Many of our current MCB students ask alumni for their advice – advice for getting into medical school, advice for getting a job, and advice for having a successful undergraduate experience, so I was interested to hear what advice Dr. Adrian Racolta would add when I talked to her, as she has a broad range of experience and skills from being a high school teacher to her current position as a Regulatory Affairs Manager at Roche. Racolta, who graduated with her PhD in MCB in 2014, shared many pieces of wisdom throughout our conversation:
- Apply for scholarships and never get tired of applying!
- Have a plan B!
- Don't dismiss opportunities that seem to be small. They are likely to lead to bigger opportunities.
- Be realistic about your first job! Know your big goals and identify the small opportunities to get you to the bigger goal. The hardest thing to get is the first job.
- Never get discouraged from being turned down. You have to go into the process knowing it will be hard.
- Have realistic expectations.
- Know what the job market is like, know what to expect when you start your job search. You have to know the pulse of the market. Empower yourself with knowledge.
- Learn from each experience of applying for a job. Ask yourself “What can I do better each time?”
- Luck exists but you have to work to recognize your luck!
- Reach out to mentors, counselors and professors. If you try to do your job search on your own, it's less likely that you will succeed fast. Don't be shy to ask for help!
- Don't be afraid to say yes and try new things!
Racolta shared her wisdom, not to scare students or to paint a pessimistic picture, but to “encourage students to go into their job search with their eyes wide open, and their toolboxes filled with as many tools as they can collect.” She speaks from experience – both as a job seeker and as a hiring manager. In Racolta’s previous position as a Development technical supervisor at Roche, in 2018-2019 she hired a few staff members and knows how competitive the job market is. It is not uncommon that as soon as a job is posted, close to 100 candidates apply, of which 20-30 are highly qualified. She also knows what makes candidates competitive for science and technology industry jobs, and her career path and willingness to do the work is what helped her secure positions in her career.
Racolta didn’t begin her career in Regulatory Affairs, or even as a scientist; she grew up in Cluj, Romania, where she received her BS in Biology and taught high school biology. She and her husband decided to immigrate to US and in 1998 they moved to California. She didn't speak English at the time and told me she left Romania with “one husband, one child, four suitcases, $1000 and big dreams!” Her husband was able to get a job right away and Racolta’s first job in the US was making PC boards and cleaning offices and then she worked at an environmental testing lab. She continued to develop her teaching qualifications and got her California teaching credentials and then substitute taught in high school. While she loved teaching, she didn't feel like she belonged; she wasn’t feeling integrated with the US culture at this time and there was no connection with the generation she was teaching so she decided teaching younger kids wasn’t a good fit. Racolta decided to further her education to get more opportunities so she started a master’s degree program at Cal State Fullerton so she could teach at the college level. While Racolta was attending school in the mornings getting her master’s degree, she worked the graveyard shift at two jobs and her husband also worked long hours. She fell in love with research during her master’s program; it was the first time she was exposed to science research and she saw a lot of possibilities. This new passion for research led to getting her to Tucson and the University of Arizona.
It’s easy to look at someone else’s path and think they had their career mapped out from beginning to current position, but often when we listen to people’s story, we learn that yes, often there is a plan, but there is also luck, timing, and other limitations that lead to a decision. Racolta considered many schools but one of the hurdles she had to jump was getting original transcripts from her university in Romania; they would only give one original and US universities require an original. “I was able to acquire the one original and three copies of my transcripts from Romania, so I applied to four schools!”
Racolta felt UArizona had an attractive graduate program and became interested in Tucson after reading about the Old Pueblo. “I loved reading about Arizona and had never visited Tucson and it sounded and looked so exotic to me.” Racolta and her family moved to Tucson in 2005 and she began her PhD studies. She did four lab rotations in her first year in her PhD program. Plants remained her first love and she committed to a PhD program with Dr. Frans Tax focusing her work on plant molecular biology.
Throughout our discussion, Racolta gave example after example of pursuing opportunities - from jobs, to programs, to scholarships. When I asked her about this, she told me she was always looking for opportunities! She worked as teaching assistant for numerous undergraduate courses realizing that she learned best when she had to explain something to others. She received a scholarship when starting at UA as an IGERT Fellow (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training), NSF funded program in Comparative Genomics (http://www.genomics.arizona.edu/) and she pushed her limits by working on genomics and computational skills she didn’t have before.
She also received a scholarship from the National Science Foundation East Asia and Pacific Summer Institute (EAPSI, https://www.nsf.gov/funding) and went to China for a couple months to attend the institute and collaborate with researchers on similar projects in China.
She applied for Industry internships and was a summer intern at Ventana Medical Systems, where she was exposed for the first time to the application of science and research in biotechnology industry.
She was a BioME (Biodiversity from Molecules to Ecosystems) fellow in the NSF-funded GK-12 program designed to spark K-12 students' interest in the biological sciences while improving graduate students' abilities to communicate science (http://biome.bio5.org). As part of this program, she was in community with elementary school teachers to set up research in science classes. As a fun educational tool, she and the teachers also set up a school garden, applied for community funding and taught the students to care for plants while teaching about environment and ecosystems. (At the end of the season, the students were also rewarded with a successful plant sale from their own garden!)
After she graduated with her PhD in 2014, she did a short post doc in Frans Tax's lab. She completed this in 2014 and then decided to pursue a career in industry and got her first job at Roche (formerly Ventana Medical Systems), where she currently works. She started as a scientist in a development group, working with pharmaceutical companies to develop diagnostics before moving to an R&D organization where she did research on new technologies for diagnostics, mostly using immunohistochemistry.
Continuing her career at Roche, Racolta accepted a position in another business unit providing diagnostic services (development of diagnostic and testing of patients) to pharmaceutical companies. In this role of technical supervisor, she led a small group of researchers in development of novel assays. This was her first people leadership role at Roche where she learned project management and leadership skills.
In July 2019, she transitioned to Regulatory Affairs, where she works today. Her group is providing support for the development of diagnostics following regulations set forth by the FDA and other regulatory agencies. “I use a lot of skills in this job that I've learned throughout my life. I have always mentored and taught in my roles. Teaching has always been a passion and now I use these skills - educating, persuading, negotiating, collaborating and managing stakeholder expectations.” She stressed that the combination of project management, leadership, science and soft skills are required in this type of role. She went on to stress that in any science career field “You have to understand the science and be proficient at the soft skills!”
A lifelong learner, Racolta continues to take courses to keep up her skills and learn new things. “After I graduated with my PhD I took courses at UCSD online for regulatory affairs because I wanted to learn and know what government agencies expect. This was not required, it was for my own development but it was my initial exposure to regulatory affairs and that led to my current job. It wasn't my intent to go into this role when I took the scientist job five years prior, but I kept an open mind and found a role in which I can contribute more and one that gives me even more job satisfaction!”
As we wrapped up our chat, Racolta reflected on her career and the many jobs she’s held. “In each job I developed different skills and knowledge! The years I spent at UA, studying and working, allowed me to meet wonderful mentors and shaped my desire to become a better me”
Thanks for sharing your education and career story Dr. Racolta – I’m sure many students will find your story inspiring!