Career Perspectives: Erin Piazza, associate bioinformaticist

Erin Piazza

Erin Piazza

  1. Please describe your current position.

My position is an interesting niche within bioinformatics, where I get to leverage my understanding of biology and computational skills to perform interesting and varied tasks. This mostly ends up meaning one of two things – biological content development for products (think gene lists for a large gene expression assay based around topic X) and general R&D support (which could be writing algorithms or programs, analyzing thermodynamics for oligos in a reaction, annotating gene lists, you name it). Every day looks different, but I do a lot of thinking about how biology fits together on the grand scale, assessing how to break a large topic down into its constituent, assay-able parts, as well as analyzing data in ways that would take most bench scientists forever or they wouldn’t think to do.

  1. How far in advance of your planned starting date did you begin looking for jobs?

Honestly, not at all. I graduated, got married, and moved in the same month, and so my main goal was to de-stress from all of that while unpacking before starting my job. I started looking for jobs about 1 month out from my ideal start time, and ended up landing the job about 6 weeks after starting my search, with a start date 8 weeks from the beginning of my search.

  1. How did you learn about your current position?

I checked the company’s website because I had heard of the company via a colleague at my graduate institution.

  1. Were any resources (inside or outside your university) particularly helpful in your job search?

My colleague that pointed me in the direction of the company had friends who worked there. I met with one of them first, and they were able to connect me with the group inside the company doing the hiring. My university was actually strongly unhelpful – they pointed me in the direction of LinkedIn and told me they couldn’t help me with my resume until I had an actual job to apply for. If they knew anything about applying for jobs, time is of the essence, and it’s impossible to get an appointment with them in a reasonable window. You’re better off sending in your best work than waiting for them to get their act together. They handed me a PhD resume example, which I did use in creating the various resumes I drew up during my job search.

  1. What was your work or educational background before you were hired?

My PhD was in Cancer Biology from Stanford, and my research was a bench-science project. I did take a few bioinformatics courses and did as many side projects in that area as I could, so I was well-equipped for questions during the interview about my background/expertise/experience.

  1. Which aspects of your background (doctoral training, postdoctoral training, internships, etc.) were required for your position?

Doctoral training wasn’t required for my position, but it’s certainly been helpful. Bioinformatics experience, a bachelor’s or master’s (preferred) in bioinformatics/biology was on the job description. I did do some bioinformatics work for a paper that came out of my lab, and I do think it helped that I had one project that was integral to a published unit, even if it wasn’t my first author paper (or my main PhD project).

  1. How long after your interview did you start your position? Were there any barriers to starting your position when you had hoped (e.g. lack of space or funding available, time to secure appropriate visa or any other official procedures)?

It was about 3 weeks from formal interview to start date, but about a day until I was told I had the job. So no barriers at all, and the start date coincided with my boss’ return from vacation.

  1. How would you describe the interview process and how did you prepare for it? Were there any skills or experiences in your CV that seemed to stand out?

The interview process was reasonably straightforward, I had about 4-5 30-minute one-on-one meetings with various people I’d interact with on the job. One of those people asked different and more pointed questions than the others about my teamwork skills, but given that the lack of soft skills in academia was an issue for me and my natural tendency is toward industry-style communication and organization, these weren’t difficult for me to answer. For the most part, what they were looking for was my ability to creatively work through random and challenging problems (PhD skill for sure) and bioinformatics experience, about which I was able to give a number of anecdotes about different projects I’d done. I had feared that the lack of coherence to a strong research background in a single bioinformatics project would be a detriment, but the randomness and variety of my shorter projects were actually strongly in my favor for this particular position.

  1. Did you pursue any other position or career path prior to being hired in your current position? If so, what factors led to your ultimate job choice?

I did apply for a variety of positions, including some research positions at the bench, but bioinformatics (and specifically this position) was my first choice.

