Episode #34: Susanna Bächle’s story


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Susanna BächleSusanna Bächle is a scientist with a background in Immunology and Virology. Originally from Germany, she has lived, studied and worked in Germany, Australia, Sweden and the US. After graduating with a PhD in Medical Sciences from Karolinska Institute she moved to Boston (US) to pursue a career at the interface of science and business. At the moment she works for Addgene, a scientific nonprofit organization that aims to accelerate science by facilitating sharing of materials and information. She is passionate about science, innovation, entrepreneurship and global health.

To me a career path is not a line, it really is a zigzag, and often enough a random looking or even ‘lucky’ turn to a new job was determined by a meeting, a follow-up email, a networking event which seemed unimportant at the time but ultimately make up the many small necessary steps for shaping your own ‘luck’.

– Dr Susanna Bächle, Outreach Scientist at Addgene

Transcript

Hi, my name is Susanna Bächle. Currently, I live and work in Boston in the US. I graduated with a PhD in Medical Sciences from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm in 2015. Since then a lot has happened. Now I work as an Outreach Scientist for a scientific nonprofit organization.

But let’s start from the beginning. How did I decide to study biomedicine in the first place?
After finishing high school in Germany, I was unsure what to do. I was interested in how the human body works, but not really excited by the thought of spending all my time in hospitals. I was excited about biology, but did not really want to study plants and insects. So I decided to spend some time in one of the most beautiful countries in the world and moved to Australia.

Unlike in Germany, where higher education is free, Australia charges fees for studying. I had worked several summers at an automotive assembly line and in the weekends as waitress in order to save enough money to be able to travel and explore the world. So as part of this phase, when I tried to figure out what to do with my life, I studied one term in Adelaide where I took courses in biology, chemistry and archeology. I loved the problem-based learning approach in which assignments and weekly quizzes were handled in online portals. It was tough to be alone in a new country but having met so many kind and helpful people made me determined to pay forward, helping and sharing experiences as much as possible. After one term, my savings were exhausted and I had to again ask myself what I wanted to study in Germany.

I was sure that I was most interested in a combination of biology, chemistry and medicine – and after some online research I found the Bachelor Program in Molecular Medicine at the University of Göttingen. At that time, molecular medicine was really a patchwork program in which we studied physics with physicists, medicine with the medical students, biology with the biologists and chemistry with the chemists. We also had a lot of hands-on lab rotations which I actually liked the most. What I liked best about doing research was that I got to think AND got to try my ideas practically in the lab. This is also the one thing that I still miss a little from time to time, since I have now transitioned away from the lab bench. I miss the part when you think of an experiment and then just get to go and try it in the lab.

During my bachelor studies I wanted to make use of the possibility to study abroad again, without paying large sums of money this time. My bachelor’s program had two exchange partners: University of California in the US and the Karolinska Institutet, in Stockholm, Sweden. Obviously, I wanted to go to the sun, and by that I mean California. However, after a failed scholarship interview for the US university, I decided to give Sweden a try. I joined the program in biomedicine for half a year. I had a wonderful time and fell in love with Stockholm in several ways. The second half of that year, I did my bachelor’s thesis at AstraZeneca in Gothenburg.

Working at a large company was very different from what I was used to in my lab rotations. The researchers worked ‘normal’ hours, there were organized meetings and my project had a clear goal. At the same time I was alone working on my project, which was difficult but really taught me to sit down, structure my ideas and to try to focus on one experiment at a time.

Once graduated with a Bachelor in Science I knew I wanted to continue learning more about diseases and potential treatments. Since I had liked Stockholm so much I decided to pursue a Master in Biomedicine at Karolinska Institutet. I was happily surprised that I could choose an elective course in Bioentrepreneurship. I even joined a healthcare case competition with BCG which my team ended up winning. These were my first experiences with innovation and entrepreneurship, and I started to realize I was truly interested in these topics. Meanwhile, I had discovered my passion for the immune system and its enemies, especially parasites and viruses.

Without much contemplation about a future career, I followed the given path into pursuing a PhD. The first years I really spent mostly in the lab. I liked the work and I was excited about my projects, but something was missing. Some PhD students see the mandatory coursework as a nuisance – for me it was a powerful way to expand my knowledge in entrepreneurship and to dive into unknown topics such as leadership, ideation and the world of startups (for courses, see sses.se). Despite taking classes in the evenings after work and on the weekends, I felt more energized and motivated.

