Hosted By

Isaiah Hankel, PhD
Isaiah Hankel, PhD
Chief Executive Officer Cheeky Scientist

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6:20 Show Me The Data
19:00 Safi Bahcall
44:28 Heather Brown Harding, Ph.D.

Does leaving academia seem like a crazy idea?

It’s the ideas others deem “crazy” that often leads to your greatest success if you can stay focused, motivated, and learn how to nurture those ideas.

This week on the Cheeky Scientist Radio Show we are joined by Safi Bahcall, physicist, biotech entrepreneur, and author of the national bestseller Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries. Safi will talk about the new systems and principles for success, and how the dynamics of group behavior can help support new ideas for growth and change. Safi will share how to find success as you challenge norms, be innovative, and find support ideas that others might deem “crazy”. We are also joined by Heather Heather Brown-Harding, PhD, Assistant Director of Wake Forest Microscopy, who will discuss her transition into a microscopy career and how other PhDs can pursue this career.

About Our Guests

Safi Bahcall is a physicist, biotech entrepreneur. He is the author of the National Bestseller: Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries where he writes about nurturing radical breakthroughs through revealing some surprising mysteries of group behavior.

He received his BA summa cum laude from Harvard and his PhD in physics from Stanford, where he worked with Lenny Susskind in particle physics (the science of the small) and the Nobel laureate Bob Laughlin in condensed matter physics (the science of the many). He was a Miller Fellow in physics at UC Berkeley (the school of the many). After working for three years as a consultant for McKinsey, Safi co-founded a biotechnology company developing new drugs for cancer. He led its IPO and served as its CEO for 13 years.

Heather Brown-Harding, PhD is currently the assistant director of Wake Forest Microscopy and graduate teaching faculty. Dr. Heather Brown-Harding received her Ph.D. from the University of Florida in Microbiology & Immunology. In graduate school, she spent most of her time on a home-built spinning disc confocal microscope. Heather realized a professorship was not for her and joined Zeiss Microscopy as Account Manager for MIT and surrounding institutions. When transitioning back into academia for core management at Wake Forest University she began working extensively to bring Expert Microscopy to market. ExScope launched in March 2019 and she is now in both academia and industry.

Key Takeaways

  1. Why you need to know how academia and industry each view time and resources and the mindset shift that will help you cross over.
  2. How to reframe failure and criticism in your job transition to gather information through both with curiosity rather than contempt (and how to stay motivated in spite of both!)
  3. In industry, how the field of microscopy is presenting new opportunities for PhDs.

How Crazy Ideas Can Help PhDs Get Jobs: A Conversation With Safi Bahcall

Isaiah: We have a lot of people here who are considering that transition and I’m sure when you were in academia that it was a kind of a big decision too. What led to you making the decision to transition out of academia and wanting to start your business and write?

Safi: That’s a great question. I’m actually really excited to be here because when I went into business for the first time, after a couple of years I was put in charge of a program of helping PhDs and MDs and advanced degrees transition from the academic world to the business world. So this is what I did for a living for a while.

And one of the things that I would start by saying … A couple of things I would start by saying but one is that the way I would describe it to folks, the transition … I don’t think I set foot off a university until I was about 30 years old. My parents were both scientists. I grew up on the campus of Princeton University. All I knew was scientists and I just got very curious like what happens in the rest of the world outside of university? And I remember I was dating this woman at the time and she was working in an office and I was like, “Wow, that sounds interesting. What’s an office? What exactly is a job? I don’t understand.” … and I was literally 28 years old.

So she took me into her … she was a paralegal at the time and she was working in a law firm and she took me in on a Friday afternoon. I remember going around and asking folks, “So could you tell me what you do?” And they’re like, “I really can’t describe it.” I’m like, “Are you happy? No. Are you happy? No.” Literally I went around and asked 15 people like, “Are you happy?” And they were like, “No.” And I was like, that sent me back.

That kept me in academia for another couple of years.

The way I describe it to folks who are scientists right now, or considering the transition is being an academia is like going to the gym and exercising your left bicep for years, like a decade or 20 years. You may have the best left bicep in the world, and one of the top five left biceps in the world, but the rest of your body is kind of flabby. And the transition to the business world in a lot of jobs, you really are problem solving in a similar kind of creative problem solving way. But you need to exercise much more broadly, all of your muscles. You may not have the best left bicep in the world, you may not be specialists in multivariate differential equations.

You certainly won’t be needing that in the business world. But you will learn all sorts of kind of fascinating skills. How to motivate people, how to work within teams, how to influence folks ups down left, right, how to solve problems quickly and effectively and efficiently, how to structure problem solving in very new ways. So it’s like the difference between going to the gym and just exercising one muscle and being a much more broad athletes. So that’s one thing I like to say.

Second thing is that you are playing a very different kind of game in the business world than the academic world. And the way to think about it is this, it’s speed chess versus regular chess. And in the academic world-

In the academic world, you have in some sense, infinite time and limited resources, especially if you’re into PhD, it will seem like infinite time, but very limited resources. In the business world, it’s flipped 180. I have relatively speaking infinite resources, but limited time. It’s the same kind of problem solving and creativity and trying to figure stuff out. Similar rules of the game, but because of those constraints, it’s a very different game. You have to learn how to solve problems quickly, solve them at the good enough level, not the perfect level. Because the third thing that I tell people that they need to understand when they make this transition is what is valued is different.

