What does it mean to “be a scientist”? People generally have a very academia-centric view: scientists do research, write grants and churn out papers. Yet there are many ways to work in a scientific setting without being an academic. Often these jobs, be they as managers, analysts or communicators, are found in industry. Unfortunately, academics are often warned against moving to the industry side. Dr. Dirk Gevers, Global Head of the Janssen Human Microbiome Institute (JHMI), made the jump from academia to industry. In this interview, he reflects on the challenges and opportunities he has found in his new vocation.
What was your background in academia?
“I walked a pretty traditional path. I completed a bachelor in biochemistry and a PhD in microbiology. During my PhD I found myself leaning towards bioinformatics, which I then pursued as a postdoc. I came to MIT and started working for the Broad Institute, where I got very good at analyzing microbiology data through informatics.”
Explore your opportunities. There are so many ways of being a scientist. Don't be afraid of looking outside of the walls of academia.
“In February 2008, I got pulled into the Human Microbiome Project (HMP). The four key years of the HMP were 2008 to 2012, during which I rapidly grew in my own skills and expertise. I went from a visiting postdoc, to a computational scientist, to a group leader, all in those four formative years. I loved the collaborative approach of the HMP. It came with a lot of challenges, but also great opportunities.”
Why did you end up making the change from academia to industry?
“People often say the stars aligned, and it certainly felt like that in my case. Towards the end of the HMP, in 2014, opportunities approached me from many different directions. I was talking to entrepreneurs who were after someone with my expertise for their start-ups, VCs that wanted to partner with me to launch new companies, and pharmaceutical companies that wanted to pursue the microbiome and wanted someone to lead that endeavor. For me the most important thing was being able to have a meaningful impact on health, and while all these opportunities were translational in nature, I felt leading the Janssen Human Microbiome Institute (JHMI) put me in the best position to achieve this impact.”
Within the industry there is an incredible amount of diversity in how you can be a scientist. You may be very analytical, or social, or have an inclination for business; combined with your scientific expertise, these complimentary skills can be expressed in so many ways.
What are some of the major differences between working in academia and working in the pharmaceutical industry?
“I believe the main difference is in the incentives. In the academic world you make a career through the papers and the grants that you accumulate. It’s driven by the quality and quantity of your publications. Industry is ultimately driven by creating value for patients, and by being able to capture that value through the commercialization of a product. So many grants applications are written stating ’if we do this study we will get closer to solving a disease‘, but there is such a gap between the foundational research in academia and the translation of those findings into a product that will actually help people.”
What is it you love the most about your work at JHMI?
“At the JHMI, we tap into innovation to create a portfolio of opportunities by focusing on the external world. It is all about partnerships. It is about working with the very best in academia and the entrepreneurial world, while being able to leverage the expertise and resources of a global health care company. We’re still solving critical questions, but we always do it in the context of what meaningful product we could be developing. I love pursuing the microbiome as it has a huge potential for generating products – therapeutics, diagnostics, nutritionals. This field will not be one where it takes 25 years to translate a finding into a drug: we are constantly seeing new treatments being discovered and advanced for patients.”
At the JHMI, we tap into innovation to create a portfolio of opportunities by focusing on the external world. It is all about partnerships.
Do you have any advice for academics who are looking to make the transition from academia to industry?
“Explore your opportunities. There are so many ways of being a scientist. Don't be afraid of looking outside of the walls of academia, be it towards entrepreneurs, investors, or people in the life sciences industry. Learn how many different ways there are to work in science, and which opportunities align best with your personality.”
“Within the industry there is an incredible amount of diversity in how you can be a scientist. You may be very analytical, or social, or have an inclination for business; combined with your scientific expertise, these complimentary skills can be expressed in so many ways. The diversity of jobs that all exist under the ’scientist‘ label is unbelievable. I keep telling my friends still in academia to make connections: get a sense of what people in industry are doing. There are so many opportunities where you are still involved in cutting edge, good quality research; it would be advantageous to consider your options.”