Interview with Scientist and BenchFly founder, Alan Marnett

alan

What is Benchfly?

Launched in late July, BenchFly is a web-based resource and holistic, everyday guide for the entire career of a scientist. We’re engaging and educating life and physical scientists with video protocols, peer-to-peer sharing, product info and science-life tools. Our mission is to support and celebrate the researcher’s life in and out of the lab to perpetuate the viability of the craft and keep scientists in science.

You can check out a video of our mission here.

“Chemist, Neuroscientist and Founder. . .” please tell us about where it all started and how it progressed.

I think it started in the kitchen when I was a kid- inspired by baking soda and vinegar. Growing up, I always gravitated towards math and science because they just made more sense to me. However, when I got to college, I decided it was time to see what else was out there. So I spent the first couple of years far from the laboratory. Eventually, I realized I just wasn’t cut out to perform Shakespeare or debate the meaning of self. I’m a science guy.

In fact, I’m a third generation chemist. I guess I inherited the chemistry gene from my father and grandfather. I grew up in and around the lab and it was certainly a powerful influence in the way my career evolved.

Whether studying organic chemistry at Trinity University, chemical biology at UCSF or neuroscience at MIT, I’ve always found the interface of fields to be very exciting. I started in synthetic organic chemistry, moved to biochemistry and virology and ended up in neuroscience. Now, I guess I’m taking all of that and mixing it with the internet. Maybe I should toss in a little baking soda. . .

What was the best aspect of lab life?

I really enjoy performing experiments and learning new techniques. To me, the process of discovery is very exciting- and of course, so is the discovery itself.

As an undergraduate, I worked with an incredible postdoc, Dr. Chad Peterson, who had great hands- every reaction he setup seemed to work. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was the beneficiary of the many tips and tricks he’d learned and developed over the years. Those techniques gave me the skills and confidence to keep going in science. Unfortunately, whether a student learns that kind of knowledge is pretty random- it depends on the lab, the project and the mentor.

A close second would be the huge paycheck. (Just seeing if you’re still paying attention ...)

What didn’t work so well?

The process of learning new experiments. Unfortunately, when I graduated from college, Chad did not go with me… I was on my own and found out quickly that not everyone cares enough to take the time to teach the ins and outs of an experiment. When learning a new technique, I always found it frustrating to have to find someone who knew the technique, contact them, coordinate schedules with them and then hope that you took good notes when they showed you how to do the technique. Once you got through all of that, it still wasn’t clear if you were learning a good technique or not. I always felt there had to be a better way for scientists to learn laboratory techniques that wasn’t dependent on their location or surroundings.

My experience with Chad is really what I’m trying to recreate with BenchFly. I want scientists to feel that they have a mentor and partner in the lab committed to their success that can serve as a wealth of information to help guide them whether they’re just starting out in science, already in the trenches of grad school or cresting the climb in a postdoc. But unlike Chad, BenchFly never needs to eat or sleep . . . so we’re always there to help.

What is the most important quality in your opinion for a scientist?

A few qualities come to mind, but if I had to pick only one, I think I’d go with honesty. The damage done by a single dishonest scientist can be incredible. Not only will people waste time and money trying to reproduce bad work, but horrible stories of scientific misconduct always seem to garner the attention of mainstream media. So it hurts both our progress and our image. Bad and Bad.

How easy was it for you to “transform” from a scientist into an entrepreneur?

Well, if we’re talking transformation, I’d say I’m still in the larval stage . . .

It’s definitely not been easy, but there are a lot of parallels between being a scientist and an entrepreneur. In science, we identify a problem that interests us and that we think, if answered, will be a significant contribution to science/health/society/etc . . . Then we go about systematically figuring out how to solve the problem. What experiments can we run, what reagents do we need, what collaborators might help.

As an entrepreneur, I’ve taken a very similar approach to identifying and addressing a problem. In fact, I think scientists make great entrepreneurs in part because of our critical thinking skills.

Most importantly, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have a fantastic group of mentors and advisers that I turn to for advice and guidance (like a good P.I.—to follow the science analogy). As with any successful scientist, it’s important to have support as an entrepreneur.

What are the hard parts?

Not knowing what decisions are critical is one of the hardest parts. After nearly 15 years at the bench, there is an ease and confidence in performing experiments that comes from experience. You know exactly which steps can kill the experiment. Starting out as an entrepreneur, it can be very difficult to know which decisions may end up setting you back. Once again, I’m incredibly grateful for my advisors—and the magic 8-ball . . .

