Professional Events

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However, during the question and answer session, I realized the following gaps in my knowledge: 1) potentially out of date specific information on the career track at large consulting firms (such as McKinsey) for entry-level PhDs, 2) limited information on PhD-level scientists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.

What’s my Worth?

Feats of strength can substitute for negotiations

When negotiations fail: arm wrestle (Boston College Festivus 2010, Me and Megan Kelly).

For many of us, evaluating our worth in the professional world is daunting. This intimidation keeps us from negotiating and then leaves us asking, “what if…,” long after sealing the deal. For women, there may even be guilt associated with mishandling negotiations since no one wants to perpetuate the ominous “salary gap.” Women in Bio, San Francisco, offered a negotiation helping hand February 26th at Nektar to remove some of the fear from getting what you are worth.

First, let’s take away some of the pressure. We have all heard the statistic that women make $0.77 for every $1 that a man makes. Early in 2014 Christina Hoff Sommers addressed this misleading statistic in U.S. News and then revisited the the idea as Feminist Myth 5 in TIME later that year. The statistic is based on average income for men and women and when you control for specific jobs, the gap nearly vanishes. Based on the career adjusted statistics, the real emphasis should be on choosing more profitable college majors if women want to earn more, not more aggressive negotiating.

Mary Haak-Frendscho, the event’s moderator, did bring up an interesting statistic from a Pew Research Center article. According to the article, women, on average, earn 93 percent of what men earn until they are 35. After 35, the average earnings shift to the 77 percent statistic. What happens at 35? It is something to consider and I guess I will find out this year.

Now that we are able to negotiate guilt-free since the future of women-kind is not on our shoulders, how do we prepare to come to the table? BioCentury Executive Editor, Simone Fishburn’s advice to do extensive, “soul searching before you walk into a negotiation,” is the lynchpin of preparation. We have to know our priorities.

When I first went on the job market after my postdoc, I had a long and detailed list of “priorities.” After some soul searching, and some experience, it was clear everything fit in four points: 1) a professional environment; 2) a collaborative, supportive, and respectful team; 3) a flexible schedule; and 4) part of my job is something I would do as a hobby. Number 4 may sound unusual, but examples for me are roles with a writing component (this blog is for fun) or forming partnerships (I enjoy networking and talking shop). A simple set of priorities helps with evaluation of and negotiation of roles.

Dilbert on the art of negotiation

There is always something to negotiate.

We should also enter a negotiation with realistic goals. Startups are going to be very different then Pfizer, which is different than non-profits. Dorian Hirth, Senior Vice President of human resources at Nektar, and Mimi Hancock, Partner at Spencer Stuart, both emphasized reasonable expectations several times. As far as salary, there are some online resources like Salary.com, Glassdoor, and SimplyHired, but much of their information is self-reported and they tend to inflate industry standards. In biotech, I have not found them to be very useful. The Radford guidance is ideal and what human resource professionals consult, but it is a pay service. “Your network is one of the most important things you can do,” according to Hirth. Your network is ultimately your best tool for industry information and advice on setting expectations around your priority list.

A few negotiables that I had not considered that came up in the panel discussion were promotion schedule, conference attendance, and opportunities to interact with higher management or partners. It is a phenomenal idea to use negotiation time to secure opportunities and emphasize priorities. It may give you more leeway than the typical salary/vacation/equity route. For me, since a flexible schedule is important, negotiating early mornings in exchange for free evenings and conference attendance to keep me talking shop and networking are options.

With our priorities and a realistic plan, it is time to go to the table. Here our greatest asset is, “confidence in your skill set,” says Hirth. We should not be afraid to ask as the worst they can say is no. However, avoid being obnoxious. Emphasize your desire for things to work out and put forth solutions suggests Fishburn. Hancock advises to, “look for cues and clues,” that you may be souring the relationship and to be open, honest, and transparent.

Realism and practicality in negotiations

Stay true to your priorities and be prepared to walk away.

Finally, Fishburn reminds us that negotiations are still part of the interview process so, “listen to the things they are not telling you.” This will provide important insight into what the working environment will be like and the personality of the future boss. If you feel you are not being valued or that you will have to compromise on your priorities, walk away. The situation will not improve when you are with them 40+ hours every week.

The take away is: in a negotiation be informed, relaxed, and confident and get what you are worth, or walk away, something else will come along.

Too hot to hold?: “Hot Trends in Life Science Tools” event reflects competition in biotech

Biotech is on fire with new tools

The October 1, 2014 “Hot Trends in Life Science Tools” event at Bio-Rad hosted by the Women in Bio San Francisco chapter highlighted the excitement of emerging biotech resources and profiled some of the women that are pioneering these technologies. However, each of the panelists has challenging competition to consider, as the scary side of great ideas is that they rarely come from only one source. The approaches these companies are taking, or will take, to carver out their niche in the rapidly growing biotech market should provide good parables for anyone considering entering the biotech startup world.

