Career Path

Finding the Right Fit and How to Get There

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A busy year adjusting to a new career is evident when a blog post is more than a year overdue. This tardy post is appropriate, though, as it includes identifying an optimal career path and networking to set yourself on that path.

In November of 2015, I gave a talk at the University of Washington as part of the Bioscience Careers Seminar Series entitled, “Finding the Right Fit, and How to Get There.” The PowerPoint-free presentation focused on the three steps that in my experience, and from the experiences that have been shared with me, are essential to networking and finding a good career fit. The guidance focused on academics looking to leave academia but the principles are universal. The three general steps are:

  • Step 1: Know your community
  • Step 2: Know yourself
  • Step 3: Know the “stuff”

Step 1 includes going outside your comfort zone to broaden your contacts and advice on meeting with people for professional networking. Step 2 built on this with specific exercises to help guide your search and also a gentle suggestion to do some honest self-reflection. Step 3 refers to knowing the language and technologies or products of the field you want to enter. Some of the more specific ideas I included came from an earlier blog post: Five Networking Tips. There is also a downloading video of my entire talk available See the talk.

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The meat of the talk was followed up with discussions of small vs. large companies, startups, and consulting based on my experience, my observations, and the advice I have accumulated.

However, during the question and answer session, I realized the following gaps in my knowledge: 1) potentially out of date specific information on the career track at large consulting firms (such as McKinsey) for entry-level PhDs, 2) limited information on PhD-level scientists leaving academia for banking, and 3) I have no idea if STEM PhDs that then continue on for a JD enter law firms through a different career path.

Coming back to this after a year away, it’s time to update all my information. I am reaching out to my network, but if a reader of this post has anything they would like to share, please comment below.

Additionally, I’m continuing to collect personal experiences of academic journeys out of academia, as well as tidbits of useful advice. Contributions are very welcome.

My Microbiome Experience from Start to Results

Everyday I'm Samplin'For the past couple of years my Twitter feed, Facebook wall, and this blog have been overrun with all things microbiome; however, until a couple months ago, I had yet to contribute my own microbial ecosystem to the growing dataset. While at uBiome, I joined the movement and quantified my own microbiome with their five site kit. My experience was not completely authentic since I missed out on the excitement of receiving the sleek, black kit in the mail and I gained the excitement of processing my own samples, but I still want to share and promote some citizen science at the end.

uBiome Kit

Sleek uBiome kit

 In the beginning…

Usually your sequencing adventure begins with ordering your kit online, but I sped up the process by bringing one home with me. When I opened the kit, the instruction card greeted me and directed me to register my kit online. Easy enough. With registration complete, I was ready to get started sampling. Not as easy. To get the most accurate representation of your microbiome, sampling should be done after about eight hours without microbial ecology disruption. This includes showering, brushing your teeth, kissing, swimming in a chlorinated pool, etc.

uBiome the Whole Kit and Caboodle

The whole kit and caboodle

As my friends will attest, I would gladly use sampling as an excuse to delay a shower, but I sleep less than eight hours a night and leave no extra time in my morning routine, so avoiding everything for eight hours is tough. I decided to stay up a little later than usual and do everything at once; except for the fecal sample, that would come in its own time (though we runners do have our tricks).

VirulentB skin sampling for uBiome

Let the swabbing begin!

The instructions on how to sample are both on the card and on-line but I found the Vimeo video demonstrating skin sampling far more fun and informative. Swabbing was easy aside from the issue of working in the small spaces of the nostril and mouth (I definitely got a tap of skin and teeth in the samples, respectively). The extra swab was appreciated to take a second tooth-biome free mouth sample.

Creepy nostril sampling

Oh yeah, this is creepy

When I ask my friends about their experience with swabbing, they unanimously complain about the nostril. Yeah, swabbing inside your nose is creepy, in a “send chills up your spin way,” but it isn’t painful. It just feels wrong.

No one ever mentions the fecal sample. It reflects our actual comfort with poop. If we are as bothered by poop as we assume we all are, diapers would never get changed and there wouldn’t be 14 “poop tracker” apps in the iTunes app store.

Usually the samples would be mailed back in the padded envelope provided, but I skipped USPS and brought them right back to the uBiome lab.

In the meanwhile…

 

Once in the lab, the samples are entered into the system and the processing begins. A DNews video gives you a behind the scenes look at this part of the uBiome experience. Once again, I deviated from the typical experience, and processed my own samples.

