Alumni Spotlight: Laura Mariani

by Kristie Garza


Laura Mariani, Ph.D.

Year of Graduation: 2016

Advisor: Tamara Caspary

Dissertation Title:
The Role of Arl13b and Non-Canonical Sonic Hedgehog Signaling in Joubert Syndrome

Current Position and Position Description:
Associate at Isaacson, Miller, an executive search consulting firm. When universities, non-profit organizations, and other mission-driven institutions need to find new leaders, they hire us to guide them through the complex process of identifying the challenges and opportunities that their next leader will face and bringing in experts who are up to the task. I specialize in recruiting senior administrators, deans, and department chairs in higher education, academic medicine, scientific research, and health care. I also help my firm recruit PhDs to join our team!

Did you choose to stay in academia? Why or why not?
By the end of my PhD I was pretty sure I didn’t want to do a postdoc. I loved working in research, but I wanted to move into a career where the things I was really passionate about in grad school — like serving on the Graduate Student Council and the executive board of Emory Women in Neuroscience — were viewed as valuable achievements rather than as distractions from the “most important” stuff in the lab. And, I’ll admit that money was also a factor.

What is one thing you have learned since graduation?
I recruit people in lots of different specialties, so I’m always learning! My projects have involved searches in pathology, nursing, family medicine, and lots of other fields I knew nothing about when I started this job. I’ve learned a lot about the health care industry. Also, I travel a lot, so I’ve learned some tricks for maximizing frequent flyer miles and hotel points!

What kind of skills did you learn in graduate school that were transferable to your new job?
I use my problem-solving skills all the time, it’s just a different set of problems. Instead of thinking about individual molecules, cells, or experiments, I think about large organizations made up of people with many different agendas, and how I can help them solve their problems. Being able to take in lots of information and spit out a coherent summary that highlights the key questions and prioritizes the next steps is a skill that I learned doing literature reviews, but it’s translatable to almost any career path.

Describe something that graduate school did not prepare you for.
By the end of grad school you should hopefully have learned that there’s no shame in being the person at lab meeting who goes “Uh, what? I have no idea what that means.” But as a consultant in a client meeting, you do not want to look ignorant! You’re there to sell your expertise and to portray the company you work for in a good light. Presentations and meetings feel more high-stakes in the business world. No one in grad school ever acted like I had the power to represent Emory University as a whole, but sometimes I am seen in that way as a representative of my employer.

What is a piece of advice you would offer graduate students?
Have a Plan B. Even if you want an academic career, force yourself to think about the next best alternative and make sure that you develop skills that are relevant to that alternative. Look at job postings and see what skills are actually in demand outside of academia. It’s totally possible to develop very marketable skills in the course of conducting your dissertation research: consider whether your dissertation project is relevant for clinical research or industry R&D, learn to code, learn translatable skills in statistics and data analytics, do science writing to build up a portfolio, do an internship. Life is unpredictable, and no one has ever said, “Gee, I wish I had FEWER options right now” on their graduation day.

Any final words of wisdom?
I met the most amazing people at Emory who will be my friends for life. They were there for me when stuff got real, and they made all the grad school struggles worthwhile. That said, you should also have friends who AREN’T grad students. Keep a healthy, balanced sense of perspective: failed experiments are frustrating and heartbreaking, but they aren’t the literal end of the world. Academic research is an amazing career path, but it’s not the only way to live a happy, fulfilling life. I took up running and singing in grad school because I needed to feel like I was making successful progress at SOMETHING, and the friends I made through those hobbies helped me remember that there’s more to life than mice and western blots.

Can students in our program contact you regarding career advice?
Yes! I can be reached at or on LinkedIn:



2017 Retreat Newsletter

by Elizabeth Barfield

If you couldn’t make it to the Neuroscience Program’s annual retreat weekend this year to pick up a copy of the Central Sulcus’ printed newsletter (retreat edition), you can check out some of the articles here!

For the “Status of Statistics” article, syllabi from the courses described can be downloaded here.


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By Erica Tracey Akhter

Fall One

Beginning jitters
Give way to anatomy,
Imposter syndrome.

Spring One

Chasing free lunches
And perfect labs, unicorns.
All are elusive.

