Research is the Only Thing Certain For Scientist on Verge of Graduation

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Sina Mohammadi sits at his desk, pouring over his biochemistry textbook-illuminated with a neon-green novelty night-light, shining the word BIOHAZARD across his face.

Grinning at his geek's toy, his face turns serious again-he knows that the real world looms ahead.

Mohammadi anticipates graduating from UC Berkeley this May with a degree in molecular and cellular biology, ready to take on the world.

Like many students in that field who do not want to pursue medicine, Mohammadi has a few options following graduation. He could either apply for graduate school, apply to work for a biotechnology company-or, what he ultimately hopes for, remaining at UC Berkeley and working as a research assistant in a university laboratory.

Mohammadi, who said he will eventually apply to graduate school, wants to take some time beforehand so that he can gain strong experience, both academically and professionally.

"(It's) an option that a lot of people take before going to graduate school," he said. "I think the experience is really important, having done practical hands-on work. I wanted to have more hands-on experience before going to graduate school."

Doing research during the past 18 months for Daniel Portnoy, a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cellular biology, has allowed Mohammadi to gain invaluable research skills that will surely help him no matter what track he chooses.

The job that Mohammadi most covets, however, is the research assistant position Portnoy's laboratory, which will be vacant soon.

Portnoy said that he highly values candidates who have had previous research experience in selecting a research assistant for his laboratory.

"Research experience is very important; it would play the role of identifying areas that interest them and getting a nice job," said Portnoy. "I look for the spark, that they have interest in my area, and that they have a reason for wanting to work in this area. I look for a two year commitment, a clear willingness to work hard, and a strong science background."

With such a strong research background, Mohammadi would seem to be a strong candidate for the position.

Should his coveted research assistant position not materialize as he hopes, Mohammadi said that starting in March he will apply to biotechnology companies, many of which are located in the San Francisco Bay Area.

"The Bay Area is one of the richest parts of the country (in biotechnology companies), there are at least three UC Berkeley professors who founded their own companies, and they hire Berkeley students readily." he said.

"It's a totally different environment than academic setting. It gives you breadth in your experiences. In a biotechnology company, the work you do is very profit-based. They give you so much money and you have to produce a result. It's not like in an academic setting where you're hanging out and having fun."

Corey Goodman, CEO and President of Renovis, Inc., a start-up biotechnology company based in South San Francisco, said that there are many opportunities in the corporate sector for applicants like Mohammadi-especially someone with previous research experience.

"Research is very important," said Goodman. "(It is) very important that someone has that experience. We encourage that-absolutely."

While still preferring to remain in academia, Mohammadi also notes the advantages of turning to the private sector-he said that most biotechnology firms will have a starting salary of $35,000 per year, at least $5,000 more than a beginning academic position would pay.

"A lot of people go to biotechnology, and they say that they'll be there for a year or two," he said. "It doesn't happen because they make more money, and it becomes tough to go to graduate school."

Realizing the importance of an advanced degree such as a doctorate, Mohammadi will likely only stay at any position for a few years before returning to formal studies. He said that advancement in any setting requires a master's or doctorate degree.

"In biotechnology companies, when you start out, you're an assistant, and you can advance to some extent, but then you need more degrees to get to the scientists' level," he said. "A great perk is that (with certain companies), if you work for them for so many years, they will pay for your graduate school."

Regardless of what his first post-graduation position will be, he knows that uncertainty is part of any research job-and he enjoys that.

"The sense of not knowing in research-you're never really sure where you're going, and so there is all a sense of uncertainty in your work," he said.

"If you can't deal with that, research isn't for you. You're constantly doing brand new work, you can never be sure that what you're doing is actual fact. But as long as you really like it, it can't be a total waste of time. Working in an environment like that is refreshing and no two days are really the same."


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