Scientific Careers: The Big Picture
Career Story Blog Post By Donald Moir, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer at Microbiotix, Inc.
I’ve been asked to reflect a bit on my career and to share some stories. These are some of my experiences from a career at small biotech companies. I hope these anecdotes and suggestions will be helpful, at least as starting points for a larger discussion about scientific careers.
Do what you love. Joseph Campbell, who was a very inspiring professor for many years at Sarah Lawrence College, used to advise people to, “follow your bliss.” I feel lucky that I was able to pursue a career in biochemistry and molecular biology because I do love exploring living organisms in this way. I find the process of discovery very creative and satisfying. I think that love of discovery and learning has kept me motivated throughout my career. Being compensated with appropriate pay is certainly important, but I’ve tried to make my primary aim that of focusing on what is satisfying and inspiring as a career. Sometimes I was very good at living on very little, but sufficient money usually came along, maybe even because I loved what I was doing. My daughter graduated from the University of Rochester with a BA in English. I couldn’t persuade her to pursue the sciences; she did what she loved and I encouraged her to do that. I encourage everyone to make this the top priority in the career selection process, maybe not the only priority but a crucial one.
But, maybe not all the time and not all the aspects of the job. However, let’s be honest. There are parts of most jobs that are hard to love! I am pretty sure this is true of academic jobs as well as industrial jobs. However, the distinction between the two is an important one. For example, consider these questions. Are you willing to work on projects that need working on for the benefit of a larger organization such as a biotech or pharmaceutical company? Or, do you want to focus on your own projects and work more independently as a professor at an academic institution? These days, we all collaborate a lot because most projects require multi-disciplinary input, but the distinction still holds to some degree. You will be a bit less autonomous in a pharmaceutical or biotech company. Consider whether that is important to you or not. There were annoyances to be sure, but I believe I benefited from sometimes being “pushed” into projects that were necessary at the time. It gave me experience in a wide variety of projects, including building vectors to produce and secrete large amounts of proteins from Baker’s yeast, building yeast artificial chromosome vectors with amplifiable copy numbers and generating human genomic libraries, helping to finish the genomic sequence of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, and building high throughput screens for the discovery of anti-bacterial and anti-viral compounds. I didn’t get a chance to focus for a decade on a single topic and explore it deeply, but I enjoyed the variety, I learned a lot, and I discovered many fascinating aspects of biology. You may have a different preference; reflect and see.
You will wear lots of hats at a small company. I’ve spent my whole career at small biotech companies, and I’ve done a lot different jobs. Small companies have to manage about the same number of items as a larger company, but they have to do it with fewer employees. That means you will likely sit on safety committees, hiring committees, holiday party committees. You may even be responsible for monitoring radioactive waste or chemical disposal or screening for bacterial contamination in the lab. I’ve done all of that. But, you will learn things, maybe things you didn’t think you wanted to learn.
Challenge yourself; working with smart people makes you smarter. After my postdoctoral studies, when I was ready to start my first job I was very fortunate because I had a choice between two job offers, both at biotech companies. I finally selected the job that I thought would be more research-oriented and also that would allow me to work with some very good academic scientists, who were on the advisory board. One of them was my postdoctoral advisor, another had just developed a method for transforming Baker’s yeast with DNA and was later to become head of the Whitehead Institute at MIT, and a third had won a Nobel Prize for the discovery of reverse transcriptase. I didn’t work with them on a daily basis, but a team of us met every 4-6 months to review progress and have dinner together. I could ask them questions any time. I had direct access to some of the brightest scientists in molecular biology. If you have the chance to work with creative people who have lots of ideas, by all means, do it! For example, my postdoctoral advisor, David Botstein, had more ideas than anyone knew what to do with. That was exciting, but of course, most of them didn’t lead anywhere! So, you had to select the best ones to pursue, and that was an important learning experience.
Transitions and triumphs. My most traumatic transition was being laid off from a biotech company. It happens a lot in biotech companies. I think it is a natural consequence of entrepreneurship, of taking risks to make things happen. It doesn’t mean you are a bad person, although at the time, it is hard to remember that. In my case, it turned out to be a good transition. I moved from a company of 100 people trying to do too much to a company of 6 people trying to do too much! Now we are a company of about 25 people, mostly scientists, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the last 10 years there. I’ve been able to do some of the best science of my career, working in antibacterial drug discovery at the intersection of chemistry and biology, discovering new specific inhibitors of bacterial processes such as type III secretion and fatty acid biosynthesis. Another major, but slightly less traumatic transition for me, was the shift from bench research to management. It came twice for me -- once at 35 years of age and again at 55 when I was laid off and transitioned to Microbiotix, Inc. Both times, it was a very natural transition; there was so much to do that many hands were needed, and management of the many hands became my job. What surprised me about the second time was how much I enjoyed working at the bench again. I’ve never quite solved that dilemma, never quite found a way to do both research at the bench and management. This transition will likely happen to you at some stage in your career.
It isn’t all about me and my plans. As seriously as we take our careers and planning for them, it is helpful to remember not to take the planning too seriously. After all, life is what happens while we are busy making plans. I was going to be a chemist, but found I did better with biochemistry; this had something to do with synthesizing tarry residues instead of crystalline solids as an undergraduate. I was going to be a professor but found working in biotech to be very satisfying; this had something to do with not getting a job offer as a professor. Finally, I always knew it at some level, but it is clearer as I get older; your actions are affecting others all the time. We work in teams much of the time, and we work with others to some degree most of the time. I think research teams are more common in industrial research than in academic settings, but certainly academics collaborate extensively. To work with scientists who are interested and motivated is exciting; to keep the team interested and motivated is challenging but very rewarding for the entire group. I think it is one of the great strengths of the US system of scientific research that hierarchy means little. Good ideas come from everyone on the team, and even the naïve questions from those unfamiliar with the project can be quite helpful.
Maintain a balance in life. Keep up with your other interests. You will need them to stay sane! For me, my interests in music and meditation have been helpful throughout my life. They take me away from the routine of work, providing some rest at a deeper level -- emotional and mental as well as physical. But, also, I believe they provide an entry into states of increased creativity. In my experience, creative ideas just arise; I don’t know where they come from. But, I know they arise more frequently in a still mind, or maybe I should say they are recognized more clearly in a still mind. I recommend finding a way to make that happen in your life regularly.