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Transcending the realms of Equity Research with a life science PhD

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Biology – market – finance are all quite diverse fields, but do intersect paths at certain points. Did you ever wonder whether your PhD training could be relevant to financial markets? As it turns out, a PhD graduate is skilled in teamwork, critical thinking and has strong analytical prowess. Add some other important ingredients and the recipe for a successful transition into the corporate world is ready.

Kumaraguru Raja (KR), whose career trajectory evolved from being a microbiologist to an equity researcher, discusses his journey with Parul Chachra (PC). He earned his PhD from the Bowling Green State University. After two postdoctoral stints, KR went on to pursue an MBA from the University of California San Diego and found his calling in equity research.

PC: What does your role as an equity researcher encompass?

KR: I’m involved with equity research in pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors. Our research is instrumental for institutional investors in composing their investment decisions. I provide insights and detailed analysis on a number of companies whom I cover in the aforementioned sectors. Based on our recommendations and their own analysis, our clients working in mutual funds and hedge funds decide on which companies’ stocks they would like to invest in and how to change positions in stocks they already own. On a day-to-day basis, we do an in-depth research on the companies we cover. We assess factors that have an impact on market valuations and stock prices of the companies – factors pertaining to clinical data, product differentiation, intellectual property, and status in the competitive space. We provide our views on market developments to our clients. Typically, for any company, it starts with initiation reports. Initiation reports consist of an in-depth review of the company, financials, potential of the pipeline, its management and why our clients should invest in them. We also provide coverage reports over time, wherein we provide updates based on the market developments or when the company provides additional data.

PC: What kind of teams exist in equity research? What kind of people do you interact with daily?

KR: The teams typically consist of a senior analyst and a few associates reporting to him. In the healthcare sector, there are various areas like medical technology, medical devices, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. Each analyst typically covers 15-20 companies with the help of his team. Initially, I started out as a senior associate and at that time our team consisted of one senior analyst and three associates. Currently, I am a senior analyst, and have an associate working with me. We interact with managements of companies we cover, institutional investors, institutional sales and traders.

PC: How did you shape your career trajectory after earning your PhD in microbiology?

KR: I briefly worked as a postdoctoral researcher in Mayo Clinic after my PhD where I focused on cancer epigenetics. From there, I moved to LA BioMed where I pursued research on tumour biology. I always had an inclination towards the business aspect of biotech. I decided to move to the corporate side and opted to pursue an MBA. I went on to join the UCSD management school and graduated in 2010.

PC:  When did you decide to go into equity research? How did you zero in on it?

KR: I was looking for opportunities where I could utilize my background as a scientist and the skills I had developed in management school. I have always been inquisitive about the stock market and biotechnological innovations. Further, my interests revolved around understanding the commercialisation of academic discoveries and innovations. That was the impetus for me to go for an MBA. After starting management school, I didn’t have a clear idea and I was interested in various opportunities. I found that there were certain areas where my skillset could be useful. That’s when I thought about equity research, especially covering biotech and pharma stocks, as a potential starting point for my career in the corporate world. In this niche, we analyse a lot of companies and it also provides us an opportunity to interact with the management of different companies.

PC: Your answer brings me to another question. When was it that you decided to do an MBA? Did you view it as a necessary step to enter the corporate world?

KR: My postdoc supervisor was a very qualified person. During that time, I saw the challenges that he faced for acquiring grants and a skewed work-life balance that he efficiently managed. That was when I decided that perhaps doing an MBA would be a good idea to diverge from an academic career. While a lot of people manage to transition successfully right after their PhD or early postdoc years, I did not take that route and thought that an MBA would be helpful.

PC: How supportive was your PI when you showed interest in pursuing an MBA?

KR: I didn’t discuss it with my PI at the time. At a later stage, he wasn’t very encouraging when I told him that I was wrapping up my postdoc to do an MBA.

PC: How receptive do you think business schools are towards PhDs or postdocs who haven’t ventured much into corporate and aspire for an MBA degree?

KR: Some schools are more receptive compared to others and that was one of the reasons for me to choose UCSD. They had a lab-to-market course and the focus was on bringing innovations from lab to the market. When I applied in 2008, the program at UCSD was also relatively new, so they were actually very excited about me joining them.

PC: Can you name some schools which welcome incoming MBA candidates with a PhD or postdoc experience?

KR: Rady School of Management at UCSD, The Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell, and Indian School of Business to name a few. Most management schools strive for a diverse student population and are open to students with advanced degrees.

PC: At what level can people enter into equity research without an MBA degree? Do you have colleagues around without a business degree?

KR: Equity research has a comparatively flat hierarchy and people without an MBA degree start as associates. I have had several colleagues without a business degree who joined directly from academia, but they knew the expectations the role demanded and were prepared for it.

PC: How much credibility exists for self-preparatory courses in your field? Does it impress the employer?

KR: I think compared to someone who doesn’t have similar credentials, it helps you to differentiate yourself. To the very least it shows that you took an initiative to inform yourself. Obviously, your understanding will be tested during the interview process and the decision will be based on that. At the end of the day, even if you go to a great academic institution, it all depends on what you learnt and how you leverage it and contribute to the job.

PC: In what way was your PhD and postdoc experience useful during your MBA and later when you continued as an equity researcher?

KR: There are a lot of skills one develops during their PhD training. The essence of team play is very important in academia and holds true in corporate too. I cover the biotech sector, so we do a lot of fundamental research and look at case studies where drug development is involved, for example, looking at how different molecules work and how they are different from competitive drugs developed by other companies. Also, we look at the different pathways that are affected with a sense of looking at the off-target effects and the side effect profile. These are the attributes that we garner while being trained in science.

PC: You did talk about the challenges of being in academia. What kind of challenges do you face in the corporate sector, especially as an equity researcher, and what do you love about your job? What are the aspects that you are still learning and working on?

KR: Every job has its own advantages and challenges. There are some similarities between doing a postdoc and equity research. This line of work is very competitive and involves long hours. Often it happens that I need to think ahead of time, like what catalysts are coming up and be prepared. I need to do my analysis and get it to clients in a timely manner. Many a times, relevant company announcements are made at 6 in the morning. Some US companies collaborate with their counterparts in Europe/Japan so they release data according to their time zones. One needs to be prepared for all these events. Furthermore, there are press releases after the close of business. As you might guess, being an equity researcher involves investing long hours, which I believe many researchers can relate to. We get to know point-in-time whether our predictions regarding a stock or a clinical trial stood correct. Sometimes we are right, sometimes not. We learn a lot while on the job, plus one gets to interact with a lot of smart people. We routinely interact with CEOs, CFOs, research analysts, portfolio managers and other management team members from mutual funds and hedge funds.

PC: How does the career trajectory of an equity researcher evolve?

KR: Some pursue equity research as a career and continue for a long run. There are others who would move on to corporate finance roles or join as research analysts and portfolio managers in mutual funds and hedge funds after investing a few years. Some move to business development, while others become CEOs or CFOs of companies. There are several exit opportunities for people in equity research.

PC: What kind of equity research opportunities exist in India and overseas?

KR: A lot of equity research options exist in India. For example, people can work for banks and/or cover stocks that are listed in the stock market. Also, a lot of investment banks have research departments based in India and employees in these departments collaborate with employees in the US, UK or Australia. Many teams have their research analysts based in the US/UK and their associates in India and I think that’s a good starting point for people based in India. I have also seen people who took this path and later moved overseas. Additionally, there are opportunities in similar capacities in competitive intelligence which involve expertise that overlap with the skillsets required for equity research.

PC: What kind of quantitative skills do such departments look for?

KR: It depends on the field. In healthcare, we are looking at how clinical trials are powered and we are also involved in market projection. For example, in the case of prostate cancer, you look at the therapeutic space and determine different treatments being developed. Therefore, you also make a lot of estimates in terms of how big the market opportunity is and how many patients can be treated, how a particular drug is differentiated from what is already in the market, and the other drugs that are being developed in the market and then you come up with the potential market share. Additionally, you also do revenue projections. You build profit and loss models, balance sheet, cash flow and you also do a lot of valuations in terms of discounted cash flow. These are some of the skillsets needed for evaluating a company and a candidate possessing such may be the best fit.

PC: Do you suggest pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship if a mid-career graduate student has decided on transitioning into corporate eventually?

KR: It depends on that individual’s situation and it is not necessary to do a postdoc if one has made up their mind to enter corporate. It varies from person to person. Some are successful in landing a position in corporate immediately after their PhD. For others, it doesn’t work out that way. It all depends on how much time you need and being a postdoc provides you that additional time where you prepare yourself for the successful transition.