Fall Two

Maybe we got this.
Lets breathe a few minutes we’re
Halfway qualified.

Spring Two

Beware the confound
And inadequate controls.
Man, f*ck writing grants.

Fall Three

Thank God that’s over.
Wait, shit, again qualify.
Imposter anew.


But then, you have passed.
They say the third year is worst
So lighten and breath

A sigh of relief
Until science proves again
Always, we’re its bitch.

Lessons in Professionalism: Emails

by Claire McGregor

I was recently told that every interaction that occurs in lab is a professional interaction and should be treated that way. I wasn’t totally certain what that meant, but my good friend Phil seemed to have it down. So when he asked me to demonstrate some techniques for him in my lab, I figured that while he was taking notes on me, I’d secretly take notes on him.

First, Phil greeted me not with the usual, “Hey, Claire!” but with a quiet, “Excuse me.” He was dressed like he worked in an office, albeit a casual one, though this quickly changed as he draped himself in PPE. He stood very straight, laughed politely at my jokes, but offered none of his own. While I was showing him my skills, he took notes, asked direct questions, and did not gum up the atmosphere with any personal questions or anecdotes. At the end of the encounter, he asked about meeting another time, and finished with “I’ll be in touch” before striding out of the room. “Just text me or something!” I called after him.

Phil had been serious about being in touch. A few hours later, I received an email. Before you read this, I’d like to remind you that Phil and I are actually good friends—we hang out on weekends, he hosts parties for watching certain TV shows, and we shared a tent at camping before retreat. So I have to chalk it up to his incredible skill for professionalism that he was able to send this email with a straight face:


I read this and I knew two things.

1. Phil had mastered professionalism in the lab, to the extent that I was nervous we might not longer be friends so much as colleagues and

2. I was ready to try my hand at this whole professionalism thing.

After copying and pasting Phil’s signature to be my own, I responded with this email:


Phil, not to be outdone in formality or professionalism, followed up with this email:



Nailed it.

Stuff you should know but no one tells you: Employee benefits of postdoctoral appointments

By Meriem Gaval

Central Sulcus picIf you’re planning on seeking a post-doc you’ll discuss your interests, skills, and ideas with future PIs and labmates during your interview. Sometime between your research talk and dinner you may discuss your potential salary and sources of funding but it is unlikely that you will hear about the additional benefits provided to postdocs at the institution. This supplementary compensation includes health and life insurance, paid time off, parental leave, and retirement plans, all very important things that will influence your lifestyle choices over the next several years.

There are many different ways to gain postdoctoral experience and, while the work expectations are very similar between these settings, your compensation and benefits are very different. These may not even be standardized across all postdocs within an organization! Some seemingly obvious choices can also radically alter the benefits you receive. What we’d like to do next is briefly discuss some of the benefits currently provided to postdocs in different circumstances, with the intention of arming you with knowledge to guide your questions during interviews and help you make informed decisions about your next career move.

If your new postdoc is in an industry setting, chances are your employee benefits will be very similar or the same as other company employees. These will include a retirement plan with employer contribution, clearly set guidelines for paid time off, health and life insurance, and the ability to contribute to the national social security program. The NIH intramural research program has defined paid time off rules and provides health insurance at no cost to the postdoc, but does not provide access to retirement benefits or social security contributions.

The compensation of postdocs working in academic institutions varies wildly, and this depends on the institution, departmental affiliation, and source of funding. Some common sources of funding include departmental funding, grants awarded to and managed by your PI, an institutional training grant such as a T32, or an individual training grant such as an NRSA. If your salary is being paid by your PI’s grant(s) or by the university itself, in many cases you are considered an employee and are eligible for benefits provided to full-time staff such as health and life insurances, parental leave, retirement plan, and paid time off. On the other hand, if your salary comes from an institutional training grant (T32), many institutions will consider you a stipendee, not an employee. Stipendees are not always allowed to take advantage of the insurance group rate provided to employees, nor retirement benefits. In this case the stipendee would be responsible to purchase private insurance. While the NIH allows trainees up to 60 calendar days of parental leave, additional paid time off is to be determined by agreement with the advisor. T32s provide a training-related institutional allowance per fellow (NIH guidelines for 2014 are $7,850/year). These are most often used for travel and supplies, but the NIH considers health insurance a training-related expense. As such, your department or institution may require you to use this money to pay for your health insurance directly, or to partially reimburse you for your insurance-related out-of-pocket expenses, decreasing the amount of money you can use for travel and supplies. It is worth noting that some institutions will consider this allowance as income, so that your tax documents would reflect an additional $7,850 to your salary, even though this was not a direct compensation to you. Also, while employees are allowed pre-tax contributions to pay for public transportation, retirement, and insurance policies, stipendees are often not. This means you would pay taxes on a greater amount of taxable income.

