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Academia Spotlight

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Assistant Professor for the Mechanisms of Antimicrobial Resistance in One Health

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ACADEMIA SPOTLIGHT

Interview

Featuring

Dr Olga Makarova, PhD

by the p2i Network

Olga's Journey

It would be great if initially, you could give us a snapshot of your research background, how you got to your current position and what lead you to pursuing a career in academia.

 

My background is in infection biology, and for my PhD I studied how microbes manipulate their hosts. I then moved into evolutionary microbiology and later veterinary microbiology at the Freie Universitaet Berlin - which is a partner of the p2i Network. My research is mainly about molecular mechanisms of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and my most recent career step was getting an assistant professorship on this topic at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna.

What motivated me to pursue a career in academic research initially was the pure curiosity about natural phenomena and how things work, in my case specifically how microbes and the immune system interact with each other. As I progressed in my academic career, I also started to appreciate more applied aspects of research, for example, what can be done to avert the antimicrobial resistance crisis, and paying more attention to the impact of research, be it on the policy level or using entrepreneurship to offer solutions to real-world problems. I also appreciate having the luxury of interacting with some of the brightest minds and being able to disseminate knowledge through teaching and mentoring.

What has been the biggest challenge you faced and how have you or how are you overcoming this challenge?

Like everyone, I faced a lot of challenges with running my research group during the pandemic. In the beginning of the pandemic, there were supply chain problems so we wouldn't have enough consumables, gloves or reagents to carry out research.

This is where I found it very helpful having participated in entrepreneurship training prior to the pandemic. At the start of 2020, when Coronavirus restrictions were in place, I had just started my project for which I secured a grant, and I had literally just hired the person to work on the project, and suddenly we couldn't simply go into the lab. So the first thing that we did was to de-risk the project and decide what was possible to do under the current circumstances, and how we could answer our research question with a much simpler methodology. Using a similar approach to working out your ‘Minimum Viable Product’ and pivoting for a business, we developed a much simpler approach to answer our research question.

Can you list a few aspects (mindset, skills and competencies) you have observed in yourself after participating in the p2i opportunity, in terms of an innovator/entrepreneurial mind set, and how has this has helped you in your career in academia?

 

I think the main change I observed in myself after entrepreneurial training is being much more conscious about investment of time and effort and the potential impact, because this is how I often see people in business make decisions. They collect the data, they estimate what is needed, and they look at what the risks are and what the gains are. So, overall it makes you much more efficient.

 

I am also convinced that running a research group or running a start-up has many similarities and requires essentially the same skill set. You have to be self-reliant and you have to operate under the conditions of uncertainty in case your funding application/paper submission/collaboration request doesn’t go through. Just the sheer number of tasks and responsibilities (obtaining funding, administering budget, setting up the team, developing a research program) can make you experience decision fatigue or even feel paralyzed. So in a way, all the things that prepare you for entrepreneurship, such as learning how strategise, outsource, find the right niche and build a team, also prepare you for running your research group. Therefore, setting up my new research group didn't come with as much stress as it could have.

By participating in entrepreneurial training programmes, you learn concepts and tools that are helpful to make important decisions and can be applied in different situations, for example, the Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Threats (SWOT) analysis and Cost Benefit analysis. I realised that when I started using these, I became much more efficient in seeing where I was, where I needed to go, and what actions were crucial and which were not. I also became much stricter about things I choose to do. Every time I do something, I ask myself - “what is it going to achieve?” and “how much effort and time is it going to take?”

Another example of how entrepreneurship training helped me in my academic career is writing grant proposals. When you write a research proposal, you really need to understand:

  • what problem you are solving

  • what value you are adding

  • how you are going to do it

  • what resources and budget you need

  • whether you have the necessary network

​ 

All these things were exactly what I learnt through entrepreneurship training programmes at Freie Universitaet Berlin and at the Cambridge Judge Business School, which was sponsored by the p2i Network.

 

Would you recommend engaging in entrepreneurial activities to other researchers? Can you explain why?

 

“Absolutely! I actually gave a talk on this, because I was so excited after going to Cambridge and felt I should spread the word on the benefits of entrepreneurial training for researchers. I wanted to get more people in the postdoc society to know about it and I think it was quite successful - there were several people who then went onto participate in p2i events and some people even switched to entrepreneurship. I think entrepreneurship training helps you to put things into perspective and provides you with efficient tools to achieve your goals within or outside of academia.

What would you say to postdocs who want to pursue an academic career and perceive entrepreneurial activities as a shift away from their academic goals? 

 

It's true that very often, it's seen as a distraction by academics themselves, but there are many benefits to entrepreneurial training and adopting an entrepreneurial mindset, even if one chooses to pursue a career in academia only. I have a few examples.

One useful take-away from my experience with p2i events is the idea of ‘fit’, or the ‘product-market fit’ in entrepreneurship. For example, if you want to be a professor, you need to understand what the search committee wants from a professor. Just like in entrepreneurship, where it’s common to talk to end-users of a product to understand their needs, it is good to have informational interviews with people who are interviewing or have been interviewed for similar positions early enough to understand how well you fit, and what weaker points need to be addressed. Having collected this information and understood the needs, you can devise a better strategy for faculty job hunting.

