Michaela Spitzer

Research Manager, biotech instrumentation company, UK

Former researcher in chemical biology, bioinformatics and microbiology at University of Toronto and McMaster University (Canada) and University of Edinburgh (UK)

Michaela SpitzerAcademic research experience

I was a researcher in academia for about ten years – for my graduate studies and two postdocs.

After studying Bioinformatics in Berlin and New Zealand I decided to complement my theoretical knowledge with lab experience. So I applied to Graduate School in Toronto, which was a hotbed of yeast functional genomics at the time (2005). I started my graduate studies in Toronto in the Tyers lab, doing genome-wide screens for genetic interactions in the budding yeast S. cerevisiae. Just after I reclassified into the PhD programme (two years into my graduate studies), my lab moved to Edinburgh, Scotland. So this was where I completed my PhD, shifting my focus to chemical-genetic screens in the budding yeast.

I stayed in Edinburgh for two more years while I did a joint postdoc in the Tyers and Rappsilber labs, continuing work on data analysis for chemical-genetic and HTP chemical screens but also getting into data analysis and visualisation for proteomics data sets. This gave me extensive experience in implementing computational tools and analysis pipelines for genome-wide data sets and high throughput screening data.

At this stage I assumed I would stay in academia for my career and was keen to work on a more applied project for my next move. I started as a postdoc in the Wright lab at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, where I could apply my skills to a medically relevant research topic, pathogenic fungi and microbial drug resistance. I worked on Cryptococcus neoformans for nearly three years and my goal was to find natural products from soil bacteria that would make current antifungal drugs more efficient.

The achievements I’m most proud of as an academic researcher are data analysis and visualisation tools whose impact I’m still experiencing today. Among various tools, I designed and implemented the BoxPlotR, a statistical online application that was published in Nature Methods and has over 200 daily users. It’s great to get positive feedback from users still, three years on. I am also proud that I was able to contribute to a wide variety of research projects and that I was able to collaborate with researchers in different fields.

Transition from academic research

I really enjoyed my research but there came a time when I realised that the chances of making a successful academic career were slim. During my postdocs I applied for several fellowships but I was not successful with any of my applications. I also realised how hard it would be to get a faculty position given the number of people that were trained to PhD and postdoc levels.

Disillusioned, I started to look on the Nature and Science Career portals just to get an idea of other job options out there. Purely by chance, I saw a job advertisement – on the company’s own website – for my current job at Singer Instruments and decided to apply. The job felt like a good opportunity: I knew the company very well, having met some of the staff at yeast conferences (where they were always good fun) and I used the company’s instruments regularly in the lab. My dual background in bioinformatics and yeast  genetics and my experience of collaborating with people from different subject backgrounds made me a serious candidate. Although I hadn’t truly begun actively looking for jobs, everything just fell into place, and I have now been with Singer Instruments for 16 months.

Moving to the commercial sector felt a mix of familiar and unfamiliar. My new role was split between R&D and sales and marketing. The latter presented something of a culture shock at first. However, I was very lucky to have nice colleagues who eased me into the sales part of the role. I still feel much more at home doing the R&D side of my job.

Current job – and how it compares

I work for a biotech company that develops lab automation for genetic research. As the company is small, my role of Research Manager encompasses R&D as well as sales and marketing for the UK market. In the R&D half of my role I’m involved with all stages of the product development cycle – market research, definition of product specifications, testing of products during development and scientific product validation. My approach constantly draws on my academic research training, though of course the application – development of lab instruments – is completely different.

I got more used to the sales and marketing side of my role, though talking about money and making comparisons with competitors doesn’t come naturally to me. On the other hand I’m confident at giving presentations and product demos. I also enjoy working on application notes that highlight new uses of our instruments. Our customers are researchers, so I’m talking science with scientists just as before.

Collaborating and communicating with our customers is an important part of the role. Customers regularly come up with ideas for new applications as well as modifications to existing products. I make use of my expertise in microbiology and bioinformatics, not only in our own lab (where the biomaterials we work with are limited) but also by discussing projects with customer labs. If you have curiosity and are open to new things, you can make opportunities to be creative outside academic research – in my current job, for example, through finding creative ways to use our instruments for new applications.

Unlike in academic research, we don’t publish journal papers. And I can’t follow up interesting ideas unless they are profitable. There are multiple customer suggestions I would love to work on, but to justify the company putting resources into it, suggestions for product developments have to be useful for a number of labs.

Competencies old and new

I’m lucky that my current job sits very well with the experience I gained in academic research. In a great variety of ways I’m able to apply a wide range of knowledge developed over the years as well as the tools for research such as how to set up experiments, conduct tests, record results, report and apply the results to the next test. 

One of the most important things academic research taught me was openness, i.e. not to have pre-conceived ideas, but to test different hypotheses and learn from experience. This, together with curiosity and critical thinking, have served me well in my R&D role

Aside from gaining new knowledge and work habits (such as understanding and using the company’s customer relationship management system) I think I have mostly improved existing competencies in my current role rather than gained completely new ones. One example is managing meetings. As an academic researcher, meetings with fellow researchers were dictated by the data and so, for example, an agenda was not required. Business meetings have more varied purposes and participants and therefore need to be prepared and conducted more formally. I have also further developed my skills and experience in communicating with people from very different backgrounds through collaborating with colleagues who are engineers and programmers.

Reflections on my career path

Looking back, my career could have gone in different directions but I’m happy with the way it has turned out – I wouldn’t do anything differently. I’m pleased to have developed myself in theoretical, practical, and applied domains in the way that I have. Each move has added something new and widened my network for the future.

I’m about to change career direction again because my partner moved to Cambridge for a new job. My current job is in West Somerset (in rural south west England), which is beautiful and fairly remote – scientific jobs are rare out here. My next job will be at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) near Cambridge and I will work as a bioinformatician on an exciting project that aims to identify drug targets for many different human diseases. I found this job via LinkedIn.

My new role is a two-year contract so I am already having ideas about where my career could go next. I’d like to have a position where I can apply different aspects of my experience. I haven’t ruled out the possibility of returning to academia at some stage.

My advice

Apply the open-mindedness that you need to do good research to your own career development. One very enjoyable aspect of my current job is supervising PhD students on three-month placements ‘unrelated to their doctoral research’ through the BBSRC Professional Internships for PhD Students scheme (PIPS). This is designed to help early career researchers ‘understand the context of their research’ and become aware of a breadth of opportunities where they can apply their PhD skills and training. I feel that these kinds of opportunities are very important.

The idea of leaving academic research can be daunting if you have invested a lot of your life in it. It can be tempting to submit many job applications on the assumption that the job search could be long and arduous. I’d advise you to be selective and not apply randomly. You must want the job you apply for as well as the company wanting you. But when the right opportunity comes along, don’t be afraid to seize it!

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