REBECCA HARTLEY went into the Peace Corps as a Conservation of Natural Resources volunteer in Guatemala.

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By Admin1 (admin) on Sunday, July 01, 2001 - 3:53 pm: Edit Post

Rebecca Hartley went into the Peace Corps as a Conservation of Natural Resources volunteer in Guatemala

Rebecca Hartley went into the Peace Corps as a Conservation of Natural Resources volunteer in Guatemala


by Kyle Kirkland

In the past, graduates from the neuroscience Ph.D. program at Penn have followed traditional career paths: the "combined degree" students finished up their medical degree, and the Ph.D. students took postdocs leading to an assistant professorship (and Penn graduates have gotten professorships at institutions such as Dartmouth, Yale, New York University, Penn, and other excellent schools).

But a growing number of Penn neuroscience graduates have been successfully making a transition to industry. One recent example is Rebecca Hartley.

Rebecca completed her Ph.D. in 1998, under the supervision of Professor Virginia M.-Y. Lee. Her thesis research involved the characterization of a human cell line (NT2) for possible use in transplantation therapeutics; Rebecca investigated the properties of NT2N neurons in vitro, and also successfully implanted this type of neuron into murine spinal cords.

Interestingly, Rebecca's undergraduate work was in physics, and she obtained her bachelor's degree from Carnegie Mellon University. But she had a strong interest in such things as artificial intelligence and disease processes, which steered her toward graduate work in biology and neuroscience. She says her non-biological background was a bit of a disadvantage at first: "I had no idea what a ligand was!". But with a little extra work and the use of her excellent training and skills, she quickly made up the deficit.

When I asked Rebecca how she chose Penn for her graduate work, she told me this fascinating story: "I worked for a few years after finishing my undergraduate degree, then went into the Peace Corps as a Conservation of Natural Resources volunteer in Guatemala, and applied to grad school from there. I lived in a shack with no electricity on top of a mountain ridge in the cloud forest. So, my search for grad schools was a bit different. I was limited to the literature available in the Peace Corps office in the capital city. Penn was ranked quite well, so I applied to Penn and six other schools. Penn tracked me down for an interview by calling my parents and getting the phone number of the Peace Corps office in Guatemala. The Peace Corps then got in touch with me, and I went into the capital city, called Penn, and set up an interview visit for the next week. I had a whirlwind week of jetting around the States in total culture and weather shock. I was very impressed with the effort Penn put into getting me there, and by the flexibility and breadth of the graduate program, so I chose Penn."

The interview process at Penn's Neuroscience Graduate Program is often highly rated by prospective students, by the way -- whether they're jetting in from Guatemala or New York City.

Rebecca's transition to industry was aided in part by her thesis lab experience. As a graduate student she consulted for a California biotech company, Layton BioSciences, who commercially produce the same type of neuronal cells that Rebecca was working on for her thesis. After a short postdoc in her thesis lab, she took a staff scientist position at Layton. Since then she's progressed rapidly: "Currently, I am the project manager for cellular therapies at Layton. We have expanded and have licensed the rights to a number of different types of cells which have potential for clinical therapeutic use in CNS injury and/or disorders."

As a project manager, Rebecca's duties require very little bench work. Her time is mostly spent in organizing, planning, and writing: "My job is to make sure that each program is on track and in line with company objectives; I work closely with research collaborators in experimental design, trouble shooting, and evaluation and reporting of results; I guide in-house research projects; and coordinate efforts between our different departments to ensure smooth transitions and timelines."

Why do people like Rebecca, with obvious academic talents, opt for industry? In Rebecca's case, she tells me that job stress in industry is of a different type than academia, and is one which she finds more suitable to her personality. She also enjoys the flexible schedule, allowing her to work from home several days a week. Furthermore, "a lot of very good research is done in the industry setting; I do not think it is a scientific 'step down' to be in industry."

Rebecca also has a very full life outside of the lab. Her hobbies include aikido (a non-violent martial art): "I generally train five days a week; the people I train with are my surrogate family and support system out here." She also plays the piano and enjoys running, in-line skating, backpacking, the beach, and hanging out with friends.

And her present location sounds ideal: it's a tiny fishing village in California called Moss Landing. She says, "I know it sounds like something out of a book." Evidently it is, or should be: "It's on Monterey Bay, half way between Santa Cruz and Monterey. A river and two sloughs empty into the bay at Moss Landing, feeding into a very deep underwater canyon, which makes it an ideal location for deep sea research. The sloughs, river, and dunes are nature preserves. There are lots of sea otters, seals, and birds; there are kayaks to rent, good restaurants, a working fishing harbor, and antique stores. And there are very few people -- even on gorgeous beach days there are never more than a couple of people on the beach by my house."

As you might expect from a Peace Corps volunteer, Rebecca maintains a deep interest in socioeconomic and environmental issues. She's very much concerned with water and soil quality, and is alarmed over the increasing amount of toxic waste and pollution. She has a great interest in desert ecology, especially a place which I, too, hold dear: southern Utah. She is also troubled over what she perceives as a lack of balance in the allocation of resources, particularly in science and medicine; although Rebecca obviously realizes the importance of research, she says: "We could do so many good things by transferring a portion of resources and talent out of scientific exploration and into implementation, slowing the pace of science until the implementation of knowledge has been allowed to catch up. Think of how many people -- in the U.S. and around the world -- suffer from diseases for which there are already treatments." Working in industry certainly hasn't changed Rebecca's viewpoint much; she remains committed to important and worthwhile goals.

When I asked Rebecca what advice she would give graduate students who were thinking of a career in industry, she said: "Check it out, talk to people, and if you want something, go for it. Whatever people say, remember that there are always exceptions." Basically, her advice is this: "Follow your gut instincts." Rebecca has certainly done well following hers.

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Guatemala; Special Interests - Neuroscience



By Mike Meshak ( - on Saturday, August 06, 2005 - 3:13 pm: Edit Post

I hope to say Hi to Rebecca after 14 years. I went up to see her with a slide projector strapped to the back of a motorcycle. I was sure the bulb was broken by the time I scrambled up the mountain. Then we had to rig up some electricity from the church, just so we could show how to use pesticides safely. I'm glad Rebecca is doing well. I hope she gets outside often.

By Diane Earley ( - on Friday, October 28, 2005 - 11:13 am: Edit Post

I am wondering if this is the Rebecca Hartley who grew up in Waltham, Massachusetts. If so, we were childhood friends, and I would like to get in touch. --Diane H.

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