Dr. Sandra Hammer, on writing winning grants and finding the right balance.

Photo credit: James Santiago

Dr. Sandra Hammer, on writing winning grants and finding the right balance.

Interview by Anne-Sophie Bohrer, PhD

Anne-Sophie Bohrer Tell us about your background and what led you to become a postdoc at Michigan State University.

Sandra Hammer – I got my Bachelor of Science from the University of Miami in 2011. Shortly after graduation, I moved to Nashville to attend graduate school at Vanderbilt University. There, I worked on vascular complications associated with diabetic retinopathy in the Penn Lab. I defended my thesis in December 2015. Around that time, my husband accepted his dream job at Michigan State, which is what brought me here! I was fortunate to join the Busik lab, studying the same disease I worked on during my Ph.D. The Busik lab is the leading lab studying lipid biology in diabetic retinopathy – finding this lab at MSU was really exciting for me!

How has your experience as a postdoc here been so far?

My experience has been overall very positive. I got married and had two kids since starting my postdoc, so it has been a very exciting and often stressful time trying to balance being a new mom and a postdoc.

In 2017, I was awarded a F32 fellowship from the National Institute of Health (NIH). Now that this fellowship is finished, I got promoted to senior research associate in the lab. I am working on a K99 Award (“Pathway to Independence” Award) re-submission, which will help me determine if I want to continue doing research or transition to something else.

The pandemic made me realize the importance of work life balance and I have been looking into careers that allow me to spend more time with my young family.

How was the process of applying successfully for a grant?

Stressful! During my second year of postdoc, I was determined to secure independent funding. I applied to 4 fellowships and got 2 funded. I decided to keep the F32 fellowship and recently completed the work.

The grant writing process is something that brings me intense joy but is also a very stressful part of research. I always struggle with identifying an area of research that is novel and exciting, but also has enough preliminary data to back up my proposal so it is fundable.

Another aspect of grant writing that can be stressful is finding the right mentors to support your application and career. For the K99 application, you are strongly encouraged to have a mentoring committee to support your time on the grant. I was fortunate to surround myself with outstanding mentors along the way who all agreed to serve on my committee, but I acknowledge that this can be a very stressful and challenging part of applying for career development grants.

You have been an active member of the MSU-PDA since 2016. What made you get involved with the MSU-PDA?

I joined the PDA shortly after joining the Busik lab. I was new to the area and was also the only postdoc in my lab so I figured it would be a great way to meet other postdocs on campus.

Being a part of the PDA has had a lasting impact on my career as a postdoc at MSU. I’ve met incredible hard working and inspiring scientists and have also grown both professionally and personally. Specifically, through my work in the PDA, I have increased my network at MSU tremendously and through my advocacy work I have had the opportunity to serve as a representing voice for postdocs, which has been my favorite part of being a member of the PDA.

What is your long-term career plan?

This is the million-dollar question! I am drawn to academic leadership, and I would love to work in the Dean’s Office or Provost’s Office. I truly enjoy serving on committees overseeing research and academic goals, thinking about the big picture. However, I also enjoy working with students in the lab and in the classroom.

As of now, I have been trying to identify a career path that accommodates leadership and administrative work with mentoring and research.

What do you hope to achieve in the next year, in all aspects of life?

My main goal is to transition to a “real world career”. I am not sure what it will look like but I have been applying to several job opportunities and I try to keep an open mind as to what my next career move can be.

Personally, I hope to stay healthy and get back to traveling like we did pre-pandemic. Travel was a huge aspect of my life, and it is something I miss terribly.

To wrap it up, and to know more about you, tell me what comes to mind first in this rapid round of questions!

Favorite food – Any Cuban food cooked by my Mom!

Favorite way to spend a day off – A day off… what is that?! You can usually find me playing with my kids, reading books and watching movies.

Favorite Holiday – Christmas! This is even better with little ones!

Favorite place you ever visited or lived – I have been fortunate to have traveled to many awesome places, but I am particularly fond of Maui. Such a beautiful place, I can’t wait to go back someday.

Job you would do if it wasn’t research – Sommelier! The idea of my job consisting of tasting wines and pairing them with foods is a dream.