09 August 2011

Life Beyond Academia

So wrapped up in my new life. I originally wrote this post back in March when I first started the new job, but then I thought I’d finish it up… And the next thing you know, months have gone by.

Change is good. Generally I've embraced that, but as we get older and more set in our ways, it gets harder... But now I'm plunging headlong into all kinds of change. It makes me smile, to tell the truth. It feels good, even though it feels like this sort of change is so much more drastic now - it's not just about me anymore...

In January, I was hitting the 4-year mark on a somewhat productive postdoc. Having "grown up" through the academic ranks, I was actually feeling like I was finally overcoming a stagnation in my research, and was making some interesting inroads. I had funding and got along well with my PI and collaborators, but was certainly becoming disillusioned by the academic prospects. If you read earlier posts, you'll get a sense of this, I'm sure. And then a job opening came my way via a friend in the field. Good timing.

I got the offer, and took the job, and now I'm working in a large company. One of the biggest, in fact. And I've left cancer pharmacology to work on "products." I never imagined that in a million years. And even writing those words is a bit hard. I'm altruistic, idealistic, and against gross consumerism. I want to do good, I dream of anarchist utopias. And now I'm working for the man. And yet, nothing about it feels like "selling out." Is that another indicator that I'm getting old, caving on my principles? I really don't think so. I still feel like me. And I honestly think that they hired me so I could continue to be me. I stepped into this whole thing feeling pretty blind. When people asked me what I’d be doing, I honestly had to say I really didn’t know. During the interview, when I asked what I’d be doing day-to-day, I got a long non-specific answer that basically meant, “We want you to come here and be a part of the team. And you’re smart enough to figure out what you have to offer.”

I never knew that consumer products could be so science-driven. R&D really rocks it here, bringing new ideas to the rest of the company. And the science is real. Not fake claims just for labels. There is a real desire to be able to stand behind the efficacy and safety.

And the thing that has been really great is seeing how crucial it is that everyone is collaborative. And the ability to think in multiple ways, to be an interdisciplinarian make sense. Unlike academia, you can’t simply hide out in your own lab, working diligently away at your own project, ignoring everyone else, with an eye to papers, funding, and building your own personal empire of postdocs, students, and technicians. You won’t get anywhere in industry that way. What a relief!

Now it seems to me that the academy doesn't actually practice all that it preaches when it comes to things like research freedoms, the importance of multidisciplinary scientists, appreciation of radical thinking, etc. And industry (at least the company where I am) sees these things as vital to growth, innovation, and success. I’ve been a bench scientist for the last 11 years. Hands-on experimentalist. If I want to isolate a compound, figure out the chemical structure, work out the botanical chemotaxonomy, or see how a cancer cell responds to that compound, I essentially had only myself to rely on to get that work done. Now, if I can’t find someone on the team to help with a problem, then I look outside. And we can collaborate with anyone…

So far so good. I am getting to be a scientist in all sorts of ways, and I have to apply things I've learned in other parts of my life. It makes it seriously challenging and quite varied and more fun than I ever expected... Anyway, those are my impressions for now. More to come.

19 May 2011

An aromatic progression of flowering trees of NYC

The blossoms of the early spring flowering trees - ash, maple, oak - are wind pollenated, and have no discernible scent; they release tons of pollen - and when inhaled by people, creates an immune response that leaves many miserable... until the spring rains wash it all away. The next batch of flowering trees are the "seminiferous" Rosaceae. Pears, crabs, cherries and other trees of the rose family are unfortunately not endowed with the lovely character of the traditional rose. Smelling like spunk, they bloom around the same time as the magnolias, which have an ancient terpenoid fragrance - not unpleasant, but not inspiring. Pretty soon the lilacs, which are really a shrub, fill the air with the scent of grandma. It's delicate & old-fashioned. Then, after the abundant spring rains, the sun comes out and the days heat up. That's when the black locust trees explode with cascading displays of white, pendulous curls of flower. The warm, humid, nighttime air fills with the wondrously sweet fragrance, ripe with the possibilities of summer. It's my favorite. It signals the end of the cold for good. Around this time, there's one tree (is it a Nyssa spp.?) that smells of cat urine. Then as spring officially moves into summer, the delicate linden trees remind us that summer has officially begun...