Another example is pitching. When I was invited for a professorship interview, the similarities between pitching your business and pitching you and your research for an academic position were clear. You have to convince the committee of the value of your research programme, how it is matching their research interests, how it matches the interests of people you will be working with, and how you can build collaborations and integrate into this local research ecosystem. You need to convince them that you can support yourself - so how you're going to fund your research, how your research group will look, how many people and what kind of expertise you need. If you come from an entrepreneurship background, it may sound very familiar and logical, but if you have been a lab based scientist, it is not always that obvious. There are not many courses that really tell you what and how to do this for an academic career.

How can researchers convince PI’s that participating in entrepreneurial activities is beneficial for the researcher, the research team and the PI?

 

This is very tricky because when you are on this career path, there is an expectation of basically spending all your waking hours doing or thinking about research. PIs who never had an entrepreneurship experience may have a hard time understanding how this would directly benefit their research objectives.

I think it will be very individual - it depends on the person you work with, so you really need to establish who that person is and how you deal with them. It could be that it's just enough to have a career talk and say “I would like to discuss my career prospects” - and this is something that you have to do anyway, regardless of whether you want to do entrepreneurship training or not. It's good to sit down with your supervisor and have a career talk.

You need to understand the perspective of the PI - this is something that I also learned in entrepreneurship training - you need to understand the perspective of the person you work with / your business partner and what's in it for them. As an entrepreneur, you also need to understand your client’s perspective and why they need your product. So you need to understand what your PI is afraid of, and what they want, and then try to offer something that takes those worries away. So obviously, they are afraid that if you are going to take on this training, their project might suffer. Their project is getting done with your hands, so make sure that you are very clear that your main work is not going to suffer.

Agree on a few key things that are non-negotiable, agree what is going to get done - and it's good to have it in writing so after you have your career talk, write a nice email saying “I’m glad we had this career talk and agreed on these things.”

The second strategy you could try is to incorporate this training and this opportunity into your research that benefits your PI, so explain that the training might help you apply for and win some prize money that can fund this research, etc. Explain that there is an added benefit for them that you bring funding money into the lab, and explain the potential benefits of you understanding how intellectual property works, and what happens with royalties, etc. Try to integrate the training and the potential benefit of starting a venture into how this could benefit the lab. Everyone is different so you will have to see what the individual you're sitting with is like and what makes them tick.

Finally, there's a third option (at least in Berlin in Germany). When you sign a contract as a postdoc, it says that you have the right to take certain further development courses. Supervisors have an official obligation to support their students in career training and provide opportunities, so they know that they have to give you an opportunity to develop further skills. As a last resort, you can bring up this legal aspect and say “well there is actually an obligation for you to support me in this”.

If none of these options work, do the stuff that you need in the lab and everything that happens outside of work hours is your time and you could just do it.

What do you consider as key messages or takeaways from the p2i course/event that have stuck with you?

 

As mentioned, I liked the idea of ‘fit’ - how you fit in the whole market, how the product matches the need of the client. This concept is very important in academia too, because when you write a research proposal, you need to understand exactly what those agencies who give you the money you look for. So understanding the needs, and understanding how you fit these, whether you have the resources and the necessary expertise. I think this is often the main problem when people write their first proposals. They might have the most brilliant ideas but they're not supported by the experience, they're not supported by their network, and they're not supported by their resources. Therefore, this idea of ‘fit’ is the number one takeaway for me.

The second is MVP - I really like the concept of ‘Minimal Viable Product' because in research we often think about adding more and more sophisticated experiments. Therefore the idea of getting the maximum information with minimal effort is very useful. It's time and cost efficient. It makes you ask if it's really necessary, question what we have learned already, whether it is enough and how to pivot.

Pitching is the final one. That was probably one of the most useful skills, because when you write proposals, and when you give grant panel interviews, and you often need to convince them in just few minutes why they should give you money. These are not so different from a business pitch, so having an effective pitch that conveys the message and makes people want to give you the money has been extremely helpful for me.

What are the top skills would you encourage an entrepreneurial postdoc to develop, regardless of their career path?

“I would really encourage them to be more open-minded and keep their eyes open for opportunities - basically - being opportunistic (in a good sense). Being able to spot opportunities - it’s a skill in itself because we all see the world in different ways; although we all see the same things, we don't all notice the same opportunities. It could be as trivial as bumping into someone at an event and then realising that the person has a complementary expertise. Just keep an open mind, be ready to spot an opportunity and jump on it, network, develop your social skills, such as active listening and just talk to people - communication is very important.

Is there any advice / parting pearls of wisdom you would give to postdocs who want to pursue a career in Academia?

 

Devise a career and research strategy early on, learn how to prioritise and delegate, build a network of mentors and collaborators, understand your strengths and weaknesses, carve your own niche and be persistent. And remember that there is a win in every failure as long as you learn something from it!

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