Yaniv Erlich, PhD, is a computational geneticist and genetic epidemiologist who combines his academic role at Columbia University with scientific work at MyHeritage (here is his profile in Nature). He obtained his bachelor's degree from Tel-Aviv University and earned his PhD at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Chris Nowak from the ASHG Training and Development Committee wanted to know more about his time as a trainee geneticist.
I am in great debt to Greg Hannon, my PhD advisor. He gave me a vast amount of freedom to pursue my intellectual interests but also challenged me quite a lot. For example, he “suggested” two hours before his talk at a Keystone conference on my thesis topic that I give the talk instead of him! This was my first-ever scientific talk and he worked with me during those two hours on the presentation. I did not even have time to get stressed about it and it went pretty well in the end.
I also try to enable the trainees in my group to be well-rounded persons and pursue their dreams. I am very lucky to work with highly talented people and proud to see where they have ended up.
Companies have the advantage that knowledge and technologies are much more liquid than in academia. When I ran a lab and wanted to enter into a new domain, I had to either hire a post-doc who was an expert in this domain (which takes usually more than six months), develop it in-house (which takes a lot of time), or form a collaboration, which is not so easy to set up due to the incentive structure (e.g. authorship takes years to materialize). In the commercial sector, things are largely liquid. If you need a technology, usually there is someone who sells it as a service, product, license, or by a full merger and acquisition. The liquidity in the commercial world means that it is much easier to exchange past accomplishments (i.e. $) with growth, which is why companies today maintain some of the largest genomic database in the world.
The main advantage in academia is the much higher tolerance for long research cycles. Research projects that take two or three years are quite common. It allows you to take much larger risks and also to acquire more thorough knowledge on a specific phenomenon.
That is a hard question! A training position is a time for professional growth and setting the foundation for the next decades of your career – this precious time needs to be invested carefully. Therefore, trainees need to carefully think before jumping into a commercial opportunity. If the opportunity is merely “come to work with us and see how a large company works”, I would advise against it, because it does not include a substantial place for professional growth. However, if the opportunity includes exposure to a new technology, exciting datasets, or a great mentoring environment, then it is much more appealing.
I wish I had taken more time to learn additional software development technologies rather than focusing on rushing to the finish line.
Don’t fight the imposter syndrome — embrace it! The best projects in my group started as a joke over lunch or a coffee break. Thinking about it, if initially I considered these projects as part of my “real" research agenda, I would be too nervous to pursue these projects. However, I found that by pretending I am not serious about something and just try something out, I can be more creative.