I wanted to write about networking, so, in preparation, I did an exercise in which I sketched my professional network on paper. I wrote the names of the people who have helped me advance in my education and my career, and mapped out how they were involved in my professional growth. This exercise reminded me the value of networking because it showed me how one person opened a door leading to the next for my professional development. At the end of the exercise, there was a web of colleagues and mentors, all of whom, in great part, I owe my success.
After finishing my small exercise, I found out that the following day one of my mentors was in town to be the keynote speaker at a meeting. This was a one-day meeting, free for anyone interested in attending, hosted by the International Society of Neglected Tropical Diseases to raise awareness on Chagas disease among influential stakeholders in the U.S. and to promote collaboration between different organizations. Meeting with my mentor was a good excuse to go to the event, but I also saw an opportunity to network. I then realized that the event was designed for experts – individuals well ahead of me in their careers. I felt that it was no place for a beginner. Fear started to grow inside me. I was not sure if attending was a prudent thing to do. I was going to be surrounded by giants: representatives from big pharmaceutical companies, government officials, CEO’s of non-profit organizations, and renowned scientists. It was frightening.
It gathered myself for a moment, and then realized that I had nothing to lose. I had a priceless opportunity to network. I did not want to regret missing such opportunity, so I decided to go.
First, I defined my goals: I was going to meet with my mentor, and I was going to meet at least 10 people. In my experience, having clear goals has helped me to stay focused and get the most out of a meeting. Then, I looked for the speakers list and investigated who they were. To be more efficient, I planned to meet with a few speakers based on my interests. The prep was done and it was time to go to bed.
The next morning, I started to get ready. I was psyched, and a bit nervous. I felt like I was getting ready to go out to party. Just like when people meet potential dates and ask for their numbers, I was ready to meet people and ask for their email addresses. In fact, I had prepared what I call a professional pick up line, which I use to begin a conversation and introduce myself.
I finally got there, and could only laugh to relieve my nerves. Then, I walked into an almost empty room with just a few people sitting in pairs having seemingly important conversations. That made me even more nervous, as I did not want to interrupt. However, I found courage, took a deep breath, put on a big smile, and said to a couple at a table, “I’m sorry to interrupt. Honestly, part of me has no idea of what I’m doing here, but I am just a curious young scientist. My name is Munir Buhaya, may I sit with you?” They agreed and they were very warm. They included me in the conversation and that small gesture changed the game. I felt welcomed.
Soon after the meeting started, I saw two guys who looked about my age. I was glad that I was not the only young attendee. When I introduced myself, they ended up being younger than I. The two of them were undergraduate students with plans of becoming physicians. I graduated a couple of years ago, and I’m entering medical school soon, so I offered some advice and informed them about different opportunities they might be interested in. Just like I was receiving advice from people ahead of me, they were receiving advice from someone ahead of them. This is what networking is all about—people helping each other out.
l learned that networking is bidirectional. It is more than just making connections and benefiting yourself. It is also about helping other people advance in their careers and lives. At the end of the meeting, I felt accomplished. I overcame my fear and stepped out of my comfort zone, and by having clear goals and staying focused, I achieved more than what I originally intended. It truly was a successful and invaluable networking experience. To date, I’m in touch with few people I met at the meeting, and I’m in the process of proposing a future collaboration.
Munir H. Buhaya
Munir H. Buhaya grew up in El Paso, TX – Juarez, MX border. In 2015, he graduated with a B.S. in Microbiology from the University of Texas at El Paso. Currently, he is a post-baccalaureate fellow at the National Institutes of Health in the Laboratory of Malaria Immunology and Vaccinology. He is passionate about vaccine development and infectious diseases, specially neglected tropical diseases. Additionally, Munir is interested in the advancement of minority groups in STEM and he is an advisor at the SACNAS NIH Chapter. His hobbies include soccer, dancing, drawing and painting, and reading; he believes it’s very important to foster a healthy mind and body. You can follow him on Twitter @munirbuhaya.
This blog post was prepared or accomplished by Munir H. Buhaya in his personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, or the United States government.