NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Founder/CEO, Neural Bytes, LLC

May 31, 2016

Name: Antonio Ulloa, PhDImage of Antonio Ulloa

Job Title & Company: Founder/CEO, Neural Bytes, LLC

Location: Washington, DC

How long you’ve been in your current job: Founded Neural Bytes in 2012


Postdoc Advisor:
Barry Horwitz, PhD, IC: NIDCD

After your postdoc, what was your career progression like?
I knew I wanted to be independent and follow my own ideas, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. My wife and I ended up moving to London. I had an advisor/friend from Spain who I had a lot of success writing grant applications with, so we got together during one of his visits to London and we decided to write something together. We wrote a few grant proposals together and he got one of the grants later on. I enjoy writing grant applications and the stress of having to meet a deadline.  All of this was in the field of robotics. But, it essentially was a freelance thing. He encouraged me to register a company in England, so that I could join the consortium formally. But, I’m not a business person so I didn’t understand why this was so important. While we were waiting to hear about the grants, I became a stay at home dad to our two children.

When the kids were a little older, I eventually founded my first company, Alpha Brain Technologies, which I registered in England. The goal of that company was to make games and applications for iphones and ipads to help people with the acquisition of a second language. For me, it was to use everything I knew about how the brain processes language since I had a lot of knowledge about that from my time at NIDCD because I did fMRI experiments and computational modeling, etc.

I really enjoyed creating the company and I used the resources in London for starting a business. Google had a program to help small businesses start and they gave you a website for free web tools and advice to help you. It was very fulfilling but not financially rewarding.

Is that company still in business?
No, after seven years in England, we moved back to Washington, DC so I shut that company down. And I opened a company in the US. This time I wanted to create computational models of the brain for researchers to use in the labs. I knew that most neuroscience labs do empirical work and that they often don’t have computer scientists on site. It is becoming more and more common that people have to pose some computational hypothesis for how things work, not just the results of their empirical studies. So, the idea of the company was to create software for those labs to use which was user-friendly.

Did you utilize any resources in the United States to help set up your business?
Yes, it was very different from setting up a business in England. What I have now is an LLC – a limited liability company and those don’t exist in England. But, I used a lot of resources through the Small Business Administration (SBA) and I also used a lot of resources through Score.org. They have lots of workshops and one-on-one meetings.  That was great at the beginning, especially when you don’t know where to go, what to do, or how to start. They gave a lot of advice by phone, email, Skype, and in-person. They also have videos online that you can watch to help you.

Plus, an accountant. I had a hard time finding an accountant who I was able to ask basic questions to because there were basic concepts that I didn’t understand and I wanted to have a sense of how things worked. I did finally find one and it has worked out well. Accountants are a great resource to ask questions to and some of them have great websites/blogs with basic questions to help you as well.

What does a general day to day look like for you?
Since I started the contract with the NIH in April 2014, I spend a lot of time at the NIH. I would say half of my time is at the NIH. I generally go there in the mornings and spend 4-5 hours on the project that I have with them. The project will update a specialized software tool for brain modeling by making it more accessible to neuroscience researchers without computational experience.  I have also given them ideas on how to upload that to an open repository. There has been a move recently to move everything to a more open science and having data and source code uploaded to public repositories.  Mostly my contract involves writing software and giving them solutions for their research.

How did you win this contract? Was it a difficult process?
Yes, it was. I had something very specific in mind to build this research tool software, and then I had some ideas about how research was done at the NIH, but even so I had to do a lot of research about who was doing what. So, I ended up just approaching people and/or emailing them. I would give my business card and proposal. Many people said no, but then it just worked.

What are the most important skills that you utilize in this position?
I think presentation skills is a big one. Research skills is another big one. I did have to write a business proposal, but nobody really looks at it. It is really just for yourself, but it can be useful to have the skills to be able to write a vision statement and technical reports.

What is your favorite aspect of running your own business?
The independence and the flexibility in the hours. We have school-aged children so my wife and I both have to take them to school. A lot of flexibility helps with that. And I enjoy the independence because it means that I set my own goals. I know exactly what I want to do in the next five years and that is what I am going to do through my business or through a contract with my business or small business innovation grant. So, those two things are really great for me.

What has been the most challenging aspect about running your own company?
Paperwork and tax returns. There is just a lot of paperwork. I gradually eased into it, but it can be daunting because one has to have a license and a registration and a certificate of compliance, and a company number from the IRS, and a business bank account. There are lots of little things that need to happen in order to have a company which offers services.  Then, there are lots more requirements in order to have a contract with the federal government. It is a long list of things that one has to set up and keep updating every year or so.

