I never intended to be a researcher in industry. Like many graduate students, I assumed I would finish my time in graduate school, hop on the postdoctoral fellow merry-go-round, and after an undetermined number of years, fly off into the coveted tenure track faculty position. After landing my dream job in academia, I could study the intricacies of how proteins fold into their three dimensional structures until they dragged me kicking and screaming out of the lab and into the funeral parlor.
As best I can tell, my dream was shared with several hundred other postdocs on the research track carousel, judging by the number of applicants for those coveted faculty positions advertised in the mid-1990s. As the fourth year of my postdoctoral studies came around, the renewal of funding of my fellowship became less certain. Having no desire to do a third postdoctoral fellowship, I kept applying for faculty positions while also expanding my search to pharmaceutical jobs.
Then one day I ran across the most unlikely job ad in the back pages of Science Magazine - a Research Scientist position at Monsanto in protein engineering. Having heard of Monsanto during my first postdoctoral position at Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, I had no idea they would have need for someone with my research skills and interests. But in the mid-1990s the agricultural biotechnology boom was just about to explode and the scientific leaders in the company understood that having scientists who understood how to manipulate protein function would be critical for creating improved crop plants. I applied for the role, interviewed, and successfully landed a job in agricultural biotechnology - nothing remotely resembling my plans in graduate school.
Starting in industry, as with grad school, I had an idea of what my new career would look like. My goal was to be the best protein engineer in the company, building a nice research career in the lab. For the first nine years of my time that is exactly what happened. I worked on both discovery and product development projects and did important work across the product pipeline. But then I was asked to lead a small functional team focusing on my expertise in protein design. I essentially began to leave the lab bench, but not because a hearse had pulled up to the entrance.
Over the last nine years the teams that I have led have grown in size and changed in specialization. I started off as a protein engineer but now am responsible for leading a team that focuses on cell biology and analytical chemistry. My daily work no longer revolves around the design and function of proteins, but instead asks questions about basic cell biology. It is not the career path I imagined almost twenty years ago, but my early training across all areas of chemistry gave me a wonderful foundation and curiosity for investigating science questions across many disciplines.
I never intended to be a researcher in industry or a team leader, but looking back over the past eighteen years, I have no regret that my plans in graduate school did not come to fruition as I had imagined. Life in industry has provided me with an incredible adventure and I have learned much about science and about life. I hope to share my experiences with you over the next year and welcome suggestions for things you’d love to hear about a biotechnology career from a chemistry perspective.
Jeff Seale is a Science Fellow at Monsanto where he has worked for 18 years building world-class protein engineering platforms and developing the next generation of science leaders. Outside of work he enjoys watching his children's artistic and athletic endeavors, sailing with friends and working to end extreme global poverty with the ONE Campaign.