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Dr Laura-Jayne Gardiner

Details of PhD

Computational Biology & Genomics, UoL, 2014. 

Current position

Research Staff Member, IBM. 

Job highlight

I’ve learned so much it’s crazy! I’m in the machine learning team and I’ve never done anything like that before. IBM have invested a lot of time and money in training me. 

Case study conducted

February 2020. 

What’s your background? 

I started out with a biochemistry degree. I worked in a lab and I would’ve called myself a “wet lab” scientist. I hadn’t trained in computational biology before my PhD. I did a PhD at Liverpool where I trained in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology. Afterwards, I did a two-year postdoc in Biosciences at Liverpool. I’d been involved in developing a grant during my PhD, that actually got funded so I wanted to stick with it. I think that’s quite common – you can see the publications, and you’re invested. 

My second postdoc in computational biology was about investigating genetic diversity in wheat. That was in Norwich, at the Earlham Institute, and I followed my PI there. I had a bit of a disgruntled husband, being dragged down to Norwich! It all grew out of the same research interests, because the wheat genome had been published in Nature and there was a flurry of funding and interest. 

I’m now a Research Staff Member at IBM. We have a flat hierarchy, so we’re all Research Staff Members. They’ve trained me up so much and made me much broader in my skill-set. Everyone said “two years in industry and you’ll never be able to go back.” But I think it’s the opposite, because I’ve got skills where people now say “ooh! AI!”. 

Why did you move beyond academia? 

It was definitely planting a seed. I was always very driven to be an academic researcher. Then one of our group left to go to IBM and he talked about it. 

Over 3 years, I think I applied for about 7 or 8 grants and I was getting to the stage of “we only funded five and you were seventh”. It was so unsustainable, and I could just see the stability of industry where you do well, we’ll promote you – and that’s exactly what’s happened. It’s just that transparency, clarity, security: you do this, we’ll promote you, versus just getting so frustrated with really trying to prove myself and not getting that extra step up the ladder. Particularly, finding it difficult to do that and stay close to your family. 

Why did you choose the sector you’ve moved into? 

You hear of these companies on campus: Astra Zeneca wasn’t far away, GSK, the University has a big partnership with Unilever – you know they do research, that they have research departments, but I didn’t think I could do it. You think, “Oh, I won’t be what they want”, and you see a job advert where they use terms that maybe you don’t understand, because you’re not in industry. “Project planning” – do I really do that? But we do do that in academia! My former colleague, who’d moved to IBM, told me I should go for it. 

How did you get this job? 

Initially, when I looked at the job advert I thought “am I really all these things? Am I really HPC (High Performance Computing)? Am I really a fluent coder?” Actually, I am, but I didn’t think like that. There was a nervousness about the unknown, and maybe a feeling that I wasn’t good enough or qualified. I put in an application after speaking to someone who worked there, who told me I was suitable and should put in for it. 

Looking back, I pitched my application wrong: it was very biology-focused. I said “I’ve done a postdoc and I looked at wheat variation”, when what I should have been saying is “I’m coding every day. I have the base from which to learn AI really quickly”, but I didn’t think of my skills that way. I got an interview and it was a full day process. It was quite informal: you meet everyone in the teams. 

There were no aptitude tests. I did a talk about my work. It was an intense day, but it was an informal day – it wasn’t the horror that you fear! They knew I was an academic – there was no hiding that! – but what they wanted to know in that interview was if I was open to learning new skills, because I would need to. I was very open at the interview. I told them my skill-set and said “I don’t do any AI – you’re going to have to train me”. 

They were really supportive and really happy to have me, which was a big surprise. The number one thing was “are you willing to learn?” and I thought “of course I am! I’m a postdoc! I thought you’d be the ones who wanted a fully-trained, perfect employee”. 

“I thought it was obvious if I’m analysing the wheat genome that I’m using high performance computing, because it’s so big. That’s not obvious to someone who’s working on streamlining air flow over motor vehicles”. 

Did you receive any support from anyone at your University while applying for jobs? 

