One of the most unsettling aspects of taking the plunge into industry careers is the fear of having to “give up” your science and everything you worked so hard for. I had those same fears when I finally decided to leave my position as a Principle Investigator in the NCI for my first job on the “dark side.” I was trained as a molecular immunologist and my program was engineering of cell surface proteins to stimulate immune responses to viruses and tumors– a worthwhile and rewarding project. The scientific/technical skills that I used regularly included lots of molecular biology– gene cloning, mutagenesis, and the like, protein chemistry and expression coupled with molecular modeling of those proteins to figure out what kinds of mutations to make that would improve immune responses.
The modeling software I was using was from a small biotech in Palo Alto called Molecular Applications Group. Their GeneMine software was revolutionary in the sense that it could integrate protein structure information with literature, DNA, and protein sequence alignments, and other available annotation, as well as being orders of magnitude faster at modeling structures compared to the traditional methods being used at the time (circa 1995). I had many interactions with this small company, mostly their customer support, which led to my beta testing their newest versions well before they were released. I was even contacted by some investors who wanted my opinion about this company and whether its products were likely to do well. These were great opportunities to network, and I did not miss that chance.
When I decided that my career at the NCI was not likely to result in tenure despite a reasonable publication record, I took advantage of an offer from one of those investors to assist me if I ever wanted to find a job. A few phone calls later, and I was offered airfare to fly out to Palo Alto for an interview as a Scientific Applications Specialist, or SAS. The interviews went well, I gave a seminar on my work and felt very comfortable talking with the scientists and executives, which I’m sure helped me get that job– which I did. Don’t underestimate the power of the “soft skills” in getting a job!!
Wow. No more bench. No more postdocs or technicians or medical students to train. I was really going to miss that, as well as being my own boss and directing my own research program. But to my amazement, this wound up being the coolest job ever. I worked out of my home, got my own Silicon Graphics modeling station, a car allowance, and the opportunity to do science!!
Basically, the way it worked was the sales account managers who were trying to sell the software into large companies like Dupont, Aventis, Merck, Boehringer, and others, would set me up to talk science with the protein design and research scientists who were doing drug discovery. I’d listen to what they were doing and find out about the proteins and pathways that they cared about. Then, I’d crank up my SGI modeling station and, using our software, I’d create demonstrations based on what I could find out about the proteins and pathways that were important to the customers.
By the way, did I say, “listen?” Not “talk all the time?” This was a hard lesson to learn, but paid big dividends. We’d travel to the company, and I’d present my findings to their chief scientists. It was awesome. I broadened my knowledge of immunology by delving into what were believed to be the most important pathways with regard to possible therapeutic interventions, and I was meeting tons of very smart, successful, and influential scientists and executives. I really was doing science, just not at the bench, and I got an invaluable exposure to how small companies run.
Pretty soon I was being asked to review business plans for their scientific accuracy, helping plan out budgets for projects, and advising on what new features should be included in new versions of the software, all guided by my understanding of the needs of the scientists we met on sales calls. Did I say listen? From there, my career took me to another much bigger company, and then to my own consulting business, Human Workflows, LLC. It’s true that I’m not quite as close to the science as I was before, but it was a gradual and rewarding transition over about 15 years that I wouldn’t trade for anything. So, if you’re thinking about a switch, consider being an SAS. And listen! It worked for me!!