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Dr. Joanne Kamens

Executive Director, Addgene, Watertown, Massachusetts

Dr. Kamens, Ph.D. has been the Executive Director of Addgene since 2011. Dr. Kamens received her Ph.D. in Genetics from Harvard Medical School. She then spent 15 years as a Researcher and Group Leader at BASF/Abbott where she worked on small molecule and antibody therapies for immune diseases. In 2007, she joined RXi Pharmaceuticals as the Director of Discovery and served as a Senior Director of Discovery Research and Senior Director of Research Collaborations. Dr. Kamens has been raising awareness of women scientists since 1998 when she realized that an entire week had gone by at work and not one other woman had been at any meeting she attended. She founded the current Boston chapter of the Association for Women in Science and helped it grow to over 300 members entirely with volunteer support. Dr. Kamens was Director of the Healthcare Business women’s Association - Boston Chapter Mentoring Program and continues to support many group and peer mentoring programs with training and resources. In 2010,Dr. Kamens received the Catalyst Award from the Science Club for Girls for her longstanding dedication to empowering women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In 2013, she was named one of PharmaVoice's 100 Most Inspiring Commanders & Chiefs.  She serves on a number of other non-profit boards such as Seeding Labs, Scismic Job Seeker, Protocols.io, and speaks widely on career development and workplace diversity topics in person and via Webinar.


Muthukumar Balasubramaniam (Muthu), one of the executive editors of Journal of Life Sciences (JoLS) and a corresponding editor with Society of Life Sciences (SoLS), corresponded with Dr. Joanne Kamens discussing topics of interest to the graduate students and postdocs. The interview also touched upon Dr. Kamens’s background, education, and career path. Because Dr. Kamens is an outstanding and longstanding advocate for women in science, Muthu invited women scientists in different stages of their training/career and from diverse career paths to pose one question each for Dr. Kamens. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and the interviewer, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the institutions to which they are affiliated.

       1) Are you an accidental scientist or did you dream of becoming a scientist when you were growing up? What inspired you to go to graduate school? Could you recall the thinking and the decision processes that were involved at that period of time?

I got my first microscope at 9 years of age and I never looked back. I know this is rare, but I think I’ve wanted to be a biologist since then. The red head in this movie reenactment (https://www.sparktheseries.com/) is based on me! I was pre-med in high school and in college because that’s what all the people good in science and math I knew at school did. After one semester in college, I got my first lab job and decided then to plan on going into research and a Ph.D. track. I’m sorry if this isn’t more interesting, but I was very single-minded. I had a great mentor in college, Eric Weinberg took me into his lab, and I worked there for 3 years on and off studying histones in S. Purpuratus(spiny purple sea urchins).


        2) How did the graduate school treat you? What were your best and not-so-best experiences in graduate school? And, what are some of the things you wish you had done differently towards (re)shaping your graduate school experience?

I loved graduate school.  I had a very diversity-minded mentor and advisor in Roger Brent at Harvard. He taught me all about great scientific rigor and treated me the same as everyone. I loved bench work and had “good hands.” So, I felt great about my learning and work. I didn’t really notice gender issues until I got into the working world. I also got married and had a baby while in grad school, and my husband was fully supportive.  My advisor was also completely supportive when I told him I wanted to go straight to pharma, and he helped me get myfirst job. We couldn’t see affording day care on a postdoc salary and I didn’t want to stop working.  I also knew that this was a better path for me. I honestly don’t understand all the angst I hear from trainees now about going to non-academic careers. I wasn’t cut out for academia, and my advisor and I both knew that I’d be more successful in pharma. On the not-so-best experience in graduate school, my advisor was very new and didn’t really know much about managing people. We were co-located with another lab, and between our two labs there were a few high drama social situations going on. I can tell you more over beers, but suffice it to say, the tension was a bit difficult sometimes.


