Biology Meets Business: The Best of Both Worlds

By Veerta Singh, WorkStory Ambassador at Western University

Who says biology graduates are limited to working in the science field? Not Zach Armstrong, that’s for sure!

Zach is currently the Director of Business Development for Mitacs, a national not-for-profit organization based at Western University that designs and delivers research and training programs in Canada. Zach completed his undergrad in biology at Western University and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 2008. His fourth year research project involved looking at a family of proteins within a species of flowering plants known as Arabidopsis thaliana (a weed). Zack then continued to pursue doctoral work at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry and completed his PhD in 2014.

Prior to procuring his position at Mitacs, throughout his undergraduate years, Zach worked a series of summer jobs in his hometown in Northern Ontario --  jobs at a lumber mill or a convenience store. During undergrad, Zach was involved in many volunteer and extra-curricular activities. He was the president of the Science Student Council in his 3rd year and a member of the University Student Council for a number of years until he was ultimately on the university Senate in his 4th year. He really enjoyed being involved with the school and the community and still enjoys it.

A typical day in the life of Zach Armstrong at Mitacs is variable!  Much of the work involves meeting people and discussing the challenges they may have. Often he is involved in promoting Mitacs programs.  Some of the work is administrative.  For example, he does a lot of reviews of applications, and makes sure the research proposals are hitting the right notes. He says that the skills he gained during grad school really helped him in that particular part of his job.

The main part of Zach’s job, though, entails talking to professors and students.  As Zach describes it, these conversations involve “explaining how the programs work, providing tips on how to build partnerships with non-academic organizations (i.e. businesses and non-profits) and then talking to those businesses and non-profits and explaining how the program works. Digging into the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis and showing them how research can help them solve those challenges is just one of the many facets involved in this job. It’s a very dynamic job”.

Although Zach graduated with degrees in biology, he was able to use the skills and knowledge he obtained and apply them to his current job as a Director for Business Development. “It’s a big field with a lot of different organizations. In terms of qualities that would help one become successful in this field, a lot of them are gained as you go through graduate school, such as understanding how grant and research proposals are supposed to be well written. But it’s difficult to find someone with ‘the complete package’  for these types of jobs, specifically the ones at Mitacs, because there is such a business development side to it and those aren’t necessarily skills gained as a graduate student. Skills such as being able to explain complex concepts in simple forms, networking skills and presentation skills are skills that are hard to find in someone with a PhD “

So the burning question is how did Zach, a biology graduate, discover that he wanted to become a Director of Business Development at Mitacs? When Zach was in grad school for 5.5 years completing his PhD, he wasn’t aware of Mitacs (which in retrospect he says is disappointing because they had many programs that would’ve been helpful for him).  He actually learned of the position by a happy chance.  Prior to his PhD defense, his supervisor sent him a job posting based at Western University.  This was perfect because Zach wanted to stay in London!  It was also convenient because the position was outside of research,  but still associated with the things he had been doing so it seemed like a perfect fit. “I was a little hesitant at first, but I applied and was lucky enough to get an interview and then a position in the organization. The position was actually for a business development specialist which was the entry-level position and then eventually I was promoted to Director”.

Clearly, Zach didn’t ‘always know’  he wanted to work at Mitacs. When he started his PhD, he was still exploring his options and wanted to be a faculty member at a University.  Although this was his initial interest, he realized halfway through his PhD that instead of dedicating an immense amount of time to one single goal, he wanted to be involved in things outside of school. So academia seemed like a less viable long-termgoal. However, all is well that ends well because the Mitacs position was the best of both worlds and a perfect fit for Zach!

When prompted to provide some advice for people who are in the early stages of their career,  or just about to enter the workforce, Zach stressed keeping an open mind. It’s something he would say to grad students as well. “Not everyone will be a professor at a University and there are plenty of other jobs out there. Do your best to keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to take risks. Do something you love. There shouldn’t be anything to stand in your way between doing something you love because ultimately you will be more successful at that than doing something you’re not passionate about. Find an organization you really believe in because it won’t feel like work and that’s really something everyone should strive for!”

A Daily Dose of Happily Better Afters

By Veerta Singh, WorkStory Ambassador at Western University

Monica Soos has known from an early age that science was her passion. She began her undergraduate career in 2006 studying Life Sciences at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.  She later graduated with an Honours Bachelor of Science in Chemistry with a minor in Biology. Currently, Monica works in Toronto as the Manager of Strategic Pricing at Janssen Inc., the pharmaceutical division of the well established healthcare company Johnson & Johnson.

