#099: Dr. Rui Cruz Story

Welcome to a new episode of PhD Career Stories. In today’s podcast, Dr. Rui Cruz tells us about his career path and how he went from doing a PhD in biomedical sciences to starting up his own company, called Connecting Biotech. He also shares with us valuable tips and lessons he learned along his journey.

Looking back, I view my PhD as a process of self discovery, a process that allowed me not only to recognize my limitations and strengths, but it also allowed me to work on those weaknesses and strong points.

Rui Cruz

To know more about Rui’s story, please listen to this episode. If you also have a story to be told or if you know someone willing to share his story, please don’t hesitate to contact us. Enjoy listening.

Transcript

Hello and welcome to PhD career stories, the podcast about career path inside and outside academia. My name is Suzan Mansourian and I’m very pleased to introduce Dr. Rui Cruz to you.

Dr. Cruz received his PhD degree in Biomedical sciences from Porto University in 2018. Directly after, he started his own company called Connecting Biotech. In this episode, he tells us about his career path and how he went from doing a PhD in biomedical sciences to starting up his own company. We hope that his story will be inspiring to you. Enjoy listening.

Hello everyone! My name is Rui Cruz, and I hope to find you and the people close to you safe and well, amid this coronavirus pandemic that we are facing.

I’m part of the PhD career stories team and in today’s podcast I will talk a bit about my career path and how I went from doing a PhD in biomedical sciences to starting up my own company.

So I was born and raised near Aveiro, a lovely city in the center of Portugal and following my interest in understanding the mysteries of the living world, I graduated in biology in Aveiro University, where in the last year I had my first contact with research in a molecular and cellular biology lab. 

I really enjoyed that experience and it left me with such a strong positive impression that I found that I wanted to keep doing research in the foreseeable future.

It was also at this time that I met my future wife, as we worked in the same laboratory.

I then did an ERASMUS research internship in DNA repair mechanisms in a cancer laboratory in Barcelona, Spain, at the Molecular Biology Institute of Barcelona.

I learned so much and met wonderful people inside and outside the lab. Barcelona is an incredible city, and if you have the chance I definitely recommend having an experience abroad, be it while you are studying or doing research. 

This experience abroad only reinforced my desire to pursue a scientific research career, so I returned to Portugal and to further my studies I did a Masters at the Life and Health Sciences Research Institute, in Braga, a city in the north of Portugal. 

During this Master I had no classes, so I only did bench work. During this time I worked in the characterization of an acute phase protein in mice.

I enjoyed my Master and while at this time I was inclined to pursue research and eventually do a PhD, I still felt that I needed more experience in different research areas before pursuing a PhD. 

So I applied to different research grants and I was lucky to gain a research fellowship in a group that works in Listeria monocytogenes infection, at the Institute for Research and Innovation in Health (I3S), which is located in the city of Porto, the second biggest city in Portugal.

During this fellowship I followed up the work of a colleague, in which it was found that a group of proteins called keratins, which are found in many cell types of the human organism, were important in the infection process of the Listeria.

So Listeria monocytogenes is a pathogenic bacteria that can enter cells of the human host and my goal was to understand why these keratins are important in such processes.

After the first year of this research grant, the opportunity to apply to a phd scholarship came up. At this time I felt more prepared to do a PhD, the project was very interesting and I was in a great group. 

So I applied for PhD funding to FCT, which is the main Portuguese governmental organism that funds scientific research, and this first application was not successful. 

However, we insisted and did a new application in the following year and this time we were successful and I was granted a PhD fellowship. Meanwhile I also got married, so life was good! 

The group that I was working with was great, with really smart and wonderful people. I learned so much with them and they became like a second family to me.

I was also lucky to have really good supervisors that were patient with me and helped me stay focused.

Looking back, I view my PhD as a process of self discovery, a process that allowed me not only to recognize my limitations and strengths, but it also allowed me to work on those weaknesses and strong points.

For instance, one of my limitations, that I believe that I pivoted to a strong point is that, while I am naturally introverted and reserved, I discovered that I don’t need to feel afraid or embarrassed to ask for others for help in tackling scientific questions. 

From my experience most people are indeed happy to help, which in turn can lead to gratifying collaborations. 

This was a big lesson for me and one that is relevant to this day.

Now, at around half of my PhD my wife got pregnant and we had our boy in 2016.