Dr Rachel Haurwitz, President and CEO of Caribou Biosciences, was the panelist that most represented how a hot idea in biotech spreads like wildfire and how focusing on a specific application of your tool can keep you relevant.

Caribou is in the CRISPR system genome editing game. When the CRISPR system was first described in Science in 2007 it was esoteric and best left to PhD molecular biologists. However, people wanted it and the demand sparked a race to simplify the system into a tool for anyone. Today, a search on Science Exchange brings up ten providers offering CRISPR contract services. To do-it-yourself, Addgene provides extensive resources and kits are available from Clonetech, OriGene, System Biosciences, Life Technologies, and more.

As a small startup, Caribou is avoiding being engulfed by the CRISPR blaze by focusing on a narrow market in a sexy field: epigenetics. Modifying epigenetic markers adds additional complexity to genome editing that the large kit makers are not ready to address, but that academic and industrial researchers need. This niche is giving Caribou time to grow and evolve. It also may make them attractive to those big companies.

Jessica Richman, President and CEO of uBiome, may face a similar challenge. uBiome is in the hot field of microbiomics and companies are popping up all over to stake early claims. Microbiomics is so nascent that the majority of these companies are in extreme stealth-mode; however all biotech startup expositions and competitions seem to include at least one, if not several. Watch closely, the microbiomics explosion will soon provide plenty of marketing and business development lessons.

Microbiomics and Dr Natalie Wisniewski’s PROFUSA, Inc., which is focused on implantable devices for monitoring tissue oxygen levels, also brought to mind the issues with “quantified self” product competition. Quantified self is commonly associated with “wearable” devices, like FitBit, Nike Fuel, and old-fashioned pedometers, but it can encompass any type of self-monitoring. Buy-in for these products is extremely low outside of tech bubbles like San Francisco according to TechnologyAdvice but more and more continue to flood into the market. Furthermore, NBC News reports consumers bore of them quickly with 40 percent of owners abandoning the product. This does not bode well for products that rely on a consumers attention span.

As an implantable device, PROFUSA is, according to Wisniewski, “what comes after wearables.” It has a medical application, but they will still face the wearable challenge of making continuous monitoring records useful to doctors. A The Daily Beast article highlights how these devices can be valuable tools, but concedes that most doctors have no interest in the data, which can come in an indigestible deluge. Without the acceptance of the medical community, and until doctors and insurance providers start requesting this information, self-monitoring devices may struggle.

As the title “Hot Trends in Life Science Tools” suggests, biotech is full of scorching new ideas; but it never hurts to remember that to keep a company vibrant takes as much innovation as that first idea.

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The real problem of irreproducible data

               

You have to know what is real before you know what is relevant. In science we trust that published means “real”. We may debate the impacts of different conditions and ooze skepticism over significance measurements and choose, sometimes less than tactfully, to object to an author’s conclusions, but overall we trust the data are real for the experimental conditions and that repetition of the experiment under the same conditions would yield the same outcome.

However, in a Catch 22 the data on reproducibility disagree.

In a collection of articles in the open source Nature special issue on data reproducibility, the most optimistic studies show 25 percent reproducibility of academic research. One article from Glenn Begley and Lee Ellis led to the development of Begley’s Six Rule for Reproducibility, which include blinded studies, full disclosure of all results, and reagent validation. Based on these rules, the optimistic 25 percent of reproducible studies are probably coming from far less than 25 percent of total academic labs. I know very few researchers that can honestly read all six rules without a little shame. 

On July 9th, Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable (OBR) hosted a panel discussion on this issue of data reproducibility. The panel included Dr Liz Silva, the MIND Program Manager at UCSF and the former Senior Editor at PLoS ONE; Dr Tim Gardner, founder of Riffyn; Dr William Gunn, Head of Academic Outreach at Mendeley; and Dr Corey Goodman, a partner with venBio.

Goodman opened the conversation with the first question he asks of founders pitching their science to him: “who has reproduced this?” The rest of the discussion focused on the problems, like an increasing rate of article retraction, and potential causes, such as intense pressure to publish, funding shortages, and increased oversight. Somewhat frustratingly, very few solutions were offered.  Gardner made a compelling argument for an incentivized approach to solving the problem. He suggested that two factors hold back scientists from solving the reproducibility issue: our culture and our lack of tools. We operate in “a culture of noise” in biology and accept that irreproducibility is unavoidable. However, if we employed adequate documentation tools similar to other industries it could greatly diminish the issue. Through incentives, like lower costs and timesavings by eliminating unnecessary, faulty repetitions, we can develop and adopt new tools and change the culture. (Gardner discusses this more in the Podcast referenced later.) When asked about automation as another tool in this solution, the panel felt it might be in the future, but currently there are other more pressing issues to address. (This could also be a reflection of the fear of the outdated bench scientist, but that is a topic for another day.)

