Working at the Interface: Matt Bogyo

Working at the Interface: Matt BogyoResearch at the interface of disciplines has spawned entirely new fields, like Chemical Biology and Chemical Neuroscience.  These burgeoning fields are ripe with opportunity for scientific discovery.  We spoke with Matt Bogyo, Ph.D., Associate Professor at Stanford about his journey to chemical biology and academics, both of which followed a winding path.

You have spent your career straddling the fence between disciplines – chemistry and biology; industry and academics.  Scientifically, was using chemistry to solve biological problems your goal when you started grad school?

I don’t think it started out that way but it certainly ended up being my primary goal. I was always interested in problem solving and wanted to major in physics when I started undergraduate studies. When I took organic chemistry, I changed my mind almost immediately. I loved the challenge of figuring how to make a molecule by taking it apart into its pieces. When I started graduate school at MIT I thought I wanted to do total synthesis and focus only on the chemistry. But all it took were some advanced biology classes to make me understand the potential power of using small molecules to understand bigger questions related to human health. Then I realized that making the molecules was really only half the fun. I still wanted to make molecules but I wanted to be the one that applied them. For that I needed to learn more biology. I ended up doing my PHD in an immunology lab and found it exciting as well as initially scary to learn totally new areas of science. I felt like an idiot at my first group meetings but it didn’t take long to find ways to go back to my experience in chemistry to move in new directions based on the biology that I was learning.  I think my research now has moved even more in the direction of bio-engineering. I like to develop chemical tools and then find way to apply them to relevant areas of biology that have the potential to have a lasting impact on medicine. We continue build and then apply the tools we develop but we also do a lot of collaborations.  It’s great to see the methods get used by others and to watch the field grow.

As research moves forward, do you think we’re moving towards a single mega-field (think “Chemicalbiologicalimmunologicalbiophysicalgenetics”…), where the divisions between fields are no longer clear?

I am not sure that we will ever get to that level of integration nor do I think it will be necessary to unify all areas of science. I think it would be great if everyone would spend some time working in a field that they know nothing about. While initially scary, it is the best way to get a new perspective and to find new directions to apply the experience that you already have to new directions in research.

Being trained at the interface of two disciplines, it is often suggested that the depth of knowledge is sacrificed for breadth, given all of the information.  Do you feel this is the case, and if so, do the sacrifices outweigh the benefits?

Sometimes I do think this can be a problem but then I realize that everyone feels this way. While there is some truth to the saying “jack of all trades, master of none”, I think it is totally reasonable for a chemist to step outside their comfort zone and work in a biology lab. That chemist would certainly then be able to then go on and do biology on their own. To be honest, nobody has a full depth of knowledge in all areas of biology. It is necessary to specialize and I do not think that having a broad training in multiple fields is going to make someone less capable of doing complex biological research in defined area research. As the diversity of techniques continues to grow, Biology is becoming more and more about collaboration. Nobody can have all the tools in place in their own lab to go from molecules to clinical trials. As long as you have an open mind and are willing to step out of your comfort zone and learn new things, I think the sky is the limit. Having a broader background can only help.

Your career path has followed what might be considered a non-traditional path – starting out at as a UCSF fellow, then moving to Celera, then jumping back to academics as a professor at Stanford.  What governed the decision to leave academics – and then to return?

I decided to make the move from UCSF to Celera because I was doing a lot consulting work in the Bay Area. As I mentioned before, I like to see my science get applied and move in the direction of having an impact on human health. The problem is that up until you finish your degree and post-doc training, you really have no idea of what industry is all about. It certainly is exciting to see what is going on in the biotech and pharma industry and I decided the only way I would ever know was to give it a try. I was very lucky because I was asked to come in as group leader so I had the chance to run a small lab in industry. I was also able to do work that could be published so that helped me to make the transition back to academics when I decided that it was a better fit for me. The main motivation for my move back was that I missed the freedom of academics and most importantly of being able to easily collaborate with whomever I wanted to work with. I know that academia is the right place for me but I really value my time industry. I learned a ton and much of that knowledge has carried over to my current lab at Stanford. It has helped me to be a better advisor and scientist.

How do you view the current relationship between academics and industry?

That is quite a broad question and really cannot be addressed with a “one size fits all” answer. Companies are all so different. Large pharma certainly has a different relationship with academics than a small biotech company. I think that industry benefits tremendously from the basic discoveries made in academia and often has very close collaborations with academic labs. I think these collaborations tend to happen more on the biology side of things. Also, the smaller the company, the more likely they will rely on academic labs to do many of the studies that they cannot afford to do of do not have the resources to do themselves.

What do you think the relationship between them should be?

I would like to see more companies taking the Genentech model with robust post-doc programs and a strong focus on publishable science. I also think it would be great to have more programs for students to spend time in industry during PhD studies so they can get a better of feel for which track is better for them. This could really strengthen the ties between academics and industry. It would also help to give the companies a better link to new discoveries coming out of academia.

An aspect of your research focuses on developing protease-targeting imaging reagents for Cancer detection, which may have tremendous commercial potential.  Would you ever consider returning to industry, if it’s your company?

I don’t think I could ever go back. I really feel like I found my place in the universe. I am happy to keep active relationships with industry through consulting and if I ever get my own company started (anyone know of a few million dollars kicking around that they want to invest – contact me) then I would make every effort to have strong ties to that company without becoming a full-time employee.

What advice would you give to grad students and postdocs who are currently deciding between industry and academics?

I would advise them to try to find ways to experience industry. They might be able to set up a collaboration or do a short internship to get a feel for how industry works. Chances are students and post-docs already know how academics work so now they need to get info on the other side. I would also encourage them to find contacts of people that have recently made their choice to see what they think. Keep in mind that all companies are different, much like all schools are different. Try to focus on finding a place were you feel you can stay motivated and do good science. If you can do that, then you can write your own ticket as you gain success in your field.

Are there things they can do now to increase their chances of success in either direction?

Work hard and do good science. If you are excited about your work and are motivated then you should be able to find people that want to work with you. I would also find ways to network at meetings and make as many personal contacts as possible. This helps quite a bit in getting your CV pulled from the endless stack of strong candidates looking for a job.

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  1. Leaving the Academic Path (and Country) to Find A Job | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on May 24, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    […] Working at the Interface: Matt Bogyo […]

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