They’re the people whose names are perennially left off scientific papers they helped shape. They’re the people who have to drop everything because a problem arises with someone else’s research. And they are, let’s face it, the people you are most likely to gripe about in the privacy of your lab when you feel that experiments aren’t happening fast enough or producing the right data.
So how could a job in a core facility be just the right choice to advance your career?
David Ginzinger remembers wrapping up his postdoc at the University of California, San Francisco, and considering his next step. A core lab at the school needed a director, but Ginzinger wasn’t interested. “I thought it was just a glorified technician role,” he says. But practical considerations finally swayed him: “At first it was pure money,” he recalls. “I could make a much better salary and still be involved in academia.” He also thought he might like to work in industry one day, and decided that time at the core lab would be a good transition.
But it turned out that the “glorified technician role” suited Ginzinger to a T. As director of the genome analysis core, he got to spend more time with big-ticket instruments than most scientists do — and working on so many research projects exposed him to a range of techniques and applications that wouldn’t have been possible in a single lab. “What a core lab trains a person to do is application development of a technology,” he says. “I started realizing that companies were very interested in talking to me because I had access to a lot of different ideas and applications.”
Ginzinger’s position made him valuable not only to the academic scientists he worked with, but to external companies looking to improve or expand the use of their technologies. It also made him ripe for the picking; Applied Biosystems hired Ginzinger away to run its scientific operations and advanced R&D.
In addition to the sheer number of contacts Ginzinger made from his perch at the core facility, he got first pass on some of the newest technologies on the market. That’s par for the course, says Scottie Adams, who runs the molecular biology core facility at the Trudeau Institute in upstate New York. “You get to try out new techniques and new technologies. You have to decide which ones are going to fly and which ones are a flash in the pan,” she says. That’s a serious responsibility, but it’s also pretty close to heaven for the technophiles in the community.
Beyond the technology access, core facilities serve as a good training ground for skills that aren’t necessarily abundant in research labs. Working on a budget, communication skills, personnel management, and project management are several examples, according to Adams and Ginzinger. Those are all skills that are stereotypically in short supply in academic labs but are crucial for working well in a company. “Project management in companies can parallel really closely a lot of the duties of a core manager,” says Ginzinger, who now heads up R&D at startup Linkage Biosciences.
Even if you’re not trying to make the transition to a corporate setting, core labs have a major advantage to the more traditional academic path, Adams points out — and that’s lifestyle. She originally took a post at a core facility because, after considering a future of uprooting every few years for her PhD, postdoc, and so forth, she decided that that kind of life was too disruptive. Being able to advance her training by working at a core lab provided a challenging environment with the stability she sought. “Most of the core facility directors I know [have] been there forever — 10, 12, or more years,” she says. “[It suits] somebody that would like to stay in one place.”