Rather than running an independent research program in an academic lab, like many life science PhD candidates hope to eventually do, Jeff Buzby had his sights set firmly on working in biotech.
"My original plan was to get a master's degree and try to get a job in the biotech industry," Buzby says. "But the more I got into academic research, that plan started to change a bit."
Finding himself increasingly captivated by his molecular biology studies, , Buzby says he opted to "stay on to get the PhD." However, "when it was all said and done, I still had an interest in what I'd call 'applied' research — what the biotech and pharmaceutical companies do," he adds.
And while he now works in a setting that offers both the academic freedom and applied research opportunities, it took being temporarily out of work for Buzby to explore, and eventually pursue, a career in consulting.
After completing two postdocs — one at his PhD institution, Pennsylvania State University and another at the University of California, Los Angeles — Buzby stumbled upon a job opportunity that appealed to him at the Children's Hospital of Orange County. Now an immune and inflammatory disease research scientist at the research institute there, he works to uncover "genetic vulnerabilities" that put infants and children at risk for certain immunological traits and for developing inflammatory disease. Buzby recalls accepting a staff position at the nonprofit institute thinking it might be a suitable compromise between the applied research setting he wanted and the academic research setting he'd grown to appreciate. "And it actually has worked out somewhat that way," he says.
Buzby says that much like industry or academia, working in the setting he considers a middle ground between the two has its ups and downs.
On the one hand, his job affords a substantial degree of academic freedom. But unlike academic faculty, Buzby is not obligated to teach, which gives him more time to tend to his research, he says. Likewise, working at a research institute is much like working at a biotech in that he and his colleagues are working to develop diagnostic tests. Added pluses, Buzby says, are the direct connection the research staff has with patients and that the hospital's hematology lab was accredited by the College of American Pathologists last year — both of which allow him to do the type of translational research that bridges the gap between academia and industry under one roof, he says.
However, working in a nonprofit research setting also has its setbacks. "Because it is a smaller institution," Buzby says, "you don't get that sort of collaboration where you just walk down the hall and talk to someone who is really familiar with what you do."
Financially speaking, "we have some support from the hospital here. It's not real solid, but it helps," he says. To come up with the remaining funding their projects often require, Buzby and his colleagues must apply for grants. "We have to help solidify the lab's position here," he says. Being a smaller institute than most, "from a name recognition [standpoint] and reputation-wise … we're at a bit of a disadvantage" when competing for grants, Buzby adds.
The financial uncertainties can be tough at times. In 1997, Buzby was laid off from his post at CHOC — which was in the midst of a hospital-wide turnover at the time — for financial reasons. It was during the six months he was without work that Buzby began to explore an interest of his that he'd previously pushed to the back of his mind — biotech consulting. "My thinking was that maybe I could use the knowledge I had from working with patients in a more clinical setting to help other people out with their projects," he says. After meeting with a biotech consultant at an accounting firm that a friend had introduced him to, Buzby took stock of the risks involved and then a leap of faith to "set this little consulting service up."
At first, business was slow. Eventually, he was contracted by a nutritional supplement manufacturer. Seeking scientific input, the company's manager brought Buzby in. "He was really sort of on an island — he didn't have any other researchers there to talk over what to do next," Buzby says. "So I worked with him to design experiments they might want to do to show the effects of their supplements. It was really an interesting project." In time, additional consulting requests trickled in.
"The clients are usually looking to fill some sort of gap," in their workforce, knowledge-base, or otherwise, Buzby says. Often, he adds, "they're missing something that their current staff just cannot do, but something … they don't need to hire someone full-time to do permanently." Overall, Buzby says the consultant's job is to fulfill a client's temporary needs by "using your expertise … to connect them with a company or a service that can help them with their problem." Sometimes a client's problem is a scientific one; other times, it's more related to the business than the bench.
If the client's need is "scientific, a PhD probably would be the most qualified" consultant, Buzby says. "But if it's more of an infrastructure sort of thing, maybe a businessperson might be better."
Though once its "shake-up was over" he returned to the children's hospital, Buzby maintains his firm, Molecular Biotech Consultants, as a professional side-project. "I still think that it has a lot of potential to grow," he says.
Buzby says that the potential risks of working in both a nonprofit research setting and as a consulting entrepreneur are well-balanced by the potential rewards. "It's exciting to be able to see something you're working on get funded, or to get a client to say 'OK, let's do this,'" he says. But when neither outcome is the case, he has learned from experience that it's important to "keep an open mind and look around — maybe there are other opportunities for you," he adds.
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