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Dr Cristina Melero

Details of PhD

Cell Biology, University of Manchester, 2018. 

Current position

Business Engagement Officer at the University of Manchester. 

Job highlight

The business engagement team works on the promotion of collaborative projects between academia and industry, bridging the gap from academic research into a translational pathway and product/therapy development. We do so by liaising with different stakeholders in the life sciences sector, identifying and matching opportunities amongst higher education institutions, public health, research councils, charitable organisations and pharma/biotech industries. 

Case study conducted

September 2020. 

What’s your background? 

I am originally from the north of Spain. I have always had a curious mind and I always loved learning about different topics, from music to history, from business to politics and from astronomy to cellular biology. I felt a true scientific curiosity for the first time in my life when I was about 14 years old, while I was reading a book written by the great Spanish neurophysiologist, Santiago Ramón y Cajal. 

I was fascinated by the cellular anatomy of the neuron and the organisation of the nervous system. My biology teacher from high school gave me the last push I needed to study a science degree. I obtained my Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology in Madrid (2007-2012). I then studied a Master’s in business administration and specialised in management of R&D and innovation. In 2014, I moved to Manchester to start my PhD at the University of Manchester, funded by the BBSRC. 

During my PhD, I investigated the mechanical cellular forces involved in neuronal growth during development, under the supervision of Prof Andreas Prokop, and I submitted my thesis in 2018. 

Three days after submission, I started my first job as a postdoc (also at the University of Manchester) at Prof Christoph Ballestrem’s lab, where I continued my neuronal studies focused on the role of the extracellular matrix topography in mechanosensing and regeneration. 

Why did you move beyond academia? 

I have always felt the appeal of the industrial side of science. While I was doing my postdoc, I realised that my motivation is to contribute to the translation of academic research into products or therapies that will have an impact for society, making people’s life better. My long-term goal is contributing to the development of a drug or therapy that will mitigate and reverse the effects of neuronal degeneration. 

How did you get this job? 

About 3 months before the end of my postdoc project I started thinking about the next step. I was not sure of what job I should search for but I knew it had to be related to the life sciences industry. I searched on the university jobs portal and I found the business engagement role. I thought it was a perfect transition to move from academia to industry. 

I worked as much as I could on the application, transforming my CV from the standard “academic” to a new “industrial” version, highlighting my related previous experience in business development and R&D management and tailoring it point by point for this specific job offer. I also worked on the cover letter, connecting my skills to the role’s specifications, providing clear examples for each of the requirements. 

I submitted my application and soon after, I was informed that I had been short-listed for an interview. My interview session consisted of resolving a brief practical task (about 20 min) and immediately after, I was interviewed by a panel of members of the Directorate of Research and Business Engagement. 

I had prepared for the interview, writing down potential questions with concise and clear answers, where I could relate specific examples of my previous experience. I felt quite confident and comfortable during the whole interview. This is usually a good sign. 

One week after, I was offered the Business Engagement Officer role and I started in the new post about one month after. It was definitely a hard decision to leave many years of academic research behind, but I do not regret it, because it is a step towards the pathway I want to follow in my career. 

Apart from this, the transition was quite smooth, since my new office is five minutes away from my former colleagues’ office and the coffee served at my new building’s café is great! 

What sources of support did you seek while applying for jobs? 

During the first weeks of the job-hunting process, I read a lot of information on LinkedIn and job-search blogs and forums about different industrial positions and what kind of experience is expected for each of them. My mind was a mess with an overdose of information and a lot of doubts about leaving academic research. 

Even though I knew deep inside that this is what I wanted, every change takes some courage to be pursued. I then contacted the careers advisory service at the University of Manchester and they were of great help. They helped me tailor and improve my CV and trained me for the job interview. The day prior to the interview, they gave me a boost of confidence about my ability to get this position. 

How did you approach the job search?

The initial job search involved understanding my strengths when applying for positions outside of academia. Once I understood and organised my strengths, with the help of my careers advisor, I started having a clear idea of the positions I should direct my efforts to. 

I think a very important part of the process is to tailor your CV to apply to positions beyond academia. That already gives you a shift in perspective as the lab techniques you have mastered or the number of publications you have suddenly become as important as the transferrable skills you have developed during your academic research years. 

Was there anything unexpectedly challenging you found while navigating the job market beyond academia?

Most of the job positions I found interesting specified “2 years minimum experience required”. This is a bit discouraging when you are applying for a job outside of academia for the first time and you think you don’t have any experience at all. But this is not quite true. 

The key is to identify which skills you acquired during your research years that could be applied to that specific position. Once you do that mental exercise, you realise that you have a lot of experience in many different areas, often far more than 2 years! 

How did being a postdoc prepare you for your current job?

During my postdoc I worked as a teacher for a group of MSc degree students, leading on the integral organisation of the module. This gave me very valuable organisational skills and a remarkable team-building experience, as we created a very nice and productive team with three PhD students from my lab who helped me organise the module. 

Another skill I acquired during my postdoc was troubleshooting and optimisation of a process. I developed these skills while I was doing my experiments using a technology which is very technically demanding (a protein micro-patterning technique based on light-induced molecular adsorption). 

Being able to present your ideas in a clear and concise manner, targeting different audiences, either on written format or giving a talk are skills that will be useful in most of the jobs you apply to. Good communication skills are essential in most organisations, and I developed this throughout my academic research years. 

Being pro-active, well-organised and good manager of your own time are other skills which I am sure every single postdoc has harvested. 

Can you describe a typical week in your job? 

Every single week is different and this may sound like a cliché but it is something I really enjoy, since it keeps you mentally active and in a state of constant learning. I deal with many collaboration requests from industry, seeking to meet and work with relevant academics in a particular area. My role is to connect the two parties and make sure that the project flourishes. 

Recently, my team has been receiving a high number of industrial project proposals related to Covid-19. My role is to pre-assess that the proposal has a solid scientific background and to coordinate the discussions between the company and the academics in order to define the project and start working on it as soon as possible. 

While this is very challenging because of the short time-frames that we are working with, it is also very rewarding, since I feel I am contributing, from my humble position, to fight against this pandemic. 

What are your favourite parts of the job? 

I still love learning new concepts about biological sciences so I really appreciate having the opportunity to revise project proposals from a variety of areas: from virology to endocrinology and from heart disease to wound healing. 

I also like the direct contact with companies and the close collaboration we establish with our industrial partners. 

When an academic thanks me for supporting a project, it is a very rewarding feeling. 

How would you describe yourself now?

I would say the core of myself is the same. I have probably gained more decision-making skills, since I have the responsibility to make more decisions in my new role and I am also putting into practice my business administration and project management knowledge. I still love reading and learning “science” even if it is from the desk and not from the bench. I don’t think that part of myself will ever change. 

I am enjoying not working out-of-hours anymore and having more time for my hobbies. The most remarkable change is that nowadays I have a better understanding of the career pathway that I would like to follow and I am trying to learn as much as possible to direct myself towards my goals. 

What advice would you give to a fellow postdoc if they are considering a career beyond academia? 

Close your eyes and try to picture yourself in five or ten years’ time. Do you see yourself in the lab, writing grants and supervising students or would you like to do something different? If you would like a change, take your time to do some research about career options, look for jobs that make you smile while you are reading the role description and make you picture yourself in that role. 

Most importantly, look for help if you need it and be willing to invest some time on the search: looking for work is a job in itself. 

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