April 2011

Helping scientists stay in science

An interview with BenchFly.com founder Alan Marnett

Alan Marnett left his postdoctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to start BenchFly.com, a resource dedicated to providing researchers with protocols to support their lives both in and out of the lab.

In 2009, chemist Alan Marnett decided he’d seen too many of his friends struggle in the lab and eventually leave science. Desperate to help reverse this trend, he left his postdoctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to start BenchFly.com, a resource dedicated to providing researchers with protocols to support their lives both in and out of the lab.

ASBMB: How did you get involved with science and eventually decide to become a scientist?
Marnett: For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a math and science guy. They just always made more sense to me in school. I think my research started in the kitchen with baking soda and vinegar. Not surprisingly, those experiments never yielded anything more than a huge mess.

There was also probably a serious genetic component to my interest in science – both my father and grandfather are chemists. So I grew up around the lab, and it was a powerful influence on how my career unfolded.

In college, I decided it was time to explore what else was out there. I took philosophy, religion, economics, you name it. If it didn’t have a lab, I took it. Two years later, I realized that maybe it was time to get back to the lab. I joined an organic chemistry group and was incredibly fortunate to work with a terrific postdoc who showed me what real research looked like, and I was hooked.

ASBMB: Did you always know that you wanted to get a Ph.D.?
Marnett: I don’t think the thought ever really crossed my mind until I started working in a lab in college. That experience really brought science to life for me. During my time in the lab, I became interested in how chemistry might be used to solve biological problems. Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken any biology or biochemistry in college, so after graduation that whole “biological problems” thing was a bit of a mystery to me.

I decided to take some time off before graduate school to try to pick up biology, so I worked as a technician in a pharmacology lab at the University of California, San Diego. During that year, the University of California, San Francisco created a new program in chemistry and chemical biology, which was dedicated to applying chemistry to biological problems (sounds familiar …). From that point on, I was driven to do whatever it took to get into that graduate school.

ASBMB: It seems that you traveled the typical path of training and preparation to become an academic scientist up through your postdoc. At what point did you realize or what experience(s) did you have that made you realize that you didn’t want to do bench science anymore?
Marnett: From the first day of graduate school, I thought I wanted to be a professor and one day have a lab of my own. So I trained and prepared accordingly both as a grad student and a postdoc. About two years into my postdoc, I felt I owed it to myself to at least consider other career options before deciding to marry the lab.

I had also developed an idea for a resource I thought could benefit scientists, and I realized that time was running out if I ever wanted to try to move it from my head to reality. In exploring other career options, I found that entrepreneurship offered many of the aspects I loved about academics while also allowing me to pursue my dream.

ASBMB: Was it difficult to commit to the decision to leave bench science?
Marnett: It was very difficult. I had been in the lab for nearly 15 years, and I loved doing experiments. Research had really become part of my identity, so leaving that behind was tough. Part of me worried that all of the training at the bench wasn’t worth it since I ended up leaving anyway.

Because I had always envisioned becoming a professor, I think there was also a feeling of failure in leaving the academic path. There was a sense that somehow leaving the bench was not fulfilling the trajectory that grad students and postdocs should follow. Much of that may have been a result of pressure I put on myself.

I also think it was tough because you never [want to] feel like you’re disappointing people. Throughout my career at the bench, there were many friends, family members and colleagues who helped me pursue the academic path. So I worried that changing course would let them down. Fortunately, that worry was really in my head, as everyone has been very supportive of my transition away from the bench.

BenchflyASBMB: After you decided that you didn’t want to follow the more traditional path, what road less traveled did you take?
Marnett: I think starting a lab is much like starting a small [business] venture, so as I looked around for other careers, I gravitated toward entrepreneurial opportunities. I had been kicking an idea around for a web-based resource for scientists called BenchFly for several years, and the time seemed right to take a chance on it.

The seeds were planted for BenchFly during my undergraduate research experience, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I worked with a fantastic postdoc, Chad Peterson, who had a passion for teaching and who also had golden hands – every reaction he set up seemed to work. Chad taught me all of the tips and tricks he’d learned over the years, and it was those techniques that gave me the skills and confidence to continue in research.

As I entered graduate school, it became clear to me that not everyone was like Chad. I realized that whether a student gets properly trained or not is unfortunately pretty random – it depends on the project, the lab, the PI. I saw many colleagues end up in bad situations that eventually soured them on research and drove them to leave science altogether. It seemed to me we could do better.

So, although I didn’t have the details quite worked out, I knew that I wanted to try to develop a resource that supported scientists and made them feel that they have a mentor and partner committed to their success both in and out of the lab – like a virtual Chad.

ASBMB: Could you give our readers an idea of what your current job involves?
Marnett: Much like research, the job requires creative problem solving. However, instead of thinking about proteins, cells and gels, I focus on site functionalities, content development, marketing, Facebook, Twitter, etc. – no two days are the same. While it’s always challenging, it’s been fun and rewarding to see BenchFly become a reality after years of existing only in my head.

Our mission is to provide researchers with the community and tools they need to develop both professionally and personally in order to make research a better career today and for future generations of scientists. We’re [also] trying to knock down some of the stereotypes that learning science has to be serious and boring – showing the world that science can be fun, irreverent and exciting. There’s a video on the site showing a grad student trying to eliminate static from a scale. Nontraditional science to say the least … but very valuable information.

In addition to videos, our blog topics range from professional (What Makes a Great Graduate Student?) to personal (Lessons from a Recovering Postdoc) to recipes (Poverty Nutrition: A Fugue in Egg Minor) to, well, Chuck Norris (Chuck Norris, Scientist?).

ASBMB: Does any of the training or education that you received help you in your current career path; i.e., can someone without a doctorate do what you do?
Marnett: As I mentioned earlier, one of my fears in leaving the bench was that 15 years of training was going to be flushed down the toilet – that would be a tough pill to swallow. It turns out BenchFly is very science-specific, so I don’t think I could have done what I’m doing now without a Ph.D. However, to your larger point – I think my training as a scientist has been invaluable in my development as an entrepreneur. Beyond scientific knowledge, graduate school develops critical thinking, communication skills and problem-solving abilities – all of which are vital to success in any career.

ASBMB: What advice would you give to undergraduates who may know that they like science and may want a career in science but don’t yet know exactly what they want to do once they graduate?
Marnett: I think we’re witnessing a shift in thinking in the career in which the traditional career path no longer means academics. We’re seeing that there are many opportunities to contribute to science both in and out of the lab, so students should not feel limited to one or two career choices when they get out.

I’d encourage students who don’t know exactly what they want to do to talk to people in as many different careers as possible. People love talking about themselves, so take advantage of it! Set up 15- to 20-minute phone calls to ask people about their jobs – what they do, what they like, what they don’t like, etc. Not only will these informational interviews provide you with a good idea of what various careers involve, but they also help to expand your personal network, which is incredibly valuable when you start to look for a job or a graduate school.

I would also recommend taking a year or two off before graduate school. Many of us feel the need to rush straight from college to grad school or else risk falling behind. As it turns out, the most successful grad students I knew all took time off before starting graduate school. It gave them a perspective and drive that wasn’t always present in students coming straight from undergraduate.

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