Immediately after Monica completed her undergrad, she was accepted into the Master of Biotechnology (MBiotech) program at the University of Toronto. This is a two year Master’s program which “bridges science students into the business world. It is specifically geared towards students who wish to work in the field of biotechnology and the pharmaceutical industry”.

The Masters of Biotechnology program opened up another door for Monica when it provided her with a co-op opportunity in 2012. She was selected for a placement at AstraZeneca, a biopharmaceutical company, as the Pricing and Reimbursement Co-op student. It was in this role where Monica “learned about how the biopharmaceutical industry works and was able to take what she learned in the classroom and apply it to the real world”. This placement enabled her to strengthen and develop the skills that help her succeed in the current field she is working in. In 2013, Monica became the access associate at Janssen and eventually the Manager of Strategic Pricing in 2015.

When prompted to describe what a regular day at work entails, Monica provides a detailed picture of how she begins and ends her day. “The day-to-day work involves checking emails, taking care of ad-hoc requests and working cross-functionally with business partners to ensure that projects are being implemented”. Within the specific role, Monica stresses the importance of having analytical skills, problem-solving skills and the ability to work well with others because these are major qualities that are required to be successful in this field. She adds that “pricing requires alignment and execution with several stakeholders, so it’s important that you have a good rapport with them to move things along”. 

Monica explains that what she loves most about her job is that the field of pharmaceutical pricing is very strategic in nature. She is inspired by the challenges that are presented to her and believes that this job is the perfect fit for her. “I am constantly learning and growing within my role, which is what keeps it fun and challenging. I have always wanted to work within pharmaceuticals, and working for a company that makes a difference in people’s lives is definitely a dream come true.

When asked if Monica had any advice to share for those who are still in the early stages of their career, she says to “make the most out of all the opportunities presented to you, but make sure you actively seek out opportunities as well as this will differentiate you from others”. 

Volunteer Soars with Wild Ontario

By Annette Dawm, WorkStory Ambassador

Samantha “Sam” Manner works as volunteer Team Leader for the Wild Ontario program in the city of Guelph, where she is also attending university. Currently, Sam is working towards her Bachelor of Science. Her major is animal biology and her minor is in nutrition. Her future plans include either to attend the Ontario Veterinary College or to “work in the field of animal behaviour and welfare”. Although Sam has a very busy student life, she is still able to volunteer with the Wild Ontario program at least 4 times a week! Part of why Sam finds volunteering so rewarding is that she gets to educate the public while working with her team at Wild Ontario.

“I manage the daily health, training, and nutrition of a non-releasable American Kestrel, named Artemis, while also overseeing three of her other handlers. With our ten non-releasable birds of prey, Wild Ontario travels across the province delivering educational programs to the public on a variety of topics ranging from: ornithology, [the study of birds] ecology, conservation and stewardship.”

Artemis is considered to be “non-releasable”, which means that she will never be able to live in the wild. Now, with the help of Sam and her other handlers, she “is serving as an ambassador for her species through her story.” Sam relates Artemis’ story below:

“Artemis is a 5 year old female American Kestrel, the smallest falcon species in North America. Unfortunately, Artemis was taken from the wild at a young age and was likely being kept as a pet by someone. Housing wildlife without proper licensing is illegal. As a consequence of people taking her from the wild, she did not get the opportunity to learn the skills she would need to survive in the wild. In 2009, Artemis was surrendered to the Toronto Wildlife Centre. Here, they do tests to determine the bird’s fear of humans. Artemis was not afraid of humans and willingly took food from [them], which means it would be dangerous for her and for humans if she was released back to the wild.”

Sam has a few favourite things about volunteering with Wild Ontario and they involve working with others in the program as well as with the public. She tells us that, “One of my favourite things is working with my team towards a training goal for either the bird or the handler and seeing all that hard work come to fruition. At the programs we deliver, one of my favourite things is sharing information about the birds with members of the public and having them get really excited and wanting to share what they learned with all of their family and friends.”

For anyone who is interested in getting involved with Wild Ontario, Sam advises that it is a “big-time commitment”. Potential volunteers should be mindful that they will be required to dedicate a certain amount of their time to the program. If you wish to apply, you should either live in Guelph, Ontario or “have the ability to travel to Guelph at least 4 times a week.” The volunteer application and more information about the program can be found on their website, www.ourwildontario.ca .