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Clifford Mintz, PhD

Taking the Path Less Traveled

I had always liked science but by age 10, I had already decided that I wanted to be a veterinarian. However, after seeing the film Ben Hur at age 11—during which two of the main characters who have leprosy are miraculously cured—I fantasized what it might be like to be able to discover cures for infectious diseases. As corny as it may sound, the movie convinced me that my true calling in life wasn’t veterinary medicine but microbiology. Nevertheless, I attended Cornell University as a pre-veterinary medicine undergraduate with a dual major in animal science and microbiology. During my senior year at Cornell, Dr. Brooks Naylor, my food microbiology professor at the time, invited me to do a senior research project in his laboratory. After several weeks in the laboratory I was hooked and knew that graduate school and not veterinary school was in my future.

I entered graduate school in 1974 and did my PhD work in Bob Deibel’s laboratory in the Department of Bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying the pathogenesis of Salmonella gastroenteritis. Because Bob was Chairman of the Department and a food microbiology consultant, he wasn’t around much. This forced me to become self reliant and an independent investigator very early in my scientific career. Interestingly, when I started graduate school, my goal was to earn a PhD degree and teach microbiology at a small liberal arts college.  However, after three years at Wisconsin, I decided to eschew a career as a science educator in favor of becoming a tenure track faculty member at a prestigious research institution.

I received my PhD degree in 1981and chose to do a postdoctoral fellowship with Stephen Morse in the Department of Microbiology at Oregon Health Sciences University where I investigated the pathogenesis of Neisseria gonorrhoeae. After two years in Stephen’s lab, I realized that the field of molecular biology had finally taken off and I needed to develop molecular biological skills to compete for my coveted tenure track faculty position. In 1984, I joined Howard Shuman’s laboratory as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Microbiology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in New York City where I studied the molecular pathogenesis ofLegionella pneumophila, the causative agent of Legionnaires Disease.

In 1987, after spending three more years as a postdoctoral fellow, my newly acquired molecular biology training coupled with a respectable publication record helped me to land a tenure track faculty position in the Department of Microbiology at the University Of Miami School Of Medicine. I spent the next seven years feverishly doing laboratory research, teaching medical and graduate students, publishing papers and mainly writing grants to establish an independent research program on the role of lipopolysaccharide in the molecular pathogenesis of L. pneumophila. While I was a productive researcher, who regularly published and was recognized on several occasions for teaching excellence, I failed to consistently win grant support to run my laboratory. Consequently, in 1994, I was denied tenure and forced to leave academia—an emotionally devastating event that that ended a life-long dream of becoming a world class research scientist.

Luckily, at that time, the American biotechnology industry had finally hit its stride and I landed a job as a scientist at a New Jersey-based biotechnology company where I managed an antibacterial drug discovery program. My time in industry—which lasted only two years—provided me a firm understanding of the business side of science and perhaps, more importantly, convinced me that industrial research wasn’t for me. This, coupled with a yearning desire to teach again, prompted me to successfully apply for a job as Chairperson of Biology at a local community college. While a good idea at the time, I quickly realized that while I still loved to teach, administration wasn’t my strong suit and I left the community college job after a year.

Unfortunately, by 1998, I had effectively exhausted most traditional career options for scientists with PhD degrees and I desperately needed a job—mainly because I had a wife and three young children to support. Fortunately, while working at the community college, I successfully helped several professional recruiters place new hires into jobs at biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. This prompted me to seriously consider professional recruiting as a career option and in early 1999 I landed a job as a recruiter at a local recruiting firm.  As a new hire I had to attend recruiter school for six weeks. Surprisingly, this training would prove to play a pivotal role in subsequent decisions that helped to shape my career.

After three successful years as professional recruiter, an Australian biotechnology company recruited and hired me as a science and business consultant to help guide their antibacterial drug discovery program. The new job led to an almost four year stint as an independent management consultant advising private and publicly-traded biotechnology companies on business, scientific and financial matters.  Also during this time, I decided to indulge my own entrepreneurial fantasies and in 2001 I founded BioInsights (www.bioinsights.com), Inc, a bioscience education and training company. In 2003, Abe Abuchowski and I founded Prolong Pharmaceuticals (www.prolongpharmaceuticals.com) a drug delivery company with two drugs in early stage clinical development. Unfortunately, the rigorous demands of running BioInsights and starting Prolong ultimately led to the demise of my consulting practice and by 2004 I was forced to consider another career move.

Luckily, in 2002, I had begun to write for several biotechnology industry trade publications. Although I wasn’t getting paid to write, it enabled to hone and polish my writing skills.  In late 2004, a medical communications expert who I knew suggested that I take a stab at medical writing. At the time, I didn’t know much about medical writing but I quickly learned that it pays well and medical writers are always in demand. I took her advice and landed my first medical writing job in 2005. Since then, I have worked at a variety of medical communications agencies and pharmaceutical companies preparing manuscripts, posters, slide presentations and other work. Currently, I am freelance science and medical writer, blogger (www.biojobblog.com) and social media enthusiast who, along with Dr. Vincent Racaniello started an online social network site for bioscientists called BioCrowd (www.biocrowd.com)

Unlike most scientists, my career path has taken many unexpected twists and turns. I never intended it to be as eclectic or convoluted as it has turned out to be. Nevertheless, I believe that my unusual career trajectory has transformed me into a better rounded scientist than I would have been if I had been able to pursue my intended academic career. In retrospect, I attribute my career successes to solid problem solving skills, an unrelenting desire to continue to learn and an unwavering ability to take risks. Finally, and perhaps most important, I learned that there is no right or wrong career path in the life sciences—only the one that you choose for yourself!

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