My Story: Taking the Path Less Traveled

Posted in Career Advice

I had always liked science but by age 10, I had already decided that I wanted to be a veterinarian. However, after seeing the film Ben Hur at age 11—during which two of the main characters who have leprosy are miraculously cured—I fantasized what it might be like to be able to discover cures for infectious diseases. As corny as it may sound, the movie convinced me that my true calling in life wasn’t veterinary medicine but microbiology. Nevertheless, I attended Cornell University as a pre-veterinary medicine undergraduate with a dual major in animal science and microbiology. During my senior year at Cornell, Dr. Brooks Naylor, my food microbiology professor at the time, invited me to do a senior research project in his laboratory. After several weeks in the laboratory I was hooked and knew that graduate school and not veterinary medicine was in my future.

I entered graduate school in 1974 and did my PhD work in Bob Deibel’s laboratory in the Department of Bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying the pathogenesis of Salmonella gastroenteritis. Because Bob was Chairman of the Department and a food microbiology consultant, he wasn’t around much. This forced me to become self reliant and an independent investigator very early in my scientific career. Interestingly, when I started graduate school, my goal was to earn a PhD degree and teach microbiology at a small liberal arts college.  However, after three years at Wisconsin, I decided to eschew a career as a science educator in favor of becoming a tenure track faculty member at a prestigious research institution.

I received my PhD degree in 1981 and chose to do a postdoctoral fellowship with Stephen Morse in the Department of Microbiology at Oregon Health Sciences University where I investigated the pathogenesis of Neisseria gonorrhoeae the causative agent of gonorrhea. After two years in Stephen’s lab, I realized that the field of molecular biology had finally taken off and I needed to develop molecular biological skills to compete for my coveted tenure track faculty position. In 1984, I joined Howard Shuman’s laboratory as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Microbiology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in New York City where I studied the molecular pathogenesis of Legionella pneumophila, the causative agent of Legionnaires Disease.

In 1987, after spending three more years as a postdoctoral fellow, my newly acquired molecular biology training coupled with a respectable publication record helped me to land a tenure track faculty position in the Department of Microbiology at the University Of Miami School Of Medicine. I spent the next seven years feverishly doing laboratory research, teaching medical and graduate students, publishing papers and mainly writing grants to establish an independent research program on the role of lipopolysaccharide in the molecular pathogenesis of Legionella pneumophila. While I was a productive researcher, who regularly published and was recognized on several occasions for teaching excellence, I failed to consistently win grant support to run my laboratory. Consequently, in 1994, I was denied tenure and forced to leave academia—an emotionally devastating event that that ended a life-long dream of becoming a world class research scientist.

Luckily, at that time, the American biotechnology industry had finally hit its stride and I landed a job as a scientist at a New Jersey-based biotechnology company where I managed an antibacterial drug discovery program. My time in industry—which lasted only two years—provided me with a firm understanding of the business side of science and perhaps, more importantly, convinced me that industrial research wasn’t for me. This, coupled with a yearning desire to teach again, prompted me to successfully apply for a job as Chairperson of Biology at a local community college. While a good idea at the time, I quickly realized that while I still loved to teach, administration wasn’t my strong suit and I left the community college job after a year.

Unfortunately, by 1998, I had effectively exhausted most traditional career options for scientists with PhD degrees and I desperately needed a job—mainly because I had a wife and three young children to support. Fortunately, while working at the community college, I successfully helped several professional recruiters place new hires into jobs at biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. This prompted me to seriously consider professional recruiting as a career option and in early 1999 I landed a job as a recruiter at a local recruiting firm.  As a new hire I had to attend recruiter school for six weeks. Surprisingly, this training would prove to play a pivotal role in many subsequent decisions that ultimately helped to shape my career.

After three successful years as professional recruiter, an Australian biotechnology company recruited and hired me as a science and business consultant to help guide their antibacterial drug discovery program. The new job led to an almost four year stint as an independent management consultant advising private and publicly-traded biotechnology companies on business, scientific and financial matters.  Also during this time, I decided to indulge my own entrepreneurial fantasies and in 2001 I founded BioInsights Inc (www.bioinsights.com), a bioscience education and training company. In 2003, Abe Abuchowski and I founded Prolong Pharmaceuticals (www.prolongpharmaceuticals.com) a drug delivery company with two drugs in early stage clinical development. Unfortunately, the rigorous demands of running BioInsights and starting Prolong ultimately led to the demise of my consulting practice and by 2004 I was forced to consider another career move.

