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!”

Science Journalism: Misha’s Story

I always loved writing and telling stories. My mum used to find hand written notes all around the house from me but I never really imagined it would become my career.

Today I’m a science journalist, which is like a regular journalist but I just focus on reporting scientific news.

But let’s go back a bit.

Before I became a journalist I did a double degree in business and psychology at Western University.  While I was doing my undergraduate degree I volunteered for the school’s newspaper, writing for the Arts & Lifestyle section.  I loved how I got to go to different places and meet the most extraordinary and unique people.

Then during my last semester of undergrad I went on an exchange to London, England. While I was there I got involved with the student radio station.  I had so much fun there, even if I did hate the sound of my voice reverberating back at me through the headphones. It was while volunteering at the radio station that I discovered that the school I was doing my exchange at had one of the best journalism programmes in the country.

After finishing my undergrad I was unsure of what I wanted to do.  I came from a family of business people, but I was 100 per cent certain I didn’t want to work in business. I had loved the psychology part of my degree and I loved writing and being on the radio, so it seemed only natural to combine my two passions into a career.

With that I then ended up doing a Masters in science journalism at City University London. It was an intensive year where I learnt everything about TV, radio, print and online journalism, learning all the skills I needed to become a proper journalist.

During my Masters I also had the opportunity to work for the BBC and a television production company. Both experiences were incredible. The BBC was hectic and everything I imagined a proper newsroom would be. The television production company was filled with the most creative people who spend most of their time in a room thinking up mad ideas for television programmes.   

Now I work for Cancer Research UK, one of the world’s biggest charities, as their science media officer. I essentially try and make the science behind cancer research easily understandable to anyone.

No two days are the same. I write, make videos and do a bit of everything in between.  I love the variety of work I get to do and the challenges that get thrown my way.

My day usually starts with me going through that morning’s news to make sure I know what’s happening.

Sometimes there’s a story that we will need to respond to. For example, a few weeks ago the Daily Mail ran a story about how oxygen causes lung cancer. So my team quickly wrote a post explaining why that study was poorly done and why you won’t in fact get lung cancer from breathing.

But usually I’m just reporting on an academic paper that’s about to be published. When writing a news story I get to talk to scientists and experts in their field and I get to learn so much about what other people are passionate about. I love immersing myself in a new subject.

Since becoming a journalist I’ve learnt so many strange and wonderful things. I’ve learned about nuclear waste policy, urban beekeeping and even about novel drugs for llamas.

 A time when I really get to dig my heels into a subject is when I’m writing a blog post. These articles go more in depth about a topic and they take on a more chatty tone of voice. I really get to flex my creative muscles by trying to make the story as engaging as possible. I also get to do a bit of investigative work and uncover things which is always really exciting.

Making videos also give me a great chance to be creative because it can be hard to make research about little cells visually engaging.  So I really need to think outside the box and work with a variety of people, like animators and data visualisation specialists. And an added bonus with videos is you get to go to some pretty cool places.

So my advice for anyone who wants to become a science journalist is first, love science but have a healthy sense of scepticism (not all science is great). Second, write for anything and everything! Get as much experience as you can. And finally, it helps if you’re insatiably curious, tenacious and unrelentingly when it comes to getting a story you want.

Misha Gajewski


Inaugural class takes its place in the world

By Jesica Hurst

From a young age, Gracia Mabaya knew she wanted to play a role in improving health care and living conditions around the world.

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   Crystal Mackay // Special to Western News

Crystal Mackay // Special to Western News

Growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, she watched other children dying from what should have been preventable diseases. For her, a career in public health made sense.

After completing her Master of Science in Health and Rehab Sciences at Western in 2011, Mabaya worked as a consultant for the World Health Organization. However, she wanted to take her career further by obtaining a degree that would set her apart.

Mabaya applied to Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program and was accepted to be a part of the program’s inaugural class. The class, which finished their studies in August 2014, graduated at convocation ceremonies last week.

“After being in the workforce and being exposed to the field, I felt like I wanted to have more of a course-based foundation in public health,” she said. “I wanted to obtain an internationally recognized degree that would set me apart in the workforce.”

Now into its second year, the MPH program was designed to fill a niche at the intersection of leadership, sustainability and policy within the Canadian health-care system, as well as globally. The interdisciplinary, interfaculty program aims to prepare students to address public health challenges, opening opportunities for students to serve as change agents on a local, national and international scale.

Since completing the program this summer, Mabaya obtained a job as a knowledge broker and research associate for pediatric neuromuscular research at the Children’s Hospital at London Health Sciences Centre. While she had previous work experience, she thinks the MPH program helped to enhance her resume, expertise and knowledge base which helped her into her current role.

“Now that I am back in the workplace, I can see how very well-designed the program was,” she said. “We were taught to collaborate with our classmates and we were encouraged to participate in the classroom setting as if we were in the workplace. That has been very valuable to me.”

Mabaya also enjoyed being a part of the inaugural class, because the faculty and management were very open to student feedback and took all of their suggestions into consideration.

For the moment, Mabaya is working on building her career at the national level, as her current role gives her the opportunity to work with organizations across the country and to manage knowledge transaction activities nation-wide. In the future, she would like to have more of a leadership role within the health-care setting, and she believes the MPH program has given her the foundation to get there.

Posted with permission, Western News

This story was originally published on the Schulich Medicine & Dentistry website. Check it out here.