Judy Prasad completed her PhD in psychology (behavioral neuroscience) in 2014, focusing on the thalamus’ role in cognitive processes. She is currently the Operations & Program Manager of KickStart Venture Services at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Q: Let’s start with the big, general question: why did you decide to do a PhD?
I have a different trajectory from most PhD students because I started working in industry early on, as an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto. I was originally in a new co-op program, but the only positions offered at the time were administrative. So instead, I asked a faculty member if I could volunteer at his company, since I knew the paid positions would be infrequent. He then offered to hire me in a part-time position, performing behavioral neuroscience research at his contract research organization. I was so lucky to have that opportunity; this was the summer after my second year of undergrad.
Having that opportunity made me realize that while I loved using my skills as a technician, in order to choose what experiments to run, I needed further credentials. Initially I considered a Master’s degree, but the founder of the company suggested that because of my passion for research, I should consider getting a PhD. So my role at his company, the research I was doing, and my honours thesis led me to the path of getting a PhD.
Q: How was grad school different from the company?
Well, the company I worked for at that time was quite small, only four to five people performing research. And then I was my PhD advisor’s first PhD student. It was an interesting shift from research being very detail-oriented and rigorous and focused on reproducibility, because a company had paid for the contract, to research feeling more like the Wild West: I didn’t have to initial every amendment I made, or tightly regulate all documentation for experiments.
And in terms of research, I was a behavioural neuroscientist by training in the company, but I worked with cats—it’s very rare to get to work with a model either than non-human primates or rodents. A big part of my thesis for the lab I did my PhD in, however, was to do anatomical tracing, which was challenging because I didn’t have any training as an anatomist. We were the first lab in Canada to do this kind of tracing, so in addition to being the first graduate student in the lab, me and my advisor, we built our laboratory together.
Because of delays in getting the tracer and importing the virus, my experiment was stalled for a year. But we realized that I would have to go to the US for training at the Center for Neuroanatomy with Neurotropic Viruses. And another professor at UdeM helped me learn some obscure software I had to use. I feel really lucky that I had great training and mentorship.
I remember feeling like I didn’t want to ask for help because I felt like I was becoming a burden. “Why can’t I just figure it out?” But then I realized—and this only became more clear to me after I left academia—without the cooperation of others, it is not only a detriment to you, but to the project, to the research. So I’ve learned to become more comfortable with asking for help, in part because my current position requires networking and engaging with others who can provide feedback and guidance to taking the next steps for whatever my objective may be.
Q: What were some of the challenges during your PhD?
Well, when you are your adviser’s first PhD, there are a lot of unknowns. You have to be really good at communicating and understanding. And that’s something that we had to journey towards together. And I wish that I had fostered a connection with a wider group of mentors outside of my committee earlier. For example, we didn’t have any postdocs until maybe my third or fourth year, but that kind of relationship is so invaluable. I would have appreciated perspectives from someone who had a bit more experience but wasn’t yet at the level of a PI. And so, those relationships are vital, because when it’s just you and your advisor, it can feel like you’re in a holding pattern at times. But, when you broaden your group of people that you can learn from and work with, it becomes easier to manage.
One challenging experience was a particularly difficult committee meeting. I know we’ve all had them, but I remember thinking, going in, that I had done great work and I was ready to start running other experiments in parallel. And then the committee members disagreed, suggesting that I get an undergrad to do the tedious work. It felt like there was something missing in our communication, in their understanding of the degree of detail needed for the experiments, and I realized they wouldn’t support my plans for parallel experiments: I’d have to do things in sequence.
I do think that that was when I learned an important lesson, which is that I need to be able to accept the fact that there are things I cannot have any control over when it comes to my research. I think most graduate students love their thesis because they are the ones driving it, and it can be somewhat disconcerting to suddenly be told, no, actually you can’t do things that way, even though you’re the one who created the project. Running the project, writing the project, you love that project. So that was very disappointing. It was challenging. I made it through the experience. But as someone who is quite forthright with their opinions, during that meeting, I basically was like, “There is no one else that can do this but me. And if this is what you want me to do, I understand that, but know that I will be delayed and there is no alternative to that.”
Even if you choose every person on that committee and you feel good about them, there will come a point where you disagree, and ultimately, we are the ones who are trainees. But I did feel really lucky when it was time to defend; committee members obviously ask tough questions, but they all really supported me. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to learn from them and grow with them.
Q: Can you tell us about your current job and how you got there?
You contacted me during a time of transition [spring 2020]—I’ll be starting a new role with The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in a couple weeks. I’m currently the Director of Operations for a University of Chicago biotech spinout, a company that was founded by a UChicago professor with UChicago technology.
I was recruited for this job while I was a postdoc at UChicago. I was looking for more tangible ways of developing my skills beyond research beyond just “picking them up,” so I went to UChicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, where someone recruited me for the startup.
When I was recruited for that job, I realized I would learn how to lead people, to manage operations, to fundraise. I was getting all that experience I didn’t get as a postdoc, and it was going to help me figure out the next steps in my career…which wouldn’t be in academia.
One thing about biotech in the US is that only some states and cities are equipped to handle the needs of a company like this. So I moved recently to North Carolina, where I have a network of people and resources to grow and develop the company. My day-to-day experience is varied, especially at this early stage; I might meet with an angel investor, write a grant, or call manufacturers.
Q: When did you decide to return to industry instead of pursuing academia?
I didn’t come into academia to become a professor, though my mentors told me that it could be a real option for me. I had both perspectives from various mentors. I did a postdoc because I felt I had unfinished business in terms of research, and I wanted to have more opportunities to gain different experiences. And my postdoc advisor was willing to give me a chance; he didn’t judge me for planning to go back to industry.
Q: One last question: is there one piece of advice that you wish you knew in grad school?
You’ll need more than a productive thesis to be a successful scientist. You need to build relationships with people to be as well-rounded a scientist as you can be. We owe it not just to ourselves, but to the scientific community at large, and the public, to be as collaborative and communicative as possible.
This interview took place in April 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.