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Career spotlight: from basic research to tech transfer

By Su Jun Lim-Higbie, technology manager at MSU Technologies 

I love science. After my bachelor’s degree, I did my PhD training in genetics at University of Rochester Medical Centre in Rochester, New York, and my postdoctoral work at the US government’s biomedical and public health research agency National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland.

But in late 2013, I successfully completed the transition from basic research to technology transfer. As opposed to worn out T-shirts and jeans, I now have an entirely new wardrobe with clothing classified as “business casual”. However, I would argue that I have not left science. Instead, I have found another outlet for my passion in science.

In graduate school, I was drawn to epigenetics – the study of heritable changes in gene function – and hence joined a lab at Rochester’s biomedical genetics department to study the RNAi pathway and heterochromatin regulation using drosophila, colloquially known as small fruit flies, as a model.

When I completed my doctoral degree, I found myself at yet another crossroads, reminiscent of the one I experienced at the end of my undergraduate education, but with significantly fewer options. Should I power through postdoc or leave academia to pursue so-called “alternative careers”?

Career transition often takes time, much patience and a lot of effort. It can take years to develop new skills and fully transition into a new field. It is a process instead of a switch. In my case, it is difficult to identify the precise turning point but it took about three years for the whole process.

Since the early days of graduate school, I have attended a great many seminars and workshops that are very diverse and may not be directly related to my thesis project, due to my inherent curiosity. Among them, the most memorable and most inspiring was that of Tina Seelig, who gave a talk at Simon Business School at University of Rochester. She is an incredible woman and a passionate educator at Stanford University who founded eCorner, a program at the entrepreneurship centre in Stanford’s School of Engineering. eCorner is full of resources. As I tuned into the podcast week after week, my interest in entrepreneurship grew. I strongly believe that the exposure to eCorner is the foundation for my transformation.

Later, at another event at University of Rochester, I met another amazing woman who would change my career forever. I was at a research and technology showcase at the eye institute when I met the CEO of a venture capital firm based in upstate New York. Over cocktails, she asked me about my career goals and aspirations.

At the time, just like the majority of graduate students, I aspired to teach at a university many years later and eventually to lead a research group of my own. And like the majority of my peers, I thought a postdoctoral position either in academia or industry was the natural next step, or – more appropriately –  the required next step. When I told her that even though it might be farfetched, I believed that even drosophilagenetics can lead to applications in the real world and that ultimately, I would like to utilise scientific knowledge to benefit society.

She nodded and asked if I knew what technology transfer was – I had no idea. She introduced me to the director of Rochester’s office of technology transfer, who then offered me an opportunity for an internship. That was the beginning of my journey in technology transfer.

In a nutshell, technology transfer is the transformation of knowledge or ideas discovered at research laboratories into viable solutions available to the public in the marketplace. This is done mostly by filing patents on inventions with commercial potential and licensing the patents to companies to develop the idea into products. Additionally, the technology transfer field has also undergone much transformation and now focuses increasingly on university spinouts to develop early-stage technologies.

During my postdoctoral training at NIH, it became much clearer that academic jobs were dwindling, and that alternative careers are gradually becoming mainstream. I continued to volunteer at the technology transfer office and subsequently landed a licensing associate position at a university technology transfer office.

I am often asked to describe the reasons for leaving science. But in my opinion, I have not left science. In fact, I am still employed by a university – my job is to serve the university community and interface with industry partners. Even though I stopped pipetting, I am leveraging my training in science, still reading scientific articles on a daily basis, and constantly using my research skills to navigate the technology commercialisation process. I work closely with scientists to develop their discoveries and inventions towards commercialisation. My education and research training constitute the core of my strength as a technology transfer professional, while supplemented with constant learning in business and patent law.

Therefore, I urge graduate students and postdocs to take the time to explore what is outside the lab and the university, particularly because it is no longer sufficient to do a second or a third postdoc to land a job in academia. And contrary to popular belief, alternative careers can be fulfilling and very exciting for scientists.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Medium, based on an article originally published on BioCareers’s website. It has been republished with permission from the author.