Tales from the Trenches: Career Growth in Biotechnology

Building a successful career in the biotechnology industry is really just a series of transitions from one role to another. But the devil is in the details—when to make a change, how to create opportunities and who can be your champion as you pivot. So how do you navigate these factors to keep your career goals on course?

Bob Weiland answers a question posed by Michele Smith at the MS Biotech Alumni Symposium.

I recently attended a symposium (presented by the University of Wisconsin Master of Science in Biotechnology Program, of which I’m an alum) that addressed this topic through the lens of one individual with a storied career in the industry. Bob Weiland currently serves on the Board of Directors for CymaBay Therapeutics. He has held various roles, from sales and marketing to operations and strategy, within large, established companies (Abbot, Baxter, Takeda) and smaller ones (Pacira Pharmacueticals). He drew on this wide-ranging experience to provide advice to professionals at all career stages.

Bob began the talk by declaring that there will be points in your career when you reach a “hard spot” and will need to transition, whether to a new role, company or even industry, to meet your career goals. He suggested a good starting point is simply to be thinking about making a change. But in the same breath he emphasized, “What are you doing about it?” He identified four distinct actions that you can take to ensure role changes and career transitions support your professional growth and development.

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A Conscious Decision to Change Careers Should Not Be Mistaken for Failure

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.

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Biotech Manufacturing: A Good Machinist is Critical for Your Laboratory Reagents

Travis Beyer, Machinist Technician, at the CNC milling machine in the Promega machine shop.
Travis Beyer, Machinist Technician, at the CNC milling machine in the Promega machine shop.

It can be easy to forget that Promega is a manufacturing business. Hidden within the well-designed walls of the company’s cGMP Feynman Center, as well as in other facilities on the Madison campus, technicians operate hundreds of machines that manufacture, dispense and package Promega reagents day in and day out. Keeping those high-tech machines running at peak performance is critical, requiring immense skill, precision and even artistry. That’s where Promega Machinist Technician Travis Beyer comes in.

“I get to make stuff,” says Travis who is not afraid to show his enthusiasm for his craft while describing the best part of his job. “There’s a product at the end of the day. Plus I get to support science, and make things that support people’s lives. That’s cool.”

 I get to make stuff. There’s a product at the end of the day. Plus I get to support science, and make things that support people’s lives. That’s cool.

The da Vinci Center, another artfully designed building on the Madison campus, houses the Promega machine shop where Travis does his work designing or improving on parts for newer manufacturing equipment or reverse engineering broken or worn parts no longer available for older equipment that still serves its purpose. He makes every machine part imaginable from drive shafts to sensor brackets to filling forks, and his work is critical to manufacturing businesses like Promega, where a downed piece of equipment can cause costly production delays.

An example of a machine part that Travis designs or reverse engineers and then builds to keep Promega manufacturing moving smoothly.
An example of a machine part that Travis designs or reverse engineers and then builds to keep Promega manufacturing moving smoothly.

As he explains, not many manufacturing companies the size of Promega have a fully capable machine shop. They usually send out their work, meaning longer lead times and more expense. But, as its distinctive architecture suggests, Promega is not like many other companies. Continue reading “Biotech Manufacturing: A Good Machinist is Critical for Your Laboratory Reagents”