Curating Science, Genomes and a New Career

If there was ever a “traditional” career path in science, we can officially throw it out the window.  These days, scientists face many more options than the classic ‘Industry or Academia’ dilemma, but identifying those new opportunities can seem overwhelming at times.  We sat down with Shirley Wu, Ph.D., Science Content Manager at personal genetic testing company, 23andMe, to find out how she paved the road to her new career path.

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BenchFly: When you started graduate school, did you have a specific career direction in mind?

Shirley Wu: I knew that I wanted to do something related to science, but I didn’t know exactly what that would be. What I did know was that I didn’t want to be a professor/PI, for reasons that probably initially revolved around some form of performance anxiety but would later evolve into distaste for a system that seemed to emphasize all the wrong things. That left mainly industry or private sector career paths, though at the time my perceptions of the opportunities available outside of academia were very limited. I think a reason I chose bioinformatics in the first place was because it, being an interdisciplinary field, seemed to provide an inherently more versatile skill set and would open up more options for me.

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Is 23andMe different from where you originally thought you’d end up and if so, how did you get there?

After getting my PhD, I started a position as a scientific curator at 23andMe, a personal genomics and consumer internet company that provides individuals with access to high quality information about their own genetics. The direct-to-consumer genetic testing industry was nonexistent when I started my PhD program so I can’t say that I would have thought I’d end up here six years ago.

But I always knew that I wanted to do something a little more creative, and more tangibly impactful. My decision to apply to grad school was preceded by a brief – but intense – flirtation with the idea of attending architecture school. And as I approached the end of my first year in the PhD program, I experienced a similar crisis and nearly quit to pursue aspirations in design. Fortunately, my program and my advisor were extremely supportive and allowed me to take some additional electives outside of the usual curriculum to explore the areas I was interested in. I took Mechanical Engineering 101 and a course in Art and Visual Design. Ultimately, I decided to continue with my PhD.

It was sometime during my 4th year that I “fell in” with the Open Science crowd. We’d been having conversations in our lab about inefficiencies in the ways science is conducted and communicated, and these discussions inspired a blog called One Big Lab (later moved to my current blog on WordPress). Somehow I found (or was found by) other like-minded scientists on a social media aggregation site called FriendFeed, and a conference workshop, networking that didn’t feel like networking, and even co-authored several articles in PLoS Biology and PLoS Computational Biology followed.

This group of people is very passionate about the principles behind open science and the energy was infectious. So as I was finishing up my dissertation and thinking about life after the PhD, I was hoping to find something that would combine a similar spirit of scientific activism with the interests I now had in science communication.

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Were you considering other career options in addition to 23andMe? And as an active blogger/twitterer, were corporate blogging policies a factor?

Aside from the standard foray into management consulting, I didn’t apply to any jobs except at 23andMe. You could say that I got in “early decision” – I applied for a job at 23andMe about four months before I graduated, interviewed there, and accepted an offer, all without sending resumes to other companies.

At the time it seemed like cheating to not apply to or interview for other jobs. But in retrospect I can’t really think of any other jobs that would have fit my personality and my wide-ranging interests quite so well. The company has the laid-back yet fast-paced work environment you find at many start-ups, great people, some unique perks, and a mission I can stand behind. Plus, it is poised at the intersection of biotechnology, consumer internet, healthcare, genetic research, and science communication, things that in and of themselves are already fascinating, but put together creates the volatile package that is direct-to-consumer genetics. 23andMe is definitely making waves, and that’s fine with me.

When I interviewed, I don’t think I asked about their policy on personal blogging. I knew that the company had its own blog, though, and my interviews did touch on whether I would be able to contribute to it. Sometime during my first weeks on the job, I did ask about personal blogging, and was happy to learn that their policy was not restrictive and governed mainly by common sense. As I wasn’t a very active Twitter user at the time, I didn’t think to ask about my tweeting, but I’ve tried to apply a similar policy to my activity there as well.

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Has the PhD prepared you well or given you an advantage in your current job?

My PhD has served me well in my current job, but in somewhat convoluted ways. As a curator (and also a writer) for the company, I have to read a lot of papers, way more than I ever read in graduate school. (That may reflect more on the diligence of my scholarship than anything else…) A PhD in general prepares you to critically evaluate scientific papers, even if they are not directly related to your field or area of study, so this has been a key skill. The work I do also requires editing XML, writing the occasional shell or Python script, and thinking about information systems, for which the “ informatics” aspect of my PhD has been useful. Since most of my work focuses on understanding the genetics of human health and traits, the “bio” aspect has clearly been helpful as well. It also helps to have experience working independently and taking initiative for your own projects. At a startup, these qualities are extremely important and can take you far.

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How has the size of the company changed over your time there and has it affected your job?

