Friday, September 23, 2011

Interviews in Biofuels

One of the fields that has been suggested as a place ripe for hiring is biofuels- you know, the industry sprouting up around turning algal lipids into diesel, plastics and biomass for ethanol.  This is a fairly young field that is expected to grow a lot- and there is bio in the name.  Clearly there is a need for biologists, right?  Well, when you start looking at companies that actually do this type of work, it's hard not to think they needs engineers and algae wranglers, is there any need for a molecular biologist in this market?

I made two phone calls, one to a start-up in BC, one to a well established company in Cambridge, MA.  And while the fundamentals of the field were the same for both, I heard really contrasting opinions about how to break in.  In both cases, I just introduced myself briefly, "I have a PhD in molecular biology, and a background in drug discovery.  The more I think about a career in Pharmacueticals though, the more I realize that saving lives puts a greater burden on our energy problems.  Biofuels seems like a remarkable way to address this.  What is the role for biologists in this industry?" "What are the biological challenges for this industry, and what skills are needed (that I might obtain in a postdoc) to address them?"

In my conversation with the start-up, the CEO explained to me that the challenge for this industry is not to find a way to convert lipids to biodiesel- that's been done.  It's to find ideal strains for making both the product and byproducts and coproducts that can make the expensive process of growing algae (or cyanobacteria) more lucrative. There are many commercially available strains, so a biologist needn't reinvent the wheel, but does have to learn about various metabolic and regulatory processes that might impact production.  He said for them it was more important that a biologist be willing to learn, work hard and takes risks than to already be an expert in algae metabolism.

In the more established company (~100 employees, ~30 biologists), he said that there were some people who came to the department after defending, but these were people with a background in synthetic biology, metabolic engineering or genetic regulation.  He encouraged someone of my background to to a postdoc with one of the leaders in these disciplines in order to make an easy transition into this industry.  In both cases, I think the advice reflects the culture of the company- the guy in Cambridge is swimming in highly qualified scientists.  The start-up in BC needs more folks willing to earn their success by their bootstraps.  Maybe there is a middle group somewhere for me- someone that needs a molecular biologist, willing to learn and excited about the industry.

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