Dr. Sidra Ahsan
BS: Biological Sciences, Wayne State, 2009
PhD: Cancer Biology, Wayne State, 2015
Current position: Product Manager, Advaita Bioinformatics, Plymouth, MI
Dr. Sidra Ahsan received her doctorate in cancer biology from Wayne State University in 2015. She participated in the BEST Program’s pilot program in 2014, completing an 8-week internship with Advaita Bioinformatics in Plymouth, Michigan. Upon graduation, she accepted a position as Product Manager with Advaita. Dr. Ahsan lives in Detroit.
In April 2016, Tom Reynolds, the Associate Director of Public Relations in the Wayne State University Office of Public Relations and Dr. Heidi Kenaga, BEST Program Manager in the Graduate School, talked with Dr. Ahsan about her experiences in the BEST Program and her path to employment outside academia after completing her doctoral degree. What follows is a condensed version of their conversation.
Tell us about your education, training, and background. How did you get interested in science?
I attended Wayne State University as a pre-law student, but because several of my family members are in the healthcare field, I started thinking about science as a career. As an undergrad, I volunteered at the Children’s Research Center of Michigan, in Children’s Hospital in Detroit, where Dr. Will Grever was doing research on stem cells. He was a great mentor who introduced me to bench science. Also, before I started graduate school, I did a 4-month fellowship at the NIH’s National Cancer Institute (NCI). Working at NCI was great. They are well funded with lots of resources, and the staff are very willing to teach. So coming into my PhD program, I already had some experience with research. When I had applied to Wayne State for my graduate training, I was interested in studying neuroscience and was admitted to the Center for Molecular Medicine and Genetics. But after the NCI fellowship, I became interested in studying cancer, so I switched to the Cancer Biology graduate program and started working in Dr. Michael Tainsky’s lab.
How did you learn about BEST?
I learned about BEST through an email that was sent out to doctoral trainees when the program started in 2014. I was so happy to hear about it, because training in any PhD program tends to be oriented toward a career in academia, and opportunities to explore careers outside of academia are very limited. Also, because PhD programs are long, you can start to feel stuck after a while. It was good to know that there were opportunities available through Wayne State to explore nonacademic careers, instead of having to go outside the university. So when I saw the email, I readily applied.
After graduation, what was your first inclination with regard to career paths?
I wanted to become a professor and have my own research lab. I would have to do a postdoc after graduation (lasting a few years) and then apply for an assistant professorship and continue on an academic track. But job openings in academic institutions are hard to come by, and the path towards a professorship has become very difficult nowadays because research funding is tight. Academia wasn’t the only path I was interested in; I was interested in industry, but I just didn’t know how to go about preparing myself to make a transition. Because Michigan has fewer biotech and pharma companies, I was prepared to leave the state for the right opportunity.
How did your advisor, Dr. Tainsky, respond when he heard about your interest in BEST?
Dr. Tainsky was very supportive. He even helped me with the application, and recommended that I contact Advaita because he was familiar with the company. I got in touch with them and they asked me to come for an interview. I explained the BEST program to them and that they did not have pay anything for me.
My internship was 8 weeks long, a short time, but it was enough time to build good relationships and leave a strong impression. It was more like job shadowing. I didn’t learn bioinformatics in 8 weeks. It was more about getting a feel of things, learning about the environment, what the company does, and what the job entails. And they got to know me. When I interviewed for my current position, the VP of Advaita said that we know you, we know how you work, and we know you fit with the people here which has a lot to do with it. It’s about personality, and a lot of companies look for that, especially the startups since you often have to interact closely with a smaller team.
Did you have any problems keeping up with your lab responsibilities and holding the internship at Advaita at the same time?
I was a little concerned that maybe I wasn’t going to graduate on time, but it worked out OK and there was no delay. Looking back on it, having that opportunity to go outside the university and do something that may benefit you in the future is so important – it really expands your training, and builds your resume.
How long have you been at Advaita?
It all went really fast for me. After I defended in September 2015, I called them and asked if they had any job openings. As I said, I had built a relationship with them during my internship so they knew me. I started part-time in October 2015, while I was wrapping up the final edits on my thesis, and subsequently I was offered the position of Product Manager, which I started full-time in November of the same year.
What does the company do?