26 February 2011

A few of my favorite (phyto)chemical things

Jumping on the bandwagon of chemistry "favorites" lists - mine comes from the perspective of a phytochemist... see also Chemjobber, LabMonkey4Hire, The Boiling Point, LJKBoerner, Sciencegeist, and others...

1. Realizing that the compound you finally isolated is, in fact, new
2. Realizing that your new compound is bioactive
3. Discovering that someone has synthesized a compound you discovered
4. Sephadex LH-20: the best stationary phase ever
5. Seeing liquid oxygen condension out of the atmosphere and dripping off the liquid helium port when doing a cryo fill for the NMR
6. Plant collection trips
7. Ion traps that fragment a compound just right & accurate mass when you need it.
8. Butanol and toluene when you need to evap water faster
9. Getting the solvent system right the first time - and nailing the pure compounds.
10. Training on a 300 MHz, and then moving on to a 500
11. a new HPLC column
12. fixing my own glassware

25 February 2011

Untangling the web

Extracting myself from the lab is hard. So much stuff to do before leaving.

I was hoping to be done by the end of the day today, but now, at 3:30, it's not looking like I'll manage that. I've found all my raw electronic data from the various other labs and core facilities and copied it onto a harddrive. I've backed-up all my data from inside the lab. Cleaned out my bench, my desk, the -20 & -70 freezers, cold room, refrigerators, tissue culture room, etc. I've given away all the little goodies I've collected over the years, passed out primers, solutions, media, etc. I've put away all my specialized glassware, & even created several new storage drawers for stuff I used and no one else will use. Passed on passwords and given lessons in HPLC maintenance/operation. Written up (most) of the new protocols I brought to lab....

But I still need to label a few thigns that will go into storage. And write up materials and methods sections for 2 papers and hand off all the data, samples, and papers for my 2 main projects. Write a review paper (oy..)

But I'm close, so close. The  faster I finish, the more time I'll have before starting my new job to relax a bit. And I need that...

17 February 2011

My million dollar training

The Republicans in the House are currently working on slashing science funding in shocking ways. I can't say I'm surprised. It was one of the first things I thought about when I watched the map go red on election night. I've always said they're anti-science. And I'm waiting for someone - anyone - to prove me wrong on that.

So tonight, as I was coming home from the lab, I started thinking about all the money that the government has invested in my training as a scientist. Right now, I'm wrapping up my 4-year postdoc and about to move into industry. I've basically spent the last 11 years doing cancer research on the  government dime, and now I'm going to take all that training and head into the private sector to work on something totally different. I can honestly say that the most recent election provided the final nails to hammer shut the coffin wherein I buried any last vestiges of a career in academia-based research. Not only are conservatives anti-science, but I think they're simply anti-education as well. They have enough money, apparently, to pay people to educate their children, so public education be damned. The part I can't understand is that they'll still get cancer at the same rate as everyone else, so by denying science, they aren't helping themselves...

But aside from all that, let's get down to numbers. My F32 fellowship: $150,000; T32 postdoc fellowship: $125,000; DoD postdoc fellowship $380,250. Then there was my heavily subsidized Public Univ tuition, which was paid in full by university fellowships before my F32, the salary I got as an adjunct lecturer as a grad student, and even some subsidized student loans... All told, we're looking at close to a million dollars, maybe. And that doesn't include the salaries of my professors at the Public Univ, or any of the Public Univ infrastructure that public funds supported. I'm mostly just thinking about money that went to supporting me, my family, and my research directly.

That's quite an investment. You would think that the country would want to keep me working on cancer pharmacology. After all, I know a lot more about it than when I started 11 years ago. Way more. In fact, I feel like I'm actually getting to the point where I could make some real contributions... But instead, the private sector is benefiting from all that public investment. The company I'm going to work for is getting a bargain. They can pay me well, but they're getting a trained scientist for their money. The US taxpayer, however, is losing my expertise. I'm off to make products!

