The COVID-19 pandemic has affected virtually everyone’s lives and business, and Promega is no exception. If you’re a frequent reader of Promega Connections, you have probably noticed that many of our recent blog posts have mentioned the novel coronavirus.
As Applications Scientists at Promega, we have adapted our work to enable support of our Promega colleagues and their customers as they respond to the pandemic. Like other groups in the company, we have ramped up our efforts. Our team typically has a broad focus on a variety of projects from across market segments of the company. During the second week of March, we switched to completely focus on virus-related experiments. Everyone on our team was in the lab collaborating on a large project to determine which kits could be used to purify viral nucleic acid from universal transport medium for virus (UTM®) and sputum, knowing that customers would be using any kit that they had on hand to do testing quickly. We completed testing in two days and data analysis and write-up within another couple of days.
In the last six weeks, we have worked on over 30 projects and completed almost 20 of them. In some cases, we identified, resourced, and began projects in the same day. In other cases, we completed projects within a day or two of receiving the request. You can find some of our data, presented as “Viral RNA Extraction Application Notes”, here.
Many projects originated from direct questions from global branches, Technical Services, and other internal colleagues on behalf of their customers. Some projects resulted from a need we identified, such as testing alternative storage methods for swab transport due to shortage of UTM®. Projects ranged from testing purification kits with relevant sample types, to comparing amplification reagents, and participating in work on forthcoming virus-related products.
This summer, I had the opportunity to go to the Marine
Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. MBL was founded in
1888 as an institution that focuses on research and education. Woods Hole is
located on Cape Cod and has rich biodiversity that is the focus of the resident
researchers and the many others that travel there each summer. It was here that
new model organisms were discovered, allowing significant advancement in
various fields. For example, squid have large axons that allowed researchers to
expand our knowledge of neurons.
Over 500 scientists from over 300 institutions in over 30
countries come to MBL each year as trainees1. There are 19 advanced
research training courses for pre-and post-doctoral scientists in development, reproduction,
cell physiology, microbiology, infectious disease, neuroscience, and microscopy.
Faculty that teach the courses are leaders in their respective fields. In
addition, MBL has a neuro-physiology fellowship program through the Grass
Foundation that allows early-stage researchers to come to MBL for 14 weeks to
How many times have you encountered a technical problem in your work that you needed to solve? Maybe it was an issue of workflow efficiency—too many samples, but too little time for hands-on work. Or maybe there wasn’t a technology available for what you needed to accomplish, and you didn’t have time to develop something yourself. Or still, maybe you were starting into a new research area and didn’t yet have the expertise to solve the problem. Wouldn’t it be nice if you had some support to figure out a solution for these challenges? We have scientists at your service! You may already know about our top-notch team of Technical Services Scientists. They can assist you via phone, email, or chat to walk you through any technical issue, regardless of whether or not you’re using Promega products (not too many companies can say that!).
A recent PNAS article tracked the careers of
scientists in three different fields based on research paper authorship. They
found that, over a 50-year span, there was a dramatic reduction in how long
scientists remained in each field, which they termed “survivability.” More than
half of the scientists that started out in the 1960s published in their field
for an average of 35 years, while about half of scientists starting in the
2010s published in their field for an average of 5 years1. Tracked academic
researchers were classified into three categories: transients (authors who had
only one publication during their career), dropouts (authors who stopped
publishing at various career levels), and full-career scientists (authors who continue
to publish in the field). Overall, the data showed that there are an increasing
number of transients that contribute to scientific papers. Thus, the authors of
the PNAS article concluded that the demographics
in those academic fields are shifting toward scientists who leave the field
quickly. The observed increase in the number of scientists who are temporarily
in academia makes sense, given the number of PhDs relative to the limited
number of faculty positions and permanent staff scientist roles. However, the
terms “survivability,” “transients,” and “dropouts” give the impression that
leaving academia means that these scientists have ended their career or failed.
Several years ago, I made the move from academia to the biotech industry. Leaving my research in academia seemed like a huge risk to take, but it was a positive career change that I only recently realized was a long time in the making.
Before joining Promega, I was a post-doc at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I worked on these fascinating enzymes that add nucleotides to the 3ʹ ends of RNAs, developed a Next-Gen Sequencing assay to measure their activities, discovered a bizarre and novel activity of one of the enzymes, and wrote a patent application.
I love science. Being immersed in a tough problem in the lab and then working as hard as I possibly can to solve it is so rewarding and satisfying to me! I really enjoyed my research project, but I found myself interested in a variety of other science topics. The thought of having my own lab where I worked on the same types of enzymes for 30+ years made me anxious. Why did I feel that way? I attributed it to the apprehension of the hard work it would take to establish a lab and get tenure.
Meanwhile, at UW–Madison, we had begun a campus-wide discussion to brainstorm about solutions for sustaining the biomedical research enterprise in the US. I attended almost every meeting and, overall, was left with an ominous feeling. Many scientists clearly loved their work but were frustrated and discouraged by the prospect of losing (or never getting) funding. Is this what I really wanted? I reminded myself of my enthusiasm for science and convinced myself it would be worth it once I had a lab up and running and was mentoring my own students.