The rules of the game is different and how you win the game is different. In academia, the goal is originality. Your track record, your career, your publication list, for example. In the business world, the goal is results. The goal is results and it’s not at all about you. It’s about your team.

People care about your team and you and how you’re able to motivate people. Why? Because you want to create new things. Let’s say you want to innovate or be an entrepreneur, you want to create new products. It’s never about an individual. Someone can have an idea in a shower, but that’s about 0.1% of it. The 99.9% of it is getting other people excited about your idea, developing market strategy, all sorts of things, product strategy, manufacturing strategy, sourcing strategy, customer strategy, revenue strategy, and implementing all those things. So that’s 99% and that requires a team.

So wherein as in academia the focus is on your original ideas, in business, the focus is, it doesn’t really matter where the idea comes from. So that’s in a nutshell how I think about that differences between the two worlds.

Isaiah: In the book you talk about a lot of exciting things in turns of phrases and you have this one that’s called a listen to the suck with curiosity. So can you talk a little bit about what that is and how it might be relevant to PhDs?

Safi: Sure. And in fact it was a PhD … well actually was an MD who I got that from who was an incredible scientist and researcher who would have won the Nobel prize had he lived a little bit longer, but it was a guy named Judah Folkman who was a Chief of Surgery at Children’s Hospital in Boston. And as a young guy, he came up with a new way to treat cancer, block the blood supply feeding tumors.

And at the time he was not only not taken seriously because the only way to treat cancer at the time was chemotherapy, which poisoned tumors or radiation, which burned them. People suggested ideas, nodes, blood supply, what are you talking about? Mysterious substance. It causes tissues to create new blood vessels. That’s crazy. And eventually there were ups and downs, like all sorts of research ups and downs and ups and downs.

And at some point the Wall Street Journal published that headline after some people came out and were attacking him saying, “Noted cancer researcher stumbles as other labs failed to reproduce his results.” And that can be a career ending kind of thing. Non reproducible data, especially a national headline. The way most people would react to adversity like this or people rejecting your idea. Whatever you’re working on, if you’re an entrepreneur, you’re working on a new project. If you’re a scientist, you’re working on a new idea. When an investor rejects your pitch or someone rejects your idea or a partner walks away, your initial reaction if you poured your heart and soul into it as to dismiss.

Oh, these people are idiots. They don’t understand. They don’t know. What are they talking about? And you seek reassurance from, let’s say your friends, your mentors, your mother that you’re on the right track. And what Judah would do, and I found this so typically in so many successful scientists as well as entrepreneurs, is they would take off that defensiveness hat. I mean, they might wear it for a few minutes and Judah would rant privately to me. But then take it off and put on something more like a Sherlock Holmes hat.

What you did in that particular instance, unlike others that might publish something or write an angry letter is he called up the guy who did his experiment, we tried to reproduce this experiment, said, “Hey, could you walk me through with your postdoc and your students step-by-step what you did. I just want to understand.” So he sat down with his students and the other guy’s student step by step until they saw where something was going wrong and they uncovered that in shipping and freezing down this protein and shipping it across the country, there was some leakage from the package just in the freezing process that was contaminating the protein and kind of an interesting way.

Uncovered the problem, solved it, began working, got a lot of credibility and learned a bunch of new things. So LSC, listen to the suck with curiosity. And here’s why I add that curiosity, especially because if you’re in the business world, you’ll often hear stuff about blah, blah, blah, active listening, blah, blah, blah which basically means repeat what you’ve heard. Well that’s not good enough. Like if someone is telling you your stuff sucks, this doesn’t work, this doesn’t make sense. I’m not really going to buy your product. I’m going to walk away. If you just say, “I hear you, thank you.” And move on, you’ve lost. Why? Because there’s a little … There may very well be if you pull on that thread, and that’s not easy because people don’t want to really give you that information. But if you can put on that Sherlock hat and say, “Could you help me understand?”

I know that’s not easy and it’s asking a lot for you to take your time and something, you know, it can be a difficult conversation and people don’t want to do it, but it’d be an enormous favor and gift if you could just walk me through your thinking. And sometimes when you pull on that thread, you’ll find a nugget of gold. You’ll learn something like, “Hey, well there was this competitor from Belgium who has this other product and it has this feature.” And be like, “Wait, what? Really feature?” And you’re like, it takes you two hours to reprogram or do something or meet that need and you have a win. Or this guy said, “You know, I was following all along here, and then I got lost right there and then I just gave up.” And you’re like, “Oh my God, that’s so easy to fix.”

