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Alternative Careers: Academia. Really?

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Author: Greg Villareal, Ph.D. | Category: Career Development | January 22, 2015

A Tantalizing Story

Did you know that the “World’s Greatest Hamburgers®” may have saved millions of patients around the world suffering from vascular occlusion? During my presentation to the UTHSCSA community, I described how the San Antonio founder of Fuddruckers provided initial seed capital for development of a revolutionary medical device designed by entrepreneur-physician, Dr.Julio Palmaz, of the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio (UTHSCSA). That discovery was part of  the spark that ignited San Antonio’s growing biomedical and healthcare sector.

My presentation, sponsored by the Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) UTHSCSA chapter entitled “Alternative Careers: Academia?” certainly raised a few eyebrows among the audience. This is because, in academia, “alternative careers” are usually deemed tangential from the traditional post-PhD transition which is to become a faculty member at a research institution. This antiquated notion regrettably persists despite the unsustainable production rate of biomedical Ph.Ds. However as someone who has taken a non-linear career path, for me, becoming a tenured-faculty at a research-intensive institution was the alternative.

My name is Greg. I am an entrepreneur.

From the Pillars to the Private Sector

The biotechnology sector has always attracted my interest, especially since my plans were to follow in the footsteps of my cousin, now a leading scientist at Amgen. Midway through graduate training at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) I realized my true interest in science resided in direct application and commercialization of scientific concepts to understand and improve the real final frontier - the human brain. This idea was refined after taking a ‘business of science’ course and participation in BIO (via scholarship), the largest global conference for the biotech/pharmaceutical industry. Successfully transitioning to industry after the PhD required that I strategically source my network for individuals connected to industry, leap out of my comfort zone, and send ‘cold’ e-mails to industry research scientists for lab tours and ‘guest scientific presentations’, promote my scientific achievements (even unpublished), convert my CV to a resumé, and upload my application to numerous internal corporate websites and job sites.

From the West Coast to the East Coast

Timing is (mostly) everything. During graduate training and summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory, I acquired unique skill sets which immediately became transferable to an associate scientist position at Galenea Corporation, then a start-up company located in Cambridge, Mass.

While working at the company I assisted in identifying new technology which could advance treatments for neurodegenerative diseases. The start-up environment provided me with insatiable desires for the entrepreneurial spirit while solid science and a great team provided opportunities for professional growth. I had finally reached my goal!

Life was good. Then ‘Life’ happened.

From the East Coast to the Far SouthEast Coast

I married and moved to Bali. Career hara-kiri one would think? For most.

I like to think of my time in Indonesia as a metaphorical Post Doc, only with palm trees and visceral sunsets. During this “post Ph.D” period while literally being isolated on an island, I had to fail fast, adapt (learn a new language and culture), and keep moving towards a larger plan. When you are figuratively (and sometimes literally) hungry you learn how to negotiate, quickly develop and evolve ideas, communicate, execute, and raise capital towards your goals. So guess what? These were also some of the transferable skills which gave me confidence in starting up the new chapter in my life – biotech entrepreneurship.

If You Start Me Up

As a result of my numerous travels between southeast Asia and the U.S. (because of my two-term community service as SACNAS Board of Director) I eventually embarked on a serendipitous scientific and entrepreneurial collaboration with my undergraduate advisor from the University of Texas San Antonio. Today, we are developing a prediction-based ‘individualized medicine’ technology that will revolutionize health care, especially for families in the battle against Alzheimer’s disease.

Academia as an alternative

Pursuing a career outside of academia was the path I chose. At first, I felt isolated in these “alternative” endeavors but as it turns out I was not alone.

According to a recent study, Ph.D. biomedical scientists showed a decreasing interest in faculty careers at research-intensive universities between entry and completion of the Ph.D. There was also a substantial increase over time in careers outside of academia; namely a workforce which includes Consulting, Policy, Science Writing, Patent Attorney, Business Development. This is may be alarming for academia (and America) considering only 1 in 10 life science researchers who earn their PhDs are from Under Represented Minority (URM) backgrounds. Even worse, this group only represents two percent of medical school basic science tenured-track faculty! Furthermore, the researchers, whose sample included the largest number of scientists from URM backgrounds in the past decade, also found that URM Women had a greater propensity towards non-research careers after the completion of their PhD.

Pay close attention. Graduate programs wishing to direct their trainees into faculty-research positions should focus on improving the investment in graduate-advisor relationships, trainee self-efficacy, departmental support for career objectives and improve trainee publication record, as suggested through data by the study.

You’ll Never Walk Alone

There is hope. As the U.S. workforce diversifies and evolves towards a technology-based economy there are more opportunities for newly minted Ph.Ds to complement existing companies and carve out new ones. The later is especially true for biomedical entrepreneurs in Texas.

San Antonio’s thriving Biomedical scene has support from elected officials, community leaders, our military and angel investors. And because it is a “city on the rise” wise institutional investors have taken notice of San Antonio’s new secret salsa – human capital – and in the future will be making larger round investments in the Biomedical sector. In addition, economical and professional development support organizations such as SACNAS and their vibrant San Antonio chapters, which bring external speakers such as myself, are also fostering the success of URM scientists from undergraduates to professionals and strengthening the workforce and the economy through science.

Stay true to yourself

I am from San Antonio - this is home. So when people around town ask me “what do I do?” it is often greeted with a grin, ‘hmm’, then a long pause. To be honest, I can’t even answer that now. There are too many alternatives.

What I do know is that life will always present new challenges. But keeping in mind the greater goal – creating a better world for my family and yours – makes my non-linear career progression even more fulfilling. Now speaking of fulfilling, it's time for that burger.

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