation has become crucial for nonprofit organizations. The effective transfer and exchange of knowledge between researchers and practitioners not only helps make the case for support from donors and funders, but also makes it easier to engage in collaborative efforts with other organizations.

“I would say more now than ever there is this need for knowledge translation and knowledge transfer,” says Dr. Carol-Anne Sullivan, president of the Acoustic Neuroma Association of Canada. “Organizations no longer exist in silos. There’s a lot of overlap. Even in organizations that may appear to be nonscientific or non health-related, there’s always some connection to this whole idea of knowledge translation, of collaboration, and networking.”

But knowledge translation is only one of the many options the nonprofit sector can offer to someone with a pure science background. For instance, a lot of organizations need staff who can assess the importance and relevance of research proposals and help determine where to distribute funding.

“We really feel it’s important that someone has the academic scientific knowledge to be able to evaluate the submissions we get for research projects,” says Gary N. Collins, executive director of Epilepsy Canada. “It would be difficult to make the assessment of the importance of a project without someone with that background. Someone with that knowledge would be really important to have on your staff. Fundamentally important.”

For those who want to work for a nonprofit without leaving the lab, there are plenty of well-known and well-funded organizations that have research positions. Health-related agencies are often dedicated to biomedical research, but there are also opportunities for those with a different focus, like agricultural or environmental sciences.

Dr. Sullivan says it doesn’t have to be all or nothing when you’re thinking of using your pure science background to move into the nonprofit sector. You can work for a charitable organization without losing all of your ties to the hard science side of things.

“I’ve still got connections to the research bureau. I’m still an adjunct professor at a university. I’m still publishing papers. I’ve still got my connections with the Mayo Clinic Hospital in the US,” she says. “So you don’t need to give everything up, if that’s what the person might think that they have to do. No, you don’t. If your heart is saying I want to use my qualifications to segue into the nonprofit, you can. But you can still live in the other world, the research world."

A background in pure sciences can also open you up to work in science education, or even as an outreach coordinator or a program officer, especially if you can combine it with other valuable skills. In fact, because nonprofits are so often focused on limiting costs, the more skills you can acquire beyond your primary life science expertise, the more you will stand out to potential employers.

Most organizations want to see that you not only have a strong knowledge of science, but that you also have the ability to communicate what you know. If you can prove that you have some understanding of business, project development, or marketing, or that you have additional experience in grant writing, statistical analysis, or fundraising, you will be that much closer to landing your dream job in the nonprofit sector.

“I’d be a little bit hesitant to hire someone with only a pure science background because it doesn’t always translate into an ability to communicate that knowledge,” says VandenBerg. “I have known some people with a pure science background who just can’t translate it into lay terms.”

Today, the vast majority of charitable and nonprofit organizations in Canada are pretty small. According to the most recent available reports, around 98.6% have less than 100 employees. Unlike large corporations, these organizations often require staff to play multiple roles to keep everything working smoothly.

“It’s hard for a charity to hire someone with only one set of skills,” says Collins. “Marketing, communications, business management – I would be hard-pressed to hire anyone who didn’t have some kind of skills in all three. Nonprofits need well-rounded people.”

This wide range of understanding and experience can come from something as basic as course selection. If you want to work for a nonprofit organization, think about using some of your electives in your undergraduate program to learn about things like business and marketing. Take some English courses. Learn how to communicate. Engage in as many internships as you can and volunteer wherever possible.

The more hats you can wear to compliment your pure science degree the better. You want to show that while your expertise is in science, you are versatile and have a deep understanding of all the different pieces that fit together to make a nonprofit successful. If you can do that, there’s no reason you and your pure science degree can’t find a cozy home in the nonprofit world.

“Long gone are the days where, just because you have a pure science or mathematical background or whatever it is, that it cannot be applied,” says Dr. Sullivan. “There’s great use for these skills, these skill sets, and these are really important assets for any organization. I think the bottom line is, it’s your heart. If you have the heart for it, you’ll find a way of utilizing and applying your pure science degree. There’s always a way.”

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth article in a series that explores how you can apply your undergraduate degree in the pursuit of a career in the nonprofit sector. Previously, we explored how to put a liberal arts, marketing/communications, or business degree to work in the nonprofit sector. In the coming weeks we’ll also look at how a degree in engineering can help you find your way to work in a nonprofit.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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