What was the driving force behind BenchFly? When did the idea come to mind?

The idea was really born out of the pain of my own research experience. Although I had a great time at the bench, there are certainly things that could be changed that would make research better. BenchFly is my attempt to provide some of these resources for scientists and to support scientists lives both in and out of the lab.

An important part of the mission is to reinvent the image of the scientist. The pocket protector is dead! Scientists are some of the funniest, most intelligent, inquisitive, and generous people I know. The idea that we’re some socially inept group of creepy psychos locked up in the basement of buildings is outdated and ridiculous. Our image has profound implications for the way the public, and future generations, view our profession.

What has changed in your daily routine after starting BenchFly compared to your daily lab routine?

There’s been a complete inversion of my daily routine. Basically, anytime I used to be on my feet doing experiments, I’m now in front of a computer. Anytime I used to be checking my email in lab, I’m now standing up to stretch my legs. It’s been a bit of a shock to the system. And by “system” I mean the number of chins I have.

We are seeing various sites now offering video content for scientists- what’s your take on that?

I think video is the natural progression for all aspects of life. Video cameras are everywhere- in phones, iPods and computers. It’s not hard to imagine a world in the not-to-distant future where every second of everyone’s life could be recorded and uploaded. Of course, most of it would be more painful to watch than a Yanni concert, but the technology is basically here.

In science, video is such a powerful medium because it mimics the way we naturally learn and work in the lab. In an educational setting it’s particularly powerful given that the techniques and instruction can be watched repeatedly, on demand. Since instructional videos bring the expertise to you, it means you no longer have to be in “the right lab” to learn the proper techniques. It democratizes science.

What differentiates you from video protocol sites?

BenchFly is also different from other video sites because in addition to sharing insider knowledge we’re not afraid to have a point of view: We’re trying to knock down some of the stereotypes that learning science has to be serious and boring. I like that BenchFly represents and showcases to the world that science can be fun, irreverent and exciting. There’s a video on the site showing a grad student trying to eliminate static from a scale. Non-traditional science to say the least… but very valuable information.

Another one of my favorite videos on the site shows a trick for turning a solvent squirt bottle into a silica gel dispenser. It’s outstanding. If you’re a chemist, you know you can feel the years falling off the end of your life every time you open the drum of silica gel and get buried in the carcinogenic cloud of silica dust. But in 30 seconds, you learn a clever solution to the problem that you wouldn’t have otherwise known unless you were in the lab with this person. That’s the power of BenchFly as a resource to scientists. We’re helping pass insider knowledge to outsiders who want the inside scoop.

BenchFly is also more than just a video protocol site. While video is a main method to supporting scientists on the site, we also have two daily blog streams that address different aspects of a researcher’s life. Flyceum is the blog channel that focuses on professional and industry-wide issues facing scientists today. Some of our popular posts address topics such as: 10 Ways to be a Successful Scientist, How to Behave around the Boss, and Why Did I Become a Scientist. It’s been really great to see dialogue budding between scientists from all over and at different stages in the career path share their insights on things that affect all of us.

Our other blog channel, BenchLife, is more of a survival guide for balancing life at the bench with . . . wait for it . . . having a life. We’ve posted everything from talking about the challenges vs, benefits of owning a pet in grad school and quickie meal recipes to fashion etiquette for scientists and best practices for organizing your life.

BenchFly is synced with Facebook, Twitter and IntenseDebtate so it’s easy for scientists to comment and vote in our frequent “According to Scientists…” polls. The polls serve as a temperature reading on the scientific community’s view on a wide range of serious and (hopefully) amusing topics. Did you know that according to scientists the most requested lab superpower is the ability to control the outcome of every experiment?

We want to promote that scientists have a point of view and can tie science into daily life in a way that can make you laugh in the middle of a tough day in lab.

What are your expectations for BenchFly? Where it is going to be in ten years?

One day, we’ll be able to think of anything scientific – be it a protocol, a paper or a legendary lab prank, search for it, and find a video about it. In ten years, I hope BenchFly is that site for scientists. I hope we’re actively engaging and supporting scientists worldwide. We’ve got some exciting announcements coming up very soon and some big dreams so let’s revisit this conversation in 2019 and let’s see how things turned out! In the meantime, please check us out at www.benchfly.com.