January 2010

Taking the Path Less Traveled


Clifford S. Mintz has held a variety of positions, including stints as a medical school professor, professional recruiter, management consultant and medical/science writer. He is the founder of BioInsights, a biopharmaceutical education and training organization, co-founder of BioCrowd, a social networking and career development Web site for bioprofessionals, and the author of BioJobBlog. He teaches product development and regulatory affairs in several biotechnology training programs and is an adjunct professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Georgetown University School of Medicine.

I always have liked science, and, by the age of 10, I decided that I wanted to be a veterinarian. However, after seeing the film “Ben Hur”— in which two characters who have leprosy are miraculously cured – at age 11, I fantasized about what it would be like to discover cures for infectious diseases. As corny as it may sound, the movie convinced me that my true calling in life wasn’t veterinary medicine but microbiology. Nonetheless, I enrolled at Cornell University as a preveterinary medicine undergraduate with a dual major in animal science and microbiology. During my senior year at Cornell, Brooks Naylor, my food microbiology professor, invited me to do a senior research project in his laboratory. After several weeks in the laboratory, I was hooked, and I knew that graduate school, not veterinary school, was in my future.

I entered graduate school in 1974 and did my thesis research in Robert Deibel’s laboratory in the department of bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I studied the pathogenesis of Salmonella gastroenteritis. Because Deibel was chairman of the department and a food microbiology consultant, he wasn’t around much. This forced me to become a self-reliant independent investigator very early in my scientific career. When I started graduate school, my goal was to earn a doctoral degree and teach microbiology at a small liberal arts college. However, after three years at Wisconsin, I decided to eschew a career as a science educator in favor of becoming a tenure-track faculty member at a prestigious research institution.

I received my doctoral degree in 1981and chose to do a postdoctoral fellowship with Stephen Morse in the department of microbiology at Oregon Health and Science University. There, I investigated the pathogenesis of Neisseria gonorrhoeae. After two years in Morse’s lab, I realized that the field of molecular biology finally had taken off and that I would need to develop molecular biological skills to compete for my coveted tenure-track faculty position. With this in mind, I joined Howard Shuman’s laboratory in 1984 as a postdoctoral fellow in the department of microbiology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. My work in Shuman’s laboratory looked at the molecular pathogenesis of Legionella pneumophila, the causative agent of Legionnaires’ disease.

In 1987, my newly acquired molecular biology training and respectable publication record helped me to land a tenure-track faculty position in the department of microbiology at the Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami. I spent the next seven years feverishly doing laboratory research, teaching medical and graduate students, publishing papers and writing grants to establish an independent research program on the role of lipopolysaccharide in the molecular pathogenesis of L. pneumophila. While I was a productive researcher who regularly published work and was recognized on several occasions for teaching excellence, I failed to consistently win grant support to run my laboratory. Consequently, in 1994, I was denied tenure and forced to leave academia— an emotionally devastating event that that ended a lifelong dream of becoming a world-class research scientist.

Luckily, at that time, the U.S. biotechnology industry finally had hit its stride, and I landed a job as a scientist at a New Jersey-based biotechnology company managing an antibacterial drug-discovery program. My two years in industry provided me with a firm understanding of the business side of science and, perhaps more importantly, convinced me that industrial research wasn’t for me. This, coupled with a desire to teach again, prompted me to successfully apply for a job as chairman of biology at a local community college. It was a good idea at the time, but I quickly realized that, while I still loved to teach, administration wasn’t my strong suit. I left the community college job after a year.

Unfortunately, by 1998 I effectively had exhausted most traditional career options for scientists with doctoral degrees, and I desperately needed a job— mainly because I had a wife and three young children to support. Fortunately, while working at the community college, I helped several professional recruiters place new hires into jobs at biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies; this prompted me to seriously consider professional recruiting as a career option. In early 1999, I landed a job as a recruiter at a local recruiting firm. As a new hire, I had to attend recruiter school for six weeks. Surprisingly, this training played a pivotal role in subsequent decisions that helped shape my career.

After three years as a successful professional recruiter, an Australian biotechnology company hired me as a science and business consultant to help guide its antibacterial drug-discovery program. The new job led to an almost four-year stint as an independent management consultant advising private and publicly traded biotechnology companies on business, scientific and financial matters. Also around this time, I decided to indulge my own entrepreneurial fantasies: In 2001, I founded a bioscience education and training company called BioInsights Inc. Two years later, Abraham Abuchowski and I founded Prolong Pharmaceuticals— a drug-delivery company with two drugs in early stage clinical development. Unfortunately, the rigorous demands of running BioInsights and starting Prolong ultimately led to the demise of my consulting practice, and, by 2004 I was forced to consider another career move.

Luckily, a few years earlier, I had started writing for several biotechnology industry trade publications. Although I wasn’t getting paid to write, the job enabled me to hone and polish my writing skills. In late 2004, a medical communications expert whom I knew suggested that I take a stab at medical writing. At the time, I didn’t know much about medical writing, but I quickly learned that it pays well and that medical writers are always in demand. I took her advice and landed my first medical writing job in 2005. Since then, I have worked at a variety of medical communications agencies and pharmaceutical companies preparing manuscripts, posters, slide presentations and other documents. Currently, I am a freelance science and medical writer, a blogger at biojobblog.com and a social media enthusiast who, along with Vincent Racaniello, started an online social network site for bio-scientists called BioCrowd (www.biocrowd.com).

Unlike many scientists, my career path has taken several unexpected twists and turns. I never intended it to be as eclectic or convoluted as it has been. Nevertheless, I believe that my unusual career trajectory has made me a better-rounded scientist than I would have been if I had been able to pursue my intended academic career. In retrospect, I attribute my career successes to solid problem-solving skills, an unrelenting desire to continue to learn and an unwavering ability to take risks.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I learned that there is no right or wrong career path in the life sciences— only the path that you choose for yourself!

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