Another potential, but more dogmatic approach, is a mandated NIH requirement for reproducibility standards. However, this reeks of additional strain on an already stretched system and more delays in publication, which will only compound the stresses that contribute to irreproducibility in the first place.

More adaptable and agile solutions are being developed through the Reproducibility Initiative. This partnership between Science Exchange, Mendeley, PLoS, and Figshare was briefly touched upon, but has the potential to revolutionize the way research is conducted as we incorporate tools, such as those being developed by Riffyn, and commercial replication services become cheaper and more convenient.

Overall this is a discussion that needs to continue and it requires total engagement from the entire scientific community. There is no clear solution but isn’t this the kind of problem we live for?

(To solicit more thoughts on solutions and the topic in general from two of the panelists, Silva and Gardner, I was asked to conduct an impromptu interview for a Podcast. By impromptu, I mean this interview was conducted on about five minutes notice.  I even forget Liz’s last name!  Anyway, it is clear I am not ready for the evening news.  As soon as the Podcast is up I will add the link here, so stay tuned!)

BayBio’s F.A.S.T. pitch showcase puts five companies on base

(My apologies, I tried not to carry on the baseball pun but it was a soft pitch.)

               

On Thursday June 12th, UCSF hosted the BayBio Fellows All-Star Team (FAST) Advisory Program final pitch showcase. The FAST Advisory Program provides eight weeks of intensive coaching on business model development, product development planning, and creating a viable commercialization strategy. The five teams of the program were polished and energetic as they presented to a room of biotech investors, advisors, potential future team members, and program alumni, like XCell Biosciences, who were finalists in the recent Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable OneStart Americas competition.

The first pitch from Colleen Cutcliffe of Whole Biome described their Complete Biome TestTM as a step to answering, “What does it mean to bring the microbiome into healthy balance?” This team has already established impressive collaborations with the Mayo Clinic to identify indicators of preterm labor and AOBiome to advance their ammonia oxidizing bacterial products. Cutcliffe kept the audience engaged by sharing Whole Biome’s “naïve entrepreneur” story (every start up has at least one) where the first check was in the mail but they had no where to put it. Their realization, “We need a bank account,” seems so obvious but it exemplifies how the basics get overlooked when consumed by the rush of innovation, partnering, and fund raising.

Cutcliffe envisions a different approach to microbiome modulation than my favorite OneStart finalists, Symbiotic Health (blog on the finals here). Symbiotic Health’s BactoCaps combat Clostridium difficile infections by dosing the patient with alternative, beneficial bacterial strains. Whole Biome will forgo this growing market of bacteria-filled capsules or “poop pills” in favor of more target therapeutics in the future. (For more on the “poop pill” phenomemon see Sarah Zhang’s Nature article here.)

               

Though not related to bacteria, artist Tobias Wong created gold poop pills for the INDULGENCE art collection to add a little shimmer to your bowel movements for $425.

Kelly Gardner pitched Zephyrus Biosciences’ single-cell western blotting technology. Single-cell methods are rapidly growing and improving, as reflected in single-cell sequencing being named Nature’s Method of the Year in 2013. Fluidigm is dominating the single-cell market and will probably show interest in Zephyrus soon if they have not already. This technology is an end-of-the-line assay since the cells have to die to be blotted, but I would assume stem cell cancer therapeutics companies, like Stem CentRx, that require single-cell resolution tumor typing will provide an eager market for this technology. 

               

               Zephyrus Biosciences team (image from Sky Deck, Berkeley)

Applied Molecular Transport, pitched by Tahir Mahmood, is adapting an alternative cholera-causing toxin identified in Peru to transport drugs into the cells of the gut. This allows for the conversion of injectable drugs into an oral format. Currently they are focused on inflammatory bowel disease, but could this be applicable to antibiotics, especially those to treat serious Gram-negative infections, like Achaogen’s plazomicin, thus shortening expensive hospital stays? Mahmood admits that ensuring “stability from mouth to gut cell wall” is a challenge but one they are actively addressing.