Not for jobs. For grants and fellowships I got help. My PI was really supportive of grant proposals and fellowship applications, but less so of jobs in industry. Multiple people in academia told me that a move to industry was a mistake, and that once I made it there would be no coming back – that was a broad opinion. Interestingly, when I left for IBM the funder of my Institute, the BBSRC, saw it really positively because now the Institute had an industrial collaborator! 

That changed the outlook of the academics and now they advocate for postdocs moving into industry, because the research council obviously saw it as a win. Previously, it was seen as a failure – “you’ve given up on applying for grants”. 

How did your postdoc prepare you for your current job?  

The thing I get complimented on most – which I know came from the last postdoc – is my ability to explain the impact of research in layman’s terms. As you become a Senior Postdoc, you are helping with writing grants and impact statements, so I became really good at writing the impact of research for a general audience. 

And now that’s how I need to pitch research ideas to the Executive Board now. I’m really familiar with explaining this is what my research does; this is how it could be used for benefit; and this is the impact it will have – that’s how to sell your research within a company. And that’s literally what my postdoc trained me to do: find the gap (so the funding opportunity), tailor a project to it and make us think we want to fund it. It’s that learning how to tailor it to a particular audience that I got as a postdoc. And that’s exactly what I’m doing in industry. 

What were the first few weeks of being in your new role like?

I was nervous! Nobody else did biology and I was in a machine learning team where they developed algorithms to do machine learning. I didn’t even know what that meant, really. For the first week, I attended meetings where I didn’t even understand enough to ask a question. It took me maybe a couple of weeks, and then I started asking. It was just a language thing; I needed to learn the new vocabulary. 

I did have something to offer: it was just different. And everyone was really supportive. As soon as you said “I don’t understand”, they said “right, how can we explain it in a way so you do? And how can we use what you bring?” It’s all very team-driven, so it was very accepting. IBM gave me time to train in the first few months – I wasn’t given any projects. I immersed myself in the group as much as possible, talking to people and learning what they did, which really helped. 

Can you describe a typical week in your job? 

Let’s say that we have maybe 3 projects at a time, so we do have a lot of meetings. Every Monday we try and put meetings in. Someone will present their work at the team meeting (and you can put your hand up and say “I don’t understand that”!). There’s a lot of free-flowing discussion about the direction the research will go in, and that feels quite academic. 

The rest of the week we’re getting our heads down and planning very specifically our work schedules and getting into the research. Maybe then you’ll spend another 3 days of the week like a postdoc, just doing research. 

Have you found the workplace culture to differ from that in academia? 

That’s the one difference for me: I hated being overwhelmed by competitive atmosphere at university. People used to say “I want to be happy for them, but I’m just not” when someone published a paper! But publications aren’t our only metric at IBM. My stress is so much better, and my manager will actively tell me if he thinks I’m working too much, whereas before it was a badge of honour to be seen working late. 

Do former postdocs get hired in your company often?  

Yes, so they knew where my academic CV with all the publications listed was coming from. I did two years as a postdoc in the company before being promoted, and we have nearly 100% retention after postdoc. It’s your trial for them and their trial of you. They expect you to come in as an academic. There is that mystery around it, of “how do I make the jump?” – but they know you’re making the jump, and they help you make it. 

Is there anything you miss about academia?  

It’s been difficult to come to terms with moving from being a Senior Postdoc, where everyone came to me: “how do I do this?” It was great to be a recognised expert, but there was never really a problem I hadn’t seen before. I’m still an expert, but now I work in a multidisciplinary team, where everyone has different domains – you have to be ok with the fact that you won’t understand everything, and that’s ok. 

Also, in academia if I wrote a paper, while there would be several names on the paper, I’m in control of that paper, and who writes that section. I had to get used to letting go of that control, because we come up with research ideas as a team and work on them together. But then the best ideas have come out of that team environment, and it’s worked really well. 

Any advice to postdocs considering a career beyond academia? 

Don’t sell your science, sell your skills! They (employers, in this case IBM) care about your publication list because that shows you can publish good science. It wasn’t a waste of time: you’ve proved you are eminent in your field and you can be eminent there, but it’s more about your skills than your particular field of research. What have you picked up? That can be technical skills (analysis; coding), but also other skills (communication; project management). 

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