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The Black Hole

Go ahead and jump: from academic to scientist entrepreneur

BY JONATHAN THON | NOV 10 2016

The landscape of scientific research is constantly evolving alongside your career trajectory since the needs of society versus the needs of your career and life are always in flux.

To read the previous articles in this series please visit the links below:

 

 

 

In an earlier post I defined the present economic climate for burgeoning young scientists, and the career uncertainty that should be expected if pursuing this career trajectory. Here I describe the reality of what that entails in four personal independent anecdotes. The first is my own. The rest are from scientists who have volunteered to share their personal experiences and have asked to remain anonymous. Given their length I’ve chosen to post each as a separate article:

A scientist entrepreneur: I went ahead and jumped!

A rewarding career in science comes in many shapes and sizes. Although some aspects of career development are dependent on mentorship, productivity, and luck, the importance of acting on the convictions you develop along the way cannot be overstated. In a world where ideas are a dime a dozen, noise outnumbers signal by a couple of orders of magnitude, and publishing and funding pressures are at an all-time high, it’s becoming more important to ground yourself in things that actually matter to you.

The landscape of scientific research is constantly evolving alongside your career trajectory since the needs of society versus the needs of your career and life are always in flux. A decade ago, when I first stepped foot in a lab and begun my graduate training at the University of Toronto, I found the usual things to gripe about: the competitive environment was overwhelming, the career path (even to just graduate) was seemingly insurmountable, and I found it difficult to predict my future. I learned to talk the talk and walk the walk, like a real-life Jorge Cham character in a PhD comics strip. But, I simply couldn’t grasp what it meant to be a scientist, or how the work I was doing would one day be of tremendous value. That takes time, and you truly never know how much you’ve learned in a lab, until you leave it.

Then life afforded me an opportunity to make my first leave. My future wife decided to attend medical school in New Orleans. To the chagrin of my PI, I re-enrolled at Tulane University with the departing words that I was “throwing my career down the drain.” There was something missing at post-Katrina Tulane (other than traffic lights, grocery stores, places to live, and the rule of law). The cutthroat culture of a large institution was replaced by small group of collegial scientists. I published successfully and took on leadership roles at the university. However, I was studying in a world-famous lab in a field that was admittedly over-hyped, and the basic science that was holding up our entire discipline was honest, but lacking serious foundations. Consequently, I graduated with a gnarly feeling of imposter syndrome, which I decided I could alleviate by studying something “real” and working in a small lab.

For my fellowship, I joined a gene therapy lab that met my criteria of being small, innovative, and aligned towards meaningful discovery. There, I had a front row seat as our lab, and our community, broke down the walls of a 20-year genetic mystery to uncover the cause of a rare muscular dystrophy. I had done it! I kicked imposter syndrome in the face, and was ready! But now I faced the cliché postdoc conundrum: what to do next and how to balance it with my family (perhaps subject of another blog post). I decided that the academic mindset did not align with my trajectory or my ambition. The funding environment and general negative sentiments towards academia certainly contributed to my decision, but at the end of the day I truly felt that my particular skillsets would have a much more impactful role away from the academic scene.

I’ve since taken on a senior management role for a start-up biotechnology company whose technology met my criteria as being disruptive, yet based on strong fundamentals. I’m also still heavily involved in basic science research as the scientific director for a disease-specific non-profit. Both organizations share similar challenges to advance their goals, since they are both at an inflection point where it’s time to translate basic science to the market and to patients. Over the next few years, I’m anticipating my perspectives will change dramatically as I learn first-hand how discoveries breach the translation gap and find their way to having a positive impact on people’s lives.

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the founder and chief scientific officer of Platelet BioGenesis.
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