PC: How crucial is networking for a person who wants to transition from academia to corporate?

KR: Networking is very important and it also helps to converse with people in the field in order to understand what a typical job involves and what are the skills needed. It also provides a better idea on how best can you put yourself in those shoes and determine if this is what you would want to pursue. You also need to base your decisions on personal situations. Some people are married and some people have kids by the end of their PhD/postdoc. I guess one needs to take a holistic view of your their circumstances and then decide what would be the right career for them.

PC: What advice do you have for PhDs and postdocs who are looking forward to a transition and is there anything that they can add to their inventory for better preparation?

KR: One of the aspects that I strongly believe that you should invest in is networking. It is important! People are open to helping out students, communicating with them or mentoring them. And, I think PhDs and postdocs should reach out and find a mentor. Another important point is to differentiate yourself from the crowd. That’s the key to success. When you are working in a lab, or preparing for a transition, you need to individuate yourself. You need to demonstrate why they should choose you over someone else. In my opinion, that is what will get your resume to the top of the pile and ultimately help you in landing the job that you so desire. For example, it helps to take courses in financial modelling or entrepreneurship as a graduate student. It will equip you to differentiate yourself from the herd.


 

About K. Raja:

Kumaraguru Raja (KR) pursued his PhD in Microbiology from the Bowling Green State University. Thereafter, he briefly worked in Mayo Clinic, focusing on cancer epigenetics and later moved to UCLA to conduct research on tumour biology. After two short postdoctoral stints, he earned an MBA from the University of California San Diego and transitioned into equity research. Presently, he is the Vice President Biotechnology Research at Noble Life Science Partners in New York.

 

 About the author:

Kumaraguru Raja was interviewed by Parul Chachra. Parul is a research professional with training in life sciences and specific expertise in neuroscience & data analytics. She pursued PhD in Neuroscience at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai and is currently a part of healthcare analytics team at GE Global Research Center. Towards the completion of her PhD, she started ‘Beyond your PhD’ initiative at her institute to develop a platform for an open discussion on ‘alternate’ career paths for science graduates and how they could approach them. She is also a strong advocate of mental health and works towards creating awareness and eliminating stigma associated with mental illness.

 

Edited by: Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of the PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Scaling new heights as an independent PI – In conversation with Dr. Avinash Shenoy

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Nida Siddiqui (NS) and Dr. Avinash Shenoy (AS) strike a conversation on the latter’s scientific journey as a non-clinical lecturer at the Imperial College, London. AS sheds light on various aspects that are paramount for building an academic career.

NS: What launched your scientific journey? Any underlying motivation?

AS: I think my journey began with a deep interest in maths and physics in high school. This is when I realised that I’d like to train myself to undertake fundamental research in natural sciences as I had great teachers for these subjects at the time. My interest in biology, or mostly molecular biology & biochemistry, developed when I became fascinated with metabolic pathways and molecular machines like the DNA polymerase!

I eventually enrolled for a BSc in Microbiology & Biotechnology (instead of Physics) at Ramnarain Ruia College, Mumbai. This is where my love for infectious diseases originated and continues to date. Credit for this goes to my teachers at Ruia.

My journey really took-off when I joined the Integrated MS-PhD program at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore. Here I worked in the laboratory of Sandy Visweswariah and studied cAMP-signalling in mycobacteria. For my postdoc, I decided to switch fields and study host immunity to bacterial pathogens. This was at the Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, USA. Broadly, these are also the themes of research in my laboratory at the Imperial College – molecular basis of host-pathogen interactions.

NS: How was your experience at IISc and what led you to the next step in academia?

AS: I had an exceptionally good time at IISc. This was for two reasons – the project I was working on moved along superbly, and I had an excellent mentor. I learned a lot of new things during this time, but most importantly the philosophy, fun and excitement of doing research at the bench.

I was interested to pursue basic research by the end of my high school and during BSc. I kept thinking about my PhD and postdoc as essential steps towards starting my own research group. Obviously, it had to be in the area of bacterial infection-biology.

NS: How did you choose your postdoc position at Yale (in terms of place, project and funding)? What kept you motivated?

AS: A lot of factors played a role. The geography – US north east/NYC area – was based on personal reasons. However, this did not limit me too much as there were/are excellent laboratories in this area. I was quite selective (bacterial or mycobacterial infection labs), and it took well over 8 months to find a position I liked. While I waited, I had (unsuccessfully) applied for fellowships with  John MacMicking, who eventually offered me a position when his grant was funded. Persistence helped as I repeatedly wrote to people I was keen to work with; it helped that I had met some of them at conferences. Once I arrived in Yale, I applied for several postdoctoral fellowships unsuccessfully, but eventually received two one-year fellowships during my 7-year stint.

The start of my postdoc was the toughest time for me and there were no good results for about 18 months, yet I decided to hang-in and keep trying. These were high-risk high-gain projects and my experience was not uncommon. Eventually things clicked and I had a great project!

NS: What was the most exciting project that you worked on? What fuels your passion for science?

AS: I have enjoyed all the projects that I have worked on! If I had to pick one, I will say it is a cross-disciplinary chemical biology project that’s ongoing currently. The chemists bring a different perspective to the project. We are designing new probes to dissect ubiquitylation processes during infection.

My passion for science is essentially fuelled by an unsatiating appetite for unearthing how things work the way they do. My interests are mainly molecular mechanisms, and we apply this expertise to study infection-biology.

NS: Could you tell us the factors you considered while choosing the position at The Imperial College, London?

AS: I did my postdoc at the Dept. of Microbial Pathogenesis at Yale, which I consider to be one of the best microbiology departments in the world. By the end of my postdoc I had recognised how much I loved (and benefited from) being in an environment that lived-and-breathed pathogens and host-defence. This was in sharp contrast to my PhD at the Dept. of Molecular Reproduction, Development and Genetics (MRDG). As fun as my PhD was, as a microbiologist I had no interest in the biology of reproduction or development! One could argue I am too focused on infectious pathogens – but this was the main reason for joining the Imperial College, and that they (we) attract the best students. The MRC CMBI at Imperial has some of the leading pathogen-biologists (Holden, Frankel, Filloux, Young, Robertson, Gründling, among others). When I was made an offer, there was no way I could refuse! My job-visit to Imperial had gone well too, and my other options were general biology or immunology departments. And of course, London is a fantastic city and the neighbourhood of South Kensington is a great place to work.

 NS: What were the challenges in the initial years of setting up your lab?

AS: The main challenge for new PIs is getting grants. This can be a slow and demotivating process. I went through two major disappointments in my first year, but eventually got grants. However, more immediate concerns for new labs relate to finding the right people to join you – PhD students, technicians or postdocs. Almost everyone advised me to be careful and selective, I was, and this has paid-off. I have terrific PhD students and together we have managed to start a great scientific program from scratch! I cannot stress how important this is – finding the right team. Another challenge can be finding the right collaborators and saying no to others.

NS: What is your idea of mentoring in the current academic scenario?

AS: Mentoring is a two-way street. It did not take too long for me to realise that different people need different kind and/or amount of mentoring. This does not mean there are favourite people or favourite projects! Given my background and training, I am better at passing-on academia-related skills to mentees. Luckily, I am involved mostly with Masters by Research (MRes) and PhD programs where this is appropriate. Apart from bench work and project-specific mentoring, I often get asked to provide feedback on projects/grants/manuscripts. Personally, I received good mentoring at the CMBI which helped me understand the process of grant applications and reviews in the UK. The CMBI has also tried to address issues around lack of female faculty and set up a team that offers mentoring to female scientists to encourage them to stay in academia. While this only addresses a part of the larger issue, I think some students and postdocs may benefit from it.

NS: What advice would you give to PhD students and postdocs who are looking forward to become independent researchers?

AS: Think hard to identify what really interests you, focus and be decisive! The passion is what got me through, and I cannot help thinking that a drive is a must and it will also help face disappointments. Sketch out a plan on how to achieve your goals and try to stick to it as much as possible. Also plan your first grant or project well – this is essential for getting that academic job!

 

About Dr. Avinash Shenoy:

Dr. Shenoy completed an integrated MS-PhD degree studying signal transduction in mycobacteria at the prestigious Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and a successful postdoctoral stint on host-immunity at the Department of Microbial Pathogenesis, Yale University School of Medicine. He started his first independent position at Imperial College in October 2013 as a non-clinical lecturer of Molecular Microbiology at the MRC CMBI.  

About Nida Siddiqui:

Nida Siddiqui is currently pursuing final year PhD at the Centre for Mechanochemical Cell Biology, University of Warwick, UK. Follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter @siddnida.

