Career Paths in TB Research: Technical and Academic Paths

By: Mbali Nondumiso Mkhonza

The Working Group on New TB Vaccines (WGNV) Early Career Researcher Network (ECR Network) recently held the first two virtual discussion sessions in a series on career paths in TB research.

Technical/Non-Academic Path

On the 15th of February, Dr. Mike Leipold, a Research and Development Scientist at Stanford University, tackled the often-pondered question of “if not academia, then what?”. The discussion session gave quite an interesting angle to this and highlighted the journey that led Dr. Leipold to where he is now, as one of the key engineers specializing in mass cytometry at Stanford University.

With a background in chemistry, Dr. Leipold completed his graduate studies with a focus on enzyme kinetics and DNA repair enzymes. During this time, he worked as a teaching assistant, which exposed him to aspects of academia and professorship – more so, the teaching and grant writing processes. This experience led him to realize that the “traditional” academic path was not one that he wished to follow. His next postdoc in Canada granted Dr. Leipold the opportunity to work closely with the team developing the CyTOF mass cytometer. His integral involvement with this team came in handy and gave Dr. Leipold the upper hand when Stanford University, who at the time had purchased the fourth cytometer in the world, advertised for an engineer to operate the instrument.

Dr. Leipold’s current work involves supporting research projects at Stanford University, but also expands to assisting external teams with their work. This has allowed him to have collaborations with both academics and with various external corporations who make use of the services and expertise that are offered. He noted that this expertise is not only applicable to one specific field –there are different topics and diseases where Dr. Leipold’s services can be valuable. In “traditional” academic careers, one often zooms in and becomes established in a specific niche, which can be great if your passion lies in that area, but for individuals that want to apply their knowledge and skills in different areas, this less “traditional” path may be just what they need

During the engaging Q&A session, Dr. Leipold highlighted that the path he had chosen enabled him to find a balance between doing what he really wanted to do, while still enjoying the perks and excitement of working on research projects in the academic space. This versatility is what allowed him to apply what he had learnt in different spaces.

Academic Path

Our next session, held on March 30th, was a discussion with Dr. Alan Sher on how to start up and maintain a successful research group, including managing the complex diversity of trainees while balancing the requirements and expectations of being a group leader. Dr. Sher has a background in biomedical research and has an extensive career which includes 43 years at the National Institute of Health (NIH).

Starting off, Dr. Sher highlighted some of the things he found to be rewarding during his biomedical research path, which include the creativity that is encouraged, the exploration and exchange of ideas with colleagues from around the world, work that is not routine or highly repetitive, and the fostering of international collaborations (and yes, the travelling that often comes with this as definitely a perk!). One of the challenges of this path however is, as most people in research know, the competitiveness of this field and the constant demand to ensure that you have sufficient funding not only to support your research but also the staff involved.

At the core of this session was the topic of establishing your own lab, which involves many aspects, such as collaborating, time management, confidence in yourself, and adapting to the demands of a career in science. He stressed the importance of doing your due diligence and ensuring that the topic you are investigating is well thought out and you have done the necessary background literature search needed to ask clear and original questions.

Another interesting point Dr. Sher raised is ensuring that you balance being a collaborator and establishing yourself as an investigator. When engaging in collaborative projects it is important that the relationship is mutually beneficial and that you receive the credit that is due to you! Hand-in-hand with this is being able to establish your own research path outside of your supervisor or academic mentor.

Lastly, Dr. Sher touched on considerations when it comes to hiring new trainees, which include motivating the applicants on the importance of the work YOUR lab does, as well as the opportunities that your field holds in both advancing their careers and serving humanity.

When it comes to choosing a career path, both Dr. Leipold and Dr. Sher shared a common view on a few things – making sure that you are passionate about the work you do (i.e not just view it as simply a job), that you have a personal reason for your chosen path, and ensuring that you find and maintain a work-life balance that suits you. In both discussions, there was an unmistakable need to ensure that you connect with what you do – whether it be branching off a little from the stereotypical academic path or establishing yourself knee-deep in academia.

The WGNV ECR Network thanks Dr. Leipold and Dr. Sher for sharing their perspectives in these two sessions, and the participants for the engaging questions and discussions during the sessions.

Stay tuned for future events in this series!


  • Mbali Nondumiso Mkhonza

    Mbali Nondumiso Mkhonza is a third year PhD student at Stellenbosch University, with her research focusing on the role of MHC-related protein 1 (MR1)-restricted T (MR1T) cells in tuberculosis disease progression. Having being part of various student representative committees during her postgraduate studies, she has gained a keen interest in engaging on issues relevant to her community and has recently expanded this to include science communication, with a specific focus on TB advocacy.

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