PNAS: Dennis Lee, Biotech Researcher

(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of Dennis Lee, a researcher at a biotech company.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I’m the director of research for a small biotech company based in
Houston. We’re developing a new device for high-throughput screening
of antibody and compound libraries for potential use as therapeutics
and/or diagnostics. Essentially the goal is to develop a device that
can speed up some of the early stage drug discovery steps; product
development pipelines are starting to run dry and we hope our project
can help pick up the slack.

2) What is your science background?

I have a bachelor’s of science from the University of Chicago in what
they called “biological chemistry” (why they didn’t just call it
biochemistry I’ll never know) and a Ph.D. from the Department of
Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Rice University. My doctoral work was
actually on Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant, doing molecular genetics.

3) What led you to this job?

Truthfully, it was a good bit of luck in being in the right place at
the right time. I had decided that I did not want to do the academic
route and was looking at various jobs in government labs and even
consulting when this opportunity came my way. Turns out that one of my
good friends is the son of one of the founders of the company, and
when he heard I had defended, wanted to talk to me about the
opportunity as the company was just getting up and running.

4) What’s your work environment like?

I’m in the lab most of the time – it’s a shared incubator space with
several other small biotechs. It’s very laid back, very collegial –
everybody has signed mutual NDAs, so if you need to bounce ideas off
of other people you can, or if you need a chemical or piece of
equipment for a one-off experiment, there’s a good chance that someone
else has it. Occasionally I have to pop over to the corporate office
on the other side of town for a meeting, which is a little more
formal, but a lot of those sorts of issues are handled via email or

5) What do you do in a typical day?

It’s a changing mix of bench work, data analysis, and business
development stuff. I spend most of my time planning and executing
experiments, but because it is a small company and I am the one with
the most knowledge about the work, I get called on to participate in
conference calls with potential investors, help develop materials for
said investors, and keep my eye out for strategic partners (read:
potential buyers) and possible competitors.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

Well, it’s still primarily a research position at a company of our
size. The critical thinking skills I learned in my graduate career are
probably the most important; the actual field that I studied has
nothing to do whatsoever with what our company is doing.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

Hmm, this is tough, as I sort of lucked into my job, and I don’t think
you could get a job like mine with just an undergraduate degree,
unless you were the original person with the idea for the startup. But
for graduate students, I’d suggest sucking it up and attending any
entrepreneurship-type programs, classes, seminars, or workshops that
your local business school might be running, and network like crazy at
those events. Try to meet like-minded people, and don’t be afraid of
failure – that’s kind of what startup companies are all about. If you
find an interesting idea or company that you want to work on or at,
you really need to reach out and show interest and express at least a
good basic grasp of what they’re doing.

8) What’s the most important thing you learned from science?

The most important thing I learned from science is probably the
critical thinking/reasoning skills. If you can break down a problem
into smaller problems, the approach becomes much simpler. Experimental
method applies not only to actual experiments, but to the business
side of things as well – if an approach you took didn’t work, ask
yourself why? Change your approach and re-evaluate the results. You
can’t really run controls in your social interactions with people, but
since business development at the startup level involves searching out
a lot of potential partners and investors, you do have the luxury of
being able to tweak your approach.

The second thing I learned is that given a good library and 2 – 3
weeks, you can become reasonably well-read on virtually anything, and
combined with the critical thinking and reasoning skills, there’s
really nothing you can’t do. Experimental techniques outside your
field might take some time to learn, but don’t be afraid to make
lateral moves.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

I think the important thing is to realize that if you can really learn
the critical thinking part and not just memorize facts, you should
have a good foundation to do whatever you want – be it staying in
academia, doing research in industry, or switching gears entirely and
entering the business world. Try to figure out the direction you want
to go as early as possible, as it allows you to figure out what
milestones you need to hit in order to get where you want to be, but
realize that you can always change directions.

Also, work on your people skills. Get a good friend to tell you
straight what aspects of social interaction you might need to work on.
The fact of the matter is that no matter what route you take, you’re
going to have to deal with other people.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What’s the pay like?

I make more than a post-doc in biology fresh out of grad school does.
I could probably make more working for a big pharma, but I have
warrants in the company (currently worthless to me, but if we succeed,
I’ll be doing OK for myself).