Where and what is your current position?
I am responsible for the scientific direction and research operations of an innovative metabolic engineering company. I lead a research program that engineers microbes to produce plant natural products through fermentation, providing sustainable routes to useful natural chemicals. I manage the scientists on the team, focusing on high-level technical oversight and individual career development. I also manage the operations and infrastructure of the lab through a facilities team. I am accountable for intellectual property development, maximizing efficiency in the lab, and delivering positive outcomes on projects for our partners and customers.
Is your current career path as you originally intended?
No. I originally intended to pursue an academic career. However, I grew listless during my post-doctoral work, with a growing distaste for the politics and back-scratching necessary to land and advance in academic positions and publish in high-impact journals. My post-doc started just after the economic collapse in 2008-2009, resulting in fewer and fewer funding opportunities and a growing pessimism in my ability to fund a fulfilling research program. Then, from out of the blue, a recruiter contacted me. I had never been to Boston, so I figured I'd at least see what Manus was about. Moving into industry was the best choice I could have made. All the doubt surrounding my career choices have evaporated - I feel like I'm where I belong now.
How does this job relate to your graduate degree?
On the surface, not that much - I work in engineering microbes, while my Botany degree focused on tree genomics and chemical ecology. However, the strong base in plant biochemistry and natural products established during my PhD has proven incredibly useful in my current work. By understanding how and why a plant makes its natural products, I can inform the design parameters of a microbe intended to produce those same compounds. The nature of evolution is such that the parameters that shaped a particular enzyme or biosynthetic pathway need to be understood and appreciated if the enzyme or pathway is to be improved - you have to work with Nature, not fight it. Some key learnings for success involve the non-academic development in grad school - time management; oral/poster/presentation communication skills; managing assistants, colleagues, and supervisors; maintaining energy and passion despite setbacks and workload.
What motivated you to pursue graduate work at UBC?
I had completed my Honours thesis with Prof. Bohlmann, and was inspired by his drive, dedication, and intelligence. He was pre-tenure at the time, so while I knew it meant I'd be under sometimes uncomfortable amounts of oversight and 'motivation', it also meant that I had a supervisor who was dedicated to my success - for it would also mean his. It turns out the Prof. Bohlmann is dedicated to all of his team members, even long after obtaining his full professorship, that I chose well based on heart and personality, not just circumstance. The other, perhaps more critical factor is that my girlfriend at the time was pursuing grad studies at UBC, so I was keen to stick around for her. Perhaps that's a little foolish of me, but since she's now my wife and mother of my children, hey, it worked out.
What did you enjoy the most about your time as a graduate student at UBC?
The people in my lab. Prof. Bohlmann had built the team up from two of us to almost twenty by the time I left, and each one of them was a joy to work with. There were healthy debates, even arguments sometimes, but the intelligence and heart of my colleagues was always energizing and inspiring. Being able to learn so much, thanks to Prof. Bohlmann's dedication to pushing his students and providing them with ample learning opportunities and access to courses and conferences. It was the time when I was most free to learn whatever I wanted to, whenever I wanted to. I thought I was never going to work harder than in grad school, but it only prepared me for my post-doc and now industry. I lived in Acadia, so being able to walk to the lab at all hours was great for my work as a biologist.
What are key things you did that contributed to your success?
Learn to master your emotions, your vocabulary, your attitude, your body language. Don't let your emotions control you and run your mouth, and be aware of the subtle signals you put out with your posture and facial expressions. This is important for anyone in a professional setting, but is vital for managers and leaders. Project a positive, passionate attitude at all times. Don't blame others or circumstance for your failures. Analyze the outcome, learn from it, and do better next time. True leaders are always learning, from everything and everyone around them.
What is your best piece of advice for current graduate students preparing for their future careers?
Follow your heart, and listen to your gut: always do what you feel is right, and never rationalize yourself down the wrong path - at the end of the day, you need to be able to look at yourself in the mirror, and like the person looking back at you. That means developing your willpower, and building your ability to make hard decisions - and live with them. Try to have fun. If you're not having fun, figure out why. Then, given your value system, ask yourself if you can and want to change your lot, and then figure out how.
Did you have any breaks in your education?
No. Except for taking a coop option on my degree, which is a kind of break in a way. I started my grad research the day after my undergraduate ceremony. This led me to getting dangerously close to burning out during grad school and during my post-doc, but every time I found a way to recast my situation and develop new coping skills for the stress and physical fatigue. It also taught me to be proactive about taking time away from work to recharge as needed. So, overall, not taking breaks has probably helped me in my career progression, as it has given me the ability to work harder, smarter, and longer, which has been rewarded with rapid advancement in my roles.
How did you find out about/obtain your current position?
I was recruited out of my post-doctoral work by the company.
What challenges did you face in your graduate degree, or in launching your career?
Starting in year four of five in my PhD work, I started feeling somewhat lost with what I was doing, with the point of it. I sometimes felt like my colleagues had it all figured out, while I wasn't even sure why I was doing my research. I felt it difficult to believe in my work in a way that next steps were apparent, because I came to realize that so much of the scientific endeavour was focused on doing what was needed to publish papers, not what was needed to find the truth and connect with the nature of reality. And yet I pushed on, sometimes with great sorrow and despair in my heart. I've since come to realize two things about this period: (1) many, many young scientists suffer from this 'imposter syndrome', where you feel everyone is on the verge of finding out that you're barely keeping it together, that you sometimes feel like you don't know what you're doing - you're not alone in feeling this; and (2) when your heart is telling you something, learn how to listen to it. Don't rationalize away your emotions - scientists are apt to think their way past their heart. Instead, listen to your heart, and embrace your message - it's the real you trying to help you be who you really are, not what you think you should be based on perceived pressures and obligations.
How are jobs normally posted and filled in your organization or industry?
Jobs are usually posted on company websites and through job sites like Glassdoor, Monster, etc. Entry-level positions are often filled through these open sources. However, upper-level positions are usually filled through personal networks, with recruiters also playing a role in identifying and landing top talent.
What do you like and what do you find challenging about your current position?
I am energized by the work I do, the pace and competitiveness of business, and the quality and camraderie of my team. A startup environment is very stressful and unstable, but it is so exciting and rewarding at the same time. I love the game of business, the constant need to keep getting better, and the need to balance making sure you create win-win situations for yourself and your competitors without giving away the farm. The level of accountability and the pace of the work is much higher in industry than academia, and I love being challenged by others to be more and be better. The many hats to be worn and constantly changing challenges forces you to be adaptable and provides endless learning opportunities. Being trusted to manage and lead the team is very humbling and rewarding. Of course, the stress and uncertainty of startup life can be difficult, as is the incredible workload and relatively lower pay than you can get for an equivalent position in a larger, more established firm. The learning opportunities have to be seized, as their is always too much work to do and not enough people to do - if you don't learn, the whole endeavor can fail. The stresses and challenges of managing people is incredibly taxing on the body, mind, and soul, and you have to get tough if you're going to do the job well, but not so tough that your team can't relate to you anymore. There's no such thing as work/life balance - life is work, and you have to find a way to balance your job responsibilities, your career aspirations, your family's needs, and your own physical and emotional health.