Luckily, in 2002, I had begun to write for several biotechnology industry trade publications. Although I wasn’t getting paid to write, it enabled me to hone and polish my writing skills. In late 2004, a medical communications expert who I knew suggested that I take a stab at medical writing. At the time, I didn’t know much about medical writing but I quickly learned that it pays well and medical writers are always in demand. I took her advice and landed my first medical writing job in 2005. Since then, I have worked at a variety of medical communications agencies and pharmaceutical companies preparing manuscripts, posters, slide presentations and other work. Currently, I am freelance science and medical writer, blogger (www.biojobsblog.com) and social media enthusiast who, along with Dr. Vincent Racaniello started an online social network site for bioscientists called BioCrowd (www.biocrowd.com). Also, my colleague Mike Dudley and I recently launched a medical devices company called Artemes Technologies Inc. (www.artemestechnologies.com) that is developing a novel drug delivery device for lyophilized protein-based drugs.

Unlike most scientists, my career path has taken many unexpected twists and turns. I never intended it to be as convoluted as it has turned out to be. Nevertheless, I believe that my unusual career trajectory has transformed me into a more well-rounded scientist than I would have been if I had been able to pursue my intended academic career. In retrospect, I attribute my career successes to solid problem solving skills, an unrelenting desire to continue to learn and an unwavering choice to take risks. Finally, and perhaps most important, I learned that there is no right or wrong career path in the life sciences—only the one that you choose for yourself!

Until next time…

Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!!!

 

Salmonella in the News Again

Posted in Career Advice

This may be one of the more notable years for Salmonella food poisoning. First, there was a modest outbreak in the eating clubs at Princeton University and now a larger outbreak in Texas and New Mexico. This is the first time that I can recall in my almost 30 years as a card-carrying food microbiologist that there has been this many highly-publicized cases of Salmonella food poisoning in one year. Although I don’t wish Salmonella gastroenteritis on anybody, it is kind of rewarding that an organism that led to my PhD is making headlines once again. Typically, Salmonella outbreaks are not noteworthy and rarely receive much notice— usually taking a backseat to potentially life-threatening outbreaks of enteropathogenic Escherichia coli.

Like the Princeton outbreak, the exact source of the Salmonella infection is unclear. That said, public health and CDC officials are leaning towards large, raw tomatoes. In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration discovered that consumption of tomatoes in restaurants had caused a salmonella outbreak that affected 21 states. , “until the source of the outbreak is identified federal and local health officials in both states have recommended that infants, the elderly and anyone with an impaired immune system avoid eating Roma and red round tomatoes that are not grown at home or sold attached to the vine.” So far, 40 confirmed cases, with patients ranging in age from 3 to 82, have been reported in New Mexico and Texas since April. To date, 17 people have been hospitalized, but no deaths have been reported.

Molecular analyses indicated that all of the cases in New Mexico and Texas were caused by the same strain, a relatively rare serovar called Saint Paul (6th most common serovar infecting humans). Federal health officials at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, GA fear that this may be the beginning of a large national outbreak of Salmonella gastroenteritis. This is because about 30 cases caused by the Saint Paul strain, have also been reported this year in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas and Utah. Like the New Jersey, Texas and New Mexico outbreaks, the cause of those other outbreaks is under investigation.

Salmonella gastroenteritis generally last between four and seven days, and most people are able to recover without medical (antibiotic) treatment. But, it can sometimes lead to death in immunocompromised adults or young children. Symptoms include headache, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea and sometimes vomiting.  Although textbook descriptions of the pathogenesis of Salmonella gastroenteritis generally portray it as a mild illness, I can tell you that people I know (lab mates of mine) who came down with the disease (gee, how did that happen?) suggest otherwise!

I suspect that fecally-contaminated water may be source of the infection. But, then again, it has been almost 30 years since I thought about Salmonella gastroenteritis. That said, I don’t think that you ever forget the essence or minutiae of your thesis work!

For those of you who are interested, the electron micrograph of Salmonella typhimurium shown with this post is from my PhD dissertation. As I recall, the electron micrograph was taken in 1980 and the bacterium shown in the micrograph was grown for 48 hours on nutrient agar . Althought I would like to take credit for the shot (nice pose eh?),  it was taken by Phil Hegge in the Department of Bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, my alma mater. if you look closely you may be able to see fimbriae along with the flagella.

Until next time

Good Luck and Good Job Hunting (and remember to wash your tomatoes)!!!!!