April 2011

Helping scientists stay in science

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.

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