Meet Jeff Morawetz, Grant Manager at Caltech

Jeff, grant manager at Caltech

Jeff Morawetz, Caltech

Describe what you do on a day-to-day basis.

In the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering (BBE) we provide cradle-to-grave award management for our assigned faculty’s sponsored research portfolios. I assist faculty and their research groups with proposal development for federal and private funding sources (e.g., budget development, sponsor guideline interpretation), prepare the administrative portions of progress reports, review and manage award spending, and schedule labor for faculty and their staff/students. All of this happens in collaboration with various offices around campus such as research compliance (IRB, IBC, IACUC), central finance, sponsored projects, foundation relations, and tech transfer/corporate partnerships, as well as with grant managers in other divisions, and various other staff in BBE, and my counterparts at other institutions (for incoming/outgoing subawards). In short, it’s my job to reduce the administrative burden for my faculty so they can focus on their primary interest: the scientific research!

How did you find your first job out of academia?

I had met two people who had biology PhDs and had moved into administrative roles, one when I was an undergraduate and one as a grad student. I reconnected with them to get their advice on how to better explore the options out there, and to learn more about what they are doing. One of those persons put me in touch with a high level administrator at a local SoCal campus who agreed to an informational interview, and that opened my eyes to quite a few possibilities for career paths. Once I decided on research administration, I applied to dozens of jobs (50+) before I got my first offer, which was at Keck Medicine of USC. It turns out not everyone believes someone with a PhD is actually going to leave research! Once I had some ‘real’ experience (apparently managing my own research program fiscally and scientifically was not real enough…) under my belt, it was much easier to get interviews. I was working on negotiating a volunteer opportunity when the offer from Keck came along. I would definitely recommend testing the waters by volunteering some time first. It provides valuable experience for your resume, and importantly, demonstrates commitment to your new career path.

What is your favorite part of your current job?

Ha! It’s actually what I liked least as a researcher: everything administrative. When working in research, one is distracted from the science by all of these other annoying details associated with the funding that supports your research. Now that I no longer do research myself, I get immense pleasure from taking care of those details for my faculty, knowing I’m helping to reduce their administrative burden insofar as is possible so they can focus on what they love: their research. Plus, I have a healthy work-life balance.

What are the unique challenges of this line of work?

I serve as a liaison between faculty and administrators who do not have backgrounds in research. I translate the needs of both sides for the other to provide context and perspective on where they are each coming from to facilitate communications between them. I really enjoy that part, though it can be quite challenging translating between individuals from two drastically different cultures.

Tell us about your academic background (describe your science at an undergraduate level)

I have always been interested in plants, and quickly discovered that my interests were in evolutionary questions about unusual plants. Beginning in graduate school I studied parasitic plants, plants that feed off of other plants. My research addressed how different forms of parasitism have arisen, and how partial parasites evolutionarily transitioned into full parasites. This involved sequencing chloroplast genomes to understand how this lifestyle has impacted photosynthesis and chlororespiratory pathways (full parasites can exhibit complete loss of photosynthesis-related genes). That naturally lead to curiosity about the point of connection between host and parasite, so the subject of my fellowship after my first postdoc was looking at the anatomy of that organ (called a haustorium) to understand how sugars moved between the living tissues of two foreign individuals without generating an immune response. From there I was awarded my NSF grant (third time’s a charm!), which paid my salary for three years and allowed me to be a ‘free agent’ to focus on developing my research program.

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone looking for a job now?

Network early and often! Informational interviews are easy, and I have never had anyone say ‘no’ when asked to share their experiences and advice with me. Keep in touch and update people who have given their time to you early on, and pay it forward by passing along your experiences with others who are beginning to navigate the waters outside of academia.

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