Advaita is a small biotech startup; it has 9 employees and some interns. The company was established a few years ago in Plymouth, based on a product that came from Wayne State. Advaita develop bioinformatics software to analyze genetic and genomic data. The staff are primarily trained in bioinformatics or business and their clients all have biology backgrounds. Given my strong biology background, it turned out to be a good fit and a mutually beneficial relationship.
It does seem that you have made a successful transition.
Although my current job is very different from what I did during my academic training, the transition was not tough. You develop a lot of transferrable skills such as independent project management, writing, presenting in front of audiences, forming collaborative relationships, and so on, during your PhD that are applicable across many fields. My strong academic training is the reason why I am here. My PI told me this when I was graduating: “Don’t be scared, when you do a PhD what you learn is how to study. You can pick up anything and learn it.” And it’s so true. To be honest, working in industry has been much easier than doing biomedical research!
Can you describe a typical day as a Product Manager?
As a Product Manager, you are primarily and ultimately responsible for everything related to the product you manage. That includes developing a roadmap, optimizing, guiding the research and development, developing business relationships, marketing, and so on. Most importantly, I work as a liaison between the company bioinformatics staff and the clients. At a small biotech company you wear many hats, so no one day is the same. I also do technical support, host webinars, identify and follow up with business and sales opportunities. All of this was new to me, but it wasn’t hard to pick up.
So it appears that you have gained many skills on the job, in addition to those you brought with you.
I learned a lot of different skills on the job, especially pertaining to marketing, business agreements, and managing clients. An example is when I started at Advaita, we established a relationship with the Office of Science and Technology Resources at the Center for Cancer Research (which is part of NCI) for a 6-month evaluation of the product I manage. I have been serving as the lead on this, for which I have developed and hosted several webinars, conducted an on-site visit, and provided relevant support. I had never done anything like that before. I have transitioned to the point where I’m looking at everything from a broader perspective, the bigger picture. I am learning the business side of science, and you don’t get that in a PhD program.
Where would you like to be in 5 years or in 15 years in your career?
Five years from now, I would like to be in some form of a technology transfer or business development role, in which I can take a technology in its infancy to a point where it is commercial. Technology transfer is an exciting field because you can do a lot with it. Fifteen years from now I hope to have my own company right here in Detroit, and that’s what I’m working towards. Establishing something that deals with biotechnology that uses my training. With startups, you can control and guide your own ideas – it’s very creative, and challenging in a good way.
A majority of BEST students are interested in business, in biotech and pharmaceutical industries, and one of the questions students always ask is whether they should considering getting additional training, such as an MBA. On the basis of what you have said, it may not be necessary.
I think if you are in any rigorous graduate program, you can easily pick up on business essentials on the job, so I think additional training such as MBA may not be necessary. You definitely need to have people skills, though. I enjoy working with people and that is something you definitely want to know about yourself before entering any business field, otherwise it is logical and easy to learn. And most importantly, be confident. Often, certain tasks were given to me that I had no training for but I was confident that I could learn, and I did.
Sometimes BEST participants have expressed doubt as to whether getting the doctorate was worth it. How would you respond?
The doctoral training will help you in ways that sometimes you don’t realize. My PhD made me grow up on a personal level, it taught me to be very independent, how to speak properly in public, how to deal with failure and keep going, in addition to all the science training. You also develop many skills that you can apply in any job, and most of all, you definitely get respect in any field you are in if you have a PhD.
There are a lot of areas where people with doctorates are working. It’s not as straightforward a path as an academic path. You definitely have to take the initiative and do research on external opportunities. Of course, BEST will help you with that, too.
What advice would you offer to students considering careers outside of tenure-track positions in a university setting?
Be very open-minded and persistent. Apply to as many places as possible. But it’s not enough just to apply, you have to call people and follow up. At the very least try to get an interview, even an informational interview. Sometimes you send out 20 emails and get one response back, but that’s OK. And any position you are in, be sure to leave a good impression, that’s really important. Science can be a small world. Make sure that you were pleasant to work with and people remember you in a positive way.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I’m very thankful to the BEST program because honestly I would not have had this opportunity outside of it. I’ve landed my first job, and people who’ve graduated with me have contacted me asking if there were any other positions in the company. For those students who receive an internship they should make the most out of it, since it could well turn into a job after graduation.
Before you went to college, could you envision yourself doing what you are doing today?
No, but I am actually very happy with what I am doing today. A biomedical PhD is a very creative thing. It is what you make of it – not everything is laid out for you, but that is what makes it very interesting. You have more options than you know!