Weslee Glenn, PhD in Chemistry, Talks Management, Mentoring, and Transitioning into Biotech

September 24, 2020 | by Frank Hidalgo

Ahead of his talk with UC Berkeley PhD students on September 29, Beyond Academia’s Frank Hidalgo sat down (virtually) with Provivi senior scientist, Dr. Weslee Glenn to discuss his journey from academia to biotech, and the management and mentoring skills he’s learned along the way.

Weslee Glenn received his PhD in Chemistry from MIT in 2013

Congratulations on your new role, Weslee. How is it going?

Thank you! I love it! I have been in this role for about 3 months. I enjoy helping younger scientists solve their problems. Never a dull moment, that’s for sure. Really, I couldn’t be more thrilled.

You conducted your PhD at MIT and then a post doc at Caltech. In 2017 you started working at Provivi and you have been there for about 3.5 years now. When did you decide you wanted to leave academia?

I decided to try something new towards the middle of my post doc. From college through most of my post doc, I was on the road to becoming a faculty member. Around the start of 2016, I began exploring other career options such as law, policy and biotech. Ultimately, I decided to take the biotech track because it seemed like a place I could solve interesting problems, work in a fast-paced manner and deliver something tangible—like a product to a farmer, for example. Notably, during my time at Provivi, I’ve also gotten to work on our intellectual property team as a technologist. And during my free time, I also volunteer with my local environmental advisory commission. So I suppose I get to dabble in law and policy too. Challenges exist in multiple settings and on multiple scales. That said, problems in academia seem to have a different character and a longer arc than in biotech. Of course, I’m speaking generally. Academia is important. Many of my academic counterparts (for whom I have a ton of admiration and respect) are working on truly groundbreaking research right now. I don’t subscribe to the idea of a wrong way or a right way to carve out a career.

Do you feel that the slower pace of academia held you back during your PhD or post doc?

No. Not at all. I really enjoyed my time as a graduate student and as a postdoc. Those years were crucial in my scientific development! They helped me learn to think through problems, master concepts and build my confidence. I usually recommend people do a postdoc if they can. My postdoc really helped me get my sea legs.

How was the transition itself?

From a technical standpoint, what I have been doing at Provivi is similar to what I did during my time at MIT and Caltech. However, the main difference is how we approach the work. In biotech, we are subject to commercial imperatives and pressures. If a project is not giving you something useful from a commercial or intellectual property standpoint, you typically just move on. That was hard for me at the beginning. As a scientist, you can’t help but want to look deeper into the problem to figure out the why or to find some silver lining. Budget constraints, time crunches and commercial imperatives often prevent those endeavors, though. Don’t misunderstand me. We still do quite a bit of troubleshooting, but the scale and character are much different than in academia.

If you could go back in time, what would you have done differently?

If I knew then what I know now, I would have started reading patents in addition to academic articles. Reading patent literature helps you see where your competitors are and where you need to innovate. If I were a grad student or postdoc interviewing for biotech jobs, I would read the pertinent patents to understand where the companies might be headed and where I might fit in. As a hiring manager, I’m usually impressed with people who come prepared having read our patents.

That seems like good advice. Going back to your tenure at Provivi, how is your day-to-day?

My new role requires me to mentor younger scientists, devise and carry out project plans and manage our team. My director, who was been a wonderful mentor, helped me prepare for this role. For example, he challenged me to develop new tools to improve communication between team members. So, in the months before the pandemic, I created and ran a “dish and discuss” series, where we summarized goals of the past two weeks, discussed in-depth the aspects that were not going well and actively started troubleshooting experiments.

What is the "dish" part about?

(laughter) It’s a double entendre. Dish is a play on the slang term meaning to “spill the dirt” or tell me what’s going on. I also made a recipe every week. It was usually pretty simple. I’m not a great cook (though I love watching cooking shows). It was just meant to be fun. The team didn’t complain about my cooking—at least not to my face. I understand the power imbalance at play here, though.

Besides your career, have you done any other leadership activities that helped you become who you are today?

I’m very lucky to be on this trajectory. I know not everyone has the same access to opportunities. So, I have worked really hard since college to level the playfield. When I was in college, I volunteered as a chemistry tutor five to ten hours every week. During grad school, I mentored elementary and middle school kids on weekends. During my postdoc, I participated in conferences, panels and other outreach programs to reach underserved places and people that lack opportunity. I currently serve on the Diversity and Inclusion Committee at my company now.

One moment that really stands out is co-developing a workshop with Prof. Cathy Drennan to identify and mitigate stereotype threat, which causes many brilliant students to feel like imposters. I think the workshop is still required training for all the teaching assistants in the School of Science at MIT. I’m really proud of that work. I’ve had so many great mentors in my life, and I’m so fortunate. I try to give back in any way I can.

Wow! You've done a lot for your community! It seems like your experience has helped you be a good team leader at Provivi

Well I’d like to think so. You should probably ask my teammates for their take, though. (Laughter) Outreach has helped me learn how to get the best out of others and—more importantly—how to give my best. We all stand to benefit by engaging in outreach.

How do you think Beyond Academia could contribute towards increasing diversity and leveling the playfield?

I’m very excited to learn about some of the things going on in your club. So many smart and capable college students are poor and lack access. Many community college students, for example, are interested in science but live in abject poverty. They could never dream of attending scientific conferences. One thing that’s come up in my circles is the idea of progressive pricing for conferences. With the pandemic raging, we’ve all had to think creatively. Now is the perfect time to be more inclusive for conferences occurring on video platforms.

I like that idea; we should totally do that! We are so grateful that you agreed to be part of the first speaker series event. I am looking forward to talk to you again on the 29th.

Thanks, Frank! The pleasure’s all mine. I’m looking forward to sharing with your club.

Weslee Glenn will be joining Beyond Academia on September 29 as the first guest in our new speaker series. For more information and to RSVP, CLICK HERE.

Frank Hidalgo is a 5th year Chemical Biology PhD student at UC Berkeley