  1. Has your career trajectory followed the path you had expected when you started graduate school?

Hah, no! How many people really do? I had done a LOT of research prior to graduate school, starting in high school and taking me through no less than 7 labs by the time I graduated with my PhD. I felt that I’d been around research, knew the culture and way of life, and was set to live out my days a happy professor. I also loved teaching, so being a professor seemed to be a pretty great match. A number of things changed during grad school, mostly because when you are inundated in a culture for long enough and it is your sole focus, it feels totally different than shorter research stints “for fun” while you’re pursuing a different degree. In the end, the culture of academic research didn’t suit me – it was too open-ended, offered too few opportunities for achievement (especially recognizable achievement), was administratively disorganized, and didn’t offer a work-life balance I could see as sustainable. I found that those who stayed for postdocs mostly either hadn’t thought deeply about their options or truly believed it was a prerequisite to success in any scientific endeavor. I wasn’t very confident in my ability to find a job in industry, because I really hadn’t known anybody who did so right out of the PhD, and let’s face it, it is a major career transition. Most people don’t have the emotional or financial wherewithal directly after graduating to make such a major transition. If it takes time, they don’t have the money unless they’re in a relationship with a partner who can support them. It also takes a lot of thought and emotional energy to rebrand yourself into someone who has qualifications a company is willing to pay for, and by the end of most PhDs, you’re more than ever convinced of your own worthlessness and totally unprepared to think of yourself in any other way. I was fortunate to be able to take some time off, which I highly recommend if you can do it, especially around people who are not going to let you mope or not believe in yourself. In fact, I’d say I was very aided by not being around the area of my grad school or my friends still in it when I was job searching. It takes some time to overcome the negative attitudes and atmosphere of grad school, and to realize that you did accomplish something amazing. When everyone around you has or is about to achieve what you have, it makes you totally unaware of the accomplishment your degree really is.

  1. Is there anything about your current job that you had not expected before you were hired?

I’m not sure that I knew what to expect, other than I was hoping that it would be very different than grad school. I wasn’t prepared for an encouraging atmosphere. I got stopped in the bathroom by a colleague I don’t talk to all that often, saying she’d heard about this program I was writing that she just thought was awesome. I get a lot of “thank you” and “well done”, and give them out often as well. The truth is, when you’ve got a whole group of people working toward a common goal, even if it’s just making a company money, the clarity of your goals and objectives lead to a culture where we all want each other to succeed. We also have to organize very intentionally around getting things done, and I like being assisted in my pursuit of getting done what someone else told me would be valuable to do. I also wasn’t prepared for the level of institutional support – my computer was paid for, they order me the office supplies I ask for, my transit is paid for, my coffee/tea habit is paid for, and it is someone’s job to organize regular fridge/freezer cleanouts in the kitchen (which used to be my lab mate every so many months taking time out of his research schedule to throw out moldy food in the fridge). I also didn’t expect to attend conferences, which I actually have done once and have been encouraged to do more of. It’s a great way to keep current with what’s going on in biology. Because I don’t have a narrow research focus, I get to learn about more varied topics, and enjoy scientific discovery for what it is – the true love of learning. Yes, for me that ends up meaning I am going to turn the hottest new topic into a product that makes money, but I get to learn about what everyone thinks is exciting without feeling like it endangers my research or getting involved in the politics of academic science.

  1. Are there any particular skills or experiences you wish you had before you started?

Not really. It’s always a transition, and you can’t really prepare for it. Having a PhD should make you a quick and agile learner, which helps in adjusting to a new environment – you learn the ropes pretty quickly.

  1. How do you spend an average workday?

I do a lot more email than I used to! My emails come from tons of places – colleagues from my projects, sales and support folks that need bioinformatics support or files, and customers. Handling random customer projects is always interesting, and adds a little uncertainty to your day plan (those come in and you tend to deal with them immediately). I have a to-do list that comes from a number of deliverables I must do and a smaller list of things I think would be helpful but aren’t on any project list but mine. Some weeks are more about coding, some are more about annotating/organizing biology, but in the end, a good percentage of my day is getting my job done. I have an average of 1-2 meetings a day, depending on where my projects are. Those meetings take about an hour each out of my work time. My time is much more focused in industry, as I’m not at my bench talking to my friends over my western blot or taking a coffee run with them down the street. Coffee breaks are me walking 100 feet, filling up on coffee or tea in the break room, and returning to my desk to enjoy it over work. I do get some freeform time with colleagues, but it’s more limited: you talk for 2 minutes while getting your coffee or once in a while you go out to lunch or coffee. What that ends up meaning in the end is less hours at work overall, with more packed into them.

