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.

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