Kate Garrett and Ciel Medical are combating ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP) with a suction catheter device and ventilator placement tool. When introducing Kate, Stephanie Diaz, President and CEO of Vida Strategic Partners, praised her clarity and ingenuity by reflecting, “Why can’t I think of things like that?” This ingenuity comes across in their MacGyver-style testing of these devices at the largest nursing conference in the US where they proved that 99 percent of nurses could place the suction catheter properly, but none could properly place the current alternative. VAP is  a leading cause of hospital related death and these devices will start saving lives immediately. 

The pitches closed with Adam Mendelsohn of Nano Precision Medical. The team members, described by Jo Whitehouse, CEO of JumpStart BioDevelopment, as rare, entrepreneurial “good listeners”, have developed the NanoPortalTM. This device is an implantable, all-titanium capsule for long-term, constant-rate delivery of therapeutic molecules. Currently the focus is on delivery of exenatide for Type 2 diabetes mellitus. Mendelsohn shared some eye candy graphics of the delivery dynamics that are now on their website, which went live two days before the event. Nano Precision is leaving FAST with more than extensive training: one of their program advisors, Wouter Roorda, introduced himself by telling the team all the reasons why they were doomed and is now righting all those problems as Vice President of Pharmaceutical Product Development.  

               

Static image of videos of the Goldilocks Effect. Visit the website to watch the video and trace the curve. It’s worth it! 

The night was a positive one, except for what has become the frustrating norm at life science and biotech events: the repetitive comments about angst-riddled postdocs and the constant internal struggle whether to stick it out or abandon science.  When introducing Zephyrus Biosciences, Jenny Rooke of Fidelity Biosciences remarked that every day she sees disenchanted and lost graduate students and postdocs. Every event continues to reinforce the obvious deterioration of the traditional system.

However, entrepreneurship is offering alternative options to challenge and leverage PhD scientists as exemplified by FAST and similar programs. There is still hope for science.

In addition to BayBio, the FAST Advisory Program is supported by Abbott, Pfizer, Bayer HealthCare, Gilead, and VWR

The right people in the room for World Malaria Day

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UC Berkeley hosted Zagaya’s third Bay Area World Malaria Day Symposium on April 25th.  All the west coast powerhouses of malaria research were in attendance along with key contributors from across the US. Attendees and presentations spanned discovery research, industrial therapeutics production, public health, and more. The efficiency and effectiveness of the meeting was unbelievable and it was absolutely a day of putting the right people in the room.

The three talk sessions, broken down into research, technology, and implementation, consisted of a brief keynote and a few five-minute talks followed by a panel Q&A with the speakers. A Nerf dart gun enforced the five-minute limit for everyone: Joe DeRisiAdam Renslo, postdocs, and students. This egalitarian approach created a casual atmosphere of approachability. Plus, watching the poor student moderators grapple with the possibility of career suicide at enforcing the rules added a little human drama to the day.

In the area of drug development, Andrew Horitz’s talk on Amyris’s ability to produce artemisinin in yeast, an important advance for more affordable drug production, was met with high interest from the audience. In a related talk, Agnes Nabasirye spoke on JLM, International’s work with PATH to manage the overuse of artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) and, “Improve malaria delivery systems,” through rapid diagnostic tests in high transmission areas.

In a novel twist on diagnostics, the malaria world is turning to mobile apps and gaming to crowdsource sample screening. Aydogan Ozcan’s group at UCLA have developed both an Android app and a web-based game in which users screen images of blood smears to determine if they are positive or negative for malaria. He offered a prize to any attendee who could beat the top score by the end of the conference; if anyone succeeded is unclear but many were trying. A word of caution, it can be addictive!

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                    Gaming diagnostics: identify malaria infected cells

Another tech-focused presentation came from Johnny Gannon on M@RS, the Mosquito Awareness Reckoning System, and the winner of the first Diagnostics by Design: a Hack Day for Global Health. The core of M@RS is its mPod, which attracts and kills mosquitos. Gannon, a Berkeley MBA student, sought advice on improving the research utility of M@RS as well as on commercialization possibilities. He showed impressive composure and humor when inundated with questions and comments from a room full of scientists, all excited by this new tool. 

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                              The mPod for M@RS

A research symposium is never complete without someone sharing their story of self-experimentation. The favorite of the day came from Genevieve Tauxe of UC Riverside who collected and analyzed her own “trail funk” to refine the methods necessary to research controlling mosquito behavior with odorants.

The day ended with a sobering reminder of what brought everyone together: the goal to alleviate suffering across the globe for the benefit of all. We were reminded of the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals, include malaria eradication, and the international movement to achieve these goals. Perhaps before the end of the millennium there will no longer be a need for a World Malaria Day Symposium.

(Visit the new Malaria.com for more on research and trends in diagnostics.)