We welcomed our second class of SynBio Apprentices (SBAs) to Octant back in August - meet Giselle, Jerry, Nico, Will, and Winnie! With COVID-19 still affecting our daily lives, we knew that onboarding the SBAs would look a little different than “normal”. However, in their first three months, they not only completed their intensive training project on Octant’s multiplexed screening pipeline, they’ve also already made significant impacts across Octant. We checked in to see what their experience has been like thus far:
How would you describe your experience at Octant as an SBA thus far?
Will: Octant puts weapons in your hands and sends you into battle. On day one, after a 15 minute introduction, we were in the lab. That first day set the tone for the next two months. Work at Octant is fast-paced and often calls upon multiple domains. It's not uncommon to set up a molecular biology reaction, go do a few hours of tissue culture, analyze data on the server, write up a report, and help install a new piece of equipment—all in one day.
As a company, Octant makes each individual Octonaut feel valued. Everyone is encouraged to contribute to discussions and ask questions during company-wide meetings. In research experiences I've seen in the past, materials were precious and human time was disposable. Octant takes the opposite approach and arms its researchers with good instruments, reagents, and sophisticated internal workflows. This philosophy makes researchers feel extremely empowered and productive.
Nico: The team at Octant has fostered a really special culture here. Octonauts are extremely collaborative, they value mentorship, and they’re passionate about science. As an example, after unsuccessfully running my first gel, I asked another SBA for help troubleshooting. A few moments later, two scientists independently came over to brainstorm explanations for what had happened. People here are always willing to lend a hand, no matter how small the problem, and it makes for a great work environment.
As an SBA we’re given a lot of responsibility but are also given the tools to succeed. From our journal clubs to talks with the founders, there are many opportunities to learn and grow as a researcher.
Winnie: One of the best qualities of the SBA program is the diverse set of "hats" you can wear. I've found myself expanding my previous wet lab knowledge, gaining new computational experience, and even transitioning my graphic design endeavors to science as I improve my scientific presentation skills!
Giselle: It’s a training program like no other—top-notch scientists teach you the necessary skills, both in the experimental and analytical realms, to then apply to your team on a short timeline. After being put onto a team, we quickly begin working and fully contributing to projects that truly matter to the company. Although it may seem a little intimidating, the SBA program allows you to fully immerse yourself in science while still having the liberty of pursuing your other passions outside of Octant, whether that be exploring the hiking trails in the Bay Area or becoming a plant mom.
What has surprised you in the last two months?
Jerry: I’ve been surprised by how integrated I feel as part of my team. Since day one, I’ve worked directly with the scientists on code that gets used for Octant’s core functions. This level of integration makes me feel appreciated because I can see how my work directly helps my team and the rest of the company work more efficiently and smoothly!
Giselle: The people. Not only are they extremely talented and dedicated scientists, they are also very down to earth—as cheesy as that may sound. Everyone has been willing to answer questions from, “how do I use the espresso machine?” to “how do you clone a plasmid?” No matter the question, an Octonaut has an answer for it.
Will: Never in a million years would I have expected to feel so valued on my current team. It's only been 2 months, but I've finished multiple projects and my data has been discussed at company wide meetings multiple times. As an apprentice, it's incredibly rewarding to know that my work is tangibly benefiting the company.
Nico: I was really surprised by the level of responsibility that we are given as SBAs. We’re involved in every step of a project’s planning and get to dive into biology with some really talented scientists. Everyone here is invested in helping us become better researchers. I think that sets Octant and the SBA program apart from similar post-grad positions.
Why did you apply?
Jerry: I heard about Octant's SBA program through my postdoc mentor back at UCLA. I was excited when I learned about Octant's drug-screening platform as it was an innovative approach for drugging complex disorders like the ones I studied in my undergraduate research. I wanted to experience industry and see translational research in action.
Will: I knew that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., but I wanted to sharpen up my skills and learn more about synthetic biology before applying to graduate schools.
