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Always onward

Unafraid of change and true to herself, Gauri Nair has zig-zagged through academia, industry and beyond
Elizabeth Stivison
July 7, 2023

All the unknowns that are part of career decision-making can be stressful: What if I take this new job, it’s terrible and I can’t go back to my old job? Will this new position be a dead-end job? Will this new job be secure? Should I move for this new job? What if I hate the new city? What if I’m bad at the new job?

Guari Nair earned a Ph.D. in biology and holds two master's degrees, one in biotechnology and the other in innovation.

Gauri Nair has a refreshing perspective on all these uncertainties. She has worked in academia and in industry, and she most recently served as vice president of innovation at MassBio, an organization that advocates for the life sciences industry in Massachusetts.

Nair’s career is a lesson in truly evaluating where you are and what you want now, rather than staying trapped on a path you planned before you knew what it truly entailed. She told me frankly that she didn’t always know where she was going in her career, but she took some leaps of faith, and sometimes changed her mind, but always continued onward.

Each step of the way, she said, she’s taken external limitations in stride and grown. When something isn’t right, she said, “don’t be afraid to make a change.

(Author’s note: After we spoke, Nair took one more step on her path, and accepted a new position in industry.)

The beginning

Nair grew up and began her career in India, where she earned her master’s in biotechnology. After getting her degree, she worked in a few industry sales positions over the next several years. “But the grind got to me,” she said, and she knew she needed to do something different.

At the time, she saw herself as a future product manager in industry, so she made her first big leap: She moved to the U.S. with her new husband for a Ph.D. in biology that she hoped would help her land a product manager role.

While at the time she assumed she’d return to India after, the move was in fact “the beginning of the end of my India chapter, though I did not really know it then,” she said.

The training

While pursuing her Ph.D. in biology at the University of Pennsylvania, she began building a network of friends and mentors. But she and her husband lived in different cities, and she knew she didn’t want to continue having a “weekend marriage.”

After earning her Ph.D. in 2006, she moved to do a postdoc studying HIV reverse transcriptase at the University of Maryland College Park and to be near her husband, who had moved to the area for work. They soon started a family.

Once she became a mother, she said, she began to ask herself bigger-picture questions. She was thinking about her legacy.

A year of consulting

After completing her postdoc in 2011, she decided she wanted to combine her skills in business and science. With this new goal, she reasoned that Boston, a biotech hub, was the place she needed to be.

She and her family moved there, and she took a consulting position. However, it was not the dream she’d hoped it would be. The work of a consultant didn’t match her personality or thinking style, she said.

“I think I sucked at that job,” she said. After a year and a half, she left. “I learnt a lot,” she said, “but I was so relieved when this job ended.”

While the job wasn’t her dream job, and uprooting her family to move to a new city for a job that didn’t work out how she’d hoped certainly was a frightening experience, it did allow her to meet all kinds of people in the area, and her new network helped her land her next job.

Opportunity knocks

She landed at Harvard University’s tech transfer office and spent the next two years there.

She said that, in that job, she was able to learn, grow and find her real bearings and strengths outside of academia.

When she was working on a deal between Harvard and Novartis, her work caught the eye of someone at the company. When a position at Novartis opened up, they recruited her to work on research partnerships and facilitate collaborations with academia.

All told, she spent about six and a half years at the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, first as an operational alliances manager and then as an associate director.

She said she loved the work and the team with whom she worked. She particularly appreciated how her mentor there helped her grow.

But, she said, she wondered what else might be out there for her.

A different type of connector

Nair described MassBio, which she joined in 2021, as “the voice of the life sciences industry.” From her vantage point as VP for innovation, she got to see the whole biotech ecosystem, she said.

The position drew on her strong networking skills and the broad network she has built. In essence, she was a matchmaker between biotech innovators and companies to move the science forward in the best way.

The organization uses its voice in several ways, all to serve the biotech and pharma industry in Massachusetts, such as:

  • advocating for certain policies, including trying to lower the cost of living and improve transportation in the Boston area,

  • offering classes, including ones for new entrepreneurs and for people wanting to gain skills to work in biotech,

  • accelerating startups,

  • connecting people,

  • organizing conferences and panels, all to serve the biotech and pharma industry in Massachusetts.

It was a job that really called on skills Nair has honed over her entire career thus far, and one she said she didn’t even know existed earlier in her career.

Perspectives

Nair is now moving on to a new position in industry, fulfilling her desire to be closer to science and deal-making again. She offered a handful of lessons she has learned over the years.

1. “Networks are important,” she said. “Relationships are important.”

She’s not talking about networking in the sense of walking around handing out business cards, but in the sense of building and maintaining real relationships with those around you. In addition to building support networks for yourself, that’s also how you learn who is in your field and what they are doing and let others know what your skills and strengths are.

2. Let your priorities guide you.

Nair has made time for her husband, their child and her parents, even though they live on the other side of the world. This includes at times making career decisions based on where her spouse was. While her career is important to her, she holds other values in her life as well, and she makes sure to give them the time they deserve.

3. Sometimes wrong turns are right turns, or at least lessons, when you look back.

Nair allowed life and new experiences and knowledge to change her career plans. While she knows that her time in consulting wasn’t for her, it did bring her to Boston, and it gave her the chance to begin building a network in the city. Importantly, it helped her learn what she did want to do.

Sometimes it’s easy to trick ourselves into thinking we know more than we do about the future. Nair’s path is a great reminder that really we can barely predict tomorrow, let alone next year, or our whole futures, and that should fill us all with hope. There are any number of surprises waiting for all of us.

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Elizabeth Stivison

Elizabeth Stivison is a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University studying inositol signaling and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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