Stephanie Rangel, PhD
Graduation Year: 2014
Advisor: Hauser, Alan
Current Position: Associate Professor/ Director of Clinical Trials Unit, Department of Dermatology, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
Stephanie Rangel (Cislo) grew up in Munster, Indiana, about 20 miles outside of Chicago. She graduated from Indiana University Bloomington with biology and microbiology degrees. She joined the IGP (now DGP) program at Northwestern in 2008 and worked with Dr. Alan Hauser in the Department of Microbiology-Immunology.
What made you want to go to graduate school?
At Indiana University, I worked part time as a research tech in an ecology lab. I loved the lab environment. I was able to work independently but also had a lot of support from graduate students and postdocs. I wanted to follow in their footsteps and decided to go to graduate school.
What brought you to Northwestern and the IGP/DGP?
When I was going through microbiology courses as an undergrad, I really loved my virology courses, particularly the lab component. My virology professor told me to look into Pat Spear’s work, who was Northwestern faculty at the time. I saw the IGP program and applied. I am not sure that I really understood the nuances of the multiple campuses, but I really liked the work going on in the IGP.
What did you study in graduate school?
In the Hauser lab, we studied Pseudomonas aeruginosa. I looked at a particular type III secreted toxin and what it does when deployed in a mouse model of pneumonia. I was interested in the immune responses it elicited and its impact in the mouse lung. I did a lot of immunofluorescence and studies with tagged toxin, so I could ask where the toxin goes and what it does to the host cells.
What was your first job outside of academic bench research, and how did you get it?
I didn’t do a postdoc, so I went right from graduate school into my first job. I was a lead science teacher at Kid Science Labs. I knew I was very interested in teaching and scientific outreach, and I happened to live near one of their centers. I looked them up, liked what they were doing, and applied.
What is your current position? Please describe the big picture of your position as well as a bit about the day-to-day.
After teaching, I moved into clinical research coordinator role at University of Chicago, supporting the pediatric sickle cell anemia team. A prior IGP graduate, Melanie (Beglin) Nall, mentored me in the process. She both helped me consider going into clinical research and advocated for my position. I loved the mix of critical thinking, like working in a lab, with learning a lot of new material about conducting clinical trials and working with kids and families. After a few years, another former FSM postdoc let me know that the Department of Dermatology at Northwestern was looking for a PhD with clinical trial experience. I started in 2016 as Associate Director of Clinical Trials and a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Dermatology. A few years later, in 2018, I stepped into the Director role and am now an Associate Professor in the Team Scientist track.
I oversee all the human subjects clinical research in the department—about 2 dozen faculty, more than 200 projects. I work closely with the research teams to write and submit protocols to IRB/FDA, help design tools to collect and analyze data, and help analyze and publish completed projects. There is a fairly large administrative and financial role as well. I manage a 30-person team, I’m involved with office and grant administration, and I oversee day-to-day financial operations. That means most weeks I have a lot of meetings! I meet with research teams to talk about new studies, meet with pharmaceutical partners to learn about new clinical trials and find new opportunities for our unit, and I meet with my staff regularly to check in and conduct training. I also spend some of my week doing independent work, like reviewing and editing study documents and creating business/salary plans for the unit.
I’m also an Area of Scholarly Concentration (AOSC) small group leader for Feinberg medical students doing research (not necessarily in dermatology), so in that role I also meet with students, grade assignments, and help them find research projects & mentors.
How did Northwestern prepare you for your current career?
Northwestern gave me the opportunity to explore adjacent interests in science education and outreach. I was a Science Club mentor and learned about my passion for science and education outreach. This was a very moving experience, and I’m grateful that my advisor supported my ability to do this mentoring. It made me a better researcher and mentor. It also gave me project management and time management skills and taught me to be adaptable and think on my feet.
What other experiences brought you to your current position?
The University of Chicago clinical research role was really crucial to get that clinical research experience. Here at Northwestern, I’ve completed a certification for clinical research, which is really important for my current role.
What advice would you give to current students interested in pursuing a career similar to yours?
My advice is to leverage the experience in the lab setting to advocate for yourself and your transferable skills—particularly your critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Those skills are very valuable in clinical research, in navigating clinical trial protocols and the ins and outs of organizing study visits, samples, etc. I now hire clinical research coordinators, and sometimes I see PhD graduates coming through as applicants. You need strong skill sets in administrative work, critical thinking, problem solving, and communication. A PhD is not required, but the quality of what you’ve done is important. Your research experience doesn’t need to have been in the field of the clinical research. One thing I look for is that there is an understanding of what they are hoping to gain from this position. A clinical research coordinator is not necessarily going to be publishing or analyzing data. The cover letter and/or initial phone call is important to understand why an applicant is looking to make the jump, and what they are looking to gain. There are definitely long-term career opportunities for PhDs in clinical research in both academics and pharma, and clinical research coordinator is the most likely entry point.
Do you have any final advice for graduate students?
I understood pretty early in my graduate career that I didn’t want to do a postdoc. A lot of my class have moved into other career paths. I really turned to my network of colleagues and previous graduates and looked at what they are doing via LinkedIn or other social media. That’s what connected me to Melanie and my first job in clinical research. Use that network—reach out, have conversations about career paths that interest you and learn more about them.