Two of the Most Important Questions About Your Career
Submitted by Michael Salgaller on Fri, 2014-01-17 03:20
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After looking over many of these blog posts, one important area to discuss is the scientist as an inventor, adventurer, and entrepreneur. My career has had a long, winding path. Sometimes the terrain was sufficiently tortuous that I dreamt of being reincarnated as a Land Rover. I’ve been promoted several times, and laid-off a few times as well. 

The resulting journey has provided skills and lessons, resulting in a highly rewarding career to date. Along the way, the people I remember the most are those who were sufficiently satisfied to be happy and productive, yet are driven by a passion to do more for society and themselves that, at the same time, left them unsatisfied.

My career started as an academic researcher at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), developing experimental treatment for terminal patients who had no treatment options. There, the innovation and determination of my colleagues was only exceeded by the bravery and determination of the patients. Watching a five-year old go through a bone-marrow biopsy with barely a whimper, while the residents around him were passing out and leaving the room, is the kind of thing that sticks with you. It also makes you think there has to be a better way. It makes curing mice woefully inadequate, especially when the patients themselves insist you experiment on them instead. They want their suffering to have some meaning, and that learning from their treatment, even though, sadly, it too rarely helped, might help those who come after them. How do you stay content and unquestioning in the face of such deliberate selflessness? And so, for the first time, I asked myself two important questions that have guided my career:

“What if?” and “Why not?”

I greatly enjoyed my time at NCI, but left because I thought I could do things better. It’s a thin line between arrogance and confidence. I’ve spent time in each world. Sometimes, I occupy both of them, like a kid landing on neighboring squares in hop-scotch. In any case, I wanted to build upon the foundation of understanding about cancer treatment with my own inventions and ideas. My brain was like a “house with good bones,” and it was time to finish the basement and get rid of the outdated kitchen with too little counter space. Time to customize and, hopefully, improve. 

So, I left to head the research department of a start-up biotechnology company in Seattle. There, I was blessed to assemble an incredible team of scientists. Each one was successful and content at their current position. Each one didn’t fully realize their inner entrepreneur/adventurer/innovator, and yet, each made the daring decision to move thousands of miles for a company with little staff and little money after asking themselves:

“What if?” and “Why not?”

Building on the knowledge others provided, we ended up inventing two treatments that are in late-stage clinical trials. I’ve published and presented my research many times. I’ve written a book on biotechnology entrepreneurship. I’ve traveled to many exciting parts of the world at someone’s invitation. Still, the greatest accomplishment is helping create something that has literally extended lives. 

What could equate to meeting a 60-year old patient who told me she’d be dead instead of mountain climbing (her hobby) were it not for our treatment? That’s awfully hard to top, regardless of whether my citation index ever goes up like a tote-board during a telethon. Since then, I’ve wondered how much further the field of medical research would be if fewer preferred settling for the status quo. Though the term is admittedly a bit harsh, it is settling.

So, as 2014 dawns, I challenge you not to settle. I urge you to ask “What if?” and “Why not?” and see where it leads. I know that for some of you, this challenge is somewhere between presumptive and impolite – especially considering this is my first blog post. I should be gentle and careful where to step. I should seek to build an audience before daring one. However, everyone blogging on this site hopes their words help; hopes their experiences be used as an example … or warning … or amusing anecdote. Same here. 

Sure, I want “Visits.” I want visits as much as your relatives during holidays. I want visits as much as the New York City Convention and Visitors Bureau. But if all you do is read, temporarily engage merely for a few moments as though it were a Facebook posting, then this will be the blog equivalent of a tree falling in the forest where there are people around to hear it… but not to react even if it were to fall on them.

The scientist as inventor, adventurer, and entrepreneur regularly deals with life after asking “What if?” and “Why not?” This is what many of my blog posts will concern. In the meantime, I hope the New Year brings you all the good things summarized in your average Hallmark card: joy, peace, functional government, and finding chocolate when you were sure you were out. I’ll be rooting for you. 

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