Past-President Intro to blog series:
Dear ISEP members,
The engagement of ISEP in the virtual world has allowed us to broaden our community in powerful ways. Conferences have become more global and more frequent. Scientists who were unable to easily engage with the ISEP community have been able to participate through social media and online events. One of my favourite ways that has emerged has been the reconnection with protistologists who for various reasons have chosen to pursue their interests outside of academia.
We are excited to bring you a series of blog posts from ISEP community members who have gone to pursue different paths and what their experiences have taught them. We hope that you find these blogs enjoyable, insightful, and that they encourage you to look at the many ways that we can engage with society as protistologists.
Joel B. Dacks
The Evolutionary Protistologist in Industry
By dr. Andrea Habura.
Hello, ISEP members! Delighted to chat with you again, after a long absence.
The more – ahem – seasoned people in the society may remember me from about 15 years ago, when I was doing basic research on foraminiferal ecology and taxonomy. I’ve stayed in touch with the protistology community, but my career path has moved in a steadily less academic direction, first into public health and then into the biotech industry. I currently work for a company that develops and performs complex molecular tests for women’s health, oncology and transplant rejection monitoring. I know. Human genetics. Who would have thunk it?
Since this isn’t the kind of job academic protistologists are specifically trained to do, some of the members of the society have asked if I would write for the ISEP membership, explaining what my job is like, why I find it interesting, and what skills I carried over from my previous career that are useful to me now. I was happy to accept, because it can be hard to understand what industry science is like until you’ve done it, and it’s usually a one-way door between academia and industry.
I won’t be writing “quit lit”, though. There are hundreds of unhappy articles out there explaining why an author left academia, and most of the time it’s because academia is horrible and done them wrong. I don’t feel that way. I enjoyed the work I did as an academic scientist, I think basic research is important and worthwhile, and I understand a lot of the forces that make academia work the way it does. I’m just happier and more productive in a different part of the scientific ecosystem. In fact, I still come and hang out with you every once in a while. I had a great time visiting during last summer’s online poster session, for the clever approaches to problems, range of sheer scientific curiosity, and the quirky sense of humor academic protistologists have. (I was especially tickled by a new radiolarian named after a thematically appropriate Lovecraftian deity.) I can’t indulge my own quirkiness in my current job – it definitely wouldn’t be thematically appropriate – but I’m glad it’s still out there in the scientific community.
There are a lot of ways to do industry science, and I’ll write more about them in a followup article. My own position has allowed me to specialize in something I really enjoy, which is troubleshooting and problem-solving. I literally spend about 50% of my time doing this, and it’s like being an emergency room physician for scientific assays. Every day is different, and every day is challenging. I spend the rest of my time mentoring the members of my teams, helping other units with their problems, and improving our methods to make them better and more compliant with our regulatory authorities. I did have to spend time studying the company’s assays in detail – can’t troubleshoot something you don’t understand – but it turned out it was less of a change from my previous intellectual life than you might think. Most of the tests work on a principle very much like the molecular ecology studies I spent a decade doing: it’s just that the sample is blood or tissue, instead of mud or water. (Thank God. Blood is much more consistent and easier to extract DNA from.)
Protistology is also good preparation for being an industry scientist. It requires reasoning from incomplete information, the ability to optimize procedures for non-model organisms, and a willingness to radically revise conclusions in the face of new data. Most of us have fairly broad experience with many different research techniques and have planned and executed field work as well. Add it up, and it makes you adaptable, versatile and hard to scare. I’m not the only industry person I know with this kind of background, either: my old boss, who now works for a different you’ve-heard-of-them biotech company, did his doctorate on coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.
The other academic skill that translates well into industry is the ability to turn out paragraphs of precise and well-supported technical writing on short notice. This is especially useful when responding to audits or writing investigational documents. It’s critical to learn other forms of communication as well, though: executives don’t want to wade through a wall of text to get to the point you’re trying to make.
Which brings up one of the most interesting things about industry: it is a very heterogeneous work environment. My company has hundreds of scientists, most of whom have an educational and work background not too different from mine. But we also have the clinical lab scientists, who are trained differently, and the professionals who handle completely different parts of the business: project management, logistics, facilities, regulatory, sales, marketing, finance, legal, and on and on. I’ve found it very rewarding to get to know these folks and understand what they do. I remember taking a sales team on a tour of our clinical lab and realizing that 1) these people were pretty clever and 2) their personalities and skills were amazingly different from mine. My lifetime yield of extroversion is lower than what these folks produce on a single day. They had also requested the lab tour so they could understand what they were selling at a deeper level, which is a lot more curiosity and initiative than many undergraduates show. 😉
So, like I said, the work suits me. As promised, I’ll write more in a bit, but in the meantime I am happy to get questions or requests for specific topics – just shoot me an email via the ISEP address (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Biography: Dr. Andrea Habura obtained her Ph.D in 1996 from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Dr. Habura spent approximately 15 years as a student and researcher in basic science, focusing on cellular slime molds and foraminiferans. After a 5-year period learning and performing diagnostic parasitology for a government reference lab, she moved into industry. She currently directs several development and production teams at a rapidly growing genetic testing company.