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!”

Laughing at His Nightmare: Shane Burcaw’s Story

By Annette Dawm, WorkStory Ambassador

Shane Burcaw is the President of his own non-profit organization called Laughing At My Nightmare, Inc. He is also an inspiration to everyone he comes in contact with, whether it’s in person or online. When Shane was two, he was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type II, which is a form of Muscular Dystrophy. Together with his cousin Sarah and the other employees at Laughing At My Nightmare, Inc. Shane helps other families who are impacted by the disease, while raising funds that go towards research—and making people laugh:

“I started this company about three years ago with my cousin Sarah, and now that we have both graduated from university, we work full-time with several other employees to change the world every day! Our mission is to help families affected by muscular dystrophy get the items they need to live comfortable, healthy, productive lives. We also work to teach people about the benefits of humor and positivity.” To date, Laughing At My Nightmare Inc. has raised over $17,000 for Muscular Dystrophy research!

Shane is a graduate of Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA and he grew up in Bethlehem as well, but through his social media presence, he is reaching people all around the world:

“In 2011, I started a blog about living with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. I live with the knowledge that my muscles are wasting away as I get older, and some day my disease will cut my life short. However, I’ve learned that approaching my problems with a sense of humor makes them much easier to deal with. To my utter amazement, my blog took off, and pretty soon I had hundreds of thousands of followers tuning in to my stories! Along the way, I decided to write a memoir, which just recently came out. You can purchase an autographed copy via laughingatmynightmare.com

Although it may be difficult to get around at times, Shane says what he loves the most about his job is traveling and meeting new people:

“One of the biggest things I do for my job is traveling to give speeches to schools and businesses. We have developed an awesome presentation that makes the audience laugh and think about their lives from a new perspective. I love interacting with people, getting to know their stories. Plus, I get to see the world in the process, which I also love!”

In 2013, Shane was featured in a documentary series called “My Last Days”. The documentary was created by the people at SoulPancake, a media company (and YouTube Channel) which was founded by actor, Rainn Wilson. The video, which was directed by Justin Baldoni, is worth watching in its entirety. It follows Shane and his close family and friends as he shows us what his “nightmare” consists of. However, through it all, they laugh together as well as at each other and carry on about their days in a positive light. For Burcaw, “The SoulPancake experience was life changing.” He says that “they brought my story to the world in such a beautiful way.” You can watch the video here. Also in 2013, Shane won an Emmy award for a documentary he co-produced called “Happiness Is Always an Option”!

Shane Burcaw lives every day like it is his last, not because it could be, but because it is a good way to live (and work) in order to achieve his goals. Here are Shane’s words of encouragement for anyone who may need them:

“Expect the unexpected. So many times throughout life, things have turned out in a way that has completely blown my mind. Anything is possible if you just go for it. But nothing is possible if you give up because you’re expecting to fail or not reach your biggest dreams.”

To learn more about Shane and to make a donation to his non-profit organization, or to buy an autographed copy of his hilarious book, Laughing at My Nightmare, please visit,

www.laughingatmynightmare.com . You can also read his blog, where it all began on Tumblr and follow him on Twitter.

Business Liaison at Youth Opportunities Unlimited

I love my job! No doubt about it. While all career opportunities have their ups and downs this job has been great thus far. I am approaching almost 10 months with the organization and no one day is the same. I am a front line work with Youth Opportunities Unlimited (http://www.you.ca/ ) in London, Canada.  I work in Career Services to help youth secure employment.

I work with a number of employers in our community to Job Develop. On a typical day I can be meeting with clients and employers to discuss possible opportunities. With clients, I help to develop their resumes, find an area of interest and do job searching. With employers, I meet to find out their needs, suitable candidates and discuss other ways that we can work together for the benefit of our youth. As well, I network in the community to be a face of the organization and let them know the great things that YOU has to offer.

The best part of my job is witnessing a youth and their excitement over getting a job. It is a rewarding feeling! I love the staff here at YOU as we are all working together for the betterment of youth in our community. We have existed for over 30 years and have been able to really make our mark in this community. It is great being able to branch out to the community, share our message and really pound the pavement.

I think that I got this job because I have tried to make a face for myself in the community. I have worked with a number of organizations through previous employment and volunteer opportunities to branch out and network. I have dedicated myself to working with non-profit organizations to focus on a delivery of service and partnerships that can be mutually beneficial to those that we serve in our community.

I have a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science and Criminology with a Post-Graduate in Corporate Communications and Public Relations. As well, I am a Board member for the Pride London Festival and a committee member with the London Diversity and Race Relations Committee. I attend a number of community events and really see the value in organizations like Emerging Leaders.

My biggest piece of advice.... GET OUT THERE! Meeting people in your community, network, volunteer and show what you're passionate about. I think most jobs are not found in a posting but in the relationships that we build with others. How great would it be if an employer recognized your name before you even went for an interview! It truly is the ultimate advantage. I'd also recommend to keep learning and always try new things.

It is always good to keep your ear to the ground and find out what is happening locally. Read the paper, check local news and see what’s happening in your community. Knowledge of your area and your industry will go a long way in helping you to answer tough questions and be prepared.    Good luck!

Chad Callandar