24 April 2024

The winding roads of career development

Written by: Iana Grullon Penkova

It is hard to envision what your professional career would look like these days, with so many options to explore, with the many angles you can dive into, and with the lots of challenges that arise on the way.

My name is Iana F. Grullón Penkova, I am a Bulgarian born, Dominican raised, and Puerto Rican adopted environmental scientist who is still exploring the winding roads of career development. My professional path started with a bachelor’s in environmental sciences from the University of Puerto Rico, followed by a master’s degree from the same university, and a second masters in ecosystem restoration from Universidad Complutense de Madrid, in Spain. During my educational research period I focused on urban ecology doing both my theses in green roofs. I found purpose and excitement in this topic and saw urban ecology as a subject I could pursuit for the rest of my career. 

Figure 1. Iana F. Grullón Penkova counting herbaceous plants as part of her master's research work on green roofs in 2017 at the International Institute of Tropical Forestry. (Photo by Rosa Sáez). 

Later an opportunity to work on a tropical rainforest in Puerto Rico was presented and I couldn’t avoid being drawn by it and explore the chance to learn new things and grow my toolkit with many new techniques and methods to discover. So, I started working with the Tropical Responses to Altered Climate Experiment in Luquillo, PR in 2018; since then, I have had the chance to learn a lot about ecology and biogeochemistry but ultimately a lot more about the US Forest Service, the many different career paths within the federal government and the difficulties of landing in permanent positions for the early career people. I also have learned that networking and word of mouth knowledge often leads us to discovering many opportunities that otherwise would have passed by un-acknowledged.  

Figure 2. Iana F. Grullón Penkova opening a soil pit at the Tropical Responses to Altered Climate Experiment in 2019. (Photo by William Mejía).

Last year I learned about the Resource Assistants Program (RAP) through participants of it who were working in the International Institute of Tropical Forestry (IITF), the same one I had been for 4 years by then. Initially I thought that the positions were limited to certain types of jobs but quickly learned the vast universe of options and roles open to explore, and here comes another question that hunts many of us: “should I stick to what I know, or should I explore new things?”. I decided to shift focus slightly.

I am currently working as a Programs Operations Assistant in the Sabana Field Research Station part of IITF; my position has a combination of administrative and research tasks that allows me to understand how many processes that happen on the background of research units are managed. I go to the field one day a week to sample nearby rivers and creeks and then do some preliminary processing of the samples in the lab. The rest of the time I spend helping with facilities management, outreach activities, and procurement tasks. While my previous position had a strong focus on research, this one is more oriented towards administration.  

Figure 3. Río Mameyes in El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico (left). (Photo by Iana F. Grullón Penkova). Iana F. Grullón Penkova sampling water at Río Mameyes in February of 2024 (right). (Photo by Miguel Naveria). 

To get to hear I went through many years of studying (various degrees), jobs in different areas including some that were not even related to my studies, and many many conversations with myself trying to decipher what the next step in the winding roads of career development should be. To this day what I have learned is that what I thought would be a straight path has had many curves.

I am only three months into my RAP and I don’t know yet it this is still it or if I will go into a totally different field of work; what I do know is that what I learn from this experience will be helpful in any other job and that I will make the most out my time to learn not only about my position and unit, but about all the other work that gets done from the Institute. And maybe in that search I will get to where I think I am going.

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