Contributor Ewen Callaway, reporter at Nature
Where do scientists go after they leave the lab? I profiled three exceptional ex-scientists in a feature for Nature, “The ones who got away,” and I heard from many more who participated in #LifeAfterTheLab on Twitter and Facebook. Keep them coming!
My goals with “The ones who got away” were to find out why very talented scientists left the lab, where they ended up, and how their scientific training guided their path (for more on that see our accompanying editorial: There is life after academia). For editorial reasons, we focused on three people who had drifted far from science. But sources such as the NSF Survey of Doctorate Recipients and my own intuition and experience suggest that a lot of PhDs have left academia, but not science.
While researching the story, I heard from lots of group leaders about star graduate students who are now working at biotechs, science-related NGOs or, like Jasveen Chugh, at a science-based consultancy. Here’s her story.
A decade after completing her PhD, Jasveen Chugh still looks to her former mentor for advice. But the best she ever got from Bonnie Wallace, a protein crystallographer at Birkbeck College, University of London, was to leave. “Bonnie called me into my office and said ‘I know you want more and I’d encourage you to think about what might suit you better’,” recalls Chugh, now a life sciences and health care consultant at a London-based firm called PA Consulting.
The two usually catch up at Wallace’s annual barbeque for past and present member of her lab. “I view my former students as family,” she says. But Chugh couldn’t attend, so they meet at a London café in early August. Wallace, back from a conference in Australia the day before, wants to hear the latest news on Chugh’s various projects and holiday plans, and she remembers her recent job promotion. “You’re always doing 12 things at the same time,” Wallace says.
Chugh arrived to Wallace’s lab in 1999 after doing an undergraduate research project with her husband, Bob Janes, a senior lecturer at nearby Queen Mary University of London. Chugh’s passion for biochemistry, work ethic and creativity impressed the couple. “Both my husband and I said she’s one to look out for. I suspect she’ll run her own lab one day,” Wallace recalls. “We had it pencilled in.”
But Chugh had other plans. Although she studied biochemistry as an undergraduate and went on to a PhD, she never imagined herself retreating to an ivory tower. In Wallace’s lab, she determined the structure of an antimicrobial peptide that kills bacteria by forming a leaky channel in their membranes, and she hoped the research would lead to new antibiotics. “There was something that just didn’t fit quite right for me. I didn’t see myself as devoting my entire time just to research,” says Chugh, who instead wanted to learn how to take drugs to market.
Wallace, who holds an annual “alternative careers” workshop for her trainees, quickly realized that Chugh wasn’t headed on to academic life. “The thing that is most important to me with all my students is to encourage what they want, not impose upon them what I think is a good career path,” Wallace says. But she counselled Chugh to accept a post-doc at the University of Cambridge, UK that was sponsored by Unilver, an international consumer products company based on London.
“That’s when I realized that I was in my element,” says Chugh. “I got to work with people from a corporate environment, people thinking about how they were going to launch the product, how they were going to market the product.” After the post-doc, she worked in Pfizer’s animal health unit, still doing science but becoming more involved in product development. She then moved to the arm of the Medical Research Council devoted to commercializing the research it funds and enrolled in part-time MBA course at Imperial Business School. Her current job at PA Consulting involves advising pharmaceutical companies on how to improve customer engagement by altering their manufacturing so as to prevent shortages of medicines.
Naturally, Chugh sought the advice of Wallace and sometimes her husband on each of the moves. “They’re like my career parents, Bob and Bonnie,” she says. Wallace says she doesn’t dole out advice so much as act as a sounding board for her former students. “She pushed me to find the right things for me,” Chugh says.