By Gayathri Raghupathy (edited by Chrystelle Montagne and Tessa Barrett)
On a crisp and sunny day this summer, Chrystelle Montagne and I sat down in a coffee shop to discuss science and careers, while I should have been running a gel or doing a PCR (shhh…!!). Chrystelle’s energy was quite contagious, which kept the discussion about her arduous 10 month search for a career opportunity interesting. Chrys gained her PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Geneva; where she developed a novel live imaging technique to study intestinal stem cell divisions in the Drosophila midgut. Chrys was clearly passionate about science and excited about the work that she did during her PhD, however she has made the move to leave benchwork for good. I found this interesting as for some time now I have wondered what makes someone with all the essential credentials for ‘scientific glory’ drift away from bench science and move into a new field? Chrys answered my questions by walking me through her thought process of transition from bench scientist to her current role as a Senior Project Manager at the Institute for Genomic Medicine at Columbia University.
What was your career plan following your PhD?
I studied biology to have an impact on the wellbeing of patients. I love science and bench work but I was not able to clearly see the application of my findings to public health research. Since I love team spirit, I was feeling too isolated working alone on my research project. At the end of my PhD, I decided to move on from bench work and look for positions that would allow teamwork, management and direct impact on patient lives.
What got you interested in exploring non-academic career fields?
During my PhD I had the opportunity to work with some exceptional people to organize a scientific event in Geneva to promote collaboration between 30 laboratories at the University of Geneva, and a local biopharmaceutical company. The conference gave me first-hand experience in fundraising, logistics and price negotiations, and made me realize that I loved managing and interacting with people more than bench work/science research. So I focused on finding a non-bench work career that would excite me.
How did you specifically decide to look for a project manager position?
It took me almost 2 years to identify all the different positions present outside of academia and match that to my skillset and interests. Once I embarked on the journey of exploring what I wanted to do after my PhD, I became very active outside the lab; I attended career assessment workshops and talks about opportunities in various fields outside of academia. Connecting with terrific people at ‘Uni-emploi’ in Geneva helped me assess my skills and figure out that what I love: Project Management. Thanks to some fantastic people who helped me shape my career path amidst their busy schedule. I highly recommend informational interviews and creating a strong professional network.
What motivated your move to NYC?
I presented my research work at an international conference in Athens. After my talk, a Professor from Columbia University who shared a similar line of research to me was quite interested in my results. He offered me post-doctoral research position in NYC, and although at that time I had not decided to move to NYC, at a later point, personal reasons made me move to Manhattan and take up that job offer. This was a great experience for me to close my academic research chapter by sharing my expertise and knowledge on the live imaging assay that I developed.
How did you pursue looking for project manager positions during your post-doc at Columbia?
I conveyed my future career plans and interests in precision medicine to my PI so that helped me to freely attend talks and networking events. I identified weak points of my CV and worked on strengthening them according to my career plan. For example, I didn’t have experience interacting with patients, so I volunteered in hospitals to demonstrate my interest in clinical studies. I sent out emails and LinkedIn invitations to develop connections and learn more about project management. My mentor Peter W. Park, PhD (Medical Affairs, Pfizer Inc) guided me through the job search process, put me in contact with interesting people and beyond that encouraged me through difficult moments. I am deeply grateful to him.
Tell us about how you landed your current position?
‘I was lucky’ (-says Chrys, modestly). I applied for a Clinical Research Coordinator position at the Institute for Genomic Medicine (IGM) at Columbia University that I was very interested in. I directly sent out an email to the IGM director. While waiting for a reply, I attended a seminar where the IGM director was giving a talk. Right after his speech I literally ran to him to introduce myself and explain my interest in working for IGM. He said that the position was already filled up, but was interested in my profile and would like to discuss with me. I met him a month later and what was intended to be a casual networking meeting turned into an ‘interview’ followed by a job offer! I was thrilled to work for this incredible institute that is doing so much for patients and thus I accepted the Senior Project Manager position at IGM …this is a dream come true!
What is your role as a Senior Project Manager at IGM?
I am handling three major precision medicine initiatives; Epilepsy, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and the Maternal and Fetal Medicine initiative. I am also in charge of all the collaborations that the institute has with the industry. I love the diversity that this position offers; I am involved in the writing of clinical proposals, recruitment of post-docs, organization of events, budgeting. But most of all, I am interacting with a lot of people from various fields (clinicians, genetic counselors, scientists, project managers, bioinformaticians…) which is really rewarding and a tremendous experience.
Any tips for job search?
· Work on your ‘elevator speech’: How to present yourself in less than 2 minutes · Identify your strength and your weakness: Develop new skills to match the job that you are targeting · Build your network and keep it growing · Have a mentor who can guide you through the job search process
At this point, Chrys had to run to another meeting and I had to run those gels …
Chatting with Chrys about her career search journey helped me understand some simple things that we often miss out when we dive into the large pool of career options: sit down and think about what you love to do, what are you good at and find a career to match. It is crucial to network aggressively but always politely. Overall, set a goal, be persistent, and just make it happen!
(Acknowledgment: I would like to thank Chrystelle Montagne for this interview. Chrys would like to immensely thank the people who have helped her through this journey and specifically thank Peter W. Park for his support and mentorship
The author Gayathri Raghupathy, is a doctoral candidate at Hunter College, CUNY and IT/Social media manager for INet NYC.
Please email Gayathri at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.