We all have dream jobs. For some, it?s clear and the path is simple. For example, there are people who say since kindergarten that they are going to build computers, and they wind up taking high-level math classes in high school. These determined souls go on to major in electrical engineering in college and grad school and then secure a job building computers at a reputable company. Then, there?s everyone else, for whom the path hasn?t been so clear.

Penland ?Penny? Woods (pictured left) is representative of everyone else. Instead of a straightforward path from degree to continually better positions, she often found herself struggling with long-term contract assignments and work unrelated to her science background. Through it all, she bettered her skills and honed her experience until she could get her dream job--combining her knack for communicating with her science training.

When I Grow Up ?

A foster child from Buffalo, New York, Woods dreamt of a better life. ?It?s really tough being on your own,? Woods explains matter-of-factly. She either wanted to be a scientist or Ms. America. Although her beauty and poise were valued--she was a six-time beauty pageant winner and a Miss USA, New York state contestant--her intelligence and creativity were not. Still, she saw no reason to limit herself.

Woods?s foster home was loving and nurturing, but her elderly foster parents had many other children to look after. Education was not a priority and college was not an expectation in her home. Woods would make a habit of exceeding expectations, however. She exclaims that when she was young, ?I never knew what the word ?no? meant.? Rejections did not tell her to stop trying to achieve her goals; it simply told her to try somewhere else.

That lesson became crucial when at 11 years old, her foster mother passed away. ?When she passed away I said that I?ve got to do something because I didn?t want to be a statistic.? At that point she made a grown-up decision--she was going to take care of herself. She improved her low grades and made the honor roll and eventually became class president.

Woods credits her middle school guidance counselor with her success thus far, having told her, ?I look at you and I see college material.? She was the first person to encourage her academic interests. ?I think it?s really important that you say positive things to young people because you never know if you?re the first person to have ever said anything positive,? Woods advocates. At her counselor?s request, she applied and was accepted to Buffalo's science magnet, Hutchinson Central Technical High School.

In high school, she majored in industrial chemistry, but soon found she didn?t want to pursue ?hard-core? chemistry. The persistence and diligence Woods displayed in pursuing higher education opened the door for her to attend Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, New York. Although she wanted to be involved with science, her interests were in helping the environment and improving human health through studying viruses and bacteria in the medical field. Her varied interests made narrowing her interest to a particular field difficult, but fortunately, Rochester offered a degree in biotechnology. This degree program included a broad curriculum in courses she enjoyed, such as genetic engineering, biochemistry, microbiology, virology, and immunology.

Struggling and Surviving

Just after receiving her B.S. in biotechnology in 1993, Woods began working in the Infectious Disease Unit of Rochester's Strong Memorial Hospital. As a technician in the AIDS/HIV Clinical Trials Group, she processed cultured HIV-infected T cells on the first HIV vaccine. As a result, several ?drug cocktails,? including the controversial AZT, were developed.  Although AZT showed efficacy in stopping HIV-infected mothers from transferring the disease to their unborn children, it was not the AIDS cure-all many believed it was at the time. The resultant negative reverberations rocked the biochemistry industry and the region.

The repudiation of the trials? initial stellar results caused a backlash against the local biotech community. The seed money funding AIDS and related research that drove the biotech industry in upstate New York was no longer there and many moved away or just went out of business. With the biotechs gone, Woods opted to stay in upstate New York, not wanting to add moving expenses to the already hefty burden of paying off her school loans.

So, she adapted and became part of a growing trend as an outsourced contractor. Many science and technology companies outsourced contractors, as opposed to hiring regular employees, for junior-level positions during the mid- to late 1990s. Woods worked as a lab tech and also a sales rep at companies such as Bausch & Lomb, Eastman Kodak, and Xerox. "Because of the versatility of the degree itself, I made it work," Woods remarks defiantly. She adds, "It wasn't easy, convincing managers to give me a chance, that science overlaps, or that I could do something else. It took a lot of talking to people and letting them know that I am willing to learn new things.? That level of perseverance and confidence convinced employers to hire Woods, despite not having the requisite experience.

After completing an 18-month contract as a chemical technician, her employers at Xerox rewarded her hard work by giving her a promotion. She enjoyed a stable job with health benefits as a manufacturing product development/production specialist at Xerox in 1999. Woods?s professional capability and personal mettle were tested, shortly after becoming a regular employee. During an important second generation prelaunch of a product, Woods was responsible for giving a major presentation, but something was wrong; the report differed from the original. She spent many hours of unpaid overtime to discover that multiple vendors cut expenses by changing their manufacturing processes without telling Xerox.

Woods?s professional commitment to excellence prompted Xerox to include her on the invention proposal to patent the new product, and she began providing oversight for product-delivery activities. Her supervisor also allowed her to do more of the type of work she had become interested in doing, developing into a media specialist. Woods interviewed and worked with high-level managers in marketing, manufacturing, and engineering to improve processes through invention proposals. Her experience with Xerox allowed her to integrate her talents and truly make a positive professional impact for herself and her company.

To the Victor ?

Unfortunately, Woods?s accomplishments with Xerox ended when her InkJet division was eliminated in 2001. In 2002, she moved to Baltimore, Maryland, and took a job with MBNA Bank Mid-Atlantic as a customer satisfaction specialist. She has also been developing a "Business-to-Consumer (B2C) Loyalty Model,? which has received positive corporate feedback, for a pending M.S. degree.

However, her difficulty finding a position suitable to her unique skills is over. Recently, the Army Research Laboratory?s (ARL?s) Human Research and Engineering Directorate was so impressed with her that they created a program staff advisor intern position especially for her. She will assist ARL to market their researchers, whom they call ?human factors.? She calls the position a ?dream job.?

To get to that dream job, Woods did not get caught up in the political games so prevalent in corporate America. Through the difficulties and detours, she has survived to develop a sense of self-reliance most dare not. Despite being the only woman and the only African American at work most times, she has continued to thrive and strive for more mountains to climb. Although she lacked the most basic element of community--family--Woods?s drive has carried her further than many with much more.

?The bottom line is there has to be a lot of interpersonal spirit in order to do anything,? Woods says knowingly. ?You can take a degree and maximize it or you can get another one. Either way, you have to know where you want to be ? and be willing and ready to make the sacrifices necessary to get you there. Unfortunately, many settle in fear of sacrificing and end up bitter or not enjoying what they do.?

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at cparks@aaas.org .

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at cparks@aaas.org.