     3) You trained and did some cool research in Roger Brent’s lab at Harvard Medical School. With such impressive research credentials, momentum, and pedigree, weren’t you interested in working towards a faculty position and running your own lab?

My credentials have helped me in all of my positions, not just in academia. I remember setting my sights on a pharma job early on because the idea of writing grants to support my own salary didn’t appeal to me at all. I was very focused and wanted to do applied research and collaborative work, and Pharma seemed like a very good fit. That is exactly what I got to do with amazing resources in Pharma.


           4) You married and had a baby in graduate school. Did either of those life events influence your career choices after graduate school?

Perhaps I might have done a postdoc if I hadn’t had a baby, while my husband was still a grad student and we had more money. But it was actually good timing for us as he had a lot of flexibility to care for our son for the first year, which was helpful as I got used to working at a company. While interviewing with employers, Ialways was very open about my kids and family requirements and about my unavailability to work on Saturdays because of my strict observance of the Jewish Sabbath. As a result, perhaps, I ended up in more tolerant workplace sand had very healthy work/life balance.

          5) You are married to a scientist. What are the best things about being married to a scientist?

Actually, I’m married to an aerospace engineer… a rocket scientist! We are very geeky and proud of it. Our kids were always going on about how they were not going to be geeky like us, but the apples don’t fall far. My son is a mechanical engineer. My daughter is now in healthcare management consulting, but because she is a math whiz and very quantitative, she too meets the geek criteria. 


          6) Tell us about your childhood. How did it shape your future life choices?

I grew up in Minnesota. It was a nice place and time to grow up. I was the only girl in most of my high school classes. I believe this is one of the reasons I have trouble waiting my turn to speak. If I waited in those classes, I would never have had a chance. I was also one of the only students in my high school class that chose an out of state school for college. I am grateful to my parents for pushing me to aim high for this and helping me make this choice when they had very limited funds.


        7) I have been told that industry, i.e. pharma and biotech, is where the money is, where a steady supply of research budgets keeps coming, where work-life balance is the norm, and where the much-needed groundbreaking cures and therapies come from. So, why did you choose to move to a non-profit research organization?

Careers are a winding journey, not a rocket to a perceived “top.” Research shows that, once aperson has enough money to eat and live, job satisfaction comes from many other things, not more money.  That’s a whole other blogAnd, people at non-profits also get paid! I’m currently the CEO of Addgene and I founded the Massachusetts chapter of the Association for Women in Science, two of my proudest leadership roles. I loved all my positions - academia, pharma, biotech, and nonprofit. Scientists need to be learning, and in all of these positions there was a lotfor me to learn. All these positions allowed me to gain experience that propelled me to my next role. For example, my work at BASF/Abbott made me a real plasmid jockey and my work at RXi gave me exposure to Business Development. These experiences were crucial to my being qualified to lead Addgene. I’ve always done volunteer work, so earning a living by doing mission-driven non-profit work that I believe in is incredibly satisfying at this stage in my career.


        8) A follow-up question. As of 2019, one in 10 jobs in the private workforce are in nonprofits. And, the jobs in the nonprofit sector grew four times faster than the for-profit sector. What is your take on the prospects for the Ph.Ds in the nonprofit sector in the upcoming years?

The diverse and interesting nonprofit sector is a fantastic field for scientists to pursue careers. I am often invited to be on career panels, and I get lumped in with “industry.” This sector is vibrant and interesting, and all scientists should consider it.


          9) Academia, pharma, biotech: Which do you miss the most, if at all? Why so?

They were allgood experiences at that time. I do miss the bench work a bit and might go back to it someday. But what I really love about science is analyzing data and I still do that all the time. I have also had some fantastic colleagues and moving on from jobs often means losing some relationships.


    10) Each year, you give over 80 talks on career topics and advice for scientists. Outside of such settings, on average, how many graduate students and postdocs contact you to seek your advice on career-related matters, for example, in a month? Approximately, what percentage of them keep you posted of their eventual choices and the outcomes? What do their victories and achievements mean to you?