Edited by:  Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

Photo credit: Pixabay

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Transitioning from Bench to Academic management: Tête-à-tête with Dr. Viswanadham Duppatla

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In Club SciWri’s transition interview series, we highlight the journey of Dr. Viswanadham Duppatla (Visu) today, who is the COO of MNR Foundation for Research and Innovations, India. Dr. Duppatla is a multifaceted research professional who envisions establishing an efficient system for training science graduates in India. He’s continuously striving for a change in the higher education standards and is playing an important role in improving rural education in India. He is a man who has mastered the skills of transforming challenges and hurdles into success and his career is a perfect example of it.  In his conversation with Abirami Santhanam (AS), Dr. Duppatla provides some inspiring insights to young scientists looking to move back to India as well as for transitioning to newer STEM roles.

AS: Please tell us about yourself.

Visu: I come from a very remote village in South India. Due to my limited exposure, I took a lot of risks in life. At this stage, I feel they were all worth it. I’m an average person who learned where and how to get things done, and therefore, I can promptly set things in motion. Furthermore, I help my network and ask for help without hesitation.

I was fortunate enough to graduate from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore where I learned quite a lot from fellow students. Thanks to my PhD supervisor I could explore opportunities like the DAAD short-term visiting fellow and European Union Scientist exchange programs during my PhD. My participation in these programs catalysed my selection in the Marie – Curie Industrial Network Program (Foldamer Applications in Protein-Protein Interactions) at the University of Würzburg, Germany. Thanks to the rigorous training during my PhD, I could handle an independent lab soon after my graduation.

AS: What’s your role in the MNR Foundation for Research and Innovations?

Visu: In one sentence: To encourage the Research and Entrepreneurial culture among faculty and students of MNR educational trust institutions with a special emphasis on Medical college. We have started the process of establishing an incubation platform for graduate students who can start exploring their start-up ideas with limited internal funding. We are actively collaborating with young minds in the biomedical space with a mutually beneficial outcome.

AS: How was your academic journey and what were your memorable moments?

Visu: The most fortunate event in my life was studying in the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya where quality education is provided to rural students with free boarding and lodging support (I would like to stress the importance of this as it enabled me to be what I am today). Like many of you, I enjoyed my bachelor’s in Biochemistry (Andhra university), simultaneously working at a telephone booth (entrepreneurship) during the night. Passing several MSc entrance exams tremendously boosted my confidence. Thanks to the DBT sponsored program at the University of Calicut, I pursued my Masters in Biotechnology. Thereafter, I earned my PhD while focusing on DNA Mismatch repair (Indian Institute of Science). Exploring a career as a Marie-Curie Industrial Network program fellow at the Biozentrum, University of Würzburg, Germany and that too in an independent position was the most satisfying moment. My academic journey is a continuous effort and now  I am doing a Strategic Management course with IIMK.

AS: Did you set any goals during your early scientific career?

Visu: Like most of the Indian science students, I didn’t plan my career. I was just a part of the race and luckily ended up at the IISc. The academic atmosphere at the IISc was very stimulating and competitive. Sadly, I had limited mentorship regarding my scientific career (Inferiority complex due to not so posh English language skills). I just followed what everyone else thought was better. Having said this, my PhD mentor was very helpful throughout my stay, especially at times of distress when I was looking for a change.

AS: How did you develop your network during your research career? How important was it for you to reach to your current position?

Visu: Friends call me a ‘people’s person’. I was an extrovert outside the classroom since childhood, but somehow, I could not just get up and clarify my doubts in high school as I wasn’t the smartest of the lot (and I repent a lot for this). I try to put a conscious effort in staying in touch with people in everyday life. The purpose of my networking was never for any gain. I always reach out if I can help. Whenever I have a problem I have people around me who assist me in troubleshooting. PhDCSG (PhD Career Support Group) helped me greatly in widening my network. It was through networking that I came to know about my current job. As a COO of MNR-FRI, I assist with connecting people from different walks of life, and it is this networking which has made my job easier.

AS: At what point, did you decide to move from academic research to academic management?

Visu: Like many postdocs, I too was interested in an academic career. It was during my postdoctoral time when I was searching for opportunities to come back to India that I thought about this transition.  I don’t have an extraordinary CV in terms of publications, though I have prestigious national and international scholarships and two first and corresponding author publications. Unfortunately, these achievements were not enough for getting me an academic position in India. Instead of letting myself down I seriously thought about my strengths, which are networking and management, for which I was greatly appreciated both in India and abroad. I used these qualities as my trump cards and created a new niche for myself – academic management. This area is still in a budding phase in India, with lots of opportunities in the coming years.

AS: Why academic management in particular?

Visu: I realized that researchers have limited options for exploring their entrepreneurial spirit, though the government has various schemes to encourage them. I felt that the paperwork was the major limitation for researchers. Therefore, I wanted to simplify these procedures for fellow researchers who want to explore their own ideas and develop marketable products. I am already seeing the effects albeit on a small scale.

AS:  What persuaded you to move back to India?

Visu:   ‘A foreigner is always a foreigner in a foreign country’. In the west, the system underlying science and the ecosystem for kick-starting a scientific company is well developed with very little space for tinkering. Whereas in India, there is an enormous scope for improvements. Hence, with a well thought structured effort, one can bring about a huge change and have an impact on the Indian ecosystem. Therefore, I always wanted to be a part of it!

AS: Can you elaborate on the role of PhDCSG in your career?

Visu: PhDCSG played a very important role in my transition and even present operations. Most importantly, #ClubSciWri was very instrumental in sharpening my social skills, especially on Twitter: @visu_bio. The assistance of several of my friends and many PhDCSG members have been instrumental along the way. Most of the specialized seminars organized in our medical campus were done with the help of the CSG members. Thanks to the active network, we could coordinate international travels with the institutes of choice. The programs organised in conjunction with the PhDCSG members were the most successful. Special thanks to Prof. Nikhil Gupta for his valuable contributions in organising a fruitful workshop on 3D printing and its applications in medicine and dentistry. As you might have realised this support network stood by me at every step and I enjoy being a part of it.

AS: Can you share the difficulties you faced while establishing a network in a new environment?

Visu: Surprisingly, I enjoyed interacting with people during my transition and I knew I was going to enjoy my future role. These are the people I was interacting for 10-15 years in various capacities. I was very much convinced of seeing myself in a management role at an educational institute. I was always open about it to my circle. I accepted my shortcomings and tried to improvise by attending career workshops and constantly updating everyone in my circle with “What’s Next”. It’s very important to be fearless in accepting your limitations and constantly learning the much-needed skills. If you love what you are doing, you will find a way to cross any barrier.

AS: What are the advantages and hardships one faces after coming back to India?

Visu: The answer could be a broad one and opinions could be divided based on a person-to-person basis. I can talk about what I felt.

Hardships:

  • Approaching for jobs is not straightforward.
  • It takes time to get a response (if you are lucky).
  • Most jobs are through some sort of reference though most deny it.
  • Many applicants don’t mean what they say! It becomes difficult to gauge the situation.

Advantages:

  • The system in India has been the same since I left India in 2009 with only marginal improvements in its functioning. So, it’s easy to work in a familiar place which is better than anywhere else – my home.

After getting used to a super streamlined and organized system in Germany, it was a bit difficult for me to unlearn and relearn Indian things. But familiarity helped me in settling down quite quickly.

AS: Can you share your vision for the future of MNR FRI?

Visu: The major objective of MNR FRI is to establish a research centre with an entrepreneurial spirit catering to the regional health care challenges of lower socioeconomic strata. My major goal is to create a PhD program where graduation means running their own company!

AS: You are an avid user of social media. Could you share some useful tips for using social media for one’s professional development?

Visu: It’s very important to define what you want to share and why. Spend defined and limited time on social media. I would strongly suggest everybody to update themselves with technology. Link your LinkedIn profile with Twitter and connect your Tweets to Facebook. So, once you post in LinkedIn it finds its way to Facebook via twitter. It saves a lot of time. Most people ask me whether I spend a lot of time on social media. The truth is that I hardly do so in reality. You can schedule your posts using various technologies. Be professional on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Depending on your geography and future career, modify your discussion from the standard format. This is where people can approach you without you saying it out loudly. Your social profile should truly reflect your personality.

AS: What is your advice and suggestions for PhDCSGians who are looking for a career transition?

