Idella Yamben, Ph.D.

Idella Yamben, Ph.D.

From Academia to Business Development. Idella Yamben, PhD is currently the Program Manager for the Center for Technology Commercialization (CTC) at UW-Extension. In this role, she administers the CTC micro-grants and coordinates outreach activities to assist technology entrepreneurs in commercializing their innovations. Since graduate school, Dr. Yamben has had a passion for mentoring and training students interested in scientific careers. She developed and managed a mentoring program for undergraduates in the life sciences in collaboration with faculty and staff at the UW-Madison. Curious about career trajectories in the sciences, Mrs. Yamben took a position as a scientific recruiter for Kelly Scientific Resources. Here, she staffed entry to senior management positions for a variety of scientific companies within Wisconsin. In this role, she also managed the 2012 Career Connection program for the 2012 BioForward Vision Summit and served on the Future Scientist Internship program committee for Kelly Scientific representing the East Coast and Midwest regions. Dr. Yamben continues to mentor scientists in early career transitions and has had the opportunity to present at the Medical College of Wisconsin, University of Arkansas Medical College, and the 2011 BioForward Career Connection program.  Mrs. Yamben earned a BS in biology from University of Chicago and a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology from UW-Madison. 

Conducted and contributed by Brian | February 2014

“Take advantage of opportunity. Even if it seems like it is not something anybody else would do, or if people are nay saying or saying it is a step in the wrong direction for your career. Do what you do, for you.”

Listen to the conversation podcast below (player should appear shortly).


Featured songs: "Bad Kingdom" by Moderat and "Diamond Lightning" by Minus the Bear

Conversation Highlights

[When exploring career options] “People generally think that their options are limited to staying in academia or going into industry. [It was presented as if] those were the only two options. I did not know what this other world looked like. I did not know any of this stuff because I was so academic-career focused.

[Upon returning from her immersion in industry and networking via the Minority Fellows Program] “I found my career-finder friend. We exposed ourselves to a lot of different things [and attended events such as] Biotech Happy Hour. Having a friend who was there to challenge me and provide a safe space to talk about the experience [was important]. We participated in the Wisconsin Entrepreneurial Bootcamp together. From there, we decided to do the Burrill Business Plan Competition together. Again, all of these things exposed me more and more to what the elements of business were and [allowed me to] become more comfortable with moving into this world.”

“When it was time to graduate, I started applying to all these jobs. People were responding, but telling me ‘No’ because I was overqualified, or under qualified, or that it was not a fit. I was so discouraged. [I was confused because] as a scientist, you go into a new situation and it is your job to figure it out. You read, you talk to people, and you figure it out.  [As a result,] I thought I could apply those same skills to a new job, but wondered why people would not give me a chance. And so, another lesson learned was that you really have to find something that is a fit for you. [I knew that] I really did not want to be a bench scientist anymore, so of course it would not have been a good fit.”

[Through her work as a recruiter with Kelly Scientific Resources and as a committee member for their Future Scientists Internship Program] “I learned what the job world looks like, not just in life sciences, but in a variety of different scientific areas, and what they look like across the country. I gained more information about what money means, what job titles means, what businesses need to do for their bottom line, what that means for the employees, and what it means for me to be continuously employable in this world. Thinking back, I was so naïve to the whole world of what it takes to be hired.

“In my current position, working at the CTC, I have a new perspective of what small business looks like, what it takes to be a competitive small business, what resources are out there, and how difficult the landscape really is for a small business.”

[On how her adviser felt about her career interests] “I did have a conversation and it did not work out well. [I am the type of person with] a personality focused on doing what I think is right for my career. I am very stubborn in this way. For example, I mentored students throughout my graduate career all the way up to my thesis defense and my PI was on board with this. I am also very organized and understand what needs to be done. From my adviser’s point of view, while I was setting up the mentoring program and when I was doing some ‘non-industry’ things outside of the lab, she did not say anything to me because I was getting things done. My goal was to get done and graduate. In some of my conversations with my committee and adviser, there was a sense that if you are not going to be in academia, then you are not going to do these things as rigorously and a feeling that you are not good enough to be in this realm.” 

[On pursuing opportunities outside of academia] “I had an opportunity to be involved in some independent market research for an individual that I met through the WEB program. I remember talking to my adviser, ad hoc, saying this was something I wanted to do and look into and that it would not take time away from the lab. I wanted to make her aware that this was an area I wanted to spend time in, even though I would have pursued it anyway on my nights and weekends. I remember her looking at me with this blank stare, getting flustered and shaking her head no at me saying that that my productivity is what fuels her grants. I thought – well we need to get some papers out! What do you mean about your productivity? If I wait for you, I will never get anything done. This led to knowing that I need to do what I need to do and I will do it on the side on my time. All she needs to know is that my papers are getting written, experiments are getting done and that my work is getting done in the lab. There was no understanding of my goals or desires and no encouragement. People start to realize that not everyone can go into academia and we need to find ways to encourage people to look outside – there is a bottleneck. This was my mindset.”

“When you get your job out of school – it is not a career, it is a job. 20 years from now, you may have developed a career. It is never too late to redirect or turn around.”

[Lessons learned about what companies are looking for] “You need to have skills to get a job. You must understand what these skills mean, not just soft skills, but also technical skills. It is a combination of these that make you competitive for a job.”

[On the troubles of landing her first job] “The error I made before is that I was trying to fit myself into a box.”

“Companies are looking to make money. Making money influences everything that you do. This has a big impact especially during hiring. If you do not have a person that has the skills needed to hit the ground running – you will not get hired. [However, this may be different] if you have a really good network with someone that can speak on your behalf and say that you can hit the ground running." 

“Because of the way our economic climate is right now, it means that money is funneled in different ways than it has been in the past. This means that what worked for someone who transitioned into industry in 2005 is going to be way different than someone in 2013. It is also important to understand the way the money flows. This hits the R&D departments hard because it is expensive to do R&D. Thus, if a company has an opportunity to outsource their R&D, that influences the types of job that you can get or how you will work.”

“It is also important to understand the marketplace and know that one needs to be marketable in the areas they live in. For example, [one must understand the landscape of] what types of jobs exist.”

“When people are taking that step out they think about it in terms of a career. If I take a step out and I am not a patent lawyer or project manager by title, what does it mean? Titles mean something to people, but that is not necessarily the case in industry. It is more about the skills that go into the title. [Thus,] if you do not have the skills that go into the position, do not think worse or not of yourself. It is an opportunity to develop those skills to get into that area.

Most importantly, the biggest lesson I learned was – what does the money really mean. Companies need to pay a salary and as a result, you have a particular value to the company. I have seen so many people who had worked for a company for 5 years or so and then [hit as the] company downsized. You have all these skills and credentials and experience, but the company downsized and there is no other company that has a need for your skill set and now you don’t have a job. It doesn’t matter what you title is or how much money you were making."

“The diversity of skills is important. Some people would pay the most exorbitant salaries for someone to come in, but it would only be for a year. The company hired them to do one thing for one year, and then, there is no need once it is done because they decided to move on to something else. When people get paid that money, there is a particular value the company expects. Based on that, you have to ask what you are giving up to get that money. It is important to always have some savings.”

Retool and get a new set of skills that are marketable. Always live well below your means so that you can constantly transition and pick up new skills along the way.

[On staying competitive inside and outside of academia] “Follow the money, and money follows diversification so, diversify!"