What about competitive funding mechanisms? We have all heard of the importance and prestige of obtaining individual training grants, such as an NRSA. Unfortunately, when you obtain an NRSA as a postdoc, your employment status may change from employee to stipendee (this is the case at Emory). If this happens, the same financial pitfalls just described may apply to you. That’s right- if you obtain your own funding you may receive a bonus in salary from your PI, but you may also lose your health insurance as well as pre-tax contributions and employee matching to your retirement plan. If you are able to get benefits through your partner’s employer and decide to go that route, be prepared to spend time and effort justifying your new NRSA as a ‘life changing event’ to your partner’s employer, so you can enroll in their benefits outside of open enrollment.

We would argue that this is an unfortunate way to disincentive truly great funding mechanisms for training. However, these small but significant differences in your compensation package are not well-known and seldom talked about, so most trainees don’t realize the financial implications of the awards until after they’ve been accepted and disbursed. This is not meant to discourage you from applying to any fellowship or from pursuing a position with T32 funding. You should use this information to discuss the implications with your PI. Speak with your PI about ways to offset the financial drawback of obtaining a training fellowship. You may be able to negotiate a salary supplement, funds to travel to specific courses, workshops, or conferences, equipment, or hiring an undergraduate or technician to work on your project and increase your productivity.

Central Sulcus figureIt’s imperative to highlight that these issues are not the same at every institution or department. This is partly due to the lack of NIH requirements or guidelines for academic organizations to follow regarding compensation and benefits. Even the “NRSA salary minimum” is not required to be met if your compensation is coming from a non-NRSA funding mechanism. This pilot survey from the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) will give you a good idea of the diversity in institutional policy regarding compensation. The NIH is aware of the desire to standardize benefits for postdoctoral researchers and recognizes that training grants carry a financial burden on the awardee, as seen in pages 7-9 of the report seen here. As you interview for postdoc positions be proactive and ask current postdocs in the lab and the department about these policies. They are a valuable source of information and can put you in contact with key personnel to answer your many questions. Find out if the institutions belong to the NPA and whether they have an office of postdoctoral research, as these are a reflection of support and commitment to improving the postdoc experience. Better yet, become involved with the advocacy committee in either or both of these organizations and help change the current system.

Are you planning to run a research lab?

By James Burkett

Kerry Ressler eats breakfast like this every morning.

As a PhD graduate student, do you ever feel like you’re being trained on everything about how to run a research lab except how to actually run a lab? You’re probably not alone. Every year, the Emory Office of Postdoctoral Education runs a training workshop called “Lab Management in Academia” to teach people exactly the skills necessary to do so. Until recently, this workshop was available only to post-doctoral researchers as part of Emory’s Office of Postdoctoral Education; Emory’s training program for post-docs is among the best in the country. This leaves us graduate students in the unenviable position of wondering whether our own post-doctoral positions at other institutions will prepare us as well as Emory could.

That may change this spring. I recently spoke with Dr. Mary DeLong, Assistant Dean of Postdoctoral Education, who is in charge of organizing this workshop. She indicated that this spring, for the first time, a limited number of advanced PhD students may be allowed into the workshop on a wait-list basis. The workshop has limited space, and priority will go to post-doctoral researchers.

If you are interested in enrolling in the “Lab Management in Academia” workshop series for this Spring and are a 5th year student or above, please contact Dr. Mary DeLong at More information on this course as it becomes available can be found at

Off The Beaten Path: Nonacademic Careers of Neuroscience Graduates

Amy Mahan, Editor

Originally published September 2008.