Visu: Career transition should not be a secret and a single person project. If permissible, let your well-wishers and friends know about it as early as you can. Be vocal on LinkedIn and Facebook discussions. Employers are always looking for good applicants. Have a tailor-made resume for each job (CV for academia). I was invited for interviews without submitting any formal application. Hence, it all depends on how others perceive you when they are interacting with you. The present job was offered to me when I went to see if I could help out the MNR group. For me, your daily activities should reflect your career transition and you should make it as natural as it can be. If you are looking for a job in the Indian academic system, you should start very early, at least 2 years ahead. Strictly speaking, I won’t recommend last-minute job applications. There are seniors who are willing to help. Approach politely while asking for guidance. Your strengths are your skills and your network. There is always a job waiting for you – you just need to recognize it. You are your strength – talk to yourself, take the risk and enjoy your life.

Here’s my favourite quote that drives during the toughest of times:

You are not superior, you are not inferior; You are not even equal, you are just unique, and You will become what you want!

AS: Thank you very much Dr. Duppatla for this clear, detailed interview and your time. I can see your enthusiasm and passion for academic development as well as the optimism towards approaching your goals. This interview will definitely help us in paving our path to a passionate and successful career.

 

About the author:

Abirami is a research fellow with a focus on ocular research and research administration. She is interested in photography and freelancing.

Editor: Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

 

 

 

Curiously Robert

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“A great storyteller dances up the ladder of understanding, from information to knowledge to wisdom. Through symbol, metaphor, and association, the storyteller helps us interpret information, integrate it with our existing knowledge, and transmute that into wisdom”, said Maria Papova. Going by that, it is only fair to say that Robert Krulwich is a good storyteller -one curious soul who learns and talks and writes about the wonders of science.

Starting his career as a journalist to cover politics and economics, he had his first brush with science while covering the story of identifying Huntington’s Chorea disease. It was then he met Milton Wexler, a psychoanalyst popular among Hollywood stars, who wanted to understand if his daughter and wife suffer from the same disease. It was in his pursuit that he invited young science stalwarts for parties in Los Angeles, among his usual Hollywood clients. Amidst those fun-filled activities in the unusual teaming of scientists and movie actors in LA, they went on to find the first ever genetic marker for Huntington’s Chorea back in 1983 when there was no PCR or fancy sequencing machines. Covering this story had Robert thinking that, unlike finance analysts and politicians (who he had reported about regularly until then), scientists were having the time of their lives being ‘curiously alive and busy.’  The excitement of learning the unknown was so contagious that Robert decided to be the ‘reporter of very little things’ for ABC News, so he could cover bacteria, genes, atoms and other little things which cannot be seen with the naked eyes. While his boss was not too keen on the whole idea, he did manage to do it. The desire to explore and learn about this completely different world had got into him. While he did not train in science (he studied law), he has learned science as a part of his job.

With his new found passion, he did a television show on string theory – something that he admits might have been the most difficult thing to show on television. His show went on after an hour long show that had cocktail waitresses and extra terrestrials (E.T.) having sex. And to his joy, he could keep the audience (3.5 million people) glued to the television screen, listening to him talking about a ‘squiggly wave’ that some scientists believed to be the fundamental particle of the universe. His boss was surprised that the audience that enjoyed the show about cocktail waitresses and E.T. would watch a show about Physics.  He believes that people can have seemingly contradictory ideas in a span of two hours. And that people will listen, if you have a good story to tell.

He makes stories that are ‘beautiful’.  While beauty is a subjective meditation, a musician knows she got it right when she listens to the notes. Likewise, he ‘just knows’ when he achieves the right balance and knows when a story will hook you and stay in your mind long after it has been told. He calls it ‘renting the brain space’.  This is what Robert and Jad Abumrad do at Radiolab. He and Jad use a system to arrive at a delicate balance of ‘beauty’ which is a combination of fun, learning, and the simplicity of storytelling. The method involves what Robert calls, ‘smarty and dummy edits.’ After working on a piece, researching it, writing, and recording; he turns to replaying it. During this exercise, one part of him knows the story and one does not. While one questions the choice of words, the other thinks about whether concept is understandable as a whole. After that, the story goes to someone who is an expert on the subject to make sure that the content is scientifically correct. Then the story is conveyed to a lay person who does not know about the subject, to specifically identify the parts that are not clear. Speaking of a lack of formal science training, he conceded that not understanding science could be a disadvantage, “because of all the things that you don’t know, you don’t know.”  The advantage, he thinks, is that he is closer to the audience, who is as naïve as him. It is through this process of multiple edits and re-edits, filtering the script multiple times by both the informed and uninformed that a right balance (the beauty?) is arrived. This process of learning brings surprises, wonder and joy for him and those elements are then successfully conveyed to the audience. From his experience at Radiolab, he knows if you describe something joyously, ‘it is hard to resist’.

Jad and Robert, hosts of Radiolab. (Photo Courtesy: WNYC)

He mentioned that it is easy to appeal to basic curiosity. He shared the experience of talking to the slightly disagreeable bunch of politicians in Virginia who believed that science is a conspiracy against their God. He questioned them how the cloud stays in the air, or why is the sky blue. How the big white puffy cloud that is so huge- so moist- and hence so heavy, staying up in the air with nothing holding it beneath. And then he prompted them to use their God-given mind to answer the puzzle. He observed, if you ask a question, people always want to know the answer.

Sun and clouds. Drawing by Robert Krulwich.

He pointed out that much of the hostility to science comes from the fact that science language is inaccessible to the masses. People assume that they are not going to be able to understand it; they feel left out of the conversation and, hence, threatened by science. He revealed his tricks for sharing science with people who are suspicious of science. He mentioned that simple visualizations of science are particularly useful in these kinds of scenarios since not everyone can read scientific data. Like to an anti-vaxxer, you would present the data may be like this:

A representational graph that depicts the drop in disease prevalence after introduction of vaccine at Year 3

And then, adopt the other person’s view, conspire with them. Ask them why they think the government or the doctors would want to make so many people sick. And often such people are not able to come up with good arguments and then you can gently show the data again while generating doubts about their arguments. This, in his experience, opens up people’s minds to the idea of science, and educates them about the rational underpinnings of how nature works.

I wondered if religion could be the reason of hostility towards science, as religion and science are often perceived as exclusive of each other. Carl Sagan wrote in ‘The demon-haunted world, “the very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the cosmos…. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” I asked Robert’s opinion about these two seemingly contrasting ideas. He made a poignant observation, pointing out that faith is about seeking a closer relationship with the universe and seeking ‘enlightenment’. While faith and religion give you the feeling that you know certain things about the universe, science gives you a sense of being stupid. A scientist is often excited while standing next to a mystery, trying to understand it, devising tests of the universe, discovering some of the answers, which in turn opens up more questions. Hence, the practice of science, while trying to understand the universe, always keeps one feeling stupid and sometimes even wrong in light of the newly revealed data. Scientists are, he noted, like excited people watching the climax of a cricket match when it’s still not clear who will win. Religion is more about seeking peace and comfort and staying away from trouble. While they are different, he says, it is possible to practice the two together.

Creature in the woods. Drawing by Robert Krulwich.

He opines that by provoking fundamental curiosity of the human mind, one can get people interested in science, irrespective of religious affiliations. He asserted that his job is not to convince anyone of anything. This is reminiscent of what Isaac Asimov said once, “Now, they may say that I believe evolution is true and I want everyone to believe that evolution is true. But I don’t want everyone to believe that evolution is true; I want them to study what we say about evolution and to decide for themselves.” This is exactly what Radiolab does!

During the discussion on hostility towards science, he also mentioned that science fiction, poetry, and literature prepare humans for newer ways of appreciating science. It is kind of interesting, he pointed out, that time travel is not mentioned in any ancient text in eastern or western culture, but H.G. Wells and his peers thought of it way back in 1850’s all of a sudden. They not only took us to the future but also got us back from the future.  Fast forward 150 years and now a seven-year-old dreams of traveling back in time and meeting dinosaurs. Time travel, now a part of human imagination, was not the case a few centuries ago! It (Science fiction) often operates within the confines of known boundaries of science, and trespasses from there to explore new ideas. The contribution of science fiction to the progress of science is celebrated well.  It is known that space travel, the internet, online learning, wasting time on the web (yes, I know you are reading this online) were predicted much before they happened by the likes of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur C Clarke and Issac Asimov. Isaac Asimov said, “Science fiction is important because it fights the natural notion that there’s something permanent about things the way they are right now.”  Such literary artwork allows science to remain in public imagination. And Robert has clearly done his part by bringing science to everyone via his art of storytelling.

A portrait of Robert by the author

During my discussion with Robert, I could observe in action what Maria Papova said about storytelling. Through his experiences of storytelling, his observations have transcended knowledge and into wisdom. Stephen Hawking wondered, “Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?” As thinkers, let us take an infinitely small step closer to the answer, perhaps the ultimate wisdom.

