One foot in academia, the other in industry

My Ph.D. consisted of five tireless years of basic cognitive neuroscience research, sprinkled with failures and successes—like most Ph.D. experiences. At the end of it, I was still passionate about science, but I fantasized about doing work that benefits society, advancing health care through new innovations in the near—not distant—future.

So I knocked on the door of a company that creates cognitive neuroscience-derived software. Based on my skill set, I thought I could take on this industry job without seeming like a complete novice. My graduate training, though, had taught me to be a scientific skeptic, convinced by data and evidence and not by marketing claims. Fortunately the founder of the company shared these values, having spent decades in academia building the evidence that became the foundation of the company. 

The grass may not be greener on the other side of the fence when you have to mow both lawns, but when you tear down the fence, you get a larger playing field.

So, simultaneously, I knocked on another door—at a cognitive neuroscience lab at a reputed academic university, thinking there might be an opportunity for a partnership. Perhaps we could develop new cognitive-training tools and observe their influence on brain function and behavior. Do these tools truly enhance brain function? If so, to what extent? What are the neural mechanisms by which change occurs? How sustainable are the cognitive gains over time? Why do some people show such gains but not others?

These questions excited me, and it seemed like a perfect marriage, as the company had all the infrastructure and resources for software development, while the academic lab had the expertise to run high-quality cognitive neuroscience experiments in humans. And so, with mutual understanding between industry and academic partners, a rare, dual postdoc was set up for me.

I pursued this project for 5 years. At the company, I conceptualized and coded brain-training software. As the project advanced, I supervised a team of software engineers. I wrote patent applications and small-business grants.

There were many synergistic cycles of software development, followed by pilot testing at the university lab—followed by failure due to software bugs, user-interface problems, unexpected data trends, and so on, and then another development round. I learned to manage these iterations fast so that a prototype could be finalized for testing in a rigorous, randomized, and controlled study.

When software development was finalized, I shifted to my academic role. I did longitudinal controlled trials with groups of individuals, performing my new cognitive training randomized against other groups who participated in matched control interventions. This is much like how pharmaceuticals are tested against placebos or other standards of care. This work was peer reviewed and is being published.

There was much to learn at both jobs, which were complementary in their objectives but independent in practice. I learned excellent time management. I was exposed to intricate issues of conflict of interest, which were well managed because the collaborating industry and academic sides were open to dialogue and because the heads of both the company and the lab were committed to scientific rigor.

This nontraditional path is not suited to those who seek maximum efficiency in industry or minimum training time to academic independence. Product development would have been faster without the academic component. I could have published more papers, and perhaps accelerated a basic science career, without the time demands imposed by my industry-side responsibilities.

The grass may not be greener on the other side of the fence when you have to mow both lawns, but when you tear down the fence, you get a larger playing field.

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