Nico: I was looking to explore genomics-related research during my gap year before attending graduate school. When I came across Octant and the SBA program, it seemed like the perfect fit for me. Though I didn’t have much experience with synthetic biology, I was really interested in the company’s high-throughput, genomics approach to drug discovery, so I applied!
How would you describe the training project?
Jerry: Everyone in my SBA cohort came into the program with a range of technical expertise. We combined forces to help each other throughout the course of the training project. Coming from a computational lab in undergrad, I grew immensely on the wet laboratory side, learning everything from constructing plasmid libraries to transfecting mammalian cell lines. After two months of working on the training project, we put together an amazing presentation for the company highlighting our achievements!
The planning that went into the SBA training project was quite thorough and it definitely made transitioning into a fast-paced company like Octant much smoother.
Winnie: Our training was like a mini-tour of Octant, both socially and scientifically. We were taken through Octant's core technologies for our project and were introduced to/mentored by Octonauts at each step of the pipeline. Coming from a synthetic biology lab at UCLA, I came in with a strong molecular biology background but weak computational skills (the opposite of Jerry!). I was familiar with the experimental flow of our project, but once we hit data analysis in R, I was nervous. Thankfully, with the help of our mentors and my fellow SBAs, I gradually became more comfortable with some simple coding and began making my first few plots! All the SBAs came with different strengths and the training helped get us all up to speed.
The training wasn't all just troubleshooting experiments though. We also had lunches with each of Octant's core teams, operations, and the founders. My favorite afternoons were when we chilled with Octonauts as they talked about their scientific journey and offered sage advice about grad school or life in general.
What has the hardest part of the SBA program been thus far?
Will: As an SBA, I’ve faced much more open-ended challenges than those I saw as an undergraduate. Rather than direct experimental questions like, “how abundant is this protein?”, here, I’ve had to answer more vague questions like, “how can we improve this reporter?” and “why is this complex system not working?”. My work here demands more background research, more thorough planning, and more thoughtful experiments.
Nico: Starting at Octant during the pandemic came with a whole host of unexpected challenges. For example, with all of Octant’s COVID-19 precautions (occupancy limits, social distancing, etc.), it was harder to have impromptu conversations with the entire team. With fewer interactions, it took a bit more time and effort to meet everyone and feel fully integrated into the new environment.
Jerry: One of the challenging aspects of the SBA program when I first joined was being able to digest all the information and lingo that Octanauts use on a regular basis. With that being said, the scientists have been very patient and they are very willing to mentor the SBAs and to get us caught up with Octant’s technologies. While it may seem overwhelming at first, all the SBAs in my opinion are now fluent in the work at Octant and are adding immense value to Octant’s technologies!
Would you recommend the SBA program to a friend? What advice would you give them?
Jerry: Absolutely! I think the SBA is a great program for those who want to hone in on their technical and scientific skills after college. There is plenty to learn across the wetlab to the drylab. I’d advise anyone who wants to join the SBA program to be open-minded and comfortable about traversing different areas of expertise. The work that Octonauts do is really interdisciplinary and will push you out of your comfort zone.
Winnie: The SBA program is perfect for a recent graduate taking a year or two off prior to graduate/medical school... or not! If you're passionate about drug discovery and are searching for an exciting place to grow as a scientist while figuring out your next steps, the SBA program is immensely rewarding. It's fast-paced and intellectually challenging. Plus, the fun culture of Octant and emphasis on personal mentorship keeps me excited to come in each day.
Overall, I would advise an SBA applicant to be genuine and enthusiastic. Highlight not only your past lab experiences but also your eagerness towards the future as a potential SBA. There are so many opportunities to self-reflect and learn at Octant both scientifically and professionally - demonstrate your excitement to take full advantage of it!
Giselle: Of course! I would recommend the SBA program to anyone wanting to explore their career options in science, whether they want to learn more about industry, or they want to be a part of an amazing scientific team.