My accountant does the tax returns but I use QuickBooks to help keep track of everything. This helps keep track of all the expenses and I can upload the receipts and categorize it. At the end of the year, I can produce a report which I give to the accountant and they’ll tell me how much I have to pay and estimate it per federal/state.

For somebody who is hoping to go down a similar path and start a company, what last bits of advice would you give? In hindsight, is there anything you wish you would have done differently?

Yes, don’t wait! I waited and I was a little too cautious. I thought that if I started a business formally that there was no way back or that if I left it alone for a few months that it would go down the drain. Or that I had to either do research or have my own business, but no, that is not the case.

True, there are several things that you need to keep up with but there is no reason to wait if that is what you want. You can have a business and you can also have your research. In fact, I could have started a business as a postdoc because I had an idea already of what I wanted to do. Even now, I have an idea of what I want to do for my research so I continue writing scientific articles and presenting work at conferences. I want both things.

Don’t be afraid to try – it can feel intimidating, but it is not rocket science.


Career Options Series: Bioinformatics

May 23, 2016

Thank you to all who voted! According to the poll, the career path you wanted to see highlighted was Bioinformatics. The second runner up was Education and Outreach, so we will be highlighting that field next in the Career Options Series.


What is Bioinformatics?
The fields of bioinformatics and computational biology involve the development and application of tools to make biological discoveries. Bioinformatics is being introduced to high school students in biology classes. There are undergraduate, masters level and Ph.D. programs that train student in these fields. See the International Society for Computational Biology  (ISCB) for examples of degree programs in bioinformatics and computational biology. In addition, some people enter the field as a biologists and some enter as computer scientists/engineers. According to ICSB, a solid background in both biology and computer science is extremely helpful.

Sample Job Titles
Data Analyst; Systems Analyst; Informatics Analyst; Software Developer; Biostatistician/Bioinformatician; Computational Biologist; Research Scientist; Bioinformatics/Staff Scientist; Gene Analyst; Research Assistant/Associate; Biologics Database; Programmer/Administrator; Computer Analyst/Programmer; Molecular Modeling Assistant; Software Engineer; Post-doctoral Fellow; Research Scientist; Senior Scientist/PI; Professor/Assistant Professor; UNIX/Linux Programmer; Computational Genomics Specialist; Bioinformatics Specialist
* Information compiled via an Indeed search in the Bethesda area

Sample Work Settings
University laboratory/faculty; Nonprofit Biomedical Research Institution; Pharmaceutical Company; Information Technology (IT) service provider; Biotechnology Company; Government Agencies; Government Contractor

Sample Employers
The Jackson Laboratory
Sanofi
Abbott Laboratories
Digicon
University of Nebraska Medical Center
Medical College of Wisconsin
New York Genome Center
University of Rochester
Leidos
Memorial Sloan Kettering
ACGT, Inc
OMNITEC Solutions, Inc
GenePeeks
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Craig Venter Institute
Department of Health and Human Services
National Human Genome Research Institute

Potential Topics/Areas of Specialty

  • Sequence analysis
  • Gene and protein expression
  • Structural bioinformatics
  • Network/systems biology
  • Computer science
  • Software development
  • Database management/programming

 Key Skills
-Computer programming knowledge – Python, Perl, Ruby, or R http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2791169/

-Basic knowledge of UNIX operating system http://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000589

-Good communication skills
http://bioinfonecia.blogspot.com/2011/06/10-useful-bioinformatics-skills-to-have.html

-The ability to multitask

-A working knowledge of biology/genomics

-Data visualization skills

How to get started
Internships e.g., Summer Internship at NIEHS, NCI, NHGRI

Professional Organizations
International Society for Computational Biology
The American Medical Informatics Association

Additional Resources
The National Center for Biotechnology Information
National Human Genome Research Institute
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Biostars Message Board

 

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OITE’s Career Options Series gives you a snapshot overview of different career paths. The goal of this series is to help you explore a variety of different options by connecting you to new resources.  A large part of making a good career decision is done by gathering information about that field.  We encourage you to follow up this online research by conducting informational interviews with individuals in each field.

 


Revealers and Hiders: Discussing Vulnerability in the Workplace

May 16, 2016

Discussing one’s weaknesses in the workplace can be a challenge, especially in the rigorous environment of research and academia. In a competitive atmosphere, students/trainees want to appear confident and skilled, and are hesitant to give off the impression that they are unable or unwilling to complete a task. Instead of communicating effectively, students often decide to cover up their weaknesses in hopes of learning new skills to move past them.

