Careers Column – February Edition

Careers Column

An interview with Bari Zahedi, Process Development, Stemcell Technologies

How did you arrive at your current position with STEMCELL Technologies?

My career at STEMCELL began 8 years ago with a 6-month contract position in the Quality Control department, troubleshooting cell culture assays and characterizing the raw materials used in our products. At the end of my contract, I was offered a Scientist position. I was given the option to develop products with the Research & Development group or to focus on the scientific aspects of commercializing products with the Operations group. I was interested in how an idea is converted into a product, so I joined Operations to get exposed to this area.

Over time, I demonstrated that I was capable of taking on additional responsibilities to support the company vision, and I was gradually promoted to Senior Manager in the Process Development department in Operations. I now work with scientists and engineers to develop efficient and scalable manufacturing processes for our products. We also provide scientific and engineering support for products throughout the different stages of their lifecycle.

Describe a typical day in your position? What are some of your day-to-day activities?

When I started working at STEMCELL, I was primarily a bench scientist with no direct reports. My day consisted of running experiments in the lab, very similar to when I was in academia.

I now oversee 20 people. To support them, much of my day consists of focusing on three areas: translating the company strategy into executable plans, building collaborations across departments to facilitate execution of these plans, and ensuring my teams are consistently delivering high quality work. Much of this is done verbally through project review or strategy meetings… so yes, much of my day is spent in meetings or preparing for meetings!

What skill or knowledge set have you obtained during your academic training that has been most helpful to you in your current position?

The diverse technical knowledge I gained from my academic training (from genetics to cell biology to biochemistry and biophysics), has helped me throughout my career. This has provided me with the opportunity to be involved in a variety of projects that I would not have been a part of, if my academic training had been less broad.

There are key soft skills I began developing in academia that have supported my growth at STEMCELL: planning with an end goal or vision in mind, collaborating effectively to reach an end goal, influencing others through giving effective presentations, and building bridges through teaching and supporting colleagues.

How similar or different is your work environment now to that of academia/grad-school?

The science is really the same: a question or theory is answered through the combination of prior knowledge from literature and experimentally derived evidence. The major difference is that science in industry is more applied than it can be in academia. I get to connect even the smallest achievements directly to the larger picture of how the business runs, which I find very motivating. Working in Operations, I have learned both what a business needs to remain successful over time and the role that scientific know-how plays in driving that success. It is certainly never a dull day and I learn something new every day. You can’t beat that!

Another area where I find industry and academia differ is in project execution. In academia, I mostly worked alone on my projects and was responsible for decisions on design and timelines. At STEMCELL, we often work on large corporate projects where 30-200 cross-departmental team members contribute different pieces to the design and corporate timelines are set at the beginning of each project. To keep everything organized and moving forward, we employ project management methodology with senior management approval stages. It is very exciting to be part of a larger whole and see the realized outcome. A close comparison is an academic “omics” project that spans multiple teams at multiple sites. I would say the only minor difference is we celebrate a bit more at the end of our projects!

What are the work hours like? Are they mostly predictable?

It is typically an 8-hour work day (with lunch), with flexible start and leave times. I put in extra time at home when there are project deadlines or if I need to put together a pitch for a new idea. Overall, there is a better acceptance of the importance of having a work-life balance at STEMCELL than in some academic environments.

Do you work largely alone or as part of a team?

I largely work in a collaborative team environment, as is typical in industry.

How often do you travel for your job/ Do you attend any conferences?

I travel to see our suppliers and attend one conference each year.

Do you still publish?

No.

What advice would you give to trainees who are interested in working in your field or in a similar position?

Be kind to yourself first, and then be realistic: the thought of coming out of a PhD or postdoc and into an unfamiliar environment, such as industry, can be daunting. Be kind to yourself through acknowledging that you are a highly skilled individual with much to offer any employer, and then be realistic that people who will meet you and work with you for the first time won’t know the extent of your skills or the value that you can add until you have consistently demonstrated them. Demonstrating your skills takes time, so expect to go in junior and demonstrate your ability over time. It will get noticed and rewarded. To advance in your career, it is important to collect and understand feedback and make the changes needed to achieve your career goals.