It’s hard to be quantitative because I don’t really keep track. I keep all the paper “thank you” notes I get in a file and I have 142. All of my materials are open and shared freely through social media. I have a certified Twitter account with almost 5,000 followers and I have over 4,700 followers on LinkedIn. I guess I engage virtually and individually with hundreds of STEM trainees every year. Sometimes I have time for coffee, sometimes it’s just a quick video chat, and, often, I answer their questions by creating a new article so that others can benefit from the same advice in future. While I have over 100 published articles, it’s hard to know what kind of an impact online material has. Metrics are available for those published on the Addgene Blog or through LinkedIn. My articles on the Addgene blog have been viewed over 140,000 times and those through LinkedIn over 40,000 times. My most viewed article is probably “How to Make Friends and Meet People at a Scientific Conference.” It has been viewed over 35,000 times. Without a doubt, my most requested workshop is “Not Networking 101—Building Relationships for Success in Science.” I’ve given it over 100 times. STEM trainees who have experienced this workshop or participated in a group mentoring program that I have spearheaded are most likely to contact me later and report the impact it had on their careers and lives. Recently, I was stopped in the grocery store by a scientist who told me that the MGH Mentoring Program was the reason she had a green card and a job she loved at a biotech company. That’s the kind of impact that keeps me going. These successes are why I do all that volunteer work.

     11) Why do you think there is so much demand among the senior grad students and postdocs for career counseling at such advanced stage of their training? Is it because they are second guessing their interest or decision to pursue science or is it driven more by the ground reality of the job market for science Ph.D.’s? How soon should the trainees start looking for postdoc positions or real jobs?

I have no idea why engineers start thinking about their careers when they are undergrads and life scientists don’t start until year 7 of a postdoc! Life sciences training is failing the trainees in this regard. I’m involved in a number of initiatives to address this. I believe that universities that receive funding for trainees should have required career curriculum and mentoring standards. Science training should start including diverse career and “plus skills” courses and investigation in year one. One of my efforts in this area is as a member of the Steering Committee spearheading the “initiative to create a National Center for Advancing the Career Development of Scientists” to “Cultivate and sustain a culture in Ph.D. and postdoctoral training that values all Ph.D. career outcomes and promotes proactive preparation for diverse careers.”

      12) I am struck by the wording of that mission statement: “Cultivate and sustain a culture in Ph.D. and postdoctoral training that values all Ph.D. career outcomes and promotes proactive preparation for diverse careers.” Does it imply that the Ph.D. scientists who pursue or take non-academic career routes for various reasons are being subjected to implicit shaming? If so, in your opinion, how prevalent is this in the community? 

There are many great PIs and mentors who support their trainees ethically for diverse career choices. There are also many who convey the message to their vulnerable trainees that not choosing academia is letting them down or is not a success, in fact, is a failure. This is shamefully bad mentoring and these mentors should not be allowed to have trainees.

      13) Do you have suggestions for graduate students and/or postdocs on how to effectively tell, or break the news to, their academic mentor(s) that they really would like to pursue careers outside academia and (still) gain their support?”

I wish all trainees would be much more thoughtful about the labs they choose. It is unethical for current science lab heads not to be supportive of trainees that are pursuing careers outside of academia. There are simply not enough jobs out there for everyone to be a tenure track professor and mentors who don’t support this are doing damage to their trainee’s future prospects. That being said, if one is already in a lab, I recommend discussing this immediately in your next 1:1 discussion and if the reception is not good, consider ways to get support from other mentors around you and/or change labs (which is more possible than trainees realize). For more on this see this Nature blog How to Choose a Lab.

     14) There are very few openings in academia and the job market in general is becoming extremely competitive. Based on your extensive interactions with the various stakeholders in the scientific enterprise, in your opinion, approximately what percentage of the trainees are receiving adequate mentoring that would enable them to independently navigate the “real world” before leaving the “academic nest”?

