Career QnA

Read about the career choices our mentors have made to become established biotech professionals. Each month, a new mentor will share their career journeys and advice for those wishing to follow in their footsteps.

Anthony Fejes

Ashraf Amlani - Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Anthony Fejes received his BSc degree in Biochemistry from the University of Waterloo and his MSc degree in Microbiology and Immunology from the University of British Columbia. Upon completing his masters degree, he participated in the founding of Zymeworks Inc, a cross disciplinary company in the high-tech and biotech fields. Currently, Anthony has returned to school, where he is already begun working on writing up his Ph.D. thesis in bioinformatics. Outside of his work, Anthony now blogs independently about bioinformatics, coding, grad studies and a host of other topics. When not working with cancer genomes, Anthony can generally be found playing with Linux (usually beta testing some variety of Ubuntu) or hanging out with his family.

SBN: How did you get involved in a startup biotech company?

ZymeworksAF: Ali Tehrani was the catalyst. Ali was one of the founders of the Student Biotechnology Network and is a born entrepreneur. The two of us shared a lab bench together in the Beatty lab at UBC for a few years, worked together in the SBN and tested the waters with a few small ventures before Zymeworks. We had a pretty good working relationship, so when he was approached by some people in the business community with an idea for a biotechnology/bioinformatics company, he thought my background in bioinformatics and computers would be useful. Although the original idea wasn't what we eventually pursued, it was the starting point for what became Zymeworks. Ali certainly was the driving force in getting the company off the ground - and for inviting me along for the incredible ride.

SBN: What did you enjoy the most about this job?

AF: There are really a lot of things I enjoyed about participating in the early days of Zymeworks, so it's hard to keep the list short. The startup atmosphere with everyone working together for a common goal is really a lot of fun - when you have a team that just gels, you really feel like you can accomplish anything and it's a powerful motivator. The immense variety of tasks can also be really rewarding - from designing office space to doing algorithm development to hiring new team members. There are always a ton of things that need to get done and never enough hands to do them, but if you can stay afloat, the diversity of the challenges just makes it that much more fun. Of course, there was the constant learning curve as well. No one person ever knows everything there is to know about running a company, so you constantly find yourself learning new things and trying to improve those skills you do have. It can be daunting, but really rewarding when things work out. Finally, I really enjoyed the people. As a small startup, we were fortunate to be able to find some exceptionally talented and smart people. Working with them every day was truly an honour - and a lot of fun.

SBN: Describe some of the biggest challenges that you faced at Zymeworks.

AF: Personally, my biggest challenges were probably managerial, as that was one skill I'd had no practice at before starting Zymeworks. However there were a lot of other challenges as well, such as learning how to speak with investors, guiding the evolution of the science itself and charting the best path for the company. There is never a single right answer, so you always find yourself learning something new to refine what you do know.

SBN: What attracted you to this profession & what is your inspiration?

AF: I've always been fascinated by how things work, taking things apart and putting them back together, including computers and electronics (much to the annoyance of my siblings). When I was in high school, I asked my biology teacher about how hemoglobin worked, a question that he spent days trying to figure it out for me, but ultimately couldn't answer. However, that was the spark that got me interested in protein structure and function, which in turn was the catalyst for my interest in the technology that became Zymeworks.

As it happens, I did eventually find out the answer to my question several years later, during my undergrad. It turns out that the article with the solution hadn't been published at the time. Our understanding of proteins has come a long way since then, but I'm still intrigued by the way enzymes are able to do so much with such a limited toolbox.

SBN: What made you decide to return to school to pursue a PhD?

AF: The people who start a company aren't always the right people to continue moving it forward. When my time to leave came, the decision to return to school wasn't difficult. I'd always known that I'd eventually need to pursue a PhD to do the work that interested me the most. Investors, correctly or not, will always be hesitant to back a scientist without a PhD, and so it is a necessity if you want to go down the startup path. I should also say that, in hindsight, you do learn a lot during the process of working towards a PhD that you just don't pick up otherwise. Those skills would have been a big help while I was at Zymeworks and I expect they'll be a big help in any future endeavours I undertake.

SBN: You maintain an intriguing blog, have been asked to conference blog and are an avid user of twitter. How have these tools helped further your career?

Fejes.caAF: There are some tangible ways in which blogging has made an impact on my graduate career. Putting yourself out in a public forum really helps you learn to accept constructive criticism and to refine your writing style - skills that are particular important when preparing to defend a thesis. It has also had an impact in other areas as well. As you've mentioned, I've been asked to blog a conference in Europe this summer - a career direction that I really hadn't considered until recently. While I doubt I can make a full-time job out of it, it is something that I enjoy doing and the discussions that emerge from the blog can be engaging. Plus, I really do like having notes on topics relevant to my own work easily accessible through a google search!

Beyond that, there is also a certain amount of attention you get when you, figuratively, stand up in public and express your opinion. While the response can be overwhelming, I think it has been a positive experience overall, particularly as I start exploring career options for what to do after I defend my thesis. I've been fortunately to have met some really great people through blogging, and it's likely that some of those contacts will lead directly or indirectly to my next career challenge. Blogging has been a great experience and journey, but I don't really feel that I've reached the destination yet.

SBN: Any tips or resources you would like to share with other students who may be interested in science communication career paths?

AF: My first tip would be to find people who are doing similar things to you. Knowing both your audience and your community is really important - the community will give you feedback and criticism and your peers will be your best source of great advice. I frequently find myself emulating and learning from other science bloggers. The second tip is figure out what you enjoy talking about - and then talk about it. You become a much more effective communicator when you're passionate about the subject. You'll also find the motivation to continue caries a lot further when it's a subject closer to your heart. Beyond that, I suspect that everyone's path is different when it comes to science communication. All I can really say is, just like the entrepreneurial route, make sure you enjoy the journey. I'll defer to others who are more prominent in the science communication field to dispense any other sage advice.

SBN: Any tips for students that currently blog or tweet?

AF: Blogging and tweeting are really opposite skill sets. While both of them are about communicating clearly, blogging is about expressing complex thoughts and writing eloquently, while tweeting is like haiku: Expressing your idea as concisely as possible. Whenever I have an idea, I decide if it's a "long" or a "short" idea, and then work out the best way to communicate what I'm thinking. The best advice I have is to make sure you pick the right medium to express your ideas - but not to shy away from expressing them.

SBN: Any other advice for SBN members?

AF: Take full advantage of the SBN and participate as much as you can! My short time on the executive was incredibly valuable to me as a learning experience and I'd really encourage everyone who can to get in and do some networking through the SBN's awesome activities. I've met a lot of great people through the SBN - and it's been really inspirational to see what they've gone on to do.

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