Why a fulfilling career in science requires more than just brainpower
Fun fact: I live in a jungle. Well, not exactly – but my 450 square foot condo is home to 55 indoor plants, which is as close to a jungle as you can get in the city.
My fascination with plants extends far beyond the walls of my home – it fostered within me a true love of science and ultimately led me to pursue a career in drug discovery as an associate director of research and preclinical development for AVROBIO, a clinical-stage gene therapy company.
When I reflect back on my professional journey, I see some important lessons that I hope may help others to also achieve a fulfilling career in science. My advice is aimed not just at aspiring scientists, but also at parents, teachers and mentors, because I have found that it takes a village to raise a science nerd! (Note that I use “nerd” affectionately to describe those who, like me, intend to devote their lives to the pursuit of scientific discovery.)
I often look back to my own childhood in Bologna, Italy and think about how my parents always gave me room to be curious, explore, create and try new things.
I remember, in grade school, I was ill for a time with pneumonia and another time suffered a broken arm, so I was out of school for extended periods. During that time, my parents encouraged me to explore and create anything I wanted in our apartment.
My mom bought a science experiment book for me, and together we tackled every experiment, one by one. Building water volcanoes, growing cacti, and watching caterpillars metamorphize into butterflies were just some of the projects we did. It sparked for me a real interest in the observation of living things, like plants. And the exploration didn’t end with science – it encompassed art, poetry, music and more. My parents did not have the money to go to university themselves; both left school after their elementary years. Even so, they both loved to learn, and they loved to nurture that curiosity in their children.
I cannot stress enough how unusual it was to have this sort of freedom. My friends always marveled at my life. Their parents were much stricter: They were not allowed to turn the curtains into an art experiment or tend to a colony of ants inside their apartment. They just sat at their desks and did homework. Nor were any of us allowed much room for creativity at school. I once had a teacher tell me with disdain: “Art is useless.” So, I was truly fortunate to have room for exploration at home.
Curiosity is so natural at a young age, and that is why I think it is important to get involved with the sciences very early in life. But curiosity can be revived at any time. For every good scientist, curiosity must be a constant in their life.
As a side note, as a woman in science, I often think about how the field would benefit from having more women and mothers in positions of power, serving as role models and sharing the joy of discovery. If we can find ways to better involve and educate girls in science from young ages, we may be able to further close the gender gap.
The period where I was out of school also gave me greater opportunity to fail and learn from failure. I recall trying to read books on advanced mathematics at a young age and getting discouraged, but my parents just kept instilling in me the importance of not being scared of things I didn’t know. To this day, I always like a challenge and enjoy diving into new or unfamiliar territory – for example, I can change a garbage disposal, use a jack hammer, I’ve installed dimmers, toilet seats, faucets, toyed with electrical systems and more in my home.
While at university, around the time my mother died, I was really unsure of whether I should enter the working world quickly to start making money or if I should continue my educational pursuits for a few more years. One choice seemed safe and practical and the other was a risk. I ended up taking the risk to continue my education, and it was the right choice for me.
My love of plants and living things, which stemmed from my childhood days of experimenting, inspired me to do my university thesis on wild oats and research crop genetics for the Italian government. But applying the lessons of my childhood, I did not force myself into a single career track; I let myself follow my interests and my curiosity where they led – and that ultimately directed me toward a focus on human, rather than plant, genetics.
One of the larger risks I have taken is the pivot from academia to industry. I loved my early years in academia, but, in the end, I found it limiting because I did not feel like I was having a direct impact on patients’ lives. I wanted to focus more on translating basic discoveries into promising new therapeutics, which is why I joined AVROBIO. At the beginning, transitioning from life in academia was a roller coaster. It was hard to understand the jargon of the biotech industry and to learn new skills such as thinking years ahead about what might be needed to bring a discovery program to clinical trials and then, ultimately, to the commercial market. But with time, I learned.
Looking back, I feel that this career pivot was the right risk to take; it has broadened my knowledge and continually challenged me. It’s important to push the envelope in science – so, why not in your career, too?
It is also important to push your boundaries at work. In science, it is so easy to doubt your abilities. After all, the more you learn, the more you realize how little you actually know. Questioning yourself and other people’s assumptions is just part of the ballgame in this field. But so is perseverance. Those who experience self-doubt and still push themselves to stride forward – that is true strength. That is part of what makes a great scientist.
Of course, even if you build expertise in one area, you cannot be an expert 100 percent of the time – you will always need others to rely on. That brings me to the topic of teamwork.
Be a Team Player
If you want to solve complex problems and move challenging projects forward, you need a team. No individual can do it alone. That is absolutely the culture at AVROBIO.
From day one, I had the feeling that these were my people — this is a good team. I was right: They are like family to me now.
While we have some great scientific minds at AVROBIO, everyone is so down to earth and practical. We also all share a very meaningful focus: getting investigational therapies to patients as fast as we can. We do great science, which is not possible without consistent teamwork and collaboration.
Find Your Purpose
The final ingredient for a fulfilling career in science – a career that often will have you working long and intense hours – is finding your source of motivation.
In my case, the motivation is the patients. We are lucky at AVROBIO to have a terrific Patient Advocacy and Engagement team that arranges for us to hear regularly from people living with the lysosomal disorders we are working to treat. When I hear them talk about the challenges they face day to day, their fears of disease progression and the limitations of existing treatments, I am more motivated than ever to make every day of work count. In some cases, we are fortunate enough to hear from patients who have been through our clinical trials. Those are very special moments. A patient once said to me, in amazement: “you wake up, go to work every day, and your job is to save lives, like mine.” These moments give my work meaning and purpose – and I know everyone on my team feels the same way.
One of the reasons I work so hard is because of the patients. They are what motivates me and my teams in our work every day. One of the interesting things about working in biotech is that it is translational, where you have a chance to work directly with clinical trial patients, which you don’t always get in academia.
There is certainly no single, magical secret to success in the sciences, but I hope my insights might be useful in helping you develop a fulfilling career.
Considering how far I’ve come from that ant colony in my childhood apartment, the fact that I have carved out this career for myself and worked for some of the most forward-thinking academic institutions and biotech companies in the world, still amazes me to this day. I am so grateful to have had these opportunities and I’m eager to inspire others to follow their dreams, as well.