Cover image: Curiosity. Drawing by Robert Krulwich.

About the Author

Ipsa Jain is a Ph.D. student at IISc. She wants to gather and spread interestingness. She prefers painting and drawing over writing. She posts on Facebook and Instagram as Ipsawonders.

Dr. Ananda Ghosh, Dr. Somdatta Karak and Anand Varma edited the article.

Ernesto Llamas: the sketching science guy

in Face à Face/Theory of Creativity by

Sketching Science is a well-known blog amongst the scientist community. Most of the posts relate to the guy who cries after a PCR fails, and stays inside the lab irrespective of weather and time. The wit and humor packed in the sketches have supplemented the constant need for coffee. The blog has become one of the most popular amongst the scientists in a short span of just a year. The main blog does not reveal the identity of the cartoon maker or the model. The first revelation, no, the guy in the images is not the cartoonist. The Sketching Science guy is a lab colleague of Ernesto Llamas, the creator of Sketching Science. Secondly, No, I am not revealing the name of the model (perhaps some other day). On behalf of Club Sciwri, I spoke to Ernesto. Frequently, he uses two tools: the micropipette and the iPad stylus. In this post, he shares with us his beginning, his present, and his future aspirations.

I.J. How did you choose to become a scientist?

E.L.  My father is a psychiatrist and my mother a painter. So, since I was a child, I was surrounded by both science and art. My dad inspired me to go into life sciences whereas my mother was a significant influence to get into the art world. When I was about to finish high school, I heard about Genomics, and I was very keen to study it. However, back then this field was still emerging in Mexico, and only two Universities had this degree. Thus, it was tough to get admitted. I tried, but I was not accepted. Then, I decided to study Biology at the best University of my country, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Moving to Mexico City and studying Biology opened up my mind and horizons. I found my passion for molecular biology.

After becoming a Biologist, I decided to pursue a Masters in Biochemistry. During my Master’s I started working in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. It was the first time I did real experiments using a micropipette. I was very interested in chloroplast biology.

After finishing my Masters, I wanted to move out from Mexico. Science is a career that allows you to travel and meet new people, and interact with them, either via conferences or going to different laboratories. I was very motivated with the idea of studying a Ph.D. abroad. I applied to several places, was rejected by some but finally, I came to Barcelona to the Centre for Research in Agricultural Genomics (CRAG). Nowadays, I am still working on plant biology using Arabidopsis as my model. I am in my 3rd year and planning to defend my thesis this year.  I have been able to publish some of my work from my Masters and Ph.D.

I.J. Since when have you been sketching and painting? How did Sketching Science come about?

E.L. Since I was a kid, I have been painting. In my school notebooks, there were sketches and doodles everywhere. I also took some painting lessons where I had the opportunity to learn watercolor and oil painting. Once I joined the university, I did not get much time to paint, sketch or doodling. However, during my Ph.D., I re-discovered my passion for art. I received an iPad as a gift, and I started to using it to take notes, and again, there were digital doodles and sketches everywhere. I was attending to seminars, and while taking notes, I was drawing the speaker, the images, and charts shown in the presentation.

I am a fan of social media; I used so see all the amazing blogs like AsapSCIENCE, PHD Comics, IFLScience, and others. I noticed that many others do not show much visual material about the life of scientists in a research lab. So, I decided to illustrate everyday struggles in a molecular biology lab.

In the beginning, I decided to open a Twitter account, but I did not get much response there, so I started using Instagram and then Facebook back in March 2016. It has been a year since I started and I am very thankful for the help provided by wife, lab mates and the “Sketching Science guy” that give me a hand to recreate the humoristic situations that happen daily in the lab.

Experiments do not always work correctly. Doing science can bring you frustration, but you have to keep working and fix your mistakes. You just have to make fun of your errors and keep going. For example, if your PCR did not work, you just need to laugh about it and try it again, and that is the message I want to spread with my posts.

That’s how it started, and I think it is going well because the number of Sketching Science followers are still increasing.

I.J. How did it evolve into a business?

E.L. I am just starting to transform Sketching Science into a business. It is super hard to manage a business and finish a Ph.D. Right now I am quite busy, trying to write my first author paper and my Ph.D. thesis. Some companies have contacted me to make some advertisement for them, and it is rewarding because my work is appreciated and support me to keep creating content. I am planning to make an appropriate business platform. Once I finish my Ph.D., my plan is to have a proper website with engaging images to communicate science.  I would like to have some sponsored content to create the website and keep Sketching Science’s social networks growing.

But for now, I am just focusing on finish my P.h.D. and is a lot of work. Right now, it’s just my wife and me who are doing this; she helps me with social media and with the upcoming website. To transform Sketching Science into a proper science communication platform will take some time. I will need some funds or financial aid to become a professional.

However, I am looking for post-doc positions right now. But sometimes it is hard to get one. I do want to follow an academic career. Nevertheless, if I do not get a suitable position, I will focus on Sketching Science a 100% and look for other options during the meantime.

Science communication is a relevant thing right now, so I think it’s okay to keep developing Sketching Science and follow a scientific career.

I.J. How supportive is your PI and your institute?

E.L. My PI is very supportive. He knows what I am doing. I also make a lot of cartoons for lab presentations, and I think he likes them. Right now, I am helping him create visuals for reviews and posters. We are also planning to come up with a book. Regarding CRAG, I think most of the people there know that I am the creator of Sketching Science.

I.J. Why do you think visual media is relevant in science communication?

E.L. So, a text is not very inviting. I am more a visual person. I believe that a colorful and balanced image is more exciting and inviting. For instance, when I see a post on Facebook with an attractive image, I automatically click the link attached to the picture and I read the article. Definitively, posting visual content on social networks, it’s a powerful tool to communicate science nowadays.

I.J. How has been your personal experience juggling a Ph.D. and a Facebook page?

E.L. When I started I was posting one drawing per day. Every day was tough, so now I create one once in a week. I am busy most of the week; I try to make something during nights, or in the train on my way to the Institute. Particularly, I work mostly during weekends creating stuff for Sketching Science. Designing the sketches somehow releases my stress.

I.J. What kind of feedback do you receive from your followers?

E.L. I have had some great responses for some of my posts. Some months ago, I made a post about the PCR protocol, and one follower recreated the whole set of sketches taking photos of himself. For the post “Summer is coming” another fan sent me a picture of him wearing the same lab coat, shirt, gloves, and sunglasses just like the Sketching Science guy! It is nice to see how people recreate some of my work.

Albus Dumbledore said, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” On behalf of the scientific community, I thanked Ernesto for bringing the much need break from the cycles of frustration.

 

About the author

Ipsa Jain is a Ph.D. student at IISc. She wants to gather and spread interestingness. She prefers painting and drawing over writing. She posts on Facebook and Instagram as Ipsawonders.

Dr. Neha Bhudha edited the article.

 

 

 

 

Transitioning as an Editor at Cell Press: Face-to-Face with Colleen Brady

in Face à Face by

Scientific conferences are major networking events for scientists at various stages of their careers. Some find collaborators, some find career development opportunities, but nevertheless everyone builds their network. I met Colleen in a Keystone meeting while presenting my poster and it was nice to know that she is an Emory alumnus. We discussed science not only in experimental aspects but also in her career as a scientific editor. Not only did she agree to share her career transition story, she also introduced me to a treasure trove of similar stories from editors at Cell Press with advice for those wanting to be an editor as well as perspectives from different editors who give their background and reasons for becoming an editor. In this Face-to-Face interview with Colleen Brady (CB), we will learn how her editorial career path to Cell Press shaped-up while honing her science communication skills as a bench scientist at Stanford and Harvard universities.- Abhinav Dey (AD)

AD: Please tell us about your academic background?

CB: Before coming to Cell Press, I completed a postdoc at Massachusetts General Hospital and a PhD in Cancer Biology at Stanford University.  My training included some breadth beyond one technique or system, which was helpful preparation for academic editing.  As a PhD student, I studied the transactivation functions of the tumor suppressor p53 using mouse and cell model systems.  As a postdoc, I learned the zebrafish system and studied retinal regeneration using chemical biology screening techniques.  I also enjoyed teaching as both a student and a postdoc, which helped build my communication skills.

AD: As an editor at Cell Press, what does a normal day at work look like?