Processing my uBiome samples

Science is happening

As your samples make their way through the sequencing pipeline, you receive encouraging email updates to track your precious microbes. Eventually, you get the email you’ve been waiting for and your data are ready.

In the end.

Upon entering the data delivery site, my suspicions were confirmed: my microbiome falls outside the norm. I have far more Firmicutes and far fewer Bacteroidetes than the average Western population (and maybe would fit in better with the Hadza). This is most likely the result of my high fiber diet of fruits and vegetables. According to the Mayo Clinic, a woman needs about 25 grams of fiber per day, but Americans average 15 grams. I average 35-40 grams per day. My Firmicutes are well fed.

In addition to comparisons to the overall data set, there are other options on the uBiome site to play with your data, as well as phyla descriptions, but what I really want to know is how to apply this information. Unfortunately, this is where I hit a wall. Much of the research linking specific bacteria to conditions, like obesity, is based on correlative data and the findings from one study to another are often contradictory.

uBiome gut sequencing results

Never one for “average”

The young field of microbiomics isn’t ready to prescribe behaviors or lifestyle changes based on sequencing results now, but it will be. We can all contribute to this progress by acting as citizen scientists. If you start a new probiotic, decide to go Paleo, or start Couch to 5K, take the opportunity to advance microbiomics and sequence yourself before and after. uBiome is not the only option for sequencing your microbiome, but I would suggest that you pick one service and stick with it to ensure all results are comparable. Sequencing results can vary based on the methods used to generate the data. (Yes, this is problematic and groups are working to create a solution.)

In the meantime, I’ll stick with my fiber and exercise and quietly keep quantifying myself until science catches up and tells me how to live better through bacteria.

Why I Love Contract Science Writing, an Evaluation

Science Writing for Everyone

As an engineering consultant, I knew I was busy, solving problems, slogging through tedious environmental regulations (CFR Title 40 still gives me the willies), and enduring round after excruciating round of report editing; but I never considered why I was doing these things or what skills I was gaining. I did not appreciate the value of my circumstances. Years later it become obvious that what I was really doing as a consultant was developing amazing technical writing skills; acquiring a keen attention detail; learning to manage projects, teams, and clients; learning how to sell products; and, this is the big one, learning how to take relentless critical feedback and integrate it without any sense of personal attack. If I had realized this at the time, how much more could I have grown? How many opportunities did I waste?

I like to think I learn from my mistakes, and since I prize the efficient use of time, it is now standard practice to reflect on any project and evaluate: 1) what am I learning, 2) what skills am I developing, and 3) how can I gain as much transferable experience as possible?

Over the last two years, I have taken on several technical writing contract projects and love them. Below are my reflections on the “why” and the general criteria they meet:

1) Exercise an existing skill: technical writing skill

Neglected skills atrophy the same as unused muscles, regardless of the number of years invested in developing them. I spent five years learning Italian and how much can I speak now?- nada..or is it niente? Contract writing for multiple companies provides excellent skill reinforcement since each project is different. It hinders recycling a formula from project to project and requires active thought and growth.

2) Expand an existing skill: scientific communication to a broad audience

Scientists talk a great deal about the importance of communicating science to the general population, but most of us never do. A poster or a talk at a general interest conference doesn’t count. The closest I had come was writing due diligence reports to business people with Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable (OBR).

This is not Science Writing

Tucker Martin, Worchester Polytechnic Institute

When I started writing service descriptions for Science Exchange (SE) I learned what it meant to write for anyone. Describing “science for the people” forced me to distill concepts to the basics and to ask for feedback from naïve audiences. It became clear that examples of when to use a service are most important and reinforced the idea that analogy is usually the best tool for disseminating knowledge to uninformed audiences.

3) Develop new skills: learn novel techniques and fill-in knowledge gaps

Writing service descriptions and especially grants for different companies requires learning about new fields and techniques outside the narrow focus of my research. It forces me to stay up to date on current science and technology trends. Contract writing can bring to light any gaps in knowledge, as well. I have had to fill-in plenty of holes in my areas of expertise.

4) Lead to additional opportunities: other contract projects

Learning the theory behind new fields helps me find opportunities to gain technical experience in areas outside my existing expertise like next-generation sequencing. It also provides conversational knowledge for conferences and networking events. Through engaging people in deeper conversations other opportunities arise that allow me to stay on that exciting slope of the learning curve and keep cycling through the list above.

