"Why?" This was the most common question asked of me when I decided to leave my job as a scientist in the academic research line to join a commercial company that offered genomic services. There were many reasons I decided to move, but I believe the most compelling one was curiosity.
When I was a research scientist, I had done many PCR reactions, designing the primers and requesting their synthesis. However, I did not know how they were produced; I simply used them when they arrived. Now that I am running a lab that synthesizes all kinds of oligonucleotides, I realise how much knowledge is needed for the synthesis of the short strand of "T", "A", "G" and "C", even though this synthesis is not costly. Moreover, many different types of oligonucleotides are required to fulfil the various needs of different research strategies.
Servicing is different from research even though both support the advancement of science. In the research world, a scientist aims to generate results and publications; in the servicing world, a scientist aims to help the scientist customer achieve results. When I was a researcher, I had postgraduate students as well as lab technicians working with me. They would get upset when their experiments were not working and be disappointed when the results obtained were not what they wanted. Today, I still have a group of hardworking lab technicians working with me. Likewise, they get upset when customers complain about our products. We always have to race against time to meet tight schedules, as all orders are on high priority. As a researcher, you control your own time. You plan your experiments and generally know when you can stop, barring unexpected circumstances. However, in our laboratory, we almost always have to work late whenever there are urgent requests.
Dr. Hon (back row, second from right) and her team.
It was an interesting experience to convert from a pure academic scientist to a scientist running a commercial laboratory. As the research community in Singapore is small, most of my researcher friends and former colleagues are now my customers. I am glad that I have so many friends that trust me and are happy to have me to supply some of their needed services. It is really nice to hear how comfortable they feel when they know that I am there to support the service.
Our company not only offers oligonucleotides synthesis, we also offer DNA sequencing service. As the success of sequencing depends on many possible factors, complaints from customers are inevitable. It is always unsettling to be on the receiving end of an angry phone call. Conversely, it is extremely fulfilling when angry customers can be turned around after hearing my analysis of possible problems with their experiments. At that point, the complaint usually turns into a discussion. I always try to see the problem from the customers' perspectives and ensure that the appropriate questions are asked. That way, I understand the underlying problem, rather than assign blame. The aim of my job is to provide the best support to the scientist, not just to sell our services. This is also the goal of my company--we want to be the partner of the life science researchers and not merely the provider.
During my research days, I focused primarily on the field I was researching in and was well versed with only those techniques that I employed. Nowadays, in order to communicate successfully with my customers and support other instruments and consumables sold by my company, I have to arm myself with knowledge in many areas and understand many different techniques. The diversity and quantity of information I have to digest to enable me to perform the many auxiliary functions of my job are further compounded by continuously changing.
I still like research, and I do miss my simple research life. So, it is great to hear that my company is going to invest in research and that I will be involved in its research activities. Of course, the main difference between then and now is that the new research work will be more applied and intended to generate products with commercial value. But then, isn't that what most research is aiming at?
In the final analysis, I am glad that I have moved to this challenging and exciting new career, and I enjoy the fact that I'm still contributing to science--albeit in a different way.