CB: I spend much of my time reading and evaluating science.  Our team meets almost every day to have an editorial meeting where we discuss manuscripts under consideration, including newly submitted manuscripts as well as those that have undergone peer review.  For new manuscripts, we read them and consider them within the framework of our journal and in the context of previous publications.  We consider the strength of the data as well as the level of conceptual advance over previously published work and whether the overall manuscript aligns with our journal’s scope.  When we decide to send a paper for peer review, I investigate potential reviewers with expertise in the key areas of the paper. After peer review, I synthesize the reviewer feedback along with our original editorial assessment to determine the best course for the manuscript.  I spend a portion of each day writing decision letters and responding to author inquiries and appeals.  My job also includes other activities such as going to conferences and visiting labs, where I can learn about the latest research, meet people in our community, and help scientists decide whether or not to submit their paper to our journal. These meetings can also help us identify topics for potential review articles. Editors also work on committees with the aim of improving the way we publish science.  For example, a lot of committee work went into our new methods format called STAR methods.  I wasn’t part of that committee, but maybe I’ll be involved in our next big project.

AD: What motivated you to transition from laboratory science into scientific editor?

CB: I enjoy thinking and communicating about science,  and my original career plan was to be a professor at a small liberal arts school.  Partway into my postdoc, curiosity led me to a “meet the experts” session at a conference, where I joined the group of a scientific editor.  I didn’t know what to expect, but she planted a seed that this might be an interesting career for me.  A year later, when I saw a job opening at Cell Press I decided to apply.  The interview process convinced me that I would enjoy the work, and when I got the job I was happy to accept it.

AD: How did you train yourself into science editing? What resources during your Ph.D. or postdoc tenure served useful towards achieving your goals?

CB: The traditional academic training in a PhD and postdoc provides many of the skills needed for editing.  Reading and thinking critically about a broad spectrum of science is key to this job.  Changing model organisms and topic areas required a significant amount of research reading when I started my postdoc.  My lab colleagues had diverse projects, and I tried to ask them critical questions about their work and think of key experiments that might advance their findings.  Journal clubs and helping my mentors evaluate papers for journal peer review were other structured ways I worked on these skills.  In fact, I always suggest that people interested in editing should try to get some experience by helping his/her mentor with peer review.

AD: Can you share the most important skills that you highlighted in your CV/interview during the job application process?

CB: The interview process for an editorial position always includes some written and verbal exercises intended to both expose the interviewee to editorial-style work as well as to test his or her aptitude for evaluating manuscripts.  I took these very seriously, and found them fun.  On my CV, I highlighted my strong academic training, prior communication-related work, and publication record.

AD: What are the long-term goals associated with a career in this field?

CB: There are many different trajectories that a career in editing could lead to. The most obvious option is to remain in editing and become a senior editor or even Editor-in-Chief of a journal.  Other editors develop an interest in a different role in publishing.  I have also seen people leave for jobs in academic science as program managers or to work as grant writers.  Scientific expertise, decision making skills, and strong communication skills can lead to many different possibilities.  Being an editor can be a great way to stay involved in science without a job at the bench.

We thank Colleen for sharing her experience with us and we wish her success in her upcoming endeavors.

Colleen Brady was interviewed by Abhinav Dey.
This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Featured image source: Pixabay

Planning ahead – From academia to Siemens Healthcare

in Face à Face/That Makes Sense by

Transitioning from academia to an industrial position involves meticulous thinking and planning. In other words, a candidate must exploit all the resources that their academic environment provides them and use them to their advantage for a successful progression into industry. Sarmistha Ray-Saha, a Senior Biochemist at Siemens Healthcare, NY, obliged to share her transition journey with academic professionals at the NYC-PhD CSG Coffee Chat held in February 2017.

Moving across continents

Sarmistha pursued her undergraduate education in Chemistry at the University of Calcutta (CU). But as it is with many students, Sarmistha was confused about the next step. As she would put it, “I had no clue what to do post Bachelor’s. Should I follow the herd?” Since she loved biology (which she still does), Sarmistha decided to explore the field of Biotechnology for her Master’s at the GCGEB in CU. The program was incredibly well designed and structured, introducing students (some for the first time) to a world beyond academia. The department proactively organized regular visits to various research institutes in Kolkata. Students were given the opportunity to participate hands-on in the lab, all the while interacting with scientists in highly applied fields of research.

Truly speaking, my Master’s was the most formative in taking me beyond my books and unravelling what biology, technology, research and the outside world is about.

“Truly speaking, my Master’s was the most formative in taking me beyond my books and unravelling what biology, technology, research and the outside world is about.” Pursuing a PhD was undoubtedly the appropriate next step. She credits her training at the GCGEB, and NCBS, Bangalore (where she was a JRF) for her eventual acceptance into the MB&B PhD program at Yale University.

Academic roller coaster

Sarmistha thoroughly enjoyed her PhD, however somehow felt isolated. “I would be in my own little corner and would worry about the actual impact of my work with respect to the society.” The feeling of uncertainty with the outcome of an experiment after investing a credible amount of time slowly grew up on her. “When I started my PhD, I had the thought that I would become a professor one day to truly contribute back. I have tremendous respect for university professors, their dedication towards research and their ability to manage laboratories, all the while mentoring students and helping them earn their degree. Two to three years later, I started realizing that it may not be where my aspirations lie. I would like to pursue science within a team and stay in the realm of wet-lab biochemistry and biophysics. Also, in order to pursue a faculty position, I would have had to produce more high-end publications to stand level with the many deserving candidates.” It was time for Sarmistha to explore options that could propel her career into industry.

Understanding industry

If a career in industry was what Sarmistha wished to pursue, it was elemental for her to understand how industries that operate within the scientific domain function. Importantly, one must also learn how to present themselves. Yale University provides a great informational resource regarding career development for its graduate students and postdocs. “I attended presentations by company representatives, career forums, writing workshops and what not. After a certain length of time I could use the newly gained knowledge to write my own resume, cover letter and present myself. I’ll always be indebted to Yale for providing access to such resources.”

Subsequently, Sarmistha started handing over her resumes to the company representatives who’d visit Yale, “We’ll get in touch”, they’d say. It never happened. “It was clear that my resume was not where it needed to be to get noticed.” But the presentations were invaluable. Sarmistha learned about the background of the company professionals, the divisions they work in and the company itself.

One thought nevertheless bothered her, “If others could transition, why not me?” As with many, sometimes it does creep in within us that we as PhD graduates could satisfy the role of a technician in a company. This is not the right thought. If one wants to be a technician, then the transition should probably be made right after undergraduate studies. PhDs are mostly over qualified for such roles. This is what most recruiters would say. A company will likely not want to underpay a PhD. However, most career forums will discuss how PhDs can only be over qualified in the field they are in, but not so if there is a career shift.

So, do not be disheartened if you are not able to transition post-PhD, you can do so after your postdoc. However, network extensively from the start or during your PhD. A solid network is an important part of the industrial job search process, post-PhD.

Many companies do require that PhD graduates undergo a postdoctoral training. Earning a PhD demonstrates one’s capability to execute a project. A postdoctoral tenure highlights that one can do so independently. For companies, this is an important skill! And realistically put, postdoctoral training does lend maturity and confidence in scientific thinking and analytical reasoning by building upon skills learned in graduate school. “So, do not be disheartened if you are not able to transition post-PhD, you can do so after your postdoc. However, network extensively from the start or during your PhD. A solid network is an important part of the industrial job search process, post-PhD”, Sarmistha chips in.

The transition

Since Sarmistha realized that a postdoctoral term would be valuable, she chose to move into more of an applied field – GPCR research at the Rockefeller University. “Yale had provided me the foundation for transition. My postdoctoral term gave me enough time to develop myself, foray into new research projects, troubleshoot, mature further and develop new contacts.”

A small typo, a wrong punctuation or a misaligned paragraph can close doors for the application review process.

“I was at a resume and cover letter writing workshop where I connected with a postdoctoral services representative from Duke University“, Sarmistha recalls. “She was extremely helpful, provided suggestions and that too selflessly!” Sarmistha realized, which we too should realize, the importance of presentation. A small typo, a wrong punctuation or a misaligned paragraph can close doors for the application review process. One must be very critical of their own write-ups.

Sarmistha found the job advertisement while searching through job links. However, she wanted to learn a bit more about the advertised position before the application. Sarmistha got in touch with a coworker who had a LinkedIn connection at Siemens Healthcare. This connection bore fruit, and the Siemens professional agreed to an informational interview. In this context, it is good to expand the connections in LinkedIn as much as possible. Any contact made during forums, network sessions, trainings etc. can be a connection even if there was no personal meeting, simply by extending an invitation with details of the meeting venue.

The informational interview

An informational interview represents talking/meeting someone who’s in a position that the applicant is interested in or randomly meeting someone who’s in a job that the candidate aspires to be in the future. It’s about understanding the roles that a particular job entails in a broader sense, without probing too much (for instance asking questions pertaining to vacancies). The interview should be leveraged to learn about a day at work, or the feasibility of working from home for that particular job etc. Being too specific during an informational interview makes people uncomfortable. One session should not run more than 20-30 minutes.

