Sophia Maund is a Scientific Curator–a job she herself did not know existed until a couple of years ago. Back then, she had completed a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology, was finishing a postdoc at Stanford, and was finding herself questioning the idea of continuing to work in academia. These days, she finds herself working at a job that both draws upon her academic skill set and is deeply fulfilling. We met up at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley to discuss how she made it from point A to B.
SP: Will you tell us a little bit about your work?
SM: I’m a Scientific Curator at a company that does next generation sequencing-based clinical assays for personalized cancer treatment. In other words, we sequence tumor DNA and report back to doctors with information about their patients’ individual mutations that the doctors can then use to make personalized treatment decisions.
New studies and clinical trials come out daily, and the reduced costs and increased speed of DNA sequencing has resulted in greater accessibility and even greater amounts of data to sift through. But what good is a list of hundreds of mutations if you don’t know how to interpret it? Most doctors aren’t trained in clinical genomics and don’t have the time to do the research, and the average patient doesn’t have the expertise or resources to make sense of their sequencing data.
My job is to research and report on the clinically-actionable utility of the massive amounts of information that comes from DNA sequencing in a concise, accurate way so that both the doctors and the patients can understand and make use of the data. It’s like solving little mysteries every day–how does this mutation affect response to that drug in this disease? I manage a large database of this information that we curate from scientific literature, clinical trials, and other sources, ensuring that it is up to date and accurate. I also collaborate with other teams on product development related to interpretation and reporting of data.
The growing momentum in personalized, genomics-based medicine has formed a niche for data analysis and interpretation companies, and the combined efforts of scientists and engineers at these companies are moving the field forward.
SP: How did you come to be a scientific curator?
SM: I’ve always been very logically-minded. My musician parents encouraged my interests in biology growing up, but it started taking off when I took AP Bio with a wonderful teacher in high school.
In college, biology was a strong contender (although there was a 2-week span during my freshman year when I thought, “Should I major in media studies?!”). The experience of going to liberal arts college totally shaped my life as a scientist; my favorite classes in college weren’t always biology – they were sociology and writing and English. That definitely influenced how I went through grad school. I love the science, but I love the reading and the writing too. It’s interesting now that I’ve found that combination.
I became aware of the growing field of clinical genomics during grad school. As I saw the field develop, I was learning about all the signaling pathways and mutations that drive cancer and the success stories of early targeted therapies. It made so much sense, to identify the driving mutations in a tumor and, instead of poisoning a patient with a cytotoxic cocktail of chemotherapies, give them a drug that will target their specific tumor. Not every patient will benefit from tumor DNA sequencing at this point in time, but I believe that every patient should do it to see if they can benefit. And the numbers of patients who will benefit will continue to go up as more targetable mutations and more targeted therapeutics are discovered.
When my dad got cancer while I was in grad school I asked his doctor if they would look at the mutations driving his tumor and he basically scoffed at me saying that that was just textbook science, not clinical science—it wasn’t (and still isn’t) standard of care for all tumor types, but it made SO much sense to me based on what I was learning. I’m so glad that it’s becoming more common now, although much work needs to be done to incorporate it into routine cancer care, including clinician education and insurance reimbursement.
When I started grad school, my future goals were to stay in academia but in an undergraduate, teaching-focused setting similar to the small liberal arts school I went to. Teaching assistantships weren’t offered in my grad program, so I sought out other opportunities and took a couple classes on teaching. I served on committees and did a lot of extra writing–book chapters and review articles, in addition to the usual grants and research papers. My advisor was fantastically supportive of these pursuits, which is not always the case in biomedical sciences grad programs.
By the end of grad school, I was stuck in the academic bottleneck of PhDs with very few job options when federal funding for biomedical science was at an all-time low. So I became a postdoctoral researcher—that meant staying in research for a few more years. Fortunately, it was at a top-notch university where I could take advantage of excellent professional development resources, broaden my knowledge and skills, interact more with clinicians, and, importantly, have the experience of teaching my own class. I quickly realized, however, that not only are full-time teaching opportunities in the Bay Area extremely limited, but it wasn’t as professionally fulfilling to me as I’d envisioned. So I started looking into what was out there outside of academia.
Despite the efforts of my universities’ career development centers to expose PhDs to options outside of academia, it was hard to fathom what that meant for me. I set up several informational interviews with people doing interesting-sounding things. I took strengths assessments for some insight into how I could market myself outside of academia. I got help with turning my CV into a resume. I learned about what was going on at different companies in the area, including the fast-growing industry behind clinical genomics. The more I talked to people in industry, the more I learned what types of questions to expect, how to market myself, and even the vocabulary they use.
As a scientist, I’ve always preferred reading, writing, and teaching to the actual bench work (pipetting, mouse surgery, etc.), so I focused my job hunt on positions involving scientific communications. I wanted to be able to use my cancer biology training to impact healthcare, away from the lab bench. During my job search I was recruited for a curator position by a company on the East Coast. It turned out that scientific curation aligned extremely well with what I wanted to do, and sure enough, there are companies in the Bay Area doing similar things. I feel so thankful to have found a job where I’m making daily use of my academic training, I get to keep learning about this exciting field, and I get to do a lot of reading, writing, and, in a way, teaching. And all while directly impacting healthcare!
