Navigating the Shifting Academic Research Landscape: Advice for the Junior Scientist

Originally published by Future of Research

May 3, 2017

Yeo-Lab-UCSD-1Procuring a tenure-track faculty position in academic scientific research is becoming an elusive dream for an ever-increasing number of junior candidates.  With the current percentage of successful faculty applicants hovering just above 15%, the majority of those with a Ph.D. in the biomedical sciences are considering alternative career paths, regardless of their training. A new generation of scientists is questioning the usefulness of traditional, often referred to as “fossilized,” training approaches, which do little to prepare those hoping to pursue a career outside of academia.  Some mentors are attempting to facilitate the cultivation of both hard skills (rational drug design, informatics) and soft skills (networking, team management, marketing) that are valuable to the private sector, a place where most young scientists often lack the confidence to maneuver. In the case of students and postdoctoral researchers who choose to maintain an academic research career trajectory, this style of interdisciplinary training can prove equally beneficial by establishing bridges to biotech industry-mediated collaborations and funding opportunities.

UCSD professor Dr. Gene Yeo employs a highly adaptive mentoring strategy, combining training in computational biology, stem cell technology, neuroscience and bioengineering to forge collaborations with clinics, drug developers and software engineers.  Yeo’s trainees are as likely to start careers in biotechnology or data science as they are to obtain academic professorships.  This mentoring style stems from Yeo’s own very interdisciplinary training, which has made him among the most successful young scientists in the RNA field.

Yeo has a considerably “bilingual” background among disciplines. He completed his undergraduate work in chemical engineering and economics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and obtained his PhD in Computational Neuroscience at MIT in 2008. After his PhD, Yeo was appointed Junior Fellow at the Crick-Jacobs Center for Theoretical and Computational Biology at the Salk Institute. While there, Yeo also received his MBA at UCSD’s Rady School of Management.  Yeo has been involved with numerous start-ups, has consulted for biotech and pharmaceutical companies, and receives funding not only from governmental institutions, but also from industry partners. Yeo’s research group combines everything from classical biochemistry to advanced machine-learning, with the ultimate goal of understanding post-transcriptional regulation of gene expression that may underlie genetic and infectious diseases in humans.

Yeo and his lab are undeniably impressive, in terms of research and collaboration, but when I had the opportunity to sit down with him I was more interested in how he formed his collaborations and his advice for junior scientists looking to span multiple fields and form collaborations with industry, as well as his predictions for the future of RNA biology research and how to best move forward and embrace change as the academic landscape is continually growing and shifting.

Keeping the Door Between Academia and Industry Wide Open

As a mentor, Yeo works hard to provide junior scientists the opportunity to move into a track that makes sense for their career goals by encouraging that they pursue a project that intersects with their field of interest. “You can plan a research project that will closely align with the need of both the broader biological community but also, for instance, specific biotech or pharmaceutical entities,” says Yeo. “Use your network, and the network of your mentor, to build up available opportunities.”

In my time as a graduate student, I’ve witnessed many junior scientists who believe that they would like to stay in academia, but do not want to close the door to industry. For those scientists, Yeo advises choosing a versatile project that could apply to industry. “It’s far more about choosing a good project than building a specific skillset,” he says. Being able to say ‘I’ve worked with iPSCs’ or ‘I can process sequencing data’ is not enough. “In industry, what is most desired is someone smart, who knows how to logically think through problems,” says Yeo. “Someone who can use these skills to address anything thrown at them.” Yeo also mentions the opportunities that arise and allow junior scientists to capitalize on these experiences when looking for a job. “A trainee often has the ability to leverage their collaboration into a job opportunity,” says Yeo. “You make one connection and it leads to many more. Your network forms branches and people in industry move around from one company to another, and your network only spreads further.”

Success Through Collaboration

So, what makes a smooth collaboration possible? “It’s all about people,” says Yeo. “I’ve always kept in touch with people over time—that has never changed, all that changes is the scope of the interaction.” As a professor, he has learned the value of having a vision similar to someone at a company, forming a collaboration, and in doing so bringing to bear different resources and expertise. “To me it’s natural,” says Yeo. “If the collaborator was doing that work in an academic setting, we would have easily collaborated there as well. It just happens that they work in a company, not at an academic non-profit institution.” Yeo believes it’s important for junior scientists to remember that everyone in industry has, in some capacity, gone through academia, which allows them to both understand the limits of being in academia as well as the incredible benefits of teaming up with someone currently there.

Yeo also stresses the importance of experiencing other lab environments, whether in other academic labs or in industry. “Whenever you go to a different environment you learn how a different system works,” says Yeo. “These experiences are invaluable for trainees, as exposure to different perspectives gives you a stronger ability to navigate new terrain, whether that be in designing experiments, seeking funding, or managing a lab one day.”

The Rapidly Expanding Research Landscape

“There are almost an infinite number of career options today,” says Yeo.  With the increase in opportunities, the research landscape is shifting, leading to excitement that comes with some growing pains. It’s clear that a number of junior scientists enter academia knowing that they don’t want to follow the standard academic track, not seeing the appeal of a faculty position. A major complication then lies in that the mentors of these junior scientists often only know the academic side of things. “The issue in life sciences today is that we train everybody for one particular path and expect that they will happily find, and do well in, other areas,” says Yeo. “This mismatch, or issue of alignment between training someone in what they actually want to be trained in, is a major concern,” says Yeo.

Yeo sees a silver lining in all of this change. “Although this appears to be something the life sciences field is struggling with, I think this will lead to a new breed of mentors. These are mentors that can traverse many of the new careers available.” Yeo, known for his many biotech collaborations, sees a split between his own trainees going into industry and staying in academia. In the future, he foresees junior scientists choosing labs because they are known for providing the greatest opportunities in a specific professional track of interest.

A Promising Future for RNA Biologists

The RNA biology field is expanding, and the possibilities seem almost limitless. “This expansion has been building slowly, and culminated in a plethora of resources,” says Yeo. “It started accelerating in the early 2000s, with microRNAs and siRNAs and more companies using antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs) to target RNA. More RNA companies are popping up. What’s exciting about being an RNA biologist now is the ability to rapidly move from basic to translational work.” Yeo continues, “There will be increasingly more technologies available that will allow us to measure different aspect of RNA processing. Now, the question is, how do we best integrate these methods?” Put simply, we as scientists aren’t limited to asking solely one question, we can ask multiple questions at the same time. “In the past, one would argue that you can do well by studying one aspect of RNA biology, but now you are almost required to study many different aspects at the same time in a complex system.”

In Yeo’s mind, collaboration is essential for progression of the RNA biology field, and he believes that the ability to look at dozens of facets of RNA biology calls for larger labs and/or increased collaboration between labs. “If there are ten things, for instance, that we hope to assay in the RNA life cycle, a lab needs anywhere from 5-10 people who have different expertise and perspectives to work together,” says Yeo. “I think the RNA community needs to interact even more with one another. That’s a part I feel is truly missing, and where I see big opportunity.”

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