The company was probably around 50 or 60 people when I joined and there are just about the same number now. But in between there were some changes to the staff, and at some point we were probably closer to 35. As sometimes happens at startups, there were some growing pains as the company redefined its goals and focus. Now that we’ve hit the throttle again, we’ve been interviewing and hiring steadily for a wide variety of positions.

As a result of changes in the company, I’ve taken on quite a bit more responsibility at fairly frequent intervals. This has allowed me to touch many more aspects of the company, which has been quite rewarding.

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What are your general responsibilities as a science content manager, and how does that govern your daily/weekly routine?

“Science content manager” is a pretty vague term, but the broadness is apt. At a high level, I manage the people and the processes that produce the health reports customers see that link their genetics to various aspects of diseases and traits. I’m also responsible for the blog, which currently involves making sure we post something related to genetics or 23andMe projects at least once a week and writing posts for the company when needed, such as in response to industry news. On a higher level, I also try to think of ways to improve the content experience for customers or improve internal processes for producing content in general.

Day to day, my routine varies from days full of meetings to days where I buckle down with a stack of papers. Other days I wrestle with XML or code. And at least once a week I spend a good chunk of the day writing posts for the company blog. But most of the time my days are pretty fragmented between a number of different tasks, such as reviewing curation notes, managing the pipeline of new health content making it out to customers, editing drafts of written content, monitoring the company’s social media channels, and responding to customer service inquiries related to the health reports. Some of these responsibilities are temporary until we hire for certain positions. (We have a new writer who just started, and we’re still looking for a Community and Social Media Manager.)

Though I am extremely busy, my schedule is still very flexible. And I hardly ever miss the butt-kicking office workouts we have three times a week!

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As an avid baker and ultimate Frisbee player, have you been able to maintain a decent work-life balance that allows you to still enjoy your hobbies?

My work and my hobbies have not conflicted with each other much yet. Partly this is because my work is quite flexible, so adjusting my schedule to accommodate a weekly practice or two is not a problem. In some ways, I’ve started to feel that it’s my Ultimate Frisbee commitments that have begun infringing on my baking, gardening, and chicken-raising ambitions! So the more challenging aspect is adjusting to what feels more like “real life” and figuring out what my non-work priorities are now. I imagine this will change again if/when I have children, as well.

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Have you had your own DNA sequenced? Have the results affected your life one way or the other?

I haven’t had my genome sequenced yet, but I have done the genotyping through 23andMe. I’ve also convinced my entire family to do it, too. While I haven’t learned anything too earth-shattering with regards to health, I did recently receive a 3rd cousin match on Relative Finder, a 23andMe feature that compares your DNA to others’ in its database and identifies potential relatives. After making contact with that person and corresponding with her, we were able to trace our connection back to a set of my great-great-great grandparents who were also her great-great grandparents – so she is actually my 4th cousin once removed! Sleuthing this out was pretty fascinating, and made me take a deliberate interest in my family tree and things like where my grandparents were born, information that often is all too easily lost to time.

Since 23andMe regularly improves its technology and updates its health information, it’s also possible that in the future there will be a health report of particular relevance to me. In the meantime, using the service has given me a better appreciation for the importance of gathering family history information, for both health and genealogical purposes.

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Do you think we’ll ever identify the snp that determines whether people like Michael McDonald’s music or not?  It’s got to be genetic.

Michael Mc who? I had to Google him to see who he was (and I still don’t really know who he is). There could very well be SNPs associated with musical tastes, but I don’t know if we want to go there. Justin Beiber’s fans will rip you to shreds for any perceived slight against their idol. And I don’t want to be involved in any research that might require me to listen to Rebecca Black.

For now, I’m perfectly happy to ponder less controversial but equally fascinating traits like being able to smell asparagus metabolites in your urine and the photic sneeze reflex (the tendency to sneeze in bright sunlight), both of which I have. Unless there’s an anti-asparagus faction out there somewhere, in which case, this interview never happened.

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Shirley is a study in contrasts. She harbors competing fantasies of hermit-dom and celebrity, at once resents and relies upon technology, and wants to own a bakery and live on a farm when she grows up – she thinks. Mitch Hedberg summed it up best when he said, “I’m tired of following my dreams. I’ll just find out where they’re going, and catch up with ‘em later!”

You can find Shirley online on her blog and on Twitter.

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Legal disclaimer: The views, opinions, and experiences expressed above are those of the individual and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of 23andMe.

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3 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. spinstress

    wrote on May 5, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story! I should be graduating in the next year and I have no idea what I want to do next but I'm pretty sure it doesn't involve benchwork. So it's always inspiring to see that others have left the lab and landed on their feet!

  2. No More Friday

    wrote on May 5, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    Ditto on the Rebecca Black comment!!

  3. Careers After the PhD: A Primer on Consulting

    wrote on May 18, 2011 at 5:29 am

    […] Curating Science, Genomes and a New Career […]

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