Job descriptions are a great tool to learn about skill sets a particular position demands. It’s imperative to write cover letters and resume specific to the ad of interest, hence providing a better hit on the resume scanning software.

This was not Sarmistha’s first informational interview. She prepared her questions well in advance. Having started her timer right on call, she was ready to wrap up at the 25min mark. The person on the other end reiterated specific points in the job description that are important to the applicant’s skill set. Sarmistha went back to the job ad and read between the lines. “Job descriptions are a great tool to learn about skill sets a particular position demands. It’s imperative to write cover letters and resume specific to the ad of interest, hence providing a better hit on the resume scanning software.”

Take home message

“Be proactive. List your contacts, go to the company page, do informational interviews. Some job advertisements may not directly list your technical enterprise, but terminologies can easily overlap. Careful reading of the description is very important! Be grateful to the rigorous graduate training and postdoctoral research that have honed your analytical skills, and leverage those in your job interview. All those years of research are invaluable for you to develop into who you are.”

Finding the best fit is vital, as in, giving a thought about the kind of work that will keep you happy.

“There are some other aspects of the industrial environment one must meticulously consider. Finding the best fit is vital, as in, giving a thought about the kind of work that will keep you happy. For ex. consider whether a job that entails a lot of conversation and less bench job would suit you or vice versa; or would you prefer a profession that involves dressing in suits vs. casuals.” Do a personal evaluation, and be honest to yourself.

A job in a company may not allow a lot of freedom to conduct research at will. Such a scenario may not suit those who are comfortable pursuing their own scientific goals. Some companies run wellness programs or workshops where an employee is given the opportunity to develop skills like leadership and communication. Participation in these groups allow for constant growth above and beyond the assigned job.

An industrial profession will challenge you periodically. You will have to prove your worth time and again.

“An industrial profession will challenge you periodically. You will have to prove your worth time and again.” This, along with the nature of the work, keeps Sarmistha motivated. Since she works on assay development, Sarmistha looks forward to the day when her products will be used in clinics or hospitals.

 


About Sarmistha

Sarmistha’s multidisciplinary journey has kindled her understanding towards signaling pathways in diseased states. Her interests overlap exploring protein diagnostics and therapeutics, from conception to assaying. Sarmistha also actively participates in science communication, teaching and outreach activities, as an avenue of bringing awareness about human health in this biotech era.

Transitioning to Pharmaceutical Research: Face-to-Face with Mark Musters from Lead Pharma

in Face à Face by

Welcome mixers are great events at conferences. To introduce myself, I generally shorten my name not only for ease of communication but also to save 1-2 minutes in getting the pronunciation right. However, when I met Mark and introduced myself as Abhi he was quick to ask if I am Abhi or Abhinav. I realized my nametag gave that away. We happened to exchange several notes and by the end of the conference he was nice enough to agree to talk about his career transition to pharmaceutical research for ClubSciWri. It has been a pleasure to know about his work and career. – Abhinav Dey (AD)

Mark MUSTERS, PhD

Mark W.J.M. Musters (born 1980, The Netherlands) obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology, followed by a PhD degree in computational systems biology at the same university in 2007. He continued his career at Wageningen University as a postdoctoral researcher by constructing detailed mathematical models of the central metabolism. In 2010, he started as a scientist at Lead Pharma, a small pharmaceutical company that develops innovative medicines to treat cancer and immune-related diseases. He is currently a project leader of an oncology and an immunology project.

AD: Can you briefly describe your role at Lead Pharma? What does a normal workday look like?

MM: Lead Pharma is a small pharmaceutical company (about 30 employees) that develops small molecular compounds to treat cancer and (auto-)immune diseases. I am a project leader of an immunology (atopic dermatitis) and oncology (metastatic melanoma) project. As a project leader, my main responsibility is that the project team develops potent and selective small molecular compound within a predefined time frame. A normal workday consists of structuring and coordinating all activities between the different groups (chemistry, molecular pharmacology, cellular pharmacology), informing team members and management about the progress, communicating with external parties, writing grant proposals and troubleshooting (if necessary). Besides being a project leader, I also analyze large -omics data sets to search for novel biomarkers and new targets that we could work on in the near future.

AD: What made you decide to move into industry rather than stay on the academic track?

MM: After completing my post-doc, I felt it was the right time to move to industry: I only worked for universities and research institutes and I was curious how working at a company would be. It turned out to be an excellent decision. The work at Lead Pharma is diverse and we collaborate in multidisciplinary teams towards a common goal. However, our fundamental research activities are limited compared to (top) academic groups and we do not publish our data either. That is certainly something to keep in mind.

AD: How did you prepare for your current interview? Which skills were essential apart from your scientific skills that helped you make the cut?

MM; I gathered information about the company (history, background of founders, mission, etc.), such that I could ask some questions during the interview as well. Personally, I think that I was hired because my personality matched very well with the company profile and I was honest in answering all questions during the interview. In addition, my pragmatic attitude and pathological optimism might have helped as well.

AD: How did your post-doc experience at prepare you for your position today?

MM: During my post-doc experience, I collaborated much more with “wet lab” experimentalists. Because I had a background in mathematical modeling, this trained me to communicate and understand biological research.

AD: Did you use any of the resources at your postdoctoral institution to prepare for your job hunt?

MM:Nope.

AD: How do you achieve work-life balance?

MM: Fortunately, our company offers its employees some flexibility and the management recognizes the importance of your personal life, which makes it easier to achieve a healthy work-life balance. This means that sometimes my workday is shorter, but a week later I work the whole weekend to finish an important presentation.

AD: Do you have any advice for postdocs considering careers in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry? What can they do to make themselves competitive?

MM: Prepare yourself! Read about how the pharmaceutical industry operates.  There are some good books available about drug development (and I don’t mean books like “Bad Pharma”). Ask yourself the questions: what would you like to do at a pharmaceutical company? And what unique expertise do you have that could help the company? That would be a good start.

 

 

Mark Musters was interviewed by Abhinav Dey. Abhinav is a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University and a Young Investigator Awardee from Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer. He is also the co-founder of PhD Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs and ClubSciWri
This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Featured image source: Pixabay

Transitioning from Bench to Business Development: Face to Face with Subhalaxmi Nambi

in Face à Face by

In the transition interview series, we are talking with Dr. Subhalaxmi Nambi (SN) today, who is a Business Development Associate at UMass Medical School. It is a very interesting transition story, where she transitioned from a Postdoctoral position to Business Development. In her conversation with Abirami Santhanam (AS), she gives some important insights to young scientists looking for transitioning newer roles in STEM careers.
AS : Tell us about yourself?
SN: I am an easy-going person with a strong aptitude for scientific research and a keen eye for translating research into applications. As early as my first year into the graduate program, I established myself into an effective problem-solving researcher with a knack to discover novel scientific pathways. My principal investigator and other colleagues always encouraged me and believed that I had the potential to start my own lab.
An alternate career was not even in sight. Though, from the very beginning, I knew I wanted to do be in a field where I am not only exposed to a different kind of science but also witness its translation. Now being part of UMass Medical School’s Office of Innovation & Business Development, I finally feel truly satisfied.
AS: What is you new job profile in University of Massachusetts?
SN: The mission of the Office of Innovation & Business Development is to convert the wealth of scientific discoveries made by our researchers at University of Massachusetts Medical School into meaningful human therapies. Our office accomplishes this through many methods (e.g. licensing technology to pharmaceutical companies, forming start-up companies, etc.) We act as a liaison between the research team and entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and industries and help in commercializing techniques that have potential industry needs. Detailed information can be found in http://umassmed.edu/ibd-otm/.
AS: Describe your academic journey and mentionable moments?
SN: After my undergrad, I was contemplating of either doing an MBA or Masters in Marine Biotechnology. As diverse as they may sound, I realized later that I just couldn’t connect the dots then. After my Masters, I got the opportunity to perform research in Indian Institute of Science under the guidance of Dr. Sandhya Visweswariah, I didn’t blink an eye. It was truly an enriching experience to learn on what it takes to be a good scientist. My hard work and with great guidance, I was able to publish many first author publications in prestigious journals, but as they say, I still hadn’t connected the dots.
AS: Did you set any goals during your early scientific career?
SN: I am a very goal oriented person and I like to set some internal goals. The benefit of being a graduate student is that there are no deadlines, but it can be more of a bane and then a boon.
In fact, I was always pragmatic about a project and tried to steer it in the directions where it would fetch me results.
AS: How did you develop your network during the research career? How important was it to reach your current position?
SN: I always believed in the mantra of connecting with people than networking for motive. As I mentioned earlier, I am a very easy-going person and I like to make friends, so it came naturally to me. When a dear colleague was generally chatting with me, we realized we have a common interest in a particular idea that could be developed as a product. We made a perfect team and even worked towards starting a company. We did a lot of leg work and I had the opportunity to communicate with a lot of people from the Boston ecosystem. There was this one time I happened to send an email to a scientist who was a working in an area similar to our startup idea and during a conference I just took the time to meet her in Paris. She was impressed with what we were doing and even offered me a position. It is another thing I didn’t take it for personal reasons, but just want to highlight the power of networking.
AS: Your background is in Mycobacterium tuberculosis research and now you are an Associate for Business development at UMass. How did this diverse transition happen?
SN: My inherent intuition for business has driven me to this current position. It did not happen in a day. As I told earlier it is what I was looking for a long time. This was an internal position and was open for people looking for a transition. Even though it’s an internal position, they had almost 50 candidates who applied for the position. There were several rounds of interview. There was this particular round in which I was given an assignment about a confidential finding and I was asked (i) how will I tweet about it? (ii) if I am a business partner, how will I proceed further? (iii) If I have to file a patent how will my IP look like? (iv) the weakness of the technology. I made sure I did my ground work and during the interviews, my past experiences in with the startup gave me an edge over other candidates.
AS: How did you manage the stress associated with job search? Being with a family needs some career compromises, how did you handle it?
SN: It was definitely a stressful period during the transition. Luckily my husband and I both are appreciative of each other’s careers. He is truly a great pillar of strength to me and together we try to balance our work commitment and at the same time, we are cognizant of the fact that we have a beautiful child and we make sure that we find time to nurture values that we both have inculcated during our lifetime.
AS: Can you elaborate the role of the Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs in your career?
SN: I am thankful to many people in CSG as I got many fruitful suggestions. I got my resume modified by people from CSG and many constructive criticisms on what works and what doesn’t. Being an open career support forum, every person in CSG has a different view and perspective. It is up to us to choose what we want and how to go for it. Never be discouraged by any comments. With the Mentor – Mentee program I got a lot of suggestions regarding the pros and cons of transition which was really helpful.