It is a small percentage. And, even in universities that have good career planning resources, only a small percentage of trainees take advantage of the opportunities because their bosses don’t encourage or support the time spent on this activity. This is dramatically different in other technical fields, engineering for instance. Our apprenticeship model has gone too far and drastically needs adjusting.


      15) Should we keep graduating more Ph.D.’s even as more of them continue to move on to non-research positions? In other words, are the Ph.D. programs increasingly becoming training grounds for gaining “translatable skills” to land non-research jobs or pursue alternative careers rather than producing “practicing scientists”?

There are no alternative careers. There are just careers. We need scientists doing all kindsof jobs including finding fulfillment and success in academia and in other roles in our society. Scientists have no idea how rewarding and fun one of themillion different non-academic careers could be for them and we need to change this with more exposure and information during science training. One doesn’t practice science; one is a scientist in the way you think and solve problems. A scientist doesn’t have to pipet to be practicing science.

    16) You are a proponent of fewer Ph.D.’s doing postdocs. How feasible or sustainable is this proposition? How is the feedback from the community on this, so far?

I think a postdoc path should be mostly only for those headed for academic careers. We’re not ready yet, but we should be moving that way with our training system.

      17) Amidst all the real and perceived uncertainties associated with the immediate and long-term career prospects for science Ph.D.’s, how do we continue to attract and retain the best minds in science?

Great mentoring.


     18) You are a strong proponent of increasing diversity in the scientific workforce. What does diversity mean to you? In terms of increasing diversity and inclusivity, what are we doing right and what are we missing in plain sight?

I’m tired of hearing people say diversity is important and then doing nothing about it, except talk more. Leaders must drive this change to combat implicit bias with time, investment, resources and metrics.

     19) Would you advocate for a dedicated career development office focused on graduate students and postdocs in every institution of higher learning?

Absolutely yes! I believe that organizations that receive funds to train future scientists should have a dedicated career function and required curriculum that is evaluated for success, impact and effective outcomes. There should be variation in what is required of these offices, depending on the size of the organization, but all should be evaluated and held to a standard.

20) Is there a single book/article/podcast/video that you would really like the stakeholders in the graduate education and postdoctoral training read/listen/watch ASAP?  

The free Addgene Science Careers book has all my greatest hits: https://info.addgene.org/sign-up-to-receive-addgenes-science-career-guide

     21) Any helpful pointers to trainees who would like to follow your career track?

Read my career articles for all the tips I can share. Don’t wait until your training is over to starting meeting scientists who are doing cool things. Start now and those connections will turn into a career someday. Be open to unique roles and trying new things.

     22) Your favorite fiction books?

I am an avid reader of fiction. Recently, I’ve been trying to read more non-fiction.  Goodreads tells me I read about 80 books ayear. I have so many favorites. We have a book club at Addgene, and I’ll be leading a discussion on “The Count of Monte Cristo,” which has been a favorite of mine since middle-school. Recently “A Gentleman from Moscow” was a favorite.

     23) Your favorite non-fiction books?

I love Angela Saini’s books “Inferior” and “Superior.” I also often like memoirs. I’m reading Elton John’s memoir right now.

     24) You are married to a rocket scientist. In terms of graduate training, transitioning into a real job, and advancing in the chosen career, who has it easy: rocket scientists or life scientists?

I think the engineers have much more preparation and support for diverse careers becausethey are used to making things that people use and they routinely move between academia and non-academia as part of their culture. But the pipeline of women in life sciences is bigger and so it is a bit better for them getting started in this type of career. But, just a bit!

     25) Would you like to provide a soundbite - a single sentence - that the graduate students and postdocs can print out and post it at their bench or desk?

Be open to career exploration and pursue professional development now, and never stop.

Ireti Eni-aganga  Doctoral Candidate, Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Physiology, Meharry Medical College, Nashville, TN

IE: What are your suggestions on how women should handle being perceived as “aggressive” for their style of doing science, rather than the factual “passionate” or “assertive”- expressions that are typically reserved for their male colleagues?