Closer to the end of my PhD studies, I realized that if I wanted to have a true educated career choice I needed to explore the vast landscape of alternative careers. Two major projects helped me with this. First of all, I joined the CHaSE team at Karolinska, a group of students determined to highlight opportunities beyond academia by bringing together industry representatives and students. This intense project was a crash course in project management, leadership, planning and teamwork. I’m very proud of the result – a successful career fair – and deeply grateful for experiencing the power of true teamwork.

Secondly, I had the opportunity to do an internship with Pfizer – thanks to the PhD internship program of Karolinska Institutet. One interesting detail about why I was selected for this particular internship. It was not due to my scientific expertise, but an online course in business analytics, economics for managers and financial accounting by the Harvard Business School that demonstrated my interest in learning new topics. It was stimulating to be back at the project-based, goal-oriented way of doing science that I had experienced during my bachelor thesis at AstraZeneca. I highly recommend doing industry internships during your studies.

Once I had defended my PhD, I knew that my path would take a turn away from a standard academic career. My love for science really is rooted in curiosity, the drive to solve problems and my fascination for biology. But I had to admit to myself that simply creating papers was not how I had envisioned my career. Thanks to the CHaSE experience I was sure that I’d excel in a teamwork environment in which routine is rare and I’d have to adapt regularly to new problems and challenges. But I felt lost and did not know what type of job could suit me.

My husband had accepted a postdoc position in Boston one year before my PhD graduation so I knew my destination. I started to use LinkedIn groups for scientists and students to network with people in the Boston area. In order to get some ideas about the type of job, I’d like to do, I reached out to people with interesting jobs through LinkedIn. I met these contacts for informal interviews over coffee and lunch whenever I was visiting Boston, but also had a fair share of phone calls and Skype meetings. I’m still amazed by the friendliness and the willingness to help, me being a total stranger to them! Some of these random contacts have become friends, many have introduced me to others and all of them have played an important role in shaping my understanding of the job opportunities and in giving me hope that I could find a job that I’d like and could excel in. Without these positive people who enjoy their job, gave me practical advice and made it clear that a career path is more of a career zigzag, I’m sure it would have been hard for me to find the energy to leave the given path of pursuing a postdoc after a PhD.

During one of these informal interviews I met a person, in Stockholm actually, who pointed out that he knew someone in Boston who worked for the Swedish American Chamber of Commerce in New England, a small nonprofit organization that helps Swedish companies to get started in the US. I reached out to this organization and offered to volunteer during a conference that they were organizing two days after I moved to Boston. During this conference, I found my first job. In brief, thanks to the online course in business, my PhD in Science and the internship at Pfizer in which I had used this company’s method. I was a great candidate for helping the newly established US branch of Olink Proteomics, which has its headquarters is in Uppsala, to break into the US market. As a Business Development Associate, I expanded my business skills, learned to use software for customer relationship management and got to read and talk about current scientific advances. I also got to see the team and company grow which was a very rewarding experience. After the team was established and the focus changed from researching and analyzing the market to selling the product, it was time for me to move on to further pursue my interest in science and business.

When I saw the job announcement for an Outreach Scientist position at Addgene, I was super excited about this job for several reasons. First of all, I knew about the mission of Addgene: “to accelerate research and discovery by improving access to useful research materials and information.” I strongly believe that open access, collaboration and sharing of materials and data are the base of good science and a driver for innovation. Secondly, a friend of mine worked at Addgene and had spoken very warmly about the company culture and the team. Thirdly, the job description fit very well with my skills in science and business development and my strong wish to work in team environment on multiple projects. In addition, I would be able to deepen my management skills by leading a team of data entry assistants. Thankfully, I had used the same software for customer relationship management when I was at Olink and I was thus a great fit for the role overall and in particular for the data and customer management role.

I really enjoy my role as Outreach Scientist! I get to travel to conferences and meet scientists all over the US. I talk to them about their science and how sharing their materials with others will accelerate science itself. I know that I’m expanding the business and management skills that I will need to grow, and I really enjoy working with a team of fun and smart people!

Before I end, I wanted to highlight one volunteering activity that I started a few months after I moved to Boston. I joined the MIT European Club, a student club that organizes the European Career Fair. An event that brings together top talent with employers from Europe to show opportunities in Europe and to provide career perspective in and outside academia. The European Career Fair at MIT is the largest career fair of its kind in the US. I am very grateful to have met great friends through this project and of course I worked on my teamwork, project management and leadership skills.

I’m not sure about my “5-year plan” to be honest, but I know my career path will continue along the interface of science and business. Preferably close to the scientific topics that I’m most passionate about – infectious diseases and global health – and the business topics that I find most exciting – innovation and strategy.

Please feel free to reach out to me via LinkedIn if you have any questions (please include a note when you send a connection request) or ask Tina for my email address.

Thank you.

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