As a first-year grad student, I was so excited to start my thesis work. I brainstormed to make a list of experiments to try and then discussed them with one of the senior grad students in the lab. As I enthusiastically explained the goals of my experiments and what I was planning, he gave me a strange look. Puzzled, I asked for some feedback. He told me that, while these were good research ideas, almost all of them had been published. Hence, my first lesson learned from grad school: immerse yourself in the field by reading relevant papers and then plan some innovative experiments to move forward. It’s critical to have a deep knowledge of your field of study—not just to be a good grad student, but to see what is being done and then build on it, or take a totally different approach to innovate.
Reading papers is a big part of keeping up with the latest research. And attending conferences can give you a sense of current work before it’s published. However, I’m sure that, at least once, you’ve heard a cool talk at a conference and then quite a while later, haven’t seen the corresponding paper (so that you can read about all the ins and outs of what they did!). Why would this be? They may have been discussing the data early on in their project. Or perhaps they submitted a manuscript and the review/publishing process is taking a long time. Maybe the data were so surprising that they felt they needed to do a lot of follow-up work to support their conclusions. Or maybe their PI takes forever to write/comment on manuscripts. Etc.
The sooner that you can find out what is going on in a field, the sooner you can design smart, relevant experiments. What can be done to get cutting edge work out there to facilitate the progression of a field as a whole?
I recently attended the 40th Steenbock Symposium at University of Wisconsin-Madison. This year’s theme was “Epiphanies in and beyond the RNA World”. Twenty-seven researchers from RNA and related fields convened at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery to share “eureka” moments in their careers. It was so inspiring to hear from founding members of the RNA community, including Joan Steitz, Christine Guthrie, John Abelson, and Harry Noller. I noticed a recurring theme throughout the talks: many of these epiphanies resulted from informal meetings (quite often at a bar or social event) between colleagues in different groups, sometimes from different universities. They discussed tough problems and brainstormed about how to solve them, pondered about what their peculiar results could mean biologically, or dreamed, “wouldn’t it be cool if we could <insert awesome idea here>?” and then came up with a way to do it. It sounded like a wonderful time to be a scientist! Sitting together freely sharing ideas, motivated by curiosity and the joy of doing science.
As I thought back to my research career to look for instances of such encounters, I was happy to find a few. “Philosophy” Meetings during grad school and Tea Time during my postdoc—informal social events to bring people together from different labs and departments with drinks and snacks. RNA Cluster Meetings during grad school and RNA MaxiGroup during my postdoc—events where people interested in a certain research area (in this case RNA) would gather for dinner and to hear an informal research talk. These organized events were intended to provide a forum for conversations between scientists to spark new ideas. Sometimes, I would talk to someone in a totally different field and learn something new. But I really didn’t have an epiphany about my own research. I often found myself (and others) scurrying away after the event to get back to lab work. Was I missing out on the best part of the meeting: the after-discussion?
My reflection on the Steenbock Symposium talks led me to ask a somewhat troubling question:
This post could easily start out as an ode to ’90s alternative music (of which I’m a huge fan). That new and totally different sound (a la Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Nirvana, etc.) in the 1990s eventually made its way into the mainstream as it gained popularity. (I have to say that I got a shock when I recently heard some Pearl Jam on “classic rock” radio stations. But I digress…)
Why isn’t the same true for science career paths? Science careers outside of academia are still referred to as “alternative.” In a previous post, I highlighted statistics from a 2012 NIH report that found that only 20% of recent life sciences Ph.D.’s go on to become faculty members1. That means that 80% of recent life sciences Ph.D.’s took the “alternative” path. It seems like the academic path could now be viewed as the alternative to the mainstream, but somehow there’s an underlying stigma associated with straying from a path which few can travel down successfully.
On December 27, 2017, the life sciences community lost a pioneer in neurobiology and an advocate for equality in science. Dr. Ben A. Barres passed away at the age of 63. His work focused on the critical role of glia (non-neuronal cells) in the brain and how they interface with neurons to maintain cognitive function.
Equally remarkable was the more personal side of his life. In 1997, Dr. Barbara Barres transitioned from female to male and lived the remainder of his life as Ben Barres. I read a number of the articles that Dr. Barres wrote and came across one that particularly caught my attention. In 2006 in response to several statements blaming gender imbalance in STEM fields on women’s innate in-aptitude, Ben wrote a Commentary in Nature that touched on his experience as a female scientist versus how he was treated as a male scientist. (Dr. Barres makes many very interesting points in the article, so I would encourage anyone to read it.) Prior to transitioning, he was often dismissed or interrupted but had a completely different experience as a male scientist. Dr. Barres even recounted that he overheard a colleague praising a seminar he gave, and adding that his work was “much better than his sister’s”1. The colleague was unaware that the research was the same and that he was talking about the same person. What a unique perspective to have been the one in the position of discrimination and then to be removed from it.
When I was in grad school and pictured what a role in industry would look like, the first thing that came to my mind was a Research and Development (R&D) Scientist. My life as a grad student and as a postdoc revolved around benchwork, so that must be the case in industry too, right?
It really wasn’t until I started working at Promega that this image of a scientist in industry was completely turned upside down (in a good way). Here are some roles that a scientist can assume at Promega: Senior Scientist, Research Scientist, R&D Group Leader, Production Scientist, Technical Services Scientist, Product Manager, Strategic Marketing Manager, Client Support Specialist, Client Support Consultant, Clinical Technical Consultant, Field Support Scientist, Applications Scientist, Scientific Instructional Designer. The list can probably go on for a while, but it makes the point that there are a variety of interesting positions for scientists in the biotech industry. Continue reading “BioTech Scientists through a Different Lens”
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