Working Life

Making my own home

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Science  14 Oct 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6309, pp. 254
DOI: 10.1126/science.354.6309.254

In the spring of 2015, after interviewing for yet another tenure-track faculty position—about my 185th application in 5 years—I was excited to hear that I was the top candidate. But despite that encouraging sign, once again I didn't get the offer. For years, I had been committed to pursuing the traditional academic path because I wanted to run an independent research program and teach. I thought a tenure-track faculty position was the one job that offered both. My efforts, however, had resulted in a handful of interviews but no offers. By the time I got that last rejection, my outlook had changed. A faculty post would have been nice, but I had a startup to run.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“I [didn't need] a faculty position. … What I needed was a home for my research.”

I fully committed to the startup life when I began thinking more deeply about what I wanted from my career. As my faculty job search stalled, I asked for advice from friends and mentors. Some talked through my interview approach with me, trying to help me figure out where I was going wrong. Others said that they would have quit the search, and they admired that I had not. One said that I should start considering jobs in industry. My mother told me not to give up. The only consistent point was that I had to re-evaluate my journey.

I asked myself whether I actually needed a faculty position to bring my ideas to life. The answer, I realized, was no. I had a Ph.D., which gave me a diverse skill set: analytical thinking, independence, the ability to write grants, and more. I also had teaching opportunities, as an adjunct lecturer and courtesy faculty member. What I needed was a home for my research. So, instead of trying to find a spot at an existing institution, I decided to create my own. It was a eureka moment!

I had unintentionally laid some of the groundwork a few years earlier, after completing a traditional postdoc and a time-limited position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where I established my own research program investigating nematode pheromone signaling, among other projects. I still wanted to do research, but I no longer had a permanent position. So, in 2012, while I continued applying for faculty jobs, I also established a company. I teamed up with academic and governmental researchers to submit collaborative grant applications to support my work. (As a bonus, I thought that winning a grant would make me a more competitive faculty candidate.) I bought lab equipment whenever I saw good deals at surplus auctions and on eBay, and I stockpiled it in my garage. I was ready to get my research started if and when I got funded.

That happened in late 2014, for a project to explore nematodes' relationship with their symbiotic bacteria. As a result, when I decided to stop applying for faculty jobs the next year, I was in a position to pursue both the funded project and the one I planned to commercialize: improving beneficial nematodes' efficacy for pest control.

Upon opting to fully dedicate myself to my startup, I realized that federal grants would not be enough to bring a product to market. I needed to be in the right ecosystem with the right mentors. I applied to a program at a University of Florida-affiliated business incubator, which provided office space; business mentors; and training on topics including value proposition, market analysis, pain points, and investor pitches. The hardest part was learning how to explain my work to the nonscientists I was collaborating with. I also learned the importance of working with business professionals to bring a product to the market.

Now, I have a rented laboratory at the incubator and a grant to train my small but growing team. I am still raising funds from diverse sources, and I still have a lot to learn. But I'm glad I've found a way to pursue independent research outside the confines of academia while also maintaining some connection with my teaching. In the end, it's very rewarding that all those years of scientific training and endless hours of research are finally turning into a product that can contribute to improving the world.

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