If everything Dr. Rachel Ceballos learned in eight years doing search and rescue for the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve could be boiled down to one lesson, it would be this:
“You always find a way to get something done,” she said. “You don’t let anything stand in your way.”
The lesson has served her well in her career at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where she has worked since 2005, first as a postdoctoral fellow and, since 2011, on the faculty of the Public Health Sciences Division. What she is aiming to “get done” is to develop culturally appropriate behavioral interventions for preventing and controlling cancer.
From her very first research job as an undergraduate in California, her Coast Guard experience has paid dividends. When she applied for that job, her principal investigator’s husband heard that she’d done search and rescue and knew what that entailed, including organizational skills and attention to details and protocols. He advised his wife — Ceballos’ future boss — that someone from that background would be competent and reliable.
“Having been in the service opened a lot of doors to me to get me to where I am today,” Ceballos said. “It gave me confidence.”
Fred Hutch is seeking to open doors to more veterans like Ceballos as a founding member of the Heroes Corporate Fellowship Academy, one of five new initiatives to help military service members at Washington’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord re-enter the civilian workforce.
About 8,000 to 9,000 service members will be leaving JBLM each year for the next three to four years as part of a planned drawdown taking place at bases across the country due to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars winding down. If the pilot programs are successful at easing the transition from military to civilian careers and lives, they will be expanded to other parts of the country.
“In Washington, we have the resources, ideas, best practices and leaders to be a model for communities and the military across the country,” said U.S. Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., at a summit announcing the five initiatives at JBLM in October.
One initiative will help service members transition to jobs in solar energy. Another, sponsored by the Intercontinental Hotels Group, will offer training opportunities in hotels around the world. Starbucks Coffee Company and the Walt Disney Co. are also sponsoring programs.
The Heroes Corporate Fellowship Academy is unique in that it will specifically target officers looking for corporate jobs, said Rob Comer of Camo2Commerce, which works with JBLM on transition services and is helping coordinate the new initiative.
“We’re looking at the more senior individuals, very well-qualified for management-type positions in major corporations,” Comer said. “We saw a need to provide a transition service that currently does not exist in the nation. Fred Hutch has stepped on board early to take part in this pilot initiative.”
Officers can begin applying for the fellowship today. Fellows will be announced Dec. 19, and the program will begin Jan. 12.
Once chosen, each fellow will spend the first of the 13-week academy in the classroom, training in corporate skills such as networking and interviewing. For each of the next 12 weeks, they will spend three days at their assigned corporate partner’s workplace and one day in the classroom studying project management, business writing and other topics. Because they are still on active duty, they will continue to draw their military salary.
At Fred Hutch, for example, the plan is to have the fellow meet with leaders in various administrative and scientific departments and divisions — including information technology, facilities, and Fred Hutch’s Basic Sciences, Clinical Research, Human Biology, Public Health Sciences, and Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Divisions — to give him or her a broad idea of what it takes to run a research center.
The hope — though not a requirement — behind the initiative is that at the end of the 13 weeks, the fellow will interview for a position with the corporate partner. If no position is available at that time, Fred Hutch will use its network to help the fellow make contacts, said Grace Campbell, a Hutch recruitment specialist who is the liaison to the heroes initiative.
“We need to help them in any way, shape or form we can,” said Campbell. “They’ve served us. We can’t not serve them.”
But as veterans and those who have hired veterans can testify, the benefit is just as likely to be for participating organizations.
Bruce Busby, Fred Hutch’s biosafety and radiation safety officer, is both a veteran and someone who likes to hire veterans.
“I’ve hired vets right out of the military,” he said “They’ve always worked out. Veterans in general have a maturity about them. They know how to learn and they know how to train.”
Busby knows firsthand how valuable military experience can be. He spent nine years in the Navy, including three years aboard a service ship. He left in 1990 and went on to get bachelor’s and masters’ degrees.
That’s not something he thought he could do before his stint in the Navy. He had entered the service thinking he wasn’t smart enough to go to college. The military taught him that he was. His first couple of years of college he maintained a 4.0 average, graduating with a 3.6.
Other lessons? He learned to handle multiple tasks at a time, as well as to handle the stress that that entails. He learned the importance of hard work and doing things the right way. He learned to follow procedures. Most of all, he learned both how to learn and how to teach others.
He also came away with “pretty good people skills.”
“There’s nothing like learning how to deal with people when you’re on a 600-foot ship with 600 people,” he said.
Both Busby and Ceballos acknowledge that there are also some military traditions that need to be unlearned in the transition to civilian work and lives.
In the military, for example, chain of command is everything: Those above you tell you what to do. Teamwork is possible only with your peers. Then you get out of the military, and you’re expected to work as a team with everybody, including your boss.
“I want feedback from my staff,” Busby said. “The military isn’t big on feedback.”
Ceballos agrees that experience with chain of command can be both a benefit and a hindrance in civilian life.
“In our [Public Health Sciences] division, it’s not about hierarchy,” she said. “Everyone can make contributions. It’s important to get that message across — that everyone has input, that everyone’s opinion matters.”
Busby also notes that in civilian life, you can be late for work, “and you’re probably not going to be fired or put in jail.”
To help with the transition out of the military’s written and unwritten systems, Fred Hutch intends to start an affinity group to talk about making the workplace more veteran-friendly. Busby also suggested that setting up one-on-one mentoring relationships with veterans who have already made the transition would be helpful.
The payoff for Fred Hutch and other employers, said Ceballos, is worth it.
“People who have been in the service can have a very different perspective or approach to many things compared to those that have never been in the service,” she said. “Fred Hutch can benefit from this because diversity of perspectives can contribute substantially to our ability to be creative and scientifically innovative.”
Mary Engel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Previously, she covered medicine and health policy for the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. She was also a fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. Follow her on Twitter @Engel140.