The secret to a fulfilling career in science and healthcare is to let yourself find your own path. In this episode of Leading with Health, Heidi Grabenstatter talks with me about her unusual path to a successful and impactful career in epilepsy research and advocacy.

Heidi Grabenstatter, PhD, is the Science Director of the International Foundation for CDKL5 Research (IFCR) and Senior Research Associate at the University of Colorado Boulder. You can learn more about her work at

Highlights include:

6:05 – HG: “Currently, I am particularly interested in the uncontrolled seizure activity. So those seizures that develop in patients that don’t respond to treatments. And what cardiac dysfunction they might have that could lead to sudden unexpected death.”

8:05 – HG: “One of the scientists was a full professor and had some interesting work going on in the microbiome and sleep dysfunction. She was willing to let me come share her space. So I didn’t get the typical start-up package; I could use her space and look at some of the work in epilepsy that might align with her work in the microbiome and sleep dysfunction. And we struck up this partnership that has been very useful to the both of our trajectories.”

9:33 – HG: “Grantsmanship is a big deal and me having the ability to write those grants independently on topics that I was passionate about allowed me that flexibility to approach people and say ‘this is really cool and I think you and I could work together and approach this topic as a team.’ And you’re much more marketable when you have a grant secured.”

10:22 – HG: “That can be intimidating, grant-writing. So having those skills is part of the toolkit you develop. And you don’t realize as a scientist, after having secured your PhD, that you have this toolkit. You have the ability to work independently, you have the ability to project manage and lead others.”

11:15 – HG: “Are you willing to step out of your comfort zone and network with people in the business community?”

13:00 – HG: “I ended up right where I was supposed to be, but I didn’t know that at the time.”

13:30 – HG: “We all run into points where the system is a challenge. And what you need to recognize is there is talent inside and outside of our compartments … and how to foster that talent is really the key.”

14:25 – HG: “As a young PhD, you’re just so overwhelmed with getting your research done and writing your dissertation and a good mentor will hold your hand and walk you around the conferences and introduce you to people. But a lot of those people have had the same path – and newer paths are sprouting up.”

15:00 – HG: “Learning how to walk those curvier lines, you have to talk to people who have been there. It’s not a straight line and learning how to navigate that sometimes requires talking to people who are not the senior scientists.”

15:40 – HG: “Become aware that these curvy roads exist and how awesome the end of that road is – yet you have to be introduced to that person to learn that.”

16:29 – JM: “If you keep focusing on your interests and networking around them, you’ll find something that feels tailor-made for you.”

16:42- HG: “Tenacity, persevereness and then if you get lucky … a lot of the very successful people, everybody, it took a little luck. And it’s good if you acknowledge that.”

17:33 – HG: “I had somebody who wasn’t my direct mentor that I always stayed in touch with … and that person stepped up and recommended me and recognized that I was a hustler and was always working and never gave up.”

2:17 – HG: “(Having a person who has epilepsy in the lab) … comes with a number of really positive things and they bring insight into the research. They make the research better in a number of ways and they have different approaches.”

21:40 – HG: “The recent thing that I’ve seen is, will that Senior PI be able to handle a young person who is having seizures in the lab? So there are a number of different challenges.”

23:14 – HG: “Industry is looking more for patient input, which I think is a wonderful thing.”

23:33 – HG: “‘Patient-driven research’ means different things to different people. In my perspective, we should involve patients and caregivers early in research design and development.”

24:00 – HG: “Caregivers and patients should be steering the ship in regard to what is important in their daily life and what their long-term goals are.”

24:55 – HG: “We’re not asking questions that provide actionable results. We need to ask patients what outcomes and inputs are important to them.”

31:02 – HG: “You may not ultimately want to work with a non-profit. But having that on your CV would really help you become a Program Officer at the NIH.”

Leading with Health is hosted by Jennifer Michelle. Jennifer has a Master’s in Public Health and Epidemiology and is a certified EMT. As President of Michelle Marketing Strategies, Jennifer specializes in healthcare marketing. She is on a mission to help women find their voice so they can create a stronger, more responsive healthcare system.