14 February 2011

Good-bye Cruel World!

No I’m not going to off myself. Quite the contrary - this post is celebratory! And it marks my break from academia. A job offer has come, on paper, and I have accepted. Good-bye to the pursuit of the elusive, coveted tenure track position. And hello to the elusive, coveted senior scientist industry position.

How exactly did I get to this point? I know a lot of people are probably scratching their heads. Each one has a different picture of me – the alchemist – and what I should be doing, according to their own self-styled portrait. Well, most of them simply don’t see the world through my eyes.

I enrolled in grad school after about 7 years of traveling and pirate-style living on the fringes. I never realized at the time that I was making a career choice. I was simply doing what I had always done – following my interests. I was fascinated by plants and their intricate chemistry, intrigued by their human co-evolution, and the pragmatic, magical, and ritual the uses that we associated with them. After teaching myself as much as I could on my own, I talked my way into a couple doctoral-level classes.

Soon, however, I was an official a PhD student, and that was cool, too. Lots of my friends had gone to college, but I didn’t know anyone who had gone on to get an advanced degree, except for a couple MFAs. My friends were artists and punks, drop-outs and musicians. We worked as little as possible. It just happened that NYC, where I was living, has one of the largest doctoral programs in plant science, in association with one of the most respected botanical research facilities in the world. Not only did I get into the program, but I also secured one of 2 fellowships that would cover my expenses. You see, I wasn’t really interested in pursuing the education unless they paid me to be there.

In general, as a grad student, I played my cards right. While I did manage to piss off a few people (faculty), I did all the things that someone working towards a career in academia should do, without being manipulative or back-stabbing. I hit the ground running, got an NIH fellowship, landed in a good lab, did my project right (in 6 years exactly), built good collaborations, sat on committees, went to conferences, presented, published just a little more than most, helped others with advice, editing, or negotiations, won the occasional award or acknowledgement, and was a genuinely and easy person to work with… In short, while I didn’t publish in Cell, Nature, or Science, I did well, and went on to score a postdoc in a solid Ivy-league lab.

For my postdoc, I switched fields. I went from natural products chemistry (pharmacognosy) to molecular pharmacology. Chemistry to biology. A lot of people thought I was crazy, and told me it was a bad idea, including some faculty. A few faculty said it was a smart move. I still wasn’t thinking about my career, but trying to learn, grow, and develop as I had always done. Throwing myself into something new is a pattern for me, I guess.

Now, four years later, I’ve published some of the work, but not all of it. Switching fields was a hard adjustment, and took some time to get up to speed. I was first supported by an NIH postdoc fellowship and then by a competitive Dept. of Defense postdoc career award. Not bad. Still no Cell, Nature, or Science publications, but I’ve done OK. And all along, I always assumed that I would stay in academia. Until the last year or two.

So here we get to the meat of the issue. Why am I now happy to leave the “cruel world” of academia? A few things come to mind, and each day I think of other things. I’ll name just a few: There’s less and less actual tenure-track positions. Federal funding is dismal. The expectations on time investment are huge. You’re expected to work like a dog for minimal pay in the name of “freedom to study what you want.” (But only as long as you can get funding for your work, which has to be both safe AND innovative.) I’m already in my 40’s, because I took many years off between undergrad and grad school. I’ve got a mortgage and 2 kids. If it takes me another year or two to find an academic position, followed by a 7-year tenure process, I’ll be about 50 by the time I was finally secure and settled. Ugh.

So when a friend emailed me a job posting for this Senior Scientist position, I dusted off my CV and sent it out, not really expecting a response. But to my amazement, things have gone well, and last week I accepted the job. The clincher came when I was asking about day-to-day expectations, and the response was essentially that they were hiring ME, to be ME, and to figure out my role and how I could best contribute. I won’t simply be chained to the bench, isolating assigned compounds or doing work assays on command. It will be, in some sense, pure science and exploration. “Unstructured” time is built-in to the job. How could I say no? They wanted me for my collection of skills and experience, and not simply because I could run a mass spec or NMR or culture cells. My interdisciplinary experience and ability to build collaborations is precisely what makes me a good fit.

