What were your steps toward a molecular biologist career?
Shawn: I began studying as an engineer as my aptitude for "left-brainer," (analytical and mathematical) skills was strongest. Due to the highly competitive nature of the program and the difficulty in maintaining a competitive GPA while working full-time, I chose to major in biochemistry. Math and biological, chemical, and physical sciences were core to this program. Separate, some may consider these "dry" subjects. However, integrating these concepts into the field of biochemistry was a lot of fun! Biochemistry is the study of the chemical reactions of life.
What do you like about being a molecular biologist?
Shawn: I love the ability to have a real impact on people’s lives as a result of collaborative efforts. For example, our company delivered a DNA sequencing technology that made it affordable for people to have their entire genome sequenced! Acquiring accurate sequence data while maintaining affordability were difficult tasks. Characterizing unknown "black box" chemistry in such that it can be controlled to drive down costs was like detective work. The end product will allow for statisticians to correlate the probability of obtaining common diseases such as cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s, etc. with DNA sequence. Such probabilities would encourage individuals to make lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking and drinking, and exercising more.
What are some of the challenges you face as a molecular biologist?
Shawn: At the bachelor's level, you will likely report to a PhD-level scientist who after five or more years in extensive study, (and potentially years of additional experience) is an expert in their field. Depending on personalities and project goals, you may end up with anything from a micromanager to a very hands-off manager. In the micromanagement case, you may have your boss breathing down your neck on a regular basis. The positive attributes may be that your objectives are very clear, relative to the lack of guidance in the hands-off case. In addition, the rapidly changing nature of this cutting edge field will likely result in reorganizations of group members, meaning that you may suddenly be working on a new project with a new manager. (Think of it as management moving chess pieces to maximize success against competitors.) This may happen on the order of once per year.
Do you have an interesting story about being a molecular biologist?
Shawn: Joining a company in a research environment, we were characterizing enzymes that might have useful commercial value. After one year little success was realized. During my second year as part of a development group, we worked as a team of greater than 50 employees from a variety of disciplines (i.e. research, engineering, and manufacturing). Over the course of a year we worked hard and collaboratively to deliver market competitive chemical reagent formulations that would replace prior generation products. Yearly sales were on the order of tens of millions! Being a part of this project, and knowing that these contributions helped the scientific community in studying cures for diseases such as cancer was very rewarding.
Do you have any advice for those interested in a career in molecular biology?
Shawn: Study hard! All of those quantum physics equations, cellular and molecular biology concepts, even statistics, that may seem abstract, have real-world applications in this field. Get experience! Your degree alone will make it difficult to stand out among the crowd of recent graduates. Take advantage of opportunities on campus: volunteer and/or work part-time in labs and obtain internships over summer breaks.
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