Marjannie Akintunde, Ph.D. ’15
Senior Career Advisor, UC Davis Internship and Career Center
Program Coordinator, UC Davis Leaders for the Future Program
Marjannie Akintunde sits at the small, brown meeting table, waiting. The round table dominates most of her office in South Hall, but the space still feels welcoming. Sunshine streams over Akintunde’s shoulder from the window, highlighting a collection of inspiring quotes and colorful artwork from her two children, Banke, age 5, and Seyi, age 3. A box of tissues, a cup of pens and a few pamphlets wait on the table with her.
A Ph.D. student enters and asks Akintunde for help. Her work-day officially begins.
This is not the traditional setting you’d expect for a scientist. And yet for Akintunde, who holds a Ph.D. in immunology, this is exactly where she wants to be. As a senior career advisor at the UC Davis Internship and Career Center, Akintunde provides career development, and coaches and advises master's, Ph.D. and postdoctoral scholars in all disciplines.
She’s using her expertise as a STEM professional to solve problems, contribute to society and make an impact on people’s lives. She’s just doing it wearing a navy UC Davis cardigan instead of a lab coat.
Immunology to advising
While pursuing her Ph.D. at UC Davis — studying environmental chemicals that impact the immune systems of children with autism — Akintunde developed a passion for mentoring graduate and undergraduate students in her research lab. During an internship at Genentech in South San Francisco, she realized that she was equally excited about training and advising her new interns as she was learning about drug development and discovery.
“The impact of working with students is immediate. They can come in very unsure and we work together to find a path to keep moving forward.”
“With science, you’re trying to solve problems, and the process is a little slow — you publish a paper and maybe people read it,” says Akintunde. “The impact of working with students is immediate. They can come in very unsure and we work together to find a path to keep moving forward.”
With help from UC Davis’ Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology program, Akintunde took a position in Genentech’s product development regulatory affairs unit after earning her Ph.D. There she was responsible for managing newly developed drugs for clinical oncology trials, to ensure they met regulatory approval by health authorities worldwide.
She didn’t consider advising as a career until she returned to UC Davis for postdoctoral research with the STEM Strategies Group within the Office of the Provost. In collaboration with the Office of Corporate Relations within the Office of Research, Akintunde led the planning of a mentorship and professional networking event for undergraduate and graduate women in STEM interested in careers in biotechnology.
“The event had a huge attendance,” says Akintunde. “It was diverse, inclusive and inspirational.”
Walking in her students’ shoes
Akintunde’s own knowledge of graduate school culture along with her STEM background helps her speak her students’ language. She and her husband used the university’s career services as doctoral students, and she is highly attuned to the importance of empathy, motivation and emotional support as she advises students.
“A lot of my mentorship experience came from training students in the lab,” says Akintunde. “Now I can help them with CVs, research statements, resume writing and applying for diverse career paths.”
Akintunde also leads and presents career workshops, helps plan large-scale career fairs, plans networking events and takes students on career exploration “treks” — company site visits to sought-after employers like Google and Genentech. As program coordinator of the Leaders for the Future program, funded by California State Assembly grant AB2664, she connects Ph.D. students and postdoctoral scholars with internships, job shadowing and special projects in industry, government and local businesses.
“What do you do when there is a lab meeting that starts at 5 p.m. and daycare ends at 6?”
Barriers to work-life balance for women in STEM are frequent topics of discussion in Akintunde’s office. Beyond sharing resources, such as the UC Davis WorkLife and Wellness program and child care options, Akintunde helps students identify transferable skills to a broad range of career paths. Many women feel forced to consider alternatives because they’re not receiving adequate support, she says, especially in research labs.
“If you are pregnant or nursing and you’re working on a lab project that requires constant, round-the-clock monitoring, how do you make that work?” asks Akintunde. “What do you do when there is a lab meeting that starts at 5 p.m. and daycare ends at 6?”
Akintunde faced these obstacles herself; she had her children in graduate school and is part of a dual-career family. She recalls a job offer that she received as a Ph.D. student, which would have required her to work in a lab twice a week, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. She ultimately chose the Genentech position, which gave her more flexibility.
“Until structures are in place to accommodate families and motherhood, these problems will continue,” says Akintunde.
Finding a champion
Akintunde urges students to find a champion, someone “you can talk to about everything, from personal stuff to academics.”
That champion for Akintunde is Judy Van de Water, professor of internal medicine and director of the UC Davis Center for Children’s Environmental Health.
“Judy is my mentor, major advisor and surrogate mother,” says Akintunde. “She made all the difference in my time here and helped me develop as a woman, a scientist and a mother.”
Following Van de Water’s lead, Akintunde takes a holistic approach to advising graduate students and postdocs. She tracks the progress of students who have used her services and celebrates achievements, big and small. One student she continues to advise is looking for ways to use her scientific education and landed two interviews with state agencies, Akintunde says.
“She’s still ‘in the making,’ but I can see that her confidence is higher, she feels more motivated and she’s better at her interviews,” she adds.
She recently heard from another student who had dropped in almost monthly for advising. Akintunde had coached her through job applications and the interview process. She was excited to hear the student had earned her STEM Ph.D. and accepted a research position at a university where she will also have the opportunity to write, another area of professional interest.
“I try to help students see all their possibilities, and that if they have their Ph.D., they can do anything,” says Akintunde.