Once upon a time, a scientist was an independent being: a man (more often than not) of independent means who was able to pursue his curiosity about the natural world and fund his own research. Dirac was the last of these gentleman scientists, until the advent of the modern grant system run by governments world wide. But times are changing.
The word is out: science funding in Western countries is decreasing or stagnant, funding to universities is in decline, we’re producing more PhDs than we have jobs for. It’s harder for young scientists to break into the funding cycle, year after year, established labs struggle to stay afloat. Scientists are rethinking their career trajectories and looking for new ways to fund their work.
Ethan started out working in laboratories while in high school. He ended up pursuing sociology at Columbia University, but moved into molecular biology for this graduate work at Harvard:
I was always interested in science from the time I was kid. In the summer before college (1997), I interned at the National Institutes of Health. That was my first real taste of basic research — and I got hooked. Although I didn’t major in a hard science (I actually majored in sociology), I went straight to grad school after college and didn’t look back.
The more I learned about drug discovery as a young grad student, the more I saw an appeal. I’ve always sought out areas of research that balance curiosity-driven and applied impulses. For example, a small-molecule drug can be used to dissect basic cellular processes in the lab but may also have therapeutic promise in people. I like that two-for-one aspect.
I chose to become an independent scientist/biotech entrepreneur in part because my prospects for landing a coveted tenure-track position and securing sustainable grant funding were slim, but also because the balance between basic and applied I had sought shifted decidedly toward applied when I became aware of the enormous unmet medical needs in orphan/rare diseases, which is the core mission of Perlstein Lab.
In grad school and during my independent postdoc, I worked mostly with yeast for all the reasons that other researchers gravitate to it as a model organism — genetic tractability, ease of use, community effects, etc. Now as I push forward with my new venture, Perlstein Lab, I’m throwing three other primordial animal models into the mix — worm, fly and fish.
I’m very excited by community biolabs like GenSpace. I actually looked into joining one in the Bay Area after I relocated here from the East Coast last Spring. I ended up joining the professional biotech incubator QB3 because my resource needs were greater than what is currently available in a community biolab setting. But I think the line is becoming increasingly blurred as the coalition of professionally trained scientists and citizen scientists reaches critical mass.
Being a founder of a biotech startup is a full-time job! But I always carve out some time for basketball, hiking and yoga.
When I saw the writing on the academic wall, I realized that I would no longer benefit from an institutional affiliation. In other words, I’d have to start doing all of my own marketing, branding and networking. The very first step in this process was joining Twitter in early 2011, and then seeking out communities of mutual interest. I also started creating a robust online presence with a science blog and lab website.
Going indie is my Plan B! So there’s no looking back now..