“I fell in love with biochemistry as a young teenager when I came across a small book called ‘The Chemistry of Life’ in our local public library. For some reason, I had never made the link between biology and chemistry until then , and it opened up an entirely new view of the world. At the same time, microprocessor kits were becoming available. I got hooked on computers as well and built a couple on my mother’s dining table during my long summer vacations. For my undergraduate capstone in biochemistry, I wanted to write computer simulations of biochemical pathways; I thought it was a great blend of my two passions.
Unknown to me at the time, combining computers with biochemistry wasn’t something people did in 1980. I was persuaded instead to do a wet lab capstone and advised against pursuing biological modeling in graduate school because nobody did it! I wasn’t equipped to do it anyway, because my degree didn’t include any math classes. So, I did a one year Masters degree at York to learn math and computing, then a Ph.D. in systems biology with David Fell in Oxford Brookes, though ‘systems biology’ wasn’t a name that existed yet. There were hardly any groups in systems biology at the time. I did a postdoc in Edinburgh with Henrik Kacser, one of Waddington’s students, but the money ran out, and that was the end of it.
People tried to persuade me to do bioinformatics as that was rapidly growing at that time, but I thought that was dull in comparison to systems biology. Systems biology is dynamic. There is such detailed control within the pathways of the cell. The cell is a product of evolution and an amazing machine – the second most amazing machine after the brain. As a teenager, I thought the brain was so complicated that I’d never make any headway in understanding it, so I chose instead to try to understand how cells worked.
But as I said, the money dried up and I had to quit science. I got a job for one year in the agricultural ministry in Slough (the town where the UK TV series Office was set, so you can guess what the place was like) counting beetles with image analysis, then another job where I worked with neural networks. I didn’t want to stay in Sough or become a beetle expert, but I also didn’t quite know what to do. So, I decided to return to Wales and became a science high school teacher in a small high school on the edge of civilization. I wasn’t thrilled at that point because it was the end of my scientific career.
During my time as a high school teacher in rural Wales, the government changed the national science curriculum to be more quantitative. One of the things students had to learn was to be able to plot points and draw a straight line through the points using a computer. They didn’t have anything like that at the time; Excel was too primitive and difficult to use for the students. So I wrote a very simple spreadsheet program with a single big button that said ‘Plot straight line graph.’ They loved it! I thought, ‘Hold on, I can sell this.’
I printed a thousand flyers to advertise my software. I wrote out a thousand addresses for schools in UK from adverts I found in the Times Educational Supplement, I bought a thousand stamps, did a thousand lickings, and posted them off. I spent all my savings on stamps. During the weekdays, I stayed in town where the high school was, and at weekends returned to my very idyllic cottage near Devil’s Bridge. By the time I returned to my cottage on Friday night, I found it difficult to open the door from the volume of letters I’d received. There were a whole bunch of orders, all for this thing that could do a straight line fit. I couldn’t believe it!
I calculated that for every dollar I spent on marketing, I’d get $3 back. I wrote more software, like a predator-prey population simulator which was immensely popular (I still sell the odd copy even today). I saved up almost $10,000 and quit teaching. I blew the whole savings on a huge mail-shot, and got the same 3x return. I did this twice a year. It surprised me how predictable the volume of orders were. I ran my startup for three more years that way. It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot. More importantly, I got to reinvent myself as a computer guy.
Eventually, I decided to get a new job and worked as a software consultant for the finance industry in Edinburgh. I was quite happy doing that, the work I did was very challenging, which kept me amused, and the pay was great. I had free time for hobbies such as caving and Scottish country dancing. I still had an interest in science and published the odd theoretical paper or so. When I saw an ad for a conference on biological modeling in the UK, the first ever, I had to contact the organizers. They offered to pay for travel if I gave a talk, so I did. After the talk, the organizer encouraged me to apply to a job at Caltech in Pasadena.
Two months later, I was living in USA for the first time, working as a Visiting Associate in control and dynamical systems to help develop SBML at Caltech (SBML is now the de facto language for representing cellular models). The first few days of California palm trees were a culture shock but since we got so much US TV in the UK, after about a week I was quite at home. In fact, it was a bigger culture shock moving to Scotland that it was moving to California. Mostly, I couldn’t believe I was back in academia. I eventually became an Assistant Professor at the Claremont Colleges, then an Associate Professor of Bioengineering here at UW.
So it’s a bit of miracle, really. I was talking recently to an old UK friend whose career went the more usual path, undergrad, Ph.D., postdoc, to professorship and wished he had more variety in his career. Though it was often difficult at times, I’m glad I got to do all sorts of things I did and have no regrets at all.
If I were a BioE student and wanted some challenges and fun in life, I’d recommend those who are interested in industry to join a startup or even think about starting their own businesses. You’ll be working long hours, but you’ll be doing something more meaningful than perhaps working in a large company where you may be just one small piece in a much larger organization. At a startup the sense that you’re at the center of creating something new is much more evident. You’re at the right age to take risks too. In my 20s I made many mistakes but it was the right time to make mistakes because it didn’t matter so much.
Above all keep your eyes open for opportunities, and don’t be scared to move on. Don’t worry if your first job out of college isn’t what you wanted. Use that time wisely by learning new skills, and when opportunity arises move onto bigger and better things. Ultimately, I think the most important thing is to make a difference to our world, no matter what that may be. Civil society advances by people such as yourself taking risks, having great ideas and passion, and in the process making the world a better place.”