All through grad school, we are told that it is important, in today’s world, to be able to work with a multidisciplinary approach – to be able to collaborate and have skills across more than one discipline. I’ve done that simply because that’s the sort of person I am – I have too many interests, sometimes, and I like to explore many angles of a problem. But in looking for academic positions, I’ve never seen an ad for an interdisciplinarian. Chemistry departments won’t hire me because my degree is from a Biology program. Biology departments are wary because my skills are strongest in analytical chemistry. As a postdoc, I’ve carved out a niche in a Pharmacology department, even though very few people are interested in drug discovery. Some pharmacy programs still value pharmacognosy, but there’s very few of those spots around anymore.

Most everyone in my lab is supportive of my move to industry, even my PI, who says she always thought of me as the “academic type.” I thought she would try to encourage me to “stick it out” for an academic job. But she’s realistic, and knows that I face a different climate than when she was at this stage in her career.

My new field of research will be different – once again, I’m throwing myself into a new realm and will be forced to learn, and synthesize what I already know with their interests. It’s exciting. I’m looking forward to the change. Wish me luck.

23 January 2011

What's next?

Just when I'd decided to wait out applying for any new jobs for a while, something's come up.

For the most part, I've been had the mindset that I would naturally follow the grad student-postdoc-assist prof track and settle into being a PI somewhere. Since I already live in NYC with kids, I was hoping that it would be here. I love this place, and have had a hard time imagining leaving... But I always knew that at some point, I would likely have to make some decisions about the Big Apple.

After being totally frustrated with the process of applying for jobs (see here), this past Fall, I took one or two looks at the list I made of positions I planned to apply for, and quietly set it underneath a stack of papers to be read, which were under notes from seminars and my lab notebook. I just didn't have it in me. In addition, I am lucky enough to have my own funding, which is good for another (almost) 2 years. So instead of sending out applications, I decided that I should really focus on getting out a couple publications.

In my mind, I imagined a scenario where I submitted my K99 at the end of 2011, and it came through just as my current funding ended in fall of 2012... or even a little earlier. Then I would be applying for academic jobs in the Fall 2012 with that in my pocket. It wouldn't necessarily guarantee that a job would open up in NYC, but at least it would give me a big boost when applying for jobs. But then, of course, the most obvious wrinkle in the plan is the possibility of not winning the K99....

Either way, I'd still be a postdoc going into debt living in NYC for far too long.

So when a friend emailed my a job listing for a position that described me fairly well in Industry (HUGE industry), I said "what the hell" and sent a CV. In my experience, Industry does not call back unless someone on the inside hands your CV to the person in charge of hiring; I didn't expect any response. But then the strange things started happening. They emailed back. The next day. And wanted a phone interview 2 days later. The phone interview went well, & I could tell they were planning to ask me in for a visit. Which they did - within a week.

The day of interviews started off with a 30 min Powerpoint presentation, where I tried to summarize 10 years of research on various projects into an interesting cohesive story. Then I met with several people, all of whom were super nice and seemed to be trying to persuade me more than I was trying to persuade them. And I liked them. I liked what they were doing. And I told them so...

And on the train back to the City, I got a call on my mobile that the consensus was positive, and HR would call me very soon. And now, after a few more phone calls, I'm waiting to see what the "offer" will look like... and have just told our 9-yr old about the possibility of leaving the City (more on that later).

I'm a little dumb-founded by it all. The speed, the new directions, the possibility of getting out of debt and making a radical change in life. My current PI is nice enough about it, but I don't think she likes the idea of me leaving academia. Neither does my former thesis adviser. It's like I'm turning my back on them. I can go on and on about this point, but I won't right now. If I end up taking the job, then I'll write all about my feelings on why and how it came to this... for now, I'm just going to say, I hope they make me an offer I can't refuse, because academia is getting on my nerves a little right now.