Me and the OpenBiome

Published December 01 2016

I started my fifth year of graduate school like many Ph.D. students: forging ahead on a timeline with shifting goalposts while weighing future academic and nonacademic careers. I knew that I wanted to pursue a career closely tied to science with strong roots in communication. But much of my future trajectory remained unresolved.

In an effort to broaden my training and explore applications of my degree in molecular biology, I enrolled in science policy courses at Princeton University. During one of these classes, I researched potential biological and policy interventions for the impending antibiotic resistance crisis and came across OpenBiome.

OpenBiome is a nonprofit stool bank and research organization based in Somerville, Massachusetts. OpenBiome provides safe access to fecal microbiota transplantation for patients with severe Clostridium difficile infections and enables microbiome research. Being lighthearted about the scatological material and familiar with the recent advances in microbiome research, I immediately was interested in this organization at the intersection of microbiology, research, health, policy and public outreach. When OpenBiome came to a career fair at Princeton in the fall of 2015, I had to give the organization a shot.

Based on my conversations with colleagues and mentors in life science and health care industries, I worried that there wasn’t an opportunity for a Ph.D. scientist in a nonresearch role. In my mind, the academic career pipeline and nonacademic industry routes traditionally selected for marketable scientific skills and publications, placing secondary emphasis on “softer” interpersonal and communication skills. The folks at OpenBiome, though, seemed excited about my interest in complicated science policy issues and science communication. I quickly found that my founding of a science literacy initiative called Science by the Cup, which was seeded by funding from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, was as important as my research interests. In the end, describing the cutting-edge biology of beer brewing to a lay audience is quite similar to communicating research objectives and expectations to clinical partners. But at the time, I didn’t appreciate that this was one of the many common threads I would connect from my academic experience to my work with OpenBiome.

After the career fair in late 2015, I coordinated with the OpenBiome team members for a six-week summer placement, working on the organization’s external affairs. Within a month of my placement, I created internal educational resources to inform new team members about the microbiome, developed pitches for fundraising, and crafted communications materials to jump-start clinical and basic-science microbiome research.

As expected, I have developed further my ability to communicate science clearly and hear the viewpoints of disparate audiences. However, jumping headlong into a new field and a smaller organization for a brief period of time also has required me to work efficiently and often independently, which is familiar from tight research presentation deadlines and late-night experiment-planning sessions. Combing through clinical research is not unlike studying for qualifying exams. And confident presentation skills developed at countless lab meetings and science outreach events have been essential in my professional life.

My time at OpenBiome has strengthened my belief that there is true value in a Ph.D.’s capacity to distill and communicate scientific information, regardless of his or her field of training. This unique competitive advantage, reinforced by the informal facets of a Ph.D., is invaluable in pursuing a career. Now, if I find myself again at the edge of the professional abyss, I will know to reflect on these skills, identify others I would like to develop and then search for opportunities that enable this growth.

Garner Soltes Garner Soltes is a recent Princeton University graduate with a Ph.D. in molecular biology. He is the founder of Science by the Cup, a Princeton University adult science literacy initiative.