PNAS: Jon Moulton, Small Company Biologist

(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 Jon Moulton, a biologist working at a small biotech company.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I work for Gene Tools, LLC, manufacturers of Morpholino antisense oligos, as a molecular biologist and general-purpose scientist. We’re a small company so everyone has many roles to fill. In addition to designing antisense oligo sequences and talking with researchers about their experiments by telephone, email and internet chat, I try to find new applications for Morpholinos (my greatest success so far has been in initiating a collaboration that showed Morpholinos can inhibit miRNA maturation). I travel to conferences and campus shows to discuss the company’s products and their applications. I blog, I tweet, I post about Morphlinos in various places about the internet. I maintain the company database of publications ( I write a paper now and then (Moulton JD, Jiang S. Gene Knockdowns in Adult Animals: PPMOs and Vivo-Morpholinos. Molecules. 2009 Mar 25;14(3):1304-23. open access: I build and modify parts of the facility, cobble together instruments, draft figures for patents and fix the air conditioning. I like the variety of the job: when I walk in in the morning I never know what the day will bring.

2) What is your science background?

AS General Studies
BS Biology, writing minor
BA Chemistry
Ph.D. Environmental Science and Resources: Biology (Dissertation: iron nutrition and photoadaptation in a marine cyanobacterium)

3) What led you to this job?

I knew the company’s founder, Dr. Jim Summerton. My wife had worked for him at his previous organization. I walked in one day and asked how’s business. He asked when was I going to quit that academic job and work for him; it happens I had left the university several months before, so I said “How’s Monday?” That was almost 10 years ago.

4) What’s your work environment like?

Mostly office work, some time at the bench, in the construction & repair shop, climbing around in the attic, or flying to conferences (typically, but not always, in the USA).

5) What do you do in a typical day?

Design some oligos, help some investigators figure out how to set up their experiments using Morpholinos, answer phone calls from stockroom folks, purchasing officers or grad students, look around the internet for new Morpholino information (press releases, publications, blog posts, etc.) and if I find something I think is interesting I might write about it in my blog or some other internet site. I might move a barrel or two with the forklift, help heft a stainless steel reaction tank into a fridge, collect some MALDI-TOF QC spectra on past oligos to determine the quality fo the synthesis, or talk with an organic chemist about development of a new product.

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

There is little of my job I could do without a science background. Perhaps I’d still heft the stainless steel reaction tank or run the forklift.

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

Learn broadly and contact your local industries. Take summer jobs. Want to work.

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

Hypotheses can be wrong. Build your worldview from observables. Change your hypothesis to fit the data, not the other way around.

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

If you can take a course as the easy version or the hard version, go with the hard version. Or take both.

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

I am close to the national average for a Ph.D. chemist with my experience. I’m a bit below, but the cost of living in Oregon makes that a good livelihood.