Naomi Charalambakis is a scientist at heart. She is filled with curiosity and isn’t afraid to take risks to find solutions.
It’s those same traits – curiosity and willingness to explore new avenues – that lead to scientific breakthroughs.
That inquisitive mindset was the catalyst behind Charalambakis’ decision to change tracks in 2014, from pursuing medical school to obtaining her PhD in anatomical sciences and neurobiology.
“While preparing for exams, I found myself asking questions that went beyond what the study guide outlined,” Charalambakis said. “I wanted to know why nerves innervate muscles a certain way; why don’t we know more about this cell type in the brain? I was thinking like a scientist, not a doctor.”
The Chicago native made the leap after encouragement from Dr. William Guido, chair of UofL’s Department of Anatomical Sciences and Neurobiology. Because she stayed in the same lab, the transition was simple and Charalambakis didn’t have to delay the completion of her degree.
It was during her time in class that again her curiosity led her down a new path.
Charalambakis began to develop a strong interest in science policy, which primarily focuses on the allocation of resources for the conduct of science toward the goal of best serving the public interest. Its topics include the funding of science, careers of scientists, and the translation of scientific discoveries into technological innovation to promote commercial product development, competitiveness, economic growth, and economic development.
“When I entered graduate school, NIH and NSF funding was still pretty tight,” Charalambakis said. “While I did hear about it every so often, I didn’t fully understand the consequences – it was just some government thing I didn’t want to bother learning about. But across the university, I started hearing more and more about how labs were shutting down.”
Charalambakis started asking her mentor questions about science funding, including why it was so challenging and whether or not her project was going to be affected.
“He started laughing and said, ‘OK Naomi, it’s time we talk about science advocacy and policy,'” she said.
After learning how she could apply her PhD outside of science, Guido encouraged her to attend Capitol Hill Day, where scientists from around the country meet in Washington, D.C., to discuss with elected officials the importance of research and the necessity of consistent federal funding.
That day in 2015 guided Charalambakis to her current role as a science policy analyst for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. There, she regularly attends meetings on Capitol Hill and at the National Institutes of Health, helping monitor any pieces of legislation, funding proposals and committee hearings that affect the biomedical research community. She also is charged with cultivating relationships across the scientific research pipeline, including lawmakers, to ensure that all efforts are exhausted to advance research and development.
“While I have no clue what the future holds, I feel like I already have my ideal job,” Charalambakis said. “I wake up sometimes and wonder, ‘Is this really real?’”
Charalambakis, who is participating in Louisville’s winter commencement this week, specifically noted Dr. Guido, Dr. Russell Salter, Dr. George Pantalos and Donna Bottorff among the many that aided in her success.
“I truly owe everything to UofL,” Charalambakis said. “I can say, without a doubt, I would not be where I am today if it were not for the tremendous support I received from the staff and faculty. I think I could write a book of all the people that were instrumental in my career path, including my parents, whose encouragement and support shaped me into the woman I am today.”