Deer Mountain: the basis of my first writing contract

My first paid writing project in 2nd grade entitled “3 miles that became 6” tells the harrowing tale of my family’s hike on Deer Mountain. Critical acclaim has been slow in coming.

Perhaps these general criteria will provide something to mull over the next time you evaluate a project and consider stepping a little outside your comfort zone. Always keep asking, “what am I gaining and could I grow more?”

Connect with me on Maven

Entrepreneur’s Playground: Stanford OTL

                            

Every entrepreneur needs an idea and the Stanford Office of Technology and Licensing (OTL) has hundreds of patented, but unlicensed, ideas waiting to be commercialized and marketed. It is an entrepreneur’s dream and pitifully underutilized. 

I learned of this resource when I began another consulting project for Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable (OBR) to develop a commercialization plan for a positioning apparatus with lockable joints (Patent US 20110015647A1). Videos of this unlicensed, patented device are available here.

Over 12 weeks we developed a list of potential applications, validated the applications by interviewing key opinion leaders and potential users, conducted a preliminary competitor and market analysis, and developed a plan for commercialization for the inventors including two potential licensees, one from the maker community and another from a biodevice startup. The greatest challenge was to identify and engage potential users. Traditional channels to key opinion leaders in academia and industry, such as networked introductions and cold emails, tended to be slow and yielded modest returns. In response, we turned to social media and began posting about the project on Twitter and Facebook and reaching out to specific communities through local group networks like Meetup. By accessing a large audience quickly, we increased the speed of response and garnered the input of several future users. Two potential licensees came through social media as well.

Though our team did not parlay this specific device into a company, the OTL has an abundance of other options. To find ideas ripe for commercialization, use OTL’s Tech Finder site. It requires registration but is open to anyone. If you are part of the Stanford community and interested in going through a process similar to the OBR project, consider joining an Innovation Farm (iFarm) Team. The iFarm program starts biannually in February and September, lasts about six months, and includes mentoring and seminars by experts in patent law, entrepreneurship, and management. OTL Senior Associate, Luis Mejia, describes the program in his iFarm introduction here. In his introduction, Mejia highlights the greater benefits of licensing an OTL patent: “Products are made, royalties then are generated and get paid back to the university and…about two-thirds of the net revenues go back to supporting the research and education mission of the university.” 

Protein Gels and Microscopy

Over the past year in the Bogyo lab at Stanford I have greatly expanded my repertoire of organic chemistry and biochemistry techniques. This was absolutely my goal in joining the lab. Unfortunately, all the assays are visualized with some form of protein gel. These patterns of black bands can be crazy exciting, but to a cell biology, they fall short of that visual pizzaz that comes from looking at an actual organism. The gel below represents a huge triumph in my research, but it certainly lacks that “ohhh/awww” factor outside of a very specific audience such as the one I presented to at the Pacific Coast Protease Meeting

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(As a side note, some people would consider this intriguing and potentially art, but they are the rare visionaries.) 

Recently, I have begun to include some more cell biology and microscopy into my project; but so far only fluorescent Toxoplasma as I search for abnormalities in development or structure. 

Not yet drool-worthy eye candy, but soon it will be back in the realm of my thesis work as published in Cellular Microbiology and International Review of Cell and Molecular Biology.

Though as scientist we are constantly broadening our horizons and always learning, it’s nice to go back to something we love every now and then.  

Due Diligence to bring postdocs and investors together

For the past month I have been working with a great trio of postdocs to complete a due diligence technical assessment template for Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable (OBR), a group committed to promoting conversations between early career academics and entrepreneurs. One way to accomplish this goal is for OBR to offer consulting services. This postdoc/student-led group has a vast network of postdocs across diverse technical fields who would be ideal for performing due diligence on novel technologies for venture capital (VC) firms, angel investors, or possibly startups preparing to approach investors.

With the technical assessment template, a team of expert postdocs can be quickly selected specifically for the technology the client wants assessed from a pool of active consultants, and then the group can proceed with maximum efficiency by following the detailed guidance of the template. We invested great effort into developing the content of the template through researching due diligence guidance and incorporating feedback from VCs, angel investors, and experienced consultants.  

This is an excellent idea that has been successful in other markets outside of the bay area and a great opportunity to further bridge that ever shrinking divide between academia and industry. It’s an amazing opportunity for postdocs to connect with investors and founders and a productive way to acquire some skills away from the bench that could increase an academic’s marketability in the future. Furthermore, the budding postdoc-entrepreneur could find mentors through this process. This is a win-win situation for everyone and I can’t wait to see it succeed.