Finding Job Satisfaction in Technology Transfer
As a business development officer at STEMCELL Technologies in Vancouver, Canada, Ben Thiede evaluates new technologies and negotiates deals that bring scientific advances to market. He describes his move from graduate studies toward law and into his current position.
What do you do?
It’s a very diverse role; I’m writing and drafting a lot of agreements – like license agreements and supply agreements. I’m helping the company evaluate the patents we have; I’m evaluating technologies that other companies are bringing to us. I’m always scouring publications; I have Google Alerts set for certain types of technologies. I feel that I am reading more scientific journals than when I was in grad school.
What appealed to you about careers that did not involve lab work?
I wanted a career where you could get paid for your efforts. I was disheartened with science. I was in a position where you could be chasing so many hypotheses, and you could lose a whole lot of work if they didn’t pan out.
Why did you go to graduate school?
I’m the first scientist in my family. I got interested in stem cells because I was living in Wisconsin, where Jamie Thomson was becoming very well known for being the first to isolate human embryonic stem (hES) cells. I worked in his lab as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; then I worked as a research assistant differentiating hES cells into neurons. I decided to go to graduate school in neuroscience. I went to visit the University of Virginia after Madison had had the biggest snowfall in history; it was 75 degrees and sunny, and it had a good neuroscience program. I wanted to stay with differentiating stem cells and studied a sensory cell in the inner ear.
And you also worked as an intern at the University of Virginia Patent Foundation.
I did it during the day, about 10 to 15 hours on average per week. At night I studied for the patent bar to be a patent agent, which means you can write patents and prosecute them. It’s very helpful knowledge for tech transfer. My PhD advisor was fine with it, as long as I got my research done.
What did you do next?
When I was in tech transfer, my goal was to go to law school; I applied to several law schools and got accepted, even a full ride to one school. But I wasn’t quite certain that I wanted to do law school, and I’d heard that law school was something you needed to be 100% certain about. Then I got a job offer from Texas A&M University. The law school let me defer for a year, and so I went to Texas to be a tech transfer agent.
I came to the realization that the marriage of business, science and law within tech transfer was perfect for me, and I didn’t think that a law degree would add anything to what I wanted to do.
How did you find your current job?
When I was at Texas A&M, my wife and I had thrown around the idea, ‘let’s live internationally.’ Then I came across an opportunity at a company in Canada called STEMCELL Technologies. The job description said how beautiful Vancouver is, how close to the beach and the mountains. I thought ‘this opportunity is kind of like tech transfer, but it’s from the other end.’ And it was in stem cells. I called my wife and said ‘I know you want to live internationally, does Canada count?’
What are your days like?
When I go into work, I have a list of ten things I want to get done and 30 things come up that I wasn’t expecting. I never know who I’m going to interact with. In science I was very independent and relying on my own creativity a lot, and now I feel a greater sense of the whole; I’m part of an organization now.
Any final thoughts?
It would have been hard to break into the field without any experience. I don’t know if I would be here if I hadn’t done my internship, and I got my internship by talking to the person who was fitting my suit [and whose son-in-law worked in a patent office]. Sometimes people who do science have a hard time with small talk and learning to communicate their interests, but that’s one of the skills people need to learn. I’ve had these opportunities because I’ve worked hard to show that I’m worth taking a risk on.
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A new analysis of results from Nature’s 2019 survey of PhD students has shed new light on Canada, a country that remains a popular destination for students from around the world. The self-selected survey drew responses from 182 students in Canada, out of a total of more than 6,300 responses. Seventy-seven percent of Canadians reported being satisfied with their overall Phd experience, a marked improvement over the 70% rate of satisfaction in the rest of the world. In China, for another comparison, only 55% of students said they were are least somewhat satisfied with their PhD experience. Some students used the survey’s comment section to share their optimism and positivity. When asked to describe the state of academia in Canada, one student replied that it is “evolving into the open, collaborative environment that it should be.” Another said “I greatly enjoy the academic system and find it extremely intellectually stimulating and exciting.” But survey results and free-text comments also point to areas of unease, including worries about job prospects. When asked to name one of the biggest challenges for students in their country, 70% of Canadians chose “finding research careers in academia.” In the rest of the world, 58% of respondents shared that concern. Overall, slightly less than half of all Canadians said that academia would be their first choice for a career, compared to 56% for students elsewhere. Many Canadian students feel under-equipped and underprepared to explore the full range of job options. Forty-six percent reported being dissatisfied with career training and advice, putting them about on par with the rest of the world. One Canadian student opined that there was “not enough advice, training, networking or collaborations for [the] non-academic track.” Students often count on their supervisors for career advice. But the Nature survey found that the student/mentor relationship can be tricky for students everywhere. Overall, 69% of respondents in Canada said they were satisfied with their relationship with their supervisor, and 23% said they were dissatisfied. One respondent said that “supervisors have too much power with no consequences for abusing that power.” In one sign of uneven relationships with mentors, some students felt under-appreciated for their work. “For some reason,” one wrote, “PhD students are not seen as proper employees or as individuals of value, despite our work being essential for the research institutes that employ us.” For some, the mentor/mentee partnership took much more serious turn. Twenty-nine percent of all respondents said they had experienced bullying during their PhD training. In the rest of the world, it was 21%. When asked to specify the perpetrator, 62% of Canadians and 48% of respondents elsewhere named their supervisor. Along similar lines, 26% of Canadians and 20% of respondents from outside Canada reported being the victim of discrimination. Nearly half (46%) of Canadians who reported discrimination said it was based on gender. In the rest of the world, gender-based discrimination accounted for 38% of all cases. PhD students in Canada clearly have much to say about the opportunities, challenges and room for improvement in the country’s academic system. They just needed to be asked.