Career Interview: Joanna Mountain, PhD

Senior Director of Research
23andMe, Inc.

ASHG: What non-scientific skills (communication, artistry, athleticism, etc.) are important for your job? Were any of these skills unexpected assets for you?

Dr. Mountain: I would say that my experience playing on a number of sports teams has translated well into my career. As a member of 23andMe’s Research Team, I find I need to work closely with people on teams across the company to ensure that we reach our goals and milestones.

In addition, my interest in learning languages has been valuable as I work to communicate with people in different departments who use different terminology.

ASHG: If you could go back to when you were a trainee, what is one piece of advice you would give yourself for your current career?

Dr. Mountain: If I could speak to my trainee self, I would advise myself to check with myself on a regular basis (say, every 6 months) to understand what options are available to me (courses, research projects, lab groups) and to consider where each of those options might lead me. I would also encourage myself to seek out people further down the research path to learn from them what they have learned about various paths.

ASHG: What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?

Dr. Mountain: My favorite moments of my job are when I get to be creative regarding a research project. Brainstorming and planning with my colleagues are stimulating and rewarding processes.

My least favorite moments of my job are when I get overwhelmed with very many small tasks and feel that I cannot make progress on my higher priority projects.

ASHG: What are some strategies you employ to balance personal/family life with a successful career? What are some lessons you have learned along the way?

Dr. Mountain: Since my first child was born, I have always made my family a high priority, acknowledging that in doing so I may be making sacrifices. For example, I may choose to be late to a meeting so that I can attend to a child who needs me, knowing that by being late to the meeting my interests may not be put forward as effectively as they would if I were on time to the meeting.

In such instances I try to find other ways to meet my work responsibilities, by sending an extra email or making an extra phone call or spending time working at home to get something done. I have found that making one of my kids or my husband a priority over work activities once in a while has worked out well for me, and helps me be less stressed overall. I have also learned that the expectation of perfect work-life balance is unrealistic.

Finally, I have learned that work environment makes a big difference. Working in an organization or part of an organization where discussion or the presence of children is actively discouraged was really hard on me. Working in an organization where family life is regularly acknowledged, where many of my colleagues regularly and comfortably discuss their children, is both more pleasant and less stressful.

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