So LSC means listen to the suck with curiosity. Get rid of the defensiveness, forget all that active listening. Just try to uncover why. Once you do that, if you ever get very good at doing that, you can identify those little gold nuggets that can make either your idea in science or your product or your service. If you’re an entrepreneur, you can turn it around. And so I actually think of the great … the scientists that I’ve worked with, the Nobel laureates, the greatest inventors, innovators, entrepreneurs. Their skill was less about coming up with new ideas. Their skill was in investigating failure.

Everybody can have ideas. Most of the time they fail. The truly great ones keep investigating those failures, and that’s where they learn something useful.

Microscopy Career Track: A Conversation With Heather Brown-Harding, Ph.D.

Isaiah: I wanted to bring on Heather briefly here to talk about why did you get into this? Because like Safi, you had this bug inside of you where you wanted to do something more, right? You wanted to create something. Kind of like what drives a lot of people that start their own business or write a book. You kind of did that together in this course. What drove you to want to take on creating a program?

Heather: While I was still at Zeiss, I attended a Women In Science and Technology mixer to meet other people, and I was surprised that … just out in Worcester … that there were so many people that didn’t know how to use their microscope. That’s less than an hour to Boston, one of the biggest places to be able to get into science in the world. Their university didn’t have someone that was their microscopy director. They didn’t have classes to take. They had these perfectly good microscopes, but no one knew how to take a picture, let alone get actual quantitative data out of this. And so with that, that’s when I reached out to Isaiah and was like, “How do you start this Cheeky Scientist thing?” That’s when we decided that maybe a collaboration would be our best move forward.

I was just very motivated to be able to get access to people throughout the world to be able to do quality microscopy, to not be afraid of getting on your microscope, and to have confidence in your images, as well as just being able to get through your projects faster. Obviously I have an extreme love for microscopes, but not everyone does. Some people just want to be able to know what they’re doing, get through it, and move on to their next thing. Especially when you’re in industry, when you have such a small amount of time to get things done, you don’t want to spend all your time troubleshooting an experiment that if you had just a little knowledge, you’d be done.

So with that, that’s why I really put in a lot of effort to take all the ideas of microscopy. There’s a lot of physics and chemistry in microscopy, but you don’t need to know every detail. But bringing it down to a level that someone that’s, say, an upper level undergraduate would be able to understand was my goal, so that we could get as many people as possible using their microscopes right, and we could have more pretty pictures, as well as good data, in papers that we were seeing going out. I’m sure that you’ve read a paper that you just wonder, “How did this get past the reviewer? This is terrible.”

Isaiah: And I think what’s amazing about your career and your experience in microscopy is you have that industry experience and the academic experience. So like everybody here, you transitioned, or people here that have either transitioned or want to transition. So what was that like? What did you learn in industry? What were some of the differences you saw? I just thought to ask this, because after our conversation with Safi … Why did you transition and then what were the differences you saw?

Heather: Before I joined Cheeky Scientist, I didn’t know about the program yet, and I was desperate to get out of my postdoc. It was just not a good match. It was paying terribly, outside of Boston. As everyone here that hasn’t transitioned knows, things are so desperate. I was able to … I took a class on how to improve my … or change … it was called CV To Resume, that my school had put on. And within a week of updating my Linkedin profile, I had a recruiter from Zeiss call. My first response when they wanted me to be an account manager was, “Well, but I’m a scientist.” Because I had imagined all along I was going to work on a bench at a company. You know, I’m not really going to change things, it was just going to be at a company and make some money.

But then, with my love of microscopy, I was like, “Well if I’m going to do this, why don’t I do it for one of the best companies in the world?” Actually, I had a lot of fun, but the lifestyle ended up not being for me, traveling so much. But I just remember when it … this might sound crazy, but one of the things was, our company car was this big SUV, and going to Cambridge and parallel park that thing into a small thing and just feeling accomplished, like, “I am more than just a scientist.” Then the scientist part of you, you do more consultative sales, so you try to figure out what their actual problem is and solve it for them. So you’re still using all that knowledge that you’ve gotten over the time in your PhD to just solve different problems, as well as things that may not be remotely related to science.

Just figuring out, “Okay, well, this demo machine needs to be here and I need to do this because of this timeline.” So doing the job actually made me much more confident and just feeling like I am more than just a bench scientist. And so, when I was leaving, I still wanted to be intensely in microscopy, and so that’s why I took the position at Wake Forest. I wanted to get up my experience so that I could start my own business. And so right now we have the Expert Microscopy that will be opening up again shortly, and we’ll see where it goes from there. But yeah, it was a lot of hustle outside of normal work time.

I mean, I was actually quite shocked at first when I first transitioned. I mean, there was almost no no overlap in what I was experiencing. Collaboration is huge in Industry. As academics where we are used to a different style of collaboration where it’s okay, we’re collaborating now, but really it’s, you are going into your corner and you’re doing a part of a study independently by herself and then eventually you’ll share an authorship with somebody else. And that’s, that’s what kind of collaboration you see and academia but in industry, it’s quite different. You are many times interdependent on other people to drive projects forward. So really what you bring to the table and what others bring to the table need to be complementary. That’s how you end up moving projects forward and getting anywhere in industry. So it’s, it’s a much different version, a much more intense version of collaboration.

** for the full interviews check out the video above

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