Principal Bioinformatician at Scenic Biotech
Name: Simon van Heeringen
Master’s degree: Molecular Sciences at Wageningen University
PhD degree: Computational Biology at Radboud University
Current position: Principal Bioinformatician at Scenic Biotech
I have always lacked ambition. At least, the type of ambition that you see a lot in scientific research, with researchers that are driven by a strong, razor-sharp and specifically focused scientific interest. People that know what they want and focus on accomplishing their goals. I have always had a more general scientific interest and just enjoyed doing research in general, specifically if it concerns quantitative data analysis. During my PhD I was happy doing interesting analyses and didn’t think too much about what would come after. It turns out that after the PhD came a personal grant, then a tenure-track assistant professor position, which turned into a permanent position. Then, I recently “left academia” for an exciting position in a biotech company. I’ve mostly followed where my interests led me, without a lot of careful planning. The ambition throughout has been less focused on my career, but rather on doing meaningful and interesting science.
The hardest part of my career was the scientific tenure track. This came with a lot of pressure, such as the need to publish well and obtain external funding. This generated a lot of uncertainty. I was generally relatively successful as a scientist, but felt the myriad of tasks and responsibilities as a great burden. In addition, the focus on personal accomplishments, rather than team-based science and supporting others never felt right to me. I almost quit before obtaining tenure, but was invigorated at just the right moment by an extremely interesting scientific meeting. Once again, it was the scientific topics that kept me going.
I think this boils down to two points. The first is that I now have a position as a bioinformatician, a computational biologist. Throughout my career I have focused on programming, data analysis, and quantitative biology. For a traditional academic career this may not always have been the best choice, as bioinformatics is often (wrongfully) seen more as supporting others than a scientific field in its own right. Writing scientific software does not score you grant money. However, there is a great need for bioinformaticians and computational biologists. It turns out that the skills that I developed out of intrinsic interest are valued. Second, for a senior researcher position, familiarity with the scientific process is essential. A PhD and ample research experience are a general requirement.
This position is a great match for both my technical skills and my interest in doing relevant research. I can do software development and large-scale biological data analysis, while working on therapeutics for rare diseases. Research still plays a large role in a young and dynamic biotech company such as Scenic Biotech. I think this is something that academics don’t always appreciate. It’s different in industry, but you are not leaving research behind. There is ample opportunity for doing and discussing science.
It is really hard to generalize a personal experience, as there is a high danger of a dose of survivorship bias. That being said, I think it’s important to have fun in what you are doing. A job is never always sunshine and rainbows, but it should be enjoyable. Be aware that this may come from things that are different from what is typically valued in an academic career. You may find that you enjoy science communication, or mentoring people, or scientific programming, just to name a few aspects. While things are changing with the new recognition and rewards movement, this is a slow, slow process. However, the skills that you enjoy developing, could be the skills that land you your dream job later down the line. The second thing is to always keep learning. A job in research provides an excellent environment for acquiring new skills and broadening and deepening your knowledge. Take advantage of that opportunity, never be satisfied with what you currently know and can do.
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