Not all neuroscientists work at the lab bench. In this profile we follow the story of Won Yung Choi, National Sales Manager for the Americas, Bitplane. Choi discusses her experiences transitioning out of academia to a non-traditional neuroscience role.
For Choi her interest in neuroscience began at a young age. “When I was around 7, I was deeply troubled that the “red” I was seeing might not be the same “red” that my best friend sees. I also got even more troubled that there was no way to really test this out. I did not know that I was tackling the centuries old problem of qualia at the time.” says Choi. Later, during her undergraduate studies, Choi was exposed to many great neuroscientists at McGill University. Working as a lab technician in the lab of Dr. Virginia Douglas, she conducted research on the effect of methylphenidate (commonly known by trade names Concerta or Ritalin) on the cogitative and motor functions of children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Choi then moved on to Columbia University for her PhD studies, focusing on the role of the dopaminergic system in behavioral responses. Choi continued her research on the dopaminergic system with a postdoc in the lab of Dr. Stephen Rayport at Columbia University. “I had a great mentor in Dr. Stephen Rayport, who is one of the most brilliant people I have ever met—a real renaissance man. He also was a rebel as he was focused on neurotransmitters releasing more neurotransmitters than the ones that they are named after. So of course I had to work with him” Choi says.
During her postdoc, Choi received a NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) postdoctoral fellowship, which included funds for career advancement. She used these funds to attend an advanced microscopy course at the Marine Biological Laboratory. The connections she made at the course ultimately propelled her to her current role outside of academic research. “I had the most fun in the course and made life long friends. I also met commercial faculty from different microscope companies there and I suppose I made an impression. A couple of years later, one of them approached me for a position, which is how I ended up leaving academia and entering “the industry”” Choi recounts.
In her current role, Choi manages a team consisting of regional sales engineers and technical support specialists, many of who are former scientists. “I was really naïve when I transitioned to the business world, and I wish that I had known someone else who had made this transition. I was lucky that my postdoc supervisor was very supportive with this transition” Choi says. Her research training in analyzing data and critical thinking has proved extremely important in her current role. One of the big challenges she has faced has been to learn how to be an effective manager. The support of colleagues, many of who have made similar transitions, has been helpful in this new role. “To manage people effectively, it is critical to set logical objectives, have them understand the goals, develop milestones—breaking down the vision to short- mid- and long-term strategies, and making sure that they have all the tools that they need to be successful. It is important to be the biggest cheerleader, but also to be a fair critic and be honest about their shortcomings” says Choi.
Moving out of the lab has been exciting and rewarding in many ways for Choi. In her current role she needs to keep up to date on the latest scientific innovations to strategize on a higher level in her industry. “There is something quite satisfying about producing something concrete with your hands. . . . I thought I would miss bench science as I was so devoted to it and really loved it, but now I’ve found a different yet satisfying career that I am passionate about” says Choi.
On pursuing a career outside of academia -
“I wish I had known how many different career paths there are after a Ph.D. I have met so many people with very exciting careers after leaving academia. I know a product manager at a global leader in microscopy who was also a scientist but currently steering R & D and future directions of the products he manages which are cutting-edge. I know someone who made a career being a well-recognized author and TV personality giving people guidance on motivation and performance. I have several friends who started their own companies and are quite successful developing apps, or providing customized solutions to businesses. They are all fulfilled and have not looked back – life in the industry can be quite exciting in different ways than in academia.”
On transitioning out of the lab -
“Please do not read books on “how to transition to” anything without really speaking with people who have done this transition. I have to say, this lack of real-life knowledge really shows during interview processes. Enjoy what you are doing as much as you can, and think hard about what gives you joy and what career path you can envision doing that activity. In my case, I loved microscopy and image analysis, and my enthusiasm really got me to where I am today. If you really enjoy something and work hard at it, many doors will open for you, even if you do not know that they exist.”
On her future career path -
“I have been effectively managing a highly successful business in the Americas. I have developed confidence in what I am able to achieve and I want to expand my skills to directing at a global level someday. I definitely want to bring all my skill sets to work that makes a difference. At the moment, I am quite lucky that I am fulfilled in my current position that I believe is really awesome – I believe that I am making a real difference in science by providing cutting-edge innovation in 3D/4D image analysis to top scientists.”