Meanwhile at the bench, while I was getting mixed results in the first half of my phd, during the last 2 and half years the pieces of the puzzle started coming together and we were finding that keratins have different effects on the infection process of Listeria

In particular, we found that keratins are important for the expression of the receptor that the bacteria exploits for its internalization inside the host cell.  

Therefore we got really interesting results that led to a nice story and publication.

These 2 last years of the PhD were hard for me though, mentally and emotionally. 

I had a perfect storm of family, personal and health problems and I also had trouble balancing work with personal life. 

It was rough times, but I had the good fortune of counting with the help of good people that helped me overcome such difficulties.

It is often said that adversity reveals characteristics of one’s character, and with this experience I found resilience that I just did not know I had. 

My advice if things get a bit harder during your PhD is to make an extra-effort to balance your personal life with your work and to not be afraid to ask for help if you feel you need it. 

So after finishing my thesis and while I awaited to defend it, I was trying to figure out what my next step would be, career wise. 

I knew that I did not want to keep working in academia, as I noticed that really talented postdocs were struggling to find more permanent and stable positions within the academia here in Portugal. 

At the same time, I was yearning for something different, for a new challenge.

My natural inclination was to search for a job in the life sciences industry. I did a lot of reading on this topic and I quickly realized two things:

First, I noticed that I was not prepared at all to search for a job in the industry, as searching for a job in industry is quite different to searching for a job in academia. 

Secondly, this job search process could very easily take several months. 

By this time I also learned that the job search process itself is a full time job.

Another thing that I became aware of is that I was having trouble finding information about the life sciences sector in Portugal, in particular which were the companies that were operating in Portugal and where they are located. 

I knew some of the major ones, but I was not aware of most of the medium and small sized companies to which I could send my CV. 

I shared those thoughts with a friend of mine that also graduated in Biology in Aveiro and from our conversations the idea to create a company that could help portuguese researchers such as myself to find a job outside academia was born.

The name of our startup is Connecting Biotech and our business idea was born in the summer of 2018. Our mission at Connecting Biotech is to build bridges between the different stakeholders in the portuguese life sciences sector, in particular between students, researchers and the life sciences companies. 

For that we are building multiple services, including an online platform to help researchers and students find jobs within life sciences companies in Portugal and abroad.

I defended my PhD thesis in September of 2018 and by the following November we have obtained funding through a public venture capital organization, which is responsible for funding startups and other entrepreneurial projects like Connecting Biotech. 

In the last two years our business idea has matured and our work team grew, with more people bringing smart insights and ideas. We feel lucky by being surrounded by very talented partners and people who are continuously giving us advice and problem solving ideas. 

This has been an exciting adventure for me. I have been learning so much with this experience and while before this I had no business experience, I now start to have a better grasp of what creating your own company implies. I got out of my comfort zone and I am happy I did it. 

I believe that going through a PhD helped me approach this challenge, for several reasons:

First, as you know, doing a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. The same is true for creating your own business. It takes time and one must be prepared for the long haul.

Second, my PhD revealed to me a resilience that I did not know I had. This resilience and the awareness of it is very useful when facing adversity and obstacles that show up while building my business. 

Third, the PhD gave me tools to tackle problems in a very methodical and pragmatic manner, which has been proven to be very useful during the last two years. 

Fourth, during my PhD I found that, while I am by nature introvert, I really enjoy developing partnerships. I found the importance of cooperation and developed my sense of diplomacy, both of which are very important in a business context, from my point of view.

Fifth, and lastly, during my PhD I overcome my mental roadblocks when it comes to asking others for help and guidance. 

I found this to be an extremely important personal breakthrough and I think that this is the most important piece of advice i can offer in today’s podcast. 

You likely have different networks around you. Do not feel hesitant to reach out to them, if you feel you need to. 

I think that is it for now. I wish you all the best of luck in your studies, research and career.

If you have any questions or if I may be of help in any manner, please do not hesitate to contact me through LinkedIn.

Thank you for listening, have a nice day and stay safe.

And that is it for another episode of PhD career stories. As always, we would love to hear from you. You can contact us by commenting on our blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. If you like what we do, please subscribe to our show on Itunes or Spotify.

So goodbye for now, but we will be back with a new story for you in two weeks of time.

Stay healthy!

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