Akanksha Menon, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech, completed her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at that same institution. But getting there took new experiences, new skills, and openness to new paths.
As a Ph.D. candidate, her research focused on waste heat recovery and energy harvesting using thermoelectric materials. But she was looking to branch into other areas, and had an idea that research at the nexus of water and energy could be interesting and fruitful. Familiar with Ravi Prasher’s work and eager to work with his team at Berkeley Lab, she applied for, and was awarded a Rosenfeld postdoctoral fellowship in 2018. She joined the Lab in August of that year to work with Prasher’s team on water desalination using solar energy and thermal energy storage to decarbonize buildings.
“I was excited to explore my idea of impactful and collaborative research at the Lab with such talented scientists and great resources,” said Akanksha. “And I really enjoyed the community of postdocs at the Lab. I went to all the Berkeley Lab Postdoc Association (BLPA) events and met postdocs from many different countries and technical backgrounds. There were plenty of opportunities to get to know each other through lunch events, hiking trips, game nights, and through the workshops and events hosted by the Career Pathways Office.”
Taking advantage of professional development resources
Akansha made the most of the Lab’s resources, including mentorship and training programs and workshops. She notes that the postdoc period in a scientist’s career is a challenging one, because it’s temporary, and postdocs are looking for a nebulous “next thing” in their career.
“Early on, I attended workshops on exploring career paths based on my interests and goals, and understanding my leadership style. I also got one-on-one coaching time to create a personalized development plan that was very valuable,” said Akanksha. “As I explored the faculty route, I got training on how to put together faculty applications and how to negotiate my compensation package. I also participated in a UC Berkeley training program on effective scientific teaching pathways by implementing various pedagogies.”
Akanksha participated and was a finalist in the Lab’s 2019 SLAM competition, which offered an opportunity to hone her technical communication skills. “That experience was memorable, and I had a great time. I learned to think about my work in a different way – how to create exciting content and slides, and how to engage others in the science.”
In the end, both her work at the Lab and the professional development resources helped her land her current position. “My experience at a national lab was key. Working in a new area, the ability to work with larger teams, my experience in putting together proposals to access the Molecular Foundry and the Advanced Light Source, contributing to DOE proposals, these were all important skills for my current position,” she continued. “And of course, my research group now at Georgia Tech focuses on desalination and thermal energy storage, which is entirely influenced by what I did as a postdoc at the Lab.”
Tips for postdocs
Akanksha had some advice to offer to current postdocs at the Lab: “Berkeley Lab is a great place, but there aren’t a lot of permanent positions available, so try to be open about different opportunities. Go to the professional development workshops and to the career fair to get a sense of what appeals to you. It’s not enough to just focus on doing good research work; you also need to look toward the next thing and be very proactive. Take advantage of the resources available at the Lab and seek out opportunities that best suit you.”