SP: So far, how does working for a startup compare with being in academia?
SM: It’s more fast-paced in terms of seeing the results of your work, and there is greater variety in my day-to-day work. In academia I would focus on a pretty narrow subject matter, while now I am learning more broadly and from different perspectives (the scientist, the doctor, the patient, etc.). There’s also a greater sense of having a more immediate impact on what I’m putting out into the world—research is undoubtedly extremely important, but experiments can take years and there is routinely much more failure than success.
That said, there is a higher rate of change at a startup (changes in workflow, procedures, etc.), which can also be frustrating for some people. I really wasn’t sure how I’d do in the industry environment since I’d never worked outside of academia before, but I did know that I was ready for a big change, and I’ve been pleased to find that it meshes really well with my work style.
SP: What do you love most about your work?
SM: The feeling of more immediate day-to-day impact. My extremely smart and multitalented coworkers (engineers, data scientists, marketers, business people, etc.). The opportunity to learn so much about how a growing company operates and to keep learning about the evolving field–it’s such an exciting time to be in clinical genomics and I truly believe in the value of what our company is doing. The transparent and collaborative company culture. The challenge of thinking about cancer biology in different ways than before, both in more clinically-oriented ways and in how to help build and grow our product. Maybe best of all, getting to read and write and think about science while impacting patient care.
SP: As you know, there’s a big push now to get women in the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) fields. I know this is the million dollar question, but I’m just curious to get your thoughts on why so few women are pursuing careers in these fields, and why if they do pursue, they often drop out. In your experience, were there unique obstacles you faced as a woman, and if so, how did you overcome them?
SM: There are so many contributing factors as to why there are fewer women in STEM, but they all come down to the fact that the male-dominant STEM culture is so historically entrenched. That culture manifests itself in hundreds of big and little ways that affect perceptions of women in STEM, both overtly and subconsciously. There are improvements toward equality with each generation, but it’s a long process.
Of all the STEM fields, the biosciences have the best representation of women, especially in the training stages. I think at this point the number of women and men pursuing the life sciences are equal if not tilted more toward women. Where it drops off is after the postdoc. I can’t point to any one overarching reason for this, but it can certainly be challenging to have kids at the point in your career that you need to prove yourself the most–you’re still considered to be an early-career scientist dedicating 100% of yourself to your research until well into your forties.
The incompatibility of the academic career trajectory with motherhood aside, there are still so many additional reasons: poor relationships with advisors, lack of funding, two-body problems in finding a job… A common theme is impostor syndrome, which, in science at least, women experience more than men. There are multiple socio-cultural and psychological reasons for this, but one is that we just don’t see as many women at the top. I remember talking to male colleagues in grad school who just expected that they would run their own labs someday, and I just didn’t understand how they could feel that sure of themselves. During my postdoc, I met some of the most brilliant women I know, and seeing that even they experience impostor syndrome was an eye opener.
SP: You talked a little bit about the practical side of how you dealt with your career shift; I’m wondering if you could also speak to how you dealt with it emotionally. When you realized you weren’t going to be able to or didn’t want to go further down the path you were on, did you see it coming, or was it more of a shock?
SM: It wasn’t so much a huge shock as a gradual realization. But even so it was still pretty daunting to think about what my other options were. All this time I had geared my professional development and prepared my CV for teaching. So now what? How do I market myself? Figuring that out was probably the biggest challenge. I had taken a lot of courses on communication, which is applicable for teaching as well as being able to explain science to a wider audience, so I used that as a starting point. Once I had a sense for the range of possibilities–I narrowed my search, and then thinking about the options became exciting instead of daunting.
SP: Do you have advice for women in general who have their Ph.D. in hand and are not sure what they want to do next?
SM: Think about what your strengths are and talk to people who you think are doing interesting sounding work. Put in the effort to explore what is personally and professionally fulfilling to you, not only the type of work but the work environment and culture as well. It’s different for everyone. At the beginning of my job search, I searched LinkedIn for local alumni from my undergrad college. I sent a little message to some in non-traditional science-related jobs, and all were more than happy to chat over the phone or meet me for coffee. None of them were scientific curators or anything close to what I’m doing, but it definitely helped me learn more about what was out there and what people like and dislike about their jobs.
Everyone I know outside of academia had their own unique career path. Ten years ago I never would have thought I’d be doing this, and my job–how it is right now–is not necessarily what it’s going to be like in 3-5 years. There’s only so far in advance you can plan! But it’s interesting and exciting not only to see how a relatively young field evolves, but also to be able to contribute in some way to its evolution. There’s no one way to do it, you just have to find your own path. But, it’s definitely helpful to hear other people’s stories.
Thank you, Sophia! Your own story is an inspiration–to women in the sciences and to women charting new career paths post-Ph.D. Thank you for sharing with us your insight and strategies. We eagerly anticipate watching Scientific Curation in general, and your own career path in particular, continue to evolve!