The BRET Office of Career Development presents Alumni Spotlight, an interview with a former BRET PhD student or post-doc and written by a current BRET trainee. Hear how Vanderbilt has shaped an alumnus’s career path, skill set, and network, as well as what career advice they have to give.
To read other Alumni Spotlight articles, visit this page on the BRET Office of Career Development’s website.
Written by Rubin Baskir, Graduate Student, Department of Cell and Developmental Biology
Alumni serve as a lifeline for graduate and post-doctoral students. Alumni give advice to people who are at a crossroads in their careers and give back to the institution that helped them get their start. Despite being a recent graduate, Jud Schneider (PhD, 2010), has already left a legacy for Vanderbilt students. Currently, he serves as the Scientific Director of NextGxDx, as well as the chair of the Membership Committee of Life Science Tennessee. Working with Greg Digby, PhD, Tim Panosian, PhD, Tom Utley, PhD, Andy Rigby and Hannah Johnson, he helped found the TechVenture Challenge in 2011, an annual technology commercialization competition open to graduate and post-docs interested in entrepreneurial experience.
Rubin: What is NextGxDx?
Jud: We’re an online genetic testing marketplace, similar to Amazon.com or Expedia.com, but instead of listing books or flights or hotels, we list genetic tests that are from certified laboratories throughout the US. Our scientific team curates these genetic tests and provides clinicians with an easy format whereby they can search, compare and order that genetic testing through our site. The data we have says it takes clinicians, on average, 30 minutes to 2 hours to order a single test - between finding it and filling out forms – with our technology it takes about 60 to 90 seconds to order the same test.
Rubin: How did you begin working at your current job?
Jud: During graduate school and throughout my postdoc, I was involved heavily with Life Science Tennessee, which is the biotechnology trade organization in the state. A good friend of mine, Mark Harris, who worked with me on the Life Science Tennessee Graduate Alliance, eventually founded NextGxDx. He recruited me to help take over the scientific side of the company because he needed to focus more on managing the business itself. I came onboard in July of 2012 and have managed the bioinformatics department of the company and the data assets that we use to help clinicians choose the right genetic tests for a patient.
Rubin: How did you decide to move into entrepreneurship?
Jud: There are a lot of things about academia that are fascinating and the people there do great work. It’s an excellent career path; it just wasn’t for me. I was more interested in the applied side of scientific discovery, moving things from the bench to the bedside, understanding how to commercialize discoveries in the laboratory so that they reach a wider audience. That’s where my skill sets are most appropriate and also where my interests lie.
Rubin: What does a typical day look like?
Jud: In a start-up, there is no such thing as a typical day. It can range from anything to curating data, to managing relationships with external partners, to managing development initiatives, to maintaining our connections with the community, to sales, to investor relations – it just runs the gamut. No day is typical, which makes it very exciting and very fun.
Rubin: What do you enjoy most about your work?
Jud: The creative freedom and the team. If there’s a problem that we have, I can address it. I work with extremely fantastic, creative individuals and our team really works together to solve some really complicated problems. When you work with really fantastic people, it makes it fun to come to work.
Rubin: What is an important trait to have for the kind of work that you do?
Jud: You have to be not afraid to put yourself out there. You can’t be afraid to be confronted with someone telling you no, or someone giving you negative feedback. You have to be persistent.
Rubin: When did you attend Vanderbilt and what did you study?
Jud: I started gradate school in 2004. I finished my PhD in 2010 and continued a post-doc after that. My PhD was with David Miller and I studied the genetics of neurospecificity. My post-doc was with Marc Magnuson and I worked on cell reprogramming in the pancreas.
Rubin: What skills did you learn in David Miller’s lab as a grad student that transfers to the work that you do now?
Jud: David is very big on helping you develop as a person and not just a scientist. I knew early on that I didn’t want to take the academic route and David helped me develop my skill sets for a career outside of academia. We were dealing with a large amount of gene discovery, large data sets, massive amounts of information both through RNA-seq, RNA microarray analysis and gene sequencing, and even though I worked with only a subset of that information for my project, I really got my exposure to big data concepts working in his lab.David was also really big on developing both written and oral communication skills. He taught me a lot about how to manage my time effectively. He also gave me a lot of opportunities to develop my leadership and management skills.
Rubin: What did you learn in your post-doc career that applies to what you do now?
Jud: After I finished my PhD with David, I began working for Mark Magnuson, who was also an excellent mentor. Mark is a brilliant manager, not just of a lab, but also on the consortium level. He taught me more about the business side of science and also how to manage large teams effectively, as well as managing long-term, large-budget scientific projects. It also bears mentioning that I was involved in the Program for Developmental Biology very heavily in both graduate school and during my post-doc and I use the knowledge I gained from that program almost daily.
Rubin: Did you use any of the Office of Biomedical Research Education and Training’s (BRET) services in your graduate or post-graduate career?
Jud: The BRET office was really instrumental in helping found the TechVenture Challenge. Kim Petrie was also a valuable resource there. I continue to collaborate with her and the BRET office, even in my position outside of Vanderbilt simply because they’re excellent at what they do. I would encourage students to really utilize those resources.
Rubin: You founded the TechVenture Challenge?
Jud: Yes, there were many people involved but Tom Utley, Tim Panosian, Hannah Johnson, Andy Rigby, Greg Digby and I co-founded the program as a way to help bridge the gap between basic research and technology commercialization. Roger Chalkley was really helpful in getting that up and running and championed it internally. We wanted a forum to help students and faculty learn about the technology commercialization process, and thought using university developed intellectual property would be a fantastic resource.
Rubin: Could you talk for a couple of moments about your recent internship opportunities that you’ve started with the BRET office?
Jud: We’ve had an internship program at NextGxDx ever since I started with the company. Both Mark and I understood the value of internships and helping new graduate students and post-docs learn about what it’s like in the business world. During my post-doc, I did an internship with the Tennessee Technology Development Corporation, now Launch Tennessee, which is a non-for profit state economic development firm. I worked there for 3 or 4 months and it really gave me insight into what it means to work in a small team in a business environment.
Rubin: What is the state of biotechnology in Tennessee?
Jud: It’s actively growing. I’m actually on the board of Life Science Tennessee, which is the state biotech association. Students can join Life Science Tennessee as members for a $25 registration fee. That gives you access to a number of their networking events. I also encourage students to join the Graduate Alliance. Nashville is one of the health-care capitols of the world, so there’s quite a bit of activity around it. The biggest thing that graduate students and post-docs can do now is find out about opportunities through networking. There are people who have made careers in biotech in this area. There are plenty of opportunities; you just have to find them.
Rubin: What advice can you give to current graduate students?
Jud: Network. Network. Network. And that means both inside and out of science. Make it an active part of your career path. Utilize your friends, meet interesting people, meet people that work in a tangentially related field, meet people who are in your situation and have gone on to different careers. Seek out people to take to coffee and ask questions about what they’re doing and what they’re interested in and learn from the success of others. You have to network outside of where you’re comfortable. And you can discover some really fantastic and interesting things that way.
Rubin: Do you have one really good tip on how to network effectively?
Jud: Just do it. Dedicate two to three days a week to taking people to lunch and talk to them. Take people to coffee in the morning. Don’t be afraid to set up meetings and make it happen.