I’ve been explaining to people that I’m leaving Generate Biomedicines to move to Microsoft Research (MSR) Lab New England because it better fits what I want to do long-term in my career. I want to expand and clarify what I mean.
First, I really enjoyed my time at Generate. I got to work on interesting scientific problems with very smart, nice people. They paid half my way to AISTATS and all my way to NeurIPS. I especially want to credit Andrew Beam for essentially giving me a postdoc’s worth of learning how to be a machine learning scientist. However, as I thought more about the kind of work I want to do and how I want to be evaluated for career advancement, I realized that there was a mismatch between what I wanted and what Generate needed.
As I realized that, my friend Lester Mackey at MSR told me I should apply for their new Comp Bio posting, which stated in part:
Microsoft Research offers an exhilarating and supportive environment for cutting-edge, multidisciplinary research, both theoretical and applied, with access to an extraordinary diversity of big and small data sources, an open publications policy, and close links to top academic institutions. We seek applicants with the passion and ability to craft and pursue an independent research program, including a strong publication record at top research venues.
As it turns out, that description aligns very well with what I want to do!
What I want to do in my work
Through my time teaching, in my PhD, and at Generate, I’ve distilled what I want from my work into two parts:
1. Discover and learn new science
I’d like intellectual ownership of a research agenda:
- To work on problems that have the potential to improve society
- In fields I think are interesting (currently machine learning, biology, and to some extent social science)
- And to be able to take my work with me and talk about it if I change employers.
In my PhD and at Generate, I focused on applying machine learning to proteins. I’m still interested in that, but I’d also like to broaden my research scope.
Conversely, I am not interested in developing products, and I’ve been telling people for years that one of my career goals is to not think about business questions. Generate, and probably other Flagship startups, are great places to work if you want to build a biotech company as a scientist. They’re generally well-run and scientifically sound, and you get to be part of a team effort to solve hard problems. However, one limitation of working in biotech, especially at a startup, is that the need to make money in the medium term strongly constrains what you can work on, as does the underlying philosophy that
creates value for investors ↔
creates value for society. The downstream effect of this is that scientists (and everybody else) are not rewarded directly for what they discover but for how they are helping the company create value. To progress in their career, even individual contributors have to map their scientific efforts to business questions.
2. Tell people about new science
Dissemination and being part of a global research community is an essential part of science. This includes:
- Other writing
- Mentoring other scientists
I want to be somewhere where these essential scientific activities are easy to do and rewarded. I don’t want to ask lawyers or a board for permission months in advance to publish or give a talk. However, biotech companies create investor value in part by obtaining proprietary data and inventing methods and protecting it all as trade secrets or with patents. Publishing or otherwise communicating your best models and data is obviously antithetical to this way of creating value. Therefore, even when/if scientists at biotech companies are allowed to publish, give talks, teach, or review papers, it’s not how they’re evaluated for career progression.
Some other thoughts
Given all this, it’s fair to ask why I worked for Generate in the first place. Coming out of grad school, I didn’t have all this sorted myself, nor did I anticipate exactly what working in biotech would be like. I do want to be clear that any mismatch between expectations and reality were due to my inexperience and naivety, not because anybody at Generate misled me.
I also want to note that I’m not advocating for researchers to “only care about the science” without regard for the societal impacts of their work. Instead, I’m arguing that startup-style “value-creation” and business questions in general are insufficient (and uninteresting to me) proxies for societal impact. The most obvious cases are therapeutics that are not pursued because they wouldn’t be profitable, such as coronavirus vaccines pre-2019 or treatments for diseases that primarily affect poor countries. In another example, the siloing and privatization of biomedical science impairs our ability to build on earlier research to speed up the development of life-saving drugs.
I considered applying for academic jobs. My dad’s a professor, and most tenured professors I know seem to have really nice lives. Unfortunately, trying to earn tenure with a toddler seems very challenging for me and unfair to my wife for how limited I would be as a parent.
Furthermore, the incentives in academia (to build one’s personal brand by publishing and getting grants) also do not align perfectly with societal impact. I’m not so naive as to think Microsoft or any other tech giant aligns perfectly with societal impact either. However, I’m hoping that being away from the directly profit-making part of the company will provide some insulation from business questions.
When I was looking for jobs at the end of my PhD (after not getting chosen for the Google AI Residency), Yisong Yue asked me what my ideal position would be, and I told him working as a researcher at a prominent industrial research lab. Here’s hoping MSR is everything I hope it will be!