Magazine Article | May 13, 2012

Scientific Leadership: What They Never Taught You In Grad School

Source: Life Science Leader

By Ken Stuart, Ph. D.

As I was building Seattle BioMed from a handful of researchers in a strip mall in a Seattle suburb to a world-class facility filled with 400 of the brightest and most compassionate people in the world, I learned a few things — concepts about scientific leadership that I was never taught in grad school.

Typically, in scientific careers, you anticipate there will be a progression through the ranks that requires the combination of knowledge and technology to make new discoveries. However, one quickly finds that some of the most important factors are practical, and that leading a scientific organization requires facing very basic challenges. These obstacles include the acquisition of resources as well as making decisions on what you are actually going to do (and, importantly, what you should do) and converting these into systematic plans. Then, there’s the need to address the basics of developing and sustaining a complex infrastructure and operations.

As organizations grow and develop, many of the sought-after discoveries are not so much scientific but rather discoveries of issues, problems, and challenges that are standing in the way of those research breakthroughs. These issues, ranging from matters of personnel to space to funding, need to be solved daily. They cannot be ignored lest they fester; rather, it is best to be systematic and proactive because it is much more efficient than putting out fires.

A key to scientific success is bringing together the best in the field and giving them the opportunity to work together under one roof with the best tools and technologies. Through the years, the collaborative nature of science has become more prominent and more expected. No longer is science a singular exercise of one person in one lab, but an interconnected activity that reaches across lab benches and even across organizations, bringing together scientists from around the world.

However, true success in any scientific organization is based not just on the caliber of the researchers, but on the support system that is built around them. It is just as important to have a keen administrative team — including operations, facilities, information technology, human resources, external affairs, and finance — as it is to have world-class scientists. And, making sure that you identify, hire, and retain those with the right skill sets, as well as the right fit for your organization’s unique culture, is equally important.

In scientific research, the management of science is often less to put constraints on these activities than to create opportunities, enable activities, and, most importantly, regularly question the directions that are chosen. Leadership runs through an organization from top to bottom, and providing opportunities and responsibilities for growth within an organization is very healthy. Growth will help people in the organization develop and stretch while creating an environment of success for both individuals and the organization.

Leadership Skills
Perhaps most important is the growth of leadership skills. Everyone in an organization should be in transition to some degree. In a dynamic and healthy-functioning organization, as people gain experience, their skill sets should be applied in different ways. Our organization thrives on healthy transitions. For example, the project manager for our BioQuest Academy, Seattle BioMed’s hands-on summer immersion program for high school juniors, is a Ph.D. who was formerly one of our malaria vaccine researchers. By giving her room to grow and stretch, she’s found a new way to apply her expertise, leadership skills, and passion.

Typically, in career progression for a scientist, the scope of opportunities is narrow but broadens over time. Scientists should be encouraged to reach out beyond their comfort zones to try something new. Developing skills in public speaking or advocacy, for example, can be enriching.

In the 35 years I’ve led Seattle BioMed, I find there are three critical areas for success: financial management, communication, and transparency. You may think these three areas wouldn’t necessarily be the strong suit for most scientists, and I’d likely agree with you. A key is surrounding yourself with people who have expertise in these fields and learning from them. And use the expertise on your board. Seattle BioMed wouldn’t be where it is today without the leadership and support of our board, particularly during critical times of growth and expansion. From those experiences, I learned a great deal, including skills that I now use daily.


Ken Stuart, Ph.D.
Ken Stuart, Ph.D., is president emeritus and founder of Seattle BioMed. A world-recognized pioneer in infectious disease research, he founded Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (Seattle BioMed) in 1976.