AS: What is your advice and suggestions for CSGians who are looking for a career transition?
SN: Follow your heart and follow your dream, no matter how hard it is to reach. Reach out, struggle and ultimately do what you like. Do not think about visa situations as a hindrance as things will fall in place when we move towards the goal with a perseverance. Go for your passion rather than compromising it for another better thing as we can achieve a lot when we are passionate about something.

AS: Thanks Subbu for this clear, detailed interview and your time. I can see your enthusiasm and passion for Business development as well the optimism towards approaching your goals. I hope this interview opens up the doors to a passionate career pursuit in many of us.

About the author: Abirami is a research fellow with a focus on ocular research and research administration. She is interested in photography and freelancing.

This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Arjun Srivathsa: scientist and communicator and cartoonist

in Biodiversity and Environment/Face à Face/Theory of Creativity by

The daily ritual of pipetting cells and solutions made me realize that I’ve been oblivious and was living in a different world. On my journey to becoming a science illustrator, I was under the impression that there were a mere handful of them in the world. As I progressively talked to people, I realized it was only my ignorance. While I try to make my footing as an illustrator, it’s my privilege to showcase my fellow illustrators. Although some of them are exclusive and have a defined niche, I aim to reveal their stories and journeys for more people to learn. I sometimes wonder if I am the child of Horace Slughorn. Like Horace, I see myself at the center of a web where each thread connects an artist. While Horace exploited his network for pineapple candies and free tickets, I am going to use this web to bring out motivating stories for as long as I am able to spin more threads. I had the pleasure to meet Arjun Srivathsa, a wildlife artist and cartoonist. He dons the hats of a wildlife researcher, conservation scientist, and an artist. Following is our conversation:

I.J.  How/when did you make the choice to be a biologist and that too a wildlife researcher?

​A.S. Ever since I can remember. I profoundly loved animals as a child- as most children do, I guess. Starting with high school and all the way through college, our teachers or professors would ask us to introduce ourselves to the class. My stereotypical answer to that was I wanted to become a ‘zoologist’; I didn’t know that wildlife biology was a separate field of study. Following an undergraduate course in life sciences (with Chemistry, Botany, and Zoology as the core subjects), I pursued a M.Sc. in Wildlife Biology and Conservation. A Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Ecology has been somewhat of a natural progression.   

Wildlife tourists By Arjun
Wildlife tourists By Arjun

I.J. When did you realize your passion to be an artist? Was it during your M.Sc.?

​A.S. I have been an artist all my life, although I didn’t learn it professionally. It started out as a hobby that I continued to pursue. I would doodle on all my school notebooks- animals, cartoons, caricatures of my teachers and what not. During my undergraduate years, I spent quite some time on my art. That’s when I experimented with oils for the first time. It continues to remain my favorite medium. But now, I don’t get a lot of time to draw on canvas. So, I’ve switched to digital art. Although I don’t enjoy it much, it’s much faster.

I.J.  What’s your inspiration for art? What are your favorite subjects/style?

​A.S. Most (almost all) of my artworks are inspired by nature and wildlife. I enjoy working with oils on canvas, acrylics, color pencils, etching/stippling and cartooning. It’s been 4  years since I dwelled into digital art. I found it useful for making cartoons (although not as gratifying as traditional media). It also became a very handy tool for combining art and science to create my “science-toons”. I now use these science-toons for science communication and conservation awareness. 

I.J. How has the response been to your art from the scientific and non-scientific audience?

A.S.Art in Science or #SciArt – as it’s known on social media – is a very powerful tool for science communication. A lot of scientists lack the skill of science communication. It is often difficult to let go of statistical jargon and esoteric nuances of our fields and “dumb-down” science for non-scientists. Art bridges that gap in a very effective and innovative way. I also received positive feedback from scientists regarding my work. And the main reason I started communicating science via art was that someone who’s not remotely connected to academics can learn and appreciate the work of Indian wildlife scientists and conservationists. While it is difficult to accurately measure my artistic impact, I think it’s certainly not negligible. My cartoons have been used for fund-raising, creating awareness, sustainable harvest of marine fish, education of school children in distant villages etc.  

King Cobra by Arjun
King Cobra by Arjun

I.J. Is art only a hobby or do you also freelance?

​A.S.  Both. I use art to de-stress from the relatively exhausting academic life. I publish a lot on social media. But, I also freelance when people or organizations approach me with projects. I strongly believe in an endeavor involving goodwill and creative freedom. So, most of my work (if not commissioned) are free for anyone to use as long as their purpose is to create awareness on wildlife conservation or nature education.

I.J. How supportive have your PIs/teachers been when you engage in art as an expression?

​A.S. It’s a bit difficult to answer this question. My PIs/mentors have never hindered my endeavors. Sadly, in our institutionalized academic scenario, science communication or nature education etc. generally do not count as units of success or achievement. It is yet to qualify in the league of conference presentations or journal publications. So, while my mentors have always been supportive, there are no mechanisms (that I know of) where this can be formalized and be given more credence. 

I.J.  Are there any stories/anecdotes that you would like to share?

​A.S. I was giving a talk at a climate change-themed event a couple of years ago, and I used some of my artwork from the science-toon series to elaborate about the sea food crisis and crash in marine fish stocks. I have learnt from my experience that it’s not easy to convince people to change their food preferences. But at the end of my talk, one person raised his hand, thanked me for the information, and pledged to give up sea food. I used 9-10 cartoon panels to convey the scientific information published in some top-notch journals. Although I’m not sure whether those papers made an impact or not, I was glad that the medium I chose was powerful enough to change at least one person’s attitude. I wish more scientists engaged in science communication. They don’t have to do it themselves, but liaising with communicators, artists, and educators can make science accessible to the common man.

Elephant Iworry by Arjun
Elephant Iworry by Arjun

Proust had once said that habits ruined lives. “A blanket or a shroud of familiarity that descends between us and everything that matters dulls our senses and stops us appreciating everything, from the beauty of a sunset to our work, and our friends.” He believed it’s the artists who can “strip away this habit and return life to its deserved glory.” While my ignorance about science-artists has been rectified, my appreciation for their work continues to grow. I hope their cumulative work will shine more light in the daily lives of scientists and pave a way for an elegant expression of science.

 

About the author:

Ipsa is a Ph.D. student at IISc Bangalore, India. She wants to gather and spread interestingness. She prefers painting and drawing over writing. She posts on Facebook and Instagram as Ipsawonders.

 

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