Friday, December 9, 2011

Bridging the gap between science and business


From an early age I loved finding out how things worked and it was no surprise that I went on to become a scientist and pursue an academic career. What never interested me was business.
Lots of people talk about how they would love to run their own business one day but it was not something I ever thought about. I scoffed at the business lectures I was forced to take as an undergrad and found them head-noddingly boring. I wanted to know how to cure cancer, not run a bank. So it comes as a surprise, even to me, that I am now pursuing the ultimate business degree - the MBA.
It all started when I graduated from my masters' degree in drug design and went out to get some work experience. I got a job at a small biotech start-up company called Lab901. The science wasn't the most exciting - buffer development does not turn me on in an academic sense - but the company was inspiring. It was a melting pot of engineers, scientists, computer programmers, business managers and entrepreneurs.
It was no different from most other start-up companies I'm sure, but I found the environment very exciting. The one drawback was that everyone spoke a different language. The marketeers and the entrepreneurs had to learn about the science, and the scientists had to appreciate that their product couldn't sell itself. All these highly educated people were somewhat out of their comfort zone. Without realising at the time, that's when I understood the need for cross-disciplinary employees: people who can bridge the gap between business and science. It is not a new concept by any means but it was new to me.
A little over two years after starting at Lab901, I decided to move on to pursue a PhD in clinical science. Shortly after being awarded the project, my new supervisor contacted me with details of a scholarship that would allow me to pursue an MBA alongside my PhD. He thought I would find it interesting with my industry background. Heart pounding and palms sweaty with excitement, I jumped at the chance, hoping that having the extra business knowledge would accelerate my career. Not only that, the idea of having the skills to potentially create my own version of something like Lab901 was exciting.
Originally I signed up to study the MBA course alongside my PhD over two years, and then have a further two years to finish my PhD. However, with the course being the first of its kind in the UK, things didn't quite take off in time and I have now reverted to the traditional three year PhD with a one year MBA course lined up straight after. The thought of leaving the lab for longer than 12 hours during my second year was just too much for me. There would have been no possibility of setting up and running experiments in three month structured blocks, as is the norm, and I almost certainly wouldn't have been able to finish on time.
Not long into my first year I had a bit of a freak out - I had signed up to a degree in an area I had no knowledge of, usually reserved for those with qualifications in business and experience of running one. To make sure I am little more prepared by the time my PhD is over, I am now attending business courses designed for science and technology students run by the university. I am also learning other skills through short term work placements and online lectures, all of which I love. The funny thing is that these courses are not that different from the ones I was made to sit through as an undergraduate.
I still occasionally wake up from crazy dreams that can only be interpreted as manifestations of my anxiety that I might have bitten off more than I can chew, but at least I am doing something about it. At least for the next few years, my life will be much the same as any other PhD student. Like most, I hope for good data and pray for papers. I just hope my hard work and preparation for the MBA will pay off.

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