JK: This is all about unconscious bias. Read up on this and make sure you are educated. Get used to noticing these misnomers when applied to other women, make sure you aren’t doing it and call it out when you see it. If you are subject to this biased judgement, question it in your reviews and from your managers. Look for truly diverse workplaces that are trying to address these inequities of judgement and behavior. I’m bossy, and proud of it. See this link at Catalyst, a great resource for this work. https://www.catalyst.org/biascorrect/

Stephanie Carnes, Ph.D.  Clinical Microbiology Senior Fellow, Department of Laboratory Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA

SC: You and your husband are quite the power couple!  Do you have any advice on how to balance and advance two strong, demanding careers simultaneously?

JK: We are both scientists who need to be working and learning in our fields to be happy so we both must have careers. Period. In most cases (97%), the woman’s career is “sacrificed” for the family. In our family we took turns advancing in a way that meant we both could advance. We had explicit discussions about how both of our careers were equally valuable and important. Don’t wait until you are settled in a life partnership to have these discussions. For more on this see a blog on this topic.

Nicole Tarlton, Ph.D. Advisor and Co-Founder, BioAmp Diagnostics, Berkeley, CA.

NT: You are committed to enhancing collaboration across academia, pharma, and biotech. So, what are the best ways a small/resource-limited biotech startup can engage and interest academic and medical collaborators to participate in collaborative research?

JK: It’s all about the network. Meet as many people as you can and start developing relationships. People like to work with people they know or to whom they have been referred by trusted colleagues, so the more people you know, the more opportunities you will have. Business Development roles are hard to describe because much of what BD people do is this relationship discovery and nurturing.

Roslin Thoppil, Ph.D. Scientific Program Administrator, American Association for Cancer Research, Philadelphia, PA.

RT: What kind of prejudices, if any, did you face in your training and jobs? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?

JK: I was lucky that I never experienced overt sexual harassment, but I have many stories of when I experienced obvious bias due to my gender. Like the time my boss asked me if I “really wanted that promotion because it might not be a good time with two small kids.” He apologized when he realized how awful this was (I was already doing the job I was asking to be promoted to). Or the time I went to a meeting with a new group and I was the only woman there. The leader didn’t bother to introduce me and all assembled were visibly surprised when I chimed in to comment on the science - they had all assumed I was a secretary. Those are quick and easy stories, but I have many more complicated ones where it was clear my gender resulted in my not being given opportunities or recognition. I didn’t always realize what was going on at the time. I guess I just did my best work, looked for supportive colleagues and sponsors, and found roles where I could be respected for my talents and myself in total. Don’t work for jerks. You deserve better, seek workplaces and bosses that are fair an equitable.

Lakshmi Sundararajan, Ph.D.  Genomic Scientist,Nashville Biosciences, Nashville, TN.

LS: Did you face any prejudice from your colleagues in academia when you left academia for industry? If so, how did you overcome that? 

JK: Perhaps I was just clueless or perhaps because my direct advisor was supportive of my move to pharma, I didn’t notice or feel any prejudice. I knew an academic career was not for me and I needed a job that would cover the cost of daycare for my newborn (I had no plans to spend more time at home). I went from fun at the bench in academia to a fascinating job at the bench in pharma. I don’t understand the angst among current trainees because you’re all adults by the time you are in graduate school and you should pursue a career path in which you see yourself as successful.

Dr. Muthukumar Balasubramaniam is a senior postdoctoral fellow at Meharry Medical College, Nashville, Tennessee. His research interests are in Molecular Virology and has several primary author publications in leading journals. Dr. Balasubramaniam is an active executive Editor at JoLS, Journal of Life Sciences, a postdoc community initiative. He also serves as a Corresponding editor at SoLS, and had the opportunity to invite women scientists from various research institutions to pose a question to Dr. Kamens. Muthu can be reached at [email protected]