NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 9 – Supervisor, Assay Development

This is the ninth in a series of profiles about recent NIH postdocs who have found an array of jobs, from academia to industry to communications and beyond, in the U.S. and abroad. What do they do now, and how did they get there? What challenges did they face, and what advice do they have? Read on to find out.

Name: Kai Cheng

Current position: Supervisor of genotyping services assay development, The Jackson Laboratory

Location: Bar Harbor, ME

Time in current position: 5 months

Postdoc: Mechanisms of axon guidance using a transgenic mouse olfactory system, with Leonardo Belluscio at NINDS

My story: Toward the end of my postdoc, I felt I did not want to do academia as a PI but I didn’t know what I’d really like to do. When I started to talk to people for informational interviews, I had no direction. I talked to my mentor. He said, I cannot advise you if you don’t know what you want to do! I started actively going to OITE for a lot of instruction. I took the Myers-Briggs and tried to form a direction for myself and know what I’d really like to do. It’s a personality test so it won’t tell you that you have to do this or that type of work, but it shows you people who are happy and successful in different fields, what kind of personalities they have. It helps you to think, Do I look like those people? Would I like that kind of work?

I discovered I wanted to go towards an industry setting, technology-based but also service-related. In academia, you have to be able to write grants very successfully. It seems to be endless. It’s not my thing. In industry, you don’t have to write grants. Also they rely a lot on teamwork, which I really like. You talk to everyone and have interdepartmental collaborations and understand the whole pipeline. With OITE’s help, I further narrowed down my direction and tried to combine it with my experience to see what would be a realistic starting point.

Job search frustrations: I didn’t really seriously start looking until I had been a postdoc for 6 years. I sent out some resumés to companies online. Some friends did that and it worked for some of them, but I’m a very unlucky guy—I sent out probably hundreds and never got any responses. So I was frustrated. Then I attended a career fair organized by OITE, and a company had organized on-site interviews with hiring managers. I really liked that company and prepared as much as I could. I did go quite far and got a second interview. Unfortunately I didn’t get that job. I heard that the person who got the offer prepared for 1 year and had 3 interviews before and that was their 4th. So I was thinking, Really, it takes that long? I really want a job now! But it takes time and patience. 

That was a tough time for me. But I kept looking. I never gave up. I kept an eye on any openings at that company and at other companies. I stopped randomly submitting resumés. When you’re targeted, you know where your strength is and you have a better chance to win. Still, it was frustrating. I even thought of going back to China, where I am from. I wanted to stay here, but the NIH has an 8-year rule and there seemed to be no backup plan for me. So I thought I have to try everything I can. 

A gamble: I got an interview in China. I went and had that. It wasn’t bad; I got quite a decent offer. Eventually, I rejected that offer. I don’t know, maybe I was crazy, or maybe I was confident I would get something here. I wanted to give myself another chance. I made the decision also for personal reasons. (I wouldn’t advise anyone else to do what I did, though!) 

How I got my job: I saw an ad from Jackson Lab and it looked like a good fit. The day after I sent in my application, the ad was removed. I thought that was not a good sign; they probably hired someone. I tried calling HR, I tried emailing. Nothing. The only thing I could do was keep looking.

In the meantime, I went to a meeting and Jackson Lab had a booth there. According to all those instructions from OITE, you need to talk to someone. So I went there and talked to the staff. More than once. They were very nice. I asked them about the place, the city, the lab. It sounded like people really liked it there and stayed for a very, very long time. In industry, people tend to move on in a year or two, so that was a good sign. I told them I’d applied and hadn’t heard, and they agreed to put a note in their system. I got their business card. I didn’t believe it would do anything, but I knew I’d done what I should do.

A few weeks later, a colleague saw an ad from Jackson for a new opening very similar to the previous one. Then another person sent me the same ad. I thought it wasn’t a coincidence that 2 people think I’m good at this at the same time. I applied online for the job (again). I also sent an email to the person I’d met at the conference and said I’m really interested and did they know anyone I could contact for more information. I honestly didn’t expect any reply. But I got a reply and was cc’d to the person who was hiring for my current position. Then I got connected to the person who would be my supervisor. I got a phone interview. I think because of the previous interview experience at the career fair and in China, I felt more confident. I did well. A few months later I got an on-site interview. I did the mock interview in OITE for preparation. A few months later, I got the offer. 

Tough to network: It is not really my personality to go out there and talk to strangers. It was really hard for me [while I was looking for jobs]. But I don’t think I would have gotten my current position if I hadn’t talked to someone at a conference. I had to be brave. I still can’t say I’m so good at communication now, but what you need is to go up to that person at the moment when you’re confident. 

Day-to-day: My responsibilities are quite mixed. One big part is at Jackson Lab we import hundreds of mouse strains from all over the world each year. My job is to design genotyping assays for them. I have a managerial role to supervise technicians to validate the assays. That’s the majority of my job. At the same time, I do assay troubleshooting of existing strains already in house. So whenever the group that handles those mice has technical problems, they let me know. To be successful in these processes in an industry setting, you have to communicate with other groups. We have meetings and phone conversations with internal or external customers to solve assay problems. That’s the third part of my job. 

Adjustments: I miss my colleagues when I was a postdoc. I also miss the flexibility in deciding when to go to work and being able to pause here and pick it up later. Now, there is customer satisfaction to consider so you can’t leave things for long. Even if I’m not here, I have to arrange for someone else to cover for me. 

Challenges for a non-citizen: I wanted to join industry, but even now I don’t have a green card. I was very nervous about whether Jackson Lab would be able to sponsor me, but I was very fortunate and they got a nonprofit H1B. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to work.

Also, my spoken English is good, but I’m a terrible writer. That can be a barrier. You can’t always go somewhere and talk to people. At NIH, I took some “how to write science” classes. Those were very helpful, but to be honest I wasn’t a very good student! For speaking, I think you just need practice. It’s the same as for job hunting and interviewing—just do it. It was like acting in the beginning, but after you do it hundreds of times, it becomes natural. 

What’s next: It’s pretty good here. Some people don’t like services, but I do. I like helping people. And I like working in a team to solve problems. I hope I can learn to be more efficient so I can have more leisure time! But being busy is good. We’ll see if my employer will give me space to learn more things and support my career development. If everything works out, I believe I will stay here a while.

Kai can be contacted through the OITE alumni database.