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presentations’, promote my scientific achievements (even unpublished), convert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
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 –
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.
Never Walk Alone
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.
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
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
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