In the past, graduates of the Emory Neuroscience program have been very successful at obtaining academic post-docs and then professorships at many prestigious universities. However, many of us are uncertain if we want to follow the traditional career path. Below are the profiles of three very successful alumni who have pursued other career paths. They highlight some of the many opportunities that are available to Emory graduates with a PhD in Neuroscience.

sulcus90Mark Borsody, M.D. PhD, 1996
Former Advisor: Jay Weiss
Astellas Pharma/Northern Neurosciences Inc.

After graduate school I went to medical school and then into neurology residency fellowship subspecializing in stroke neurology. Along the way I completed a basic science postdoctoral fellowship at the Ohio State University and the University of Chicago, and some clinical postdoctoral research for the American Heart Association. Currently I work as director of CNS drug development programs for Astellas Pharma US in Chicago. Our portfolio involves several candidate drugs for Alzheimer’s Disease, schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, and chronic pain. Furthermore, I volunteer as a director for Northern Neurosciences, Inc., a 501(c)(3) charity organization that supports neuroscience research programs.

I took this career choice because it seemed a natural fit for a medical science background. It is the truest form of translational science that I have seen, and the research seems to have the greatest impact in terms of health care. I would be happy to speak with any Emory student who feels this might be of interest as a career path.

sulcus91Lisa Stanek, PhD, 2005
Former Advisor: Mike Davis and Kerry Ressler
Staff Scientist, Genzyme Corporation Cambridge, Massachusetts

I am currently a staff scientist at Genzyme Corporation, a biotechnology company based out of Cambridge, Mass. I run the Huntington’s Disease Research program. Broadly, I conduct in vitro and in vivo experiments to evaluate treatment strategies for Huntington’s Disease. My job involved designing experiments, managing research associates, fostering collaborations with academic labs as well as pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, attending meetings on relevant projects and analyzing data.

After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard I was pretty sure that academia was not for me. I thought I would give industry a chance to compare and contrast the two. I have been at my position at Genzme for over 7 months now and I am certain that I made the right choice by coming to Industry. I love my job and really enjoy the research project that I’ve developed. I have more diverse day to day activities and I really enjoy the structured environment as well as the clinically oriented research goals that the industry setting provides. I absolutely love my job and find my career exceptionally rewarding.

sulcus92Will Clower, PhD, 1996
Former Advisor: Garrett Alexander
CEO Mediterranean Wellness

Recently, Dr. Clower came to Emory to talk the Mediterranean Diet for as part of Step UP Emory.

Will Clower, one of the first graduates of the Neuroscience program at Emory, is CEO and founder of a company called Mediterranean Wellness. Mediterranean Wellness is an Comprehensive Wellness Program provider dedicated to bringing the latest in nutritional information, behavioral approaches, and creative strategies for health cost containment for our clients.

So how did a neuroscience graduate student go on to be a CEO of a company focused on nutrition and healthy lifestyles? After obtaining a Ph.D. from Emory in 1996 Will Clower and his wife Dottie Clower, both got postdoctoral fellowships at France’s Institute of Cognitive Science. In his free time while in France, Dr. Clower took an interest in cultural comparisons between France and the United States in everything from their laws to their diets to the different ways that the French conduct science. While in France, Dr. Clower began to publish on these differences in culture. What stood out the most was the diet and lifestyle differences, which is how he began to articulate the Mediterranean Wellness plan that is company is designed around.

When Dr. Clower returned to the United States, he began getting requests to give talks on this Mediterranean Wellness plan. Talks evolved into the creation of a website, which then evolved into a newsletter, which eventually evolved into Mediterranean Wellness, LCC as it exists today.

When I asked Dr. Clower, what he learned in graduate school that was most important for the development of his career, he replied that in his seven years at Emory, “learning how to learn” (Continued from page 2) was the most valuable skill that he acquired. Our understanding how the brain works will change over time, and trying to make your mark by the research you do in graduate school is like “trying to write your name in water.” The discoveries that you make during graduate school may or may not become a lasting dogma in your field, but the ability to learn new things is a far more valuable skill in the long run.

In addition learning how to “speak science” has served him well when interpreting and disseminating nutritional information to the lay public. Dr. Clower has been very successful at communicating this information through his publications and books such as The Fat Fallacy, The French Don’t Diet, and his latest interview with Barbara Walters.