  1. What do you like the most about your work?

I love what I’m doing, my work is interesting, varied, and forces me to grow and learn all the time. It’s appreciated and valuable to a number of people in ways that are measurable. The value I add means that I am supported in just getting what I need (and actually really want) to do done, which ends up being so much less stressful.

  1. What do you find the most challenging about your work?

Well, nothing is as hard as the PhD. Ironically I also feel like I have less timeline pressure than in my academic life. Even though I had an interminable amount of time in concept to complete the PhD, and today I have strict deadlines, my deadlines today are all reasonably set and being in my job is not causing me stress. The most challenging thing is multi-functional team environments, but it’s actually a good, necessary, and interesting challenge to have. I work with a lot of different types of people every day, each of them with a different perspective on the same thing. I spend a lot more time thinking about how my work fits into the bigger picture. Sometimes that bigger picture requires me to do my work in a way that doesn’t fit my wishes or intuition, but my work really isn’t about me. At the end of the day it’s really freeing to realize that I am not my work, which was really hard to do in the PhD. If something goes awry in a work project, it’s probably not all your fault, it doesn’t hurt your sense of self (because that work is not getting you a degree you’ve been dreaming of), and there is a team of people that are all in it with you figuring it out. So yes, while different types of people can lead to interesting discussions, situations, and differences of opinion, it’s important to learn to work with it, because all those viewpoints are valuable in getting the job done correctly.

  1. What skills do you think are absolutely essential for your position?

Other than the scientific and bioinformatics background, good teamwork skills. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that more technical people sometimes struggle to get along with others, but in this job, you interface with a lot of people who don’t see the world the way you do. It’s important to know when to hold your ground, argue from your bias, and make sure that the bioinformatics point of view is communicated and taken into account. It’s also important to realize when your bias is just your bias, and this person you disagree with knows what they’re talking about in a completely different way that’s equally or even more valid. It’s very different than in academic research where you’re basically taught to criticize everything, to become more intellectually assertive about what you know and understand about biology or biological technique. The goal now is to accomplish something together, not just to be an expert who can tell others where they’re wrong and leave it at that.

  1. Do you think it helps to have a certain personality to do the work you do?

Not necessarily. I think it helps to have people skills, to be organized, and to truly desire to be helpful.

  1. At any point, do you repent not having pursued a career in the academic field?

Not in the least. If anything, all the reasons I left academic science have been justified, and what I thought the industry experience should be all about it really is. The strangest moments I have had were walking back into an academic environment. There’s this veil of mystery that surrounds the industry job, and academic PIs (or at least those that have been in the environment longer than a postdoc) are usually rather narrow-minded about what they consider “doing science” to entail. To me, doing science has become about applying my training and scientific knowledge to further a goal. It does not require discovery or bench research, nor should it. In order just to run the scientific enterprise, there absolutely have to be people that are willing to be away from the bench, not making discoveries so we can enable those who do. It shouldn’t at all be considered a lesser goal, we’re not just allowing the greater minds to do what they do best. In fact, in my role, I design experiments that will be carried out in tens to hundreds of labs. While the samples may be differently manipulated and the outcomes of the studies variable, the fact is that I put together the base idea that forms what kind of answers people can get. What if the key result comes from a gene they never would have thought to add to an experiment, but I did? And further, our company supports pharma research as well, so the collection of genes or meaning that I add to experiments by annotation can impact how a drug development process goes, leading to the next big oncology drug. Yes, I’m rather distant from all of these, and I may not hear about half of the outcomes, but we hear from customers all the time who love our products, who appreciate and benefit from the expertise we add to their research. That’s what doing science is all about!

  1. What advice would you give to someone looking for a position like yours?

I’d tell them to not demean what experience they have. The PhD is very valuable, and enables a kind of intellectual flexibility you don’t even realize you have. While it’s hard to believe from where you sit today, you have valuable skills, and you shouldn’t be afraid to let people know that you’re good at what you do. Bioinformatics in particular is a young sport, with more varied jobs than you’d know about. If you have an interest, there are many ways to bulk up your background that do not include getting a degree with “bioinformatics” written on it. Use your resources while in your academic training to get some experience, and especially some projects, under your belt. Don’t downplay the real world experience aspect of your background; academic training isn’t always the only avenue to a career in a particular part of biotech industry life.

About the Author:

Recommended Articles