But is this strategy effective?

Dr. Brené Brown is a professor and researcher at the University of Houston who studies vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Her decade-long research on shame, composed of focus groups, interviews, and journal pages, showed a separation between people who had a sense of worthiness – who believed that they were worthy of love and belonging, and people who instead felt more shame and fear. Analysis of qualitative data from this cohort showed that they in fact live differently from the shame cohort– they live whole-heartedly. They had a sense of courage – as Brown puts it, “the courage to be imperfect.” This ability to “own weakness” gave them a sense of authenticity, and a capacity to be compassionate to themselves, which in turn led to a better sense of connection and compassion towards others.

Most importantly, Brown juxtaposed the outlook on vulnerability of this whole-hearted cohort to that of the shame cohort from her previous research, explaining “they didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating, as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing. They just talked about it being necessary.” As opposed to seeing vulnerability in a debilitating way, this cohort was able to utilize their weaknesses to make themselves stronger.

Research at the Harvard Business School extends upon this idea of conceptualizing and communicating vulnerability, concluding that, in fact, divulging unflattering information about oneself is perceived better by prospective employers rather than hiding it. Participants evaluated two different job applications that asked applicants the lowest grade they had ever received on a test. Revealer/Hider conditions indicated either a grade of an F, or chose not to answer. Participants had to estimate the actual grade, indicate which of the two applicants they trusted more, and select the candidate they were most likely to hire. On average, Hiders were deemed less trustworthy than Revealers, and were also less likely to be hired by participants, despite the fact that they were perceived to score higher on the exam.

Although divulging one’s weaknesses in a professional context – whether that is a job interview or on the job itself – can be hard to do, learning to utilize and effectively communicate weakness and vulnerability are crucial parts of working as a successful professional.

Mentors and colleagues can’t help you if you don’t clarify areas of need.  Doing so could lead to better suggestions and advice for your own professional development as well as an increase in your overall holistic health.


Science Careers in Industry: Top Ten Myths

May 9, 2016

Post written by Brad Fackler, MBAImage of a list with checked items. A pencil is to the right of the list.

When you have primarily worked in an academic setting, any other work path can seem like a confusing and scary venture. Many scientists consider career options in industry; however they often worry about what this transition will be like. Here are the top ten myths I often hear about an industry career in science.

1. I will have my project “yanked away.”

This thought is often repeatedly shared, but most of the industry scientists I have talked to have categorically denied this! In industry, projects often change for two basic reasons: 1. Your research was successful and the compound has moved on to a clinical trial.  2. Your project was unsuccessful and no further work is warranted at that time.  In both of these scenarios, an individual is generally given months advance notice for future planning. Moreover, you will likely be moved to a project where your skills and expertise can best be leveraged because most companies and bosses want employees who are scientifically engaged and happy.  After all, that helps with productivity in the end.

2. It is all about the money.

Funding is needed to make science happen, whether in the private or public sector and the total budgets between the two are pretty comparable. The fiscal year 2016 NIH research budget is $32,300,000,000, with this total accounting for extramural  (grants awarded to more than 300,000 researchers at more than 2,500 universities, medical schools, and other research institutions)  as well as intramural research spending.  In comparison, the sum of the top four pharma company’s R&D budgets in 2015 was $35,600,000,000. The breakdown is: Roche at $10.2B, Novartis at $9.3B, Merck at $8.2B, and Pfizer at $7.9B.

3. Industry conducts “bad” science.

Companies have to meet clear regulatory requirements by the FDA that academic labs generally aren’t held to. Development of drug therapy has virtually eliminated once common diseases like plague, polio, smallpox, tuberculosis, measles, and chicken pox. The average life expectancy after a cancer diagnosis is now greater than ten years.  With all of these advances, the average life expectancy in the US in 2015 is 80.6 for females and 75.9 for males. Compare that to the average US life expectancy 100 years prior in 1915 which was 56.8 for females and 52.5 for males. This increase in life expectancy has been attributed to better nutrition and the development of drug therapy.

4. I will no longer be able to publish.

Companies still publish findings. 5,585 science companies published 34,287 papers and 6,793 technology companies published 29,554 papers.  For example, in the first quarter of 2016, MedImmune had 40 publications. Industry scientists also report that the pressure to publish is diminished from academia and that is often viewed as a positive.

5. The work is not as satisfying.

Well, if you transition from an NIH lab to an industry bench science position, then you will be doing exactly the same things whether that is satisfying to you or not.  In industry positions, more emphasis is placed on meeting timelines and accomplishments, and most companies prioritize team work in a collegial work environment. If for whatever reason that doesn’t sound like a good fit for you personally and professionally, then it is might be necessary to question if industry is a good fit for you.

