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Joanne Kamens, Ph.D.

Joanne Kamens, Ph.D.

Dr. Kamens received her PhD in Genetics from Harvard Medical School then spent 15 years at BASF/Abbott, ultimately serving as Group Leader in Molecular Biology. In 2007 she joined RXi Pharmaceuticals as Senior Director of Research Collaborations. In 2011, Dr. Kamens became the Executive Director of Addgene, a mission driven, nonprofit dedicated to helping scientists around the world share plasmid reagents. Dr. Kamens has been raising awareness of women scientists since 1998 upon realizing that an entire week had gone by at work and not one other woman had been at any meeting she attended. Dr. Kamens founded the current Boston chapter of the Association for Women in Science and was Director of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Boston Group Mentoring Program for 3 years. In 2010, Dr. Kamens received the Catalyst Award from the Science Club for Girls and is a Fellow of the Massachusetts Academy of Science. In 2013 she was recognized as a PharmaVoice 100 Most Inspiring People. Dr. Kamens is a long time career speaker, mostly for science and tech post-docs and graduate students, presenting at places such as AAAS, NIH, Universities of Michigan, Minnesota, Yale, MIT, BU, Harvard, and Tufts to name a few. She lives in Newton, MA with her husband the rocket scientist and misses her two kids while they are in college. 

Below are links to some of her blogs and webinars related to professional development and career exploration:

NIH career webinar- Academia to Industry Transition
ASCB/iBio networking webinar (Preview)
Nature blog How to Choose a Lab
Bitesize Bio How to Choose  a Lab Webinar

Conducted and contributed by Brian | October 2013

“You do not want to be a PhD and postdoc forever. You should aiming to get out, not aiming to stay. This is an area you can vote with your feet.”

Listen to the conversation podcast below (player should appear shortly).

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Featured songs: "Words" by Doves and "Pulleys" by Animal Collective

Conversation Highlights

“I’ve always considered myself a scientist first even now that I am in management and operations [at Addgene].”

“When you come out of your PhD, what does your resume look like? Your resume looks like you are a bench scientist because that is what you have done for six years. [Thus] I went into industry as a bench scientist.”

I did not need to pipette to be happy. What makes me happy is looking at data.”

“Along the way, I raised my hand and volunteered and had opportunities to do a lot of very different things. [At Abbott] I managed projects, did some international projects, worked on many collaborations. I tried to learn the business of pharma and biotech. I was doing quite a bit of networking.

"In biotech, the company is so small that everybody has to pitch in. I was writing press releases and pitching to investors. I had never done this before. You get these opportunities as you move into these different positions and I took advantage of them.”

“I love working with people and developing talent. I love working with scientists.”

[On finding and pursuing new job opportunities] “The reason I go out and speak with postdocs and graduate students is that I do not want them to be lucky – I want them to be more concerted.”

“My advisor had a lot of connections to the biotech industry. He was favorably disposed towards industry-type jobs and he knew people. I was not much of a networker, but he knew a lot of people who were in that area already. He was the one that introduced me to all of the people that interviewed me. He basically set me up and called in favors. One of the interviews turned into a job.”

“I knew myself well enough to know that the independent, self-starting [personality] that was needed in academia was not my strength. I am much more motivated by timelines, working in a group, teamwork, and having mutual goals. That is much more common in industry. Even though I would have liked to have done a postdoc first, financially it did not feel like it was feasible at the time. So, when the opportunity came to go to BASF I jumped at it.”

“My husband was fully a 50/50 partner in our child-rearing and in all aspects of it. We were early enough in our careers together and we shared everything. Without that, it would have been very difficult for me. My advisor was also very supportive. I wanted to work and wanted to be scientist – I have to be a scientist because that is who I am – but I was sure I wanted children. [These two things] could not be mutually exclusive. There is no other way that it could have worked.”

“I have a very different approach to work-life balance than some people. You just have to make it work. You create expectations for your time. If I was happy at work then my family would be happy. That is the balance – finding happiness in both places.”

“You have to do things that are important to you and make you happy, but you have to have a ‘to do’ list and a ‘to don’t’ list. I try to only accept things that I can do well.”

“If you are a graduate student and your university has a biotech club or a consulting club, I think it is really important that you get involved in those types of activities quickly and openly. Even if you are not sure if you are going to industry, I think it is a good idea that you choose a PI that accepts that path. When you are a graduate student, you do not have a lot of references. Your advisor is your most important reference. If he or she does not support writing a recommendation for you for an industry position, you can be in real trouble.”

“If you are late in the game and you are stuck and your advisor is not supportive, then networking becomes even more important. Job opportunities will only come to you if someone knows you and respects you. The more that these people know you the more likely you will have an opportunity there. So many jobs in industry and government never get advertised. At every stage it is important to know people, especially if you are late in the game and your advisor is not supportive.”

“I’ve heard people say that when they choose a postdoc they think the most important thing is to choose a Nobel Prize winner or someone very famous or an HHMI scholar. It turns out that your best measure for success, if you are one of the 60% of people that will go into a non-academic career, is the open-mindedness of the advisor towards that career path. Even if he or she is young and does not have a Nobel Prize or 100 Cell papers, but they interact with people from industry or sit on the board for a startup – it will be much more helpful to you.”

“I really advocate starting your network where it is easy which is your department or school. Hopefully that will grow into a network that is more national and diverse as people do different things. You know that 60% of those people will not take a traditional academic path. It would be great if you knew where they ended up.”

[On the most valuable skills learned during the PhD training] “I had a great experience learning how to be a scientist. My advisor really taught me how to design an experiment, how to be critical of data, how to read a paper. He gave us opportunities to be involved in all aspects of the lab – grant writing, paper writing, speaking. He was a great mentor in that he empowered us. It is the whole package – it is not any one thing. If it was anything [in particular] – I had to have a lot of initiative to get what I needed. I think it was the initiative to solve a problem and get out of my comfort zone to find answers.”

The academic advisors that I admire the most are the ones that say I know how to become an academic advisor because I did that. But, what I do not know is if you do not want to do that – I do not know how to do that because I did not do it. So, I am going to help you find the resources. I am going to support your lunch and learn and support your time and not stand in your way and expect you to be in the bench all day. I am going to support you by doing other things for your career.”

“You want to choose a lab where you advisor understands that it is not just about the benchwork.”

[On keeping your options open] “Don’t go to labs where PIs are not good mentors and don’t get their people out. You should not work for those people. Go to labs where the PIs are great at training and turning around their postdocs and PhDs and moving them out to be their own bosses and allowing them to have their own opportunities. It is a long time to be ‘in training’.”