It’s a brand new month and after a short hiatus it’s time for a return of one of my favourite features on the blog – Scientist in the Spotlight! After the success of Spotlight September, I received loads of messages with requests for new perspectives on this feature and suggestions for role models that YOU wanted to see, so I have made that happen – starting with this month’s Scientist in the Spotlight – Sean M.
One really important message that I try to spread across my blog and my social media is that ‘Being a scientist is not just one thing!’. Most people have this stereotypical image of what a career as a scientist is like and that can put people off doing a STEM degree! However, this stereotype could not be more wrong and I hope my efforts will contribute to breaking that stereotype. This month’s Scientist in the Spotlight Sean is a scientist but he has left the lab bench and become a businessman. This interview with Sean shares his journey after academia and whether scientific research prepared him for starting a business in anyway and much more. So, I am thrilled to introduce to you, Sean M.
Let’s start off with your business. What can you tell us about ELISA Genie?
Sean: ELISA Genie started as an idea two years ago with my partner Colm Ryan. We were both PhDs and postdocs working in labs in the UK and France and thought there has to be better platforms out there where scientists can get ELISAs, antibodies and assays from.
From there we decided to set up own our antibody company. It was a long road but eventually we got labs in China set up and a contract lab in the US to produce, test and validate antibodies and assays for us. It was a great step. Now we run three websites, AntibodyGenie.com, AssayGenie.com and ELISAGenie.com providing scientists with research tools from around the world.
But you didn’t start out as a businessman, you are a scientist. So, what research were you doing?
Sean: I carried out my PhD in University College Dublin working in the lab of Margaret McGee. This was a straightforward biochemistry PhD that looked at the phosphorylation of a protein called Bim during mitosis. I’ve talked about my research at Pint of Science and what I told the audience was ‘When you are growing your body it completes a process called cell division, where a cell divides into two. However, if these cells have problems when dividing, like separating the information in the cells equally, the cells may become cancerous. What my project involved was looking at how long these cells take to divide their information equally. If this process takes too long, a signal in the cells tells them it’s not working, so it would be safer to self-destruct rather than divide incorrect data that may result in cancer or abnormalities’. It was a great project. I rally learnt a lot and gave me some great skills to use outside of the lab. I was lucky enough to publish a paper from my PhD, even though there were two competing labs publishing at the same time, we got to post first! So I was delighted with that! Most of my PhD was running Western blots, protein purification and kinase assays. I also did a tonne of cloning and actually was pretty good at it in the end. Practice makes perfect!
You seemed to really love being in the lab, so what made you leave the lab bench and switch into business?
Sean: I loved the lab! I have a subscription to Nature that arrives every Tuesday which I read, so I’m still a true scientist at heart. However, why I made the move was because after a tough PhD and postdoc I was a bit burnt out and needed a change of pace. A job came up as a Cancer marketer that allowed me to go to conferences – about 20 a year! It was a dream job – attending conferences and travelling. An opportunity I couldn’t miss!
Saying that, I think a lot of scientists can be apprehensive about moving out of academia. I think the best piece of advice was to look for jobs that challenge you as much as your PhD work and you will maintain that engaging work life you get in science.
Do you have any other advice for anyone who wants to get away from academia after their PhD?
Sean: Tonnes! Quickest piece of advice I can give is to try and learn another skill outside of your project while working in the lab. You might have to work twice as hard, but learning about computers, finance or marketing while doing your PhD will 100x your job opportunities when you leave!
Were there any skills you gained from your science career that helped with the leap into business then?
Sean: How to solve a problem! I loved when projects didn’t work in the lab as I learnt so much. I think being able to solve a problem or stepping back and knowing the key steps to solve any problem can make life so much easier.
Now my role is Chief Technology Officer which is so different from what you would do in a lab. I build websites, write computer programs, analyse huge datasets for all our proteins, drive some algorithm projects we have running in the company. But none of these skills I use now I learnt whilst being a PhD. Saying that, my PhD did teach me how to apply my logical thinking and research to learn how to code, write, analyse data etc.
What was the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt so far?
Sean: Be social! I talked to everyone in my building when doing my PhD. I listened about their projects and what experiements they were doing. By the end I could ask anyone for an antibody or plasmid that I needed. I got a huge amount of help that I wouldn’t have got if I had kept quiet. I use this in my professional life now and it continues to open doors.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Sean: I love to run! I did Ironman a few years ago and run the odd marathon. I just love getting out there and running! I think it’s great for he mind. The release of endorphins it gives you, the time to think that isn’t in front of a screen. I don’t bring earphones with me either as I think you need a total break to let your mind relax.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
Sean: So I think I’m probably not the conventional thinker, but what I would like to do is return to running a lab in 10 years. I’ve set my goals on running a successful antibody company, so what my dream is is that once we get big enough I can get some space to do some personal R&D. I haven’t stopped reading science or papers, so would like to go full circle.
And finally, where in the world should I visit next?
Sean: If I could tell you one place to go in Ireland it would be Achill Island of the West Coast. It’s so isolated, yet the beaches are incredible with stunning rock faces, beautiful islands in the distance and clear water. My favourite beach is Keem beach. Once you step off the beach, the next stop is the USA.
Huge thank you to Sean for taking the time to answer my questions. I wish you all the success with your business ventures and thank you for sharing your experience. Hopefully it will help others to decide what is right for them. If you have any questions about Sean’s switch to business then comment below or find him on Instagram.
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