Looking out his office window toward the campus of the university he graduated from just across the street, Chris Williams says he has no regrets about leaving academia. Switching from research to developing, training, and selling novel protein modeling and bioinformatics software was not easy, but his new career is a good match for his entrepreneurial spirit and his love of science. "When I was at university, I was feeling that I was too much in the ivory tower, shielded away from the real world," says Williams. "I have always looked for where the action is, and I found just that where I am now."
Williams sees a big difference in the mindsets of the people working in these two worlds. He likes to use the analogy of fixing a plumbing problem, like a burst pipe. "The academic would contemplate why it broke, while the pragmatist will have the duct tape and actually wrap up the leak," says Williams. People in the career sector he currently occupies, he believes, are pragmatists.
Stick to theories that work
For Williams, the great and rewarding challenge of working in the private sector--or the part of it he's familiar with--is improvisation, coming up with solutions on the fly. More specifically, for him this means focusing on real world applications of theoretical chemistry. Academics tend to choose what problems to tackle, whereas in industry the stimulus for research usually comes from practical needs. "In industry you stick to theories that work and get you somewhere, so if it's not pretty, or it's not elegant, or it's not academically satisfying, so what."
After graduating with a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry from McGill University in 1996, Williams quickly got a foot in industry's door by doing consulting work in computational chemistry for the firm which would eventually offer him a full time position.
But before he would dive headlong into one job, he wanted to try and see if other career paths might pan out. He always had a love for teaching, so straight out of his doctoral studies, while continuing his consultation work, he tried his hand teaching part-time at a Montreal area college-- which, he found, had both pros and cons. Williams found that teaching offered good hours and lots of opportunity for interaction with students, which he loved. But it wasn't too steady. "I was subjected to the whims of government standards and funding, and after three semesters, I noticed how it put the grind on me," he adds.
Meanwhile, watching many of his university peers slog their way through low-paying postdocs for upwards of six years made the idea of going back to university unappealing. "I saw people who were 30 years old coming out of their Ph.D. in debt, with no money," he remembers. "I just wanted a steady paycheck."
Chris Williams (with beard) demonstrating software.
Credit: Chemical Computing Group
By 1998, the company that he had been consulting for--the Chemical Computing Group--offered him a full time position. Based in Montreal, The Chemical Computing Group develops software for computer-aided molecular modeling. Their clients range from academics in faculties like chemistry and medicine to computational chemists working in the pharmaceutical and biotech sectors. Williams started out as a support scientist, doing technical support and making customized modifications to the software. Seven years later, he now serves as Principal Scientist, with responsibilities that include attending industrial conferences, doing company site visits, demonstrating software, and developing training courses in how to use the software.
The work suits him. "I remember being a student in the lab, and a sales guy came to show software and I thought that I never want to be that guy. Then I became that guy, and I found that it matured me scientifically," he explains.
Williams finds it exciting to be working with cutting-edge software that facilitates real scientific solutions. One of the company's programs creates 3-dimensional models of DNA and protein molecules. Researchers take these virtual images and try to fit various chemicals into the protein's pockets. In these models, the drug acts like a key with the protein being the lock. A good drug will fit the lock perfectly. The 3D images provide a clear picture of how the key looks like in the lock. "So you can say, if I add more atoms to the key maybe it would fit in better, and you would have a better drug that uses fewer dosages, with less side-effect."
Broadening scientific knowledge
Has Williams abandoned science? Hardly. He uses his scientific training every day, though he has become more of a generalist. He believes that he has learned more about his scientific field at his current job than he ever would have doing pure research back at the university lab. His scientific knowledge has become broader because he has to deal with other experts in his field, in both academia and industry. "I don't have to read a lot of scientific papers anymore. I actually get to go out and meet the people who are writing them, and they tell me the real deal about their research."
One of the biggest changes coming from his academic work is dealing with other people's problems. At university, problems tend to be solved in solitude, at the library, or maybe with a supervisor. In his technical support role for the company, Williams has always spent lots of time on the phone and e-mail trouble shooting. "You have to listen to people's problems, even if you think that they're not exactly scientifically valid. I found this was the hardest for me to get over."
Williams's work can be stressful, he says, and it's not for everyone. Breaks in work are far between, and there is usually pressure to travel. Business meetings involve flying out to a city, demonstrating products all day, talking to clients and training them, taking them out to dinner, and then hopping on a plane and going off to another city. It's draining.
Yet despite these challenges, Williams is happy with where he is in his career. While the adjustment to the corporate mentality was difficult at first, it has become second nature. "I'm now scientifically challenged, I'm keeping up to date, and I'm helping people out," says Williams. "I'm the guy with the duct tape, taping the leak up."
To learn more about what it's like to work in scientific software sales, check out Chemical Computing Group's Web site.
Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.