6. There is more career change and I’ll probably lose my job.

Most careers are full of change and even PI jobs change too (ex. Assistant – Associate – Full). Industry does offer multiple career tracks, including level and salary increases within the lab or the option to progress into management. You can also transition to other company functions.  Should you lose your job, most often companies offer placement services and severance options. Also, if working in industry, then it is likely that you are living in an area where there are other opportunities as well since most pharma and biotech companies are often clustered together geographically.

7. What if I hate it?

Many career decisions are fraught with worry. Remember that the choice you are making at the end of your training fellowship is for the next step in your career, not necessarily for the rest of your life. Pursuing an industry postdoc can help make you feel more comfortable about your decision to move into industry. Industry experience and pursuing new skill sets may help open doors to new opportunities and additional career choices, including returning to academia, which brings us to number eight…

8. I can never go back to academia.

In today’s environment, there is growing pressure to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of product discovery and development which often leads to public-private partnerships (PPP’s) and Industry-Academic partnerships like NCATS or Accelerating Medicines Partnership (AMP).  This has increased the flow of technology, capital, and human resources among the public, private, and academic sectors and has helped blur the lines of what used to be a bigger divide.

9. I will disappoint my PI and my graduate school mentors.

Even if it might not always feel this way, the environment is beginning to change. Faculty review panels are starting to give “credit” for non-faculty career outcomes. Similarly, PIs are starting to understand the shortage of academic PI opportunities and the benefits of multiple career options for trainees. Always remember, it is you career/life to live – not theirs. If you need help having this discussion with your boss, read this post on “How to Talk to Your Mentor about a Career Change.”

10. Not becoming a PI means I’m a failure.

It can be incredibly hard to reframe one’s internal thoughts about this; however, from an external perspective, this most definitely does not mean you are a failure. In fact, most employment statistics reveal you are in the majority. According to Sauermann and Roach (2012), more than half of entering biology PhD students had the career goal of becoming a research professor, but less than 10% of them went on to become a research professor.

Remember, that the best career advice often comes from people who are working within your aspired field/company/role, so if you are interested in industry, then talk to people doing that work. You might even find some of your own personal myths dispelled by these conversations.


How to Beat the Sunday Blues

May 2, 2016

Image of a sad-looking puppy with the words "I got the Sunday Night Blues"If you have a Monday through Friday job, then at some point in your career you have probably experienced the “Sunday Blues.” It often starts around Sunday afternoon with a slightly depressed feeling that your weekend is coming to a close. Along with sadness often comes an uptick in your level of anxiety thinking about Monday morning and the week ahead.

Sound familiar?

Many people think they are the only one who suffers from a feeling of depression/anxiety on Sunday, but this happens to a lot of people…even people who report that they generally like their jobs. Sometimes, even school children report this feeling of dread on Sundays.

Therapists and Sunday Blues sufferers have some recommendations on way you can help combat this weekly affliction. Here are some things to try out:

  1. Identify your Sunday Blues pattern.
    Recognizing that this is a common experience for many is one thing, but try assessing your own patterns and how your own anxiety/depression tends to manifests itself. Perhaps you feel lethargic or easily irritated? How have you been coping with these feelings? As with most things, the first step is having enough self-awareness to recognize that this is an issue for you.
  2. Is there an underlying issue?
    Sometimes the Sunday Blues seem like a general malaise about work, but it could also be indicative of something more. Sometimes the Sunday Blues are a natural dip in the weekly rhythm of life; however, you might be more prone to this weekly affliction if you suffer from depression and anxiety in general. The Sunday dreads could also indicate a work dynamic that needs to be addressed, whether that is a conflict with somebody in your office or the realization that you are unsatisfied and need to move on from your current job.
  3. Start preparing on Friday.
    Before you leave work on Friday, make a Monday morning to do list. Knowing that you took some time to get yourself organized for the next week can help you to feel less stressed when you get to work on Monday morning. Similarly, you might want to change your errand schedule. Most people use Sunday to grocery shop, clean, etc. which can contribute to the Sunday blues. Mix up your routine and see what works best for you.
  4. Make a new tradition – Monday Funday!
    Plan something fun for the beginning of the week. Some people like to choose one set Monday night activity, like watching a particular TV show or going to a bar’s trivia night. Or, you could change it up weekly. Whatever you do, find something in the week that you will genuinely enjoy.

What have you done to combat the Sunday Blues? Share advice with a comment below.