PNAS: Pam Korda, Medical Device Developer

(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of Pam Korda, a physicist working for a medical device company.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I am a "Lead Scientist" at an R&D subsidiary of a medical
devices company. In practice, this means I oversee a small group of
scientists and engineers who are part of a project developing a new
method for doing diagnostic tests on human blood samples.

2) What is your science background?

BA, MS, and PhD in physics from the University of Chicago.

3) What led you to this job?

Networking. Early in my grad school career, I realized that the
academic career path was not for me, and so I always intended to go
into some sort of non-academic job. But, I did an academic post-doc
anyway. As the post-doc position neared its end, I started contacting
friends & acquaintances who had science-related jobs outside of
academia. One of them, who had been in the same research group as me
at the University of Chicago, was then a director of R&D for a small
tech start-up company that had grown out of some research done by my
grad advisor. Although I hadn't been directly involved in that
research, I was familiar with it, and so my friend asked if I'd be
interested in coming to work at his company. I wasn't sure about it,
but I was interested enough to pay them a visit, and it seemed like a
decent place to work, and it'd let me move back to Chicago, so I
applied, and they hired me as a scientist. Some time later, the
company was bought by a larger company, and some time after *that*, I was
offered the position of "lead scientist" when we reorganized our R&D
group to be more compartmentalized.

4) What's your work environment like?

These days, I spend most of my time at my desk or in meetings, doing
higher-level planning and directing the research activities of my
group. Since we are not that big a group (like, 4 full-timers total)
in a small division, I still do some work in the lab, some design
work, data analysis, whatever needs doing, really.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

Read e-mail, send e-mail, discuss progress on projects with my group
and/or my boss, do planning for experiments, analyze data, eat lunch.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

It's directly relevant to the projects my group works on. I make
regular use of my knowledge & experience in optics, statistical
mechanics, condensed-matter physics, error analysis, experiment
design, and data presentation.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

Get an advanced degree (Master's or PhD) in a scientific field. Focus
on experimental science (rather than theory) and do as much lab work
in your chosen field as possible. Keep in touch with friends and
coworkers who leave academia to work in industry. Join a professional
organization in your field of interest which is *not* oriented towards

8) What's the most important thing you learned from science?

The most important thing I've learned from science is *science*:
knowledge about how the world works, and how to find out how the world

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

i) When choosing a research advisor, look beyond the research topic.
This is somebody upon whom you'll be depending on for recommendations,
referrals, and support for years to come. Make sure it's somebody you
can get along with, respect, and who has a reputation for doing right
by their students & post-docs.

ii) Don't neglect communication skills: the caricature of the
reclusive scientist is bunk. Doing the greatest research in the
universe is pointless unless you have the tools to explain it to
others. This is the case whether you work in an academic lab, a
government lab, or an industrial lab. You always have to justify your
work to the people who fund it, and explain it to people who might
want to employ it in some way.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like?

I really don't want my salary posted on the Internet, so I'll just say
that the pay is very good.

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As a physicist doing biology-related work, I'm curious to hear how she got into medical device work. Everyone has a different story. A few start in biophysics right away, others do something else and find biological angles on it, and still others just jump at some point.