Last fall Octant launched an experiment - how much will fresh college graduates scientifically contribute to an early stage synthetic biology drug discovery startup full of quick turns and ambitious goals? The answer - a hek ton!
Octant's first class of SynBio Apprentices (SBAs) has officially graduated. We're super excited that Morgan and Zach are staying on as RAs, and excited for Johnny and Neslly's new adventures - although we'll miss them like crazy! We decided to check in to hear how the past ~10 months went as the first class of Octant SBAs.
What did you enjoy most about the SBA program?
Johnny: I really enjoyed our fireside chats where we got to sit down and talk with people from different industries at different points in their careers - professors, graduate students, venture capitalists, founders, etc. One of my favorite ones was when we had one of our board members, Jorge Conde, come in and recount his wild story leading up to his current position at a16z. Even during the pandemic, we were still able to continue our chats through Zoom!
Neslly: I really enjoyed the fact that I got first dibs on data! Each SBA joins a team at Octant. In the team I joined, I took the endpoint position of the data collection pipeline. There, I was able to conduct various experiments, collected tons of data, and sort it out first before sharing it to my mentor and the team. It is an incredible feeling to know you are the first to the see the data and come to your own conclusions.
Morgan: It’s hard to pin down my favorite part of the program, but my first thought was the mentorship. On multiple occasions, a scientist would sit down with me to help me analyze data, learn new techniques, and give me room to critically think and develop valuable skills. There are a lot of moments like these with all the Octant scientists – they will truly take the time to help you learn and grow!
Oh, and the other SBAs! I love the camaraderie that we’ve developed and how we can lean on each other/ask for help at any time and it will gladly be given!
Zach: Monthly SBA brunches with Sri and Ramsey! I loved trying out the different restaurants and having protected time just to chat with everyone. The breakfasts were also a nice chance to step back and reflect on how things were going.
What did you least enjoy? What was the hardest part?
Johnny: The hardest part of the program was learning to manage bandwidth. I'm a "yes" person so I am always hesitant to delay a project when other priorities arise, whether they be other projects or Octant responsibilities. Adjusting projects to be done under our COVID policies was also challenging since we shut down for safety reasons in the first month of the statewide lockdown. There were many experiments that we were so close to finishing, so it definitely hurt to not see them through before the pause!
Morgan: Learning to rely on other people for experiments and data. I wanted to be part of it all, but that just isn’t feasible (or very efficient) and I had to learn that the only way we are going to succeed is if we trust each other. Additionally, when COVID hit it was really tough to transition to a skeleton crew system where only a limited number of people were allowed on site at a time. Although I was so grateful to be working in lab, it sometimes became overwhelming and exhausting when I was in there by myself. It made me really appreciate working alongside other people and in-person collaboration!
How did you grow as a scientist during the SBA program?
Neslly: My primary goal in joining this program was to become more independent. I wanted to feel like I had a say in prioritizing experiments and rationalizing how each experiment added to Octant's vision within my sub-team. I believe my capabilities to make the connections between the experiments and the mission have grown.
Morgan: As SBAs we’re exposed to a bunch of new techniques and instruments and I’m constantly learning new biology as well. It’s extremely fast paced which I love, and I’m trying to soak up as much knowledge as possible and it just keeps coming!
How did you grow professionally during the SBA program?
Johnny: Professionally, I learned to be more comfortable with giving feedback. I tend to keep things to myself to avoid conflict; however, when you mess with my bench, that's a different story. I felt very lucky to be in a work culture that values feedback. The best thing I learned was that feedback should come in both flavors, positive and negative. I'm definitely not perfect at it, but I'm growing!
Morgan: I learned how to better prepare for presentations and present data. The SBAs regularly present data at our company "All Hands" meetings, which can be pretty daunting. Recently I presented a pretty complicated dataset and prepped and practiced a bunch to make it accessible to the rest of the team. Afterwards I got a bunch of comments about how great of a job I did, and it felt so rewarding to hear all the kind words. It really meant a lot to me!
Zach: Everyone at Octant is part of the interview process. We get training on how to give effective interviews, what to look for in a candidate, and the best types of questions to ask. This has given me perspective on how to be a better employee in my current role and will prove invaluable next time I apply to a job.
What's next for you?
Johnny: I will be heading back to SoCal to attend the Keck School of Medicine of USC! I'm super excited to serve LA communities again and further educate myself about addressing health disparities across the city. I'm also looking forward to learning more about the reality of the interface between drug development and clinical medicine for complex diseases to extend my experience from Octant. Lastly, not to mention, having all-you-can-eat KBBQ again is a pretty good bonus.
Neslly: I will be attending graduate school at Yale's biomedical engineering department. I feel really confident in my next step since I learned a bunch of new techniques at Octant, including the "golden trinity": coding, mammalian tissue culture, and cloning. I'm excited to continue building these skills to further study cell biology in graduate school!
Morgan: I'm staying as an RA at Octant! This group of people is so special and I have so much fun coming to work every day. I'm glad I don't have to give that up yet.
Zach: I’m staying at Octant as an RA. I’m excited to continue developing some long-term projects I started as an SBA.
What's your biggest piece of advice for the next class of SBAs?
Johnny: Take initiative whenever you can both scientifically and professionally. If there's a dataset you're interested in looking at, ping that scientist and ask if you can join in. If there's an improvement for a protocol you're passionate about, pitch it to your manager. You may not be able to have every opportunity, but the first step is to ask. On the same thread, make sure not to lose sight of your goals in the program. It's easy to get caught up in the grind - schedule your 1:1s, communicate your goals to your manager regularly, and ask for advice from folks outside of your team. It's a unique opportunity to be surrounded by so many talented people (and have kombucha in the fridge), make the most of it!
Neslly: Use your mentor to their fullest capacity. Meeting with your mentor is the best opportunity to ask naive and complex questions about the research. After all, students take after the teachers, so it is to your benefit to understand your mentor's overall scientific vision since they will have the most influence on what you end up doing in the SBA program. Everyone at Octant is really honest, so don't be afraid to mirror that same attitude!
Morgan: Throw yourself into the science! Try to soak up as much knowledge as possible early on to better understand the big picture. Ask tons of questions and never be afraid to ask people for help! Research the basics on GPCR biology and try to be engaged during presentations – a lot of it is going to make no sense at first but listen carefully, google terms you don’t know, and just try to get used to the language. And finally just be excited to learn, your energy will definitely be felt by others!
Zach: If you make a mistake, make sure Eric is around to blame! Jokes aside, it's okay if you make a mistake or don't know something. At Octant, we're all learning. I was impressed when Ramsey, one of our founders who doesn't have experience doing lab work, joined the apprentices for part of our training.
Thanks for the amazing year to the SBA class of 2020! The next class of SBAs is starting up in just a few weeks. They have some big shoes to fill, but we're looking forward to what they'll add to the Octant family.