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Kate Bechtel

In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Kate Bechtel. Kate is a Biophotonics Fellow at Triple Ring Technologies, USA. She specializes in developing light-based instrumentation for clients in the medical, biological, and environmental-monitoring industries. She is application-focused and works in all phases of product development, taking projects from early-phase conceptual and design studies through experimental verification and FDA submission to transfer-to-manufacturing.

What first interested you in pursuing science?

I’ve always wanted to know the answers to everything—to know what happened at every point in history and fully comprehend the how and why of the universe. For that reason, as a kid I assumed I would grow up to be a professor in a pure science, studying and learning whatever interested me. Then, after years of being lectured at in school, I believed a bunch of guys in white lab coats had figured it all out already and there was nothing more for me to contribute. Education then was so focused on rote learning that it could crush the hopes and dreams of nearly everyone.

Fortunately, on the first day of class in college, my first-year chemistry professor eschewed the standard syllabus review and instead regaled us with mysteries scientists still don’t understand. Each lecture would begin with a real-world story, and then we would learn the science and math necessary to solve the problem ourselves. My interest in science was reinvigorated; I joined a lab as an undergraduate researcher and majored in chemistry and biochemistry/biophysics. I also loved tutoring, so I figured my eventual career as a professor was a slam dunk.

And then?

Then reality reared its ugly head yet again. Turns out loving something on paper or in theory doesn’t translate to practice. I hated the smells in the lab and was not interested in cooking (or the endless cycle of washing dishes). So I went into grad school as a physical chemist, deciding I would work with lasers without having any prior experience whatsoever (does watching Real Genius a dozen times count?). I also had zero physics or engineering classes under my belt at the time and had to do a lot of catching up.

In hindsight, throwing myself into something new and learning to teach myself what I needed to know quickly has paid off in my career. My graduate research ended up being largely in the field of applied optics and most of the work I did was engineering. When looking for a postdoc position, I discovered the relatively new field of biophotonics, which combines everything I truly enjoy in science and engineering, including spectroscopy, optics, building stuff, signal analysis and clinical applications. 

What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?

Because I work at a contract research and development firm, a current or prospective client could come in any day needing help with nearly any technology for nearly any application.  I am called upon to become an expert in that area in a very short period of time. I’ve come to see how connected everything is as every new project pulls on knowledge gained from another project. I love learning about the application, figuring out how to build an effective device, acquiring data and analyzing data.

The thing that truly excites me is when a scatter plot of the processed data gives a curve with maximal R2. It’s hard to beat that satisfaction.

Have you encountered a period where you have been discouraged in your pursuit of science? If so, how did you persevere?

Both graduate school and postdoctoral research can be an exercise in frustration. There is ample opportunity to question your life choices—particularly at 2:00 a.m. when the experiment still isn’t working. Fortunately, I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. I’d known going in that obtaining a Ph.D. would be arduous and was braced for the journey.

What I wasn’t braced for was my decision to leave academia after a three-year postdoc. I’d assumed I would be a professor as far back as I can remember. But the further I got in my career, the more disillusioned I became.

Why do you think that happened?

Among the more distressing things I learned are that interpersonal relationships factor into the pursuit of scientific understanding far more than they should, complicated politics exist whether you like it or not, and telling a complete story is slipping away in favor of intermittent progress in the interest of generating more publications. Additionally, tenure in academia is generally granted based on one’s reputation as being “the best” in a specific area and thus favors scientific silos.

Combine that with the painful fact that professors don’t actually do any research themselves; rather, they write grants, sit on committees, attend conferences and manage students.  Effectively, their career is based on the capabilities of their graduate students and postdocs. And they are saddled with the responsibility of paying for their lab and securing enough funding for their staff. I didn’t imagine the day-to-day realities of that life and was heartbroken to realize it wasn’t for me.

At the same time, I did not want to work in a government lab as the pace was perceived as too slow and too limited. I wanted to make a more immediate difference in people’s lives. However, I knew nothing of industry except negative impressions conveyed by professors and some smarmy salespeople at conferences; the perception being that they were “below” academics. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that in fact industry research is high quality, fast paced and impactful. Developing technology with professionals rekindled my passion for science and engineering.

What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?

I admit to being terrible at social media and generally as bad at keeping up with friends/family/acquaintances in any virtual environment – phone, e-mail, etc. My preferred form of interaction is in-person, and so I stay active by attending conferences. For the last several years, I’ve gotten involved in conference organization and that helps complete the experience. I feel more invested and make the extra effort to talk to more people when I feel responsible for their well-being.

What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?

While people span the gamut in personality types, nearly everyone in STEM likes to answer questions and offer opinions. Therefore, the best way to network is not to go up and tell someone who you are and what you do, but instead to ask them to tell you the same. Then ask pointed questions in their area of expertise or ask their opinion about the previous talk.

Eventually, you will find a topic that you both have an interest in and then conversation will flow more organically. Follow up every once in a while if you can. Something as simple as forwarding an article you think they might be interested in; letting them know about another networking event; or ask them their opinion about a work or life choice. That’ll keep you fresh in their minds for when your name comes up in another setting.

But be sure not to cross the line into too-frequent, one-sided communication. A short-term follow-up after first meeting, and then maybe a six-month to one-year interval, is sufficient, along with reconnecting in person at conferences.

What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?

That life is more of a random walk than ballistic. I had the misguided impression that every choice I made led to one distinct outcome on a linear path and there was no changing course; I would be forever stuck with a poor decision. This made making decisions about life and career paths very stressful.

While in some ways this is true—don’t jump off a bridge or drink and drive, etc.—the notion that you can’t try out different career paths is erroneous. When faced with two or more options, just go with the one that feels right at the time. There’s plenty of lateral mobility if you change your mind later, even if it doesn’t seem that way from your current vantage point. If you want something bad enough, you will find a way to make it work.

What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?

We all know it is easier to give advice than to follow it. The issues most often brought to me are the same ones I’ve struggled with—work–life balance; whether to take certain leadership roles that cause additional workload; managing yourself and others; and challenges caused by gender identity. I don’t know that anyone has the right answer, but the one that I keep coming back to is a simple cost-benefit analysis. Be honest with yourself about what you really want and what you’re willing and unwilling to accept as a cost.

That hit home, literally, for me a couple years ago as I discovered the cost for me succeeding at work was borne disproportionally by my kids. I’d spent my life considering only impacts to myself. It was crushing to learn how spending my quality time at work was affecting them.

I’ve also learned that people are forever shaped by their experiences and they carry that perspective throughout their lives and into the workplace. Understanding others’ experiences helps a lot with conflict avoidance and resolution. Furthermore, understanding the source of your own hang-ups can help you step away from them.

What are some of the ideas that you’ve found you had to step away from?

I’d been raised in a patriarchal family with a 1950s philosophy, where women were “lesser” and were seen as the weaker sex because they put family first. In order to succeed, you had to be, or at least act like, a traditional man. This was exacerbated by the lack of female role models in my life who managed both career and family. The few successful women I knew personally back then did not have kids and lived entirely for their work.

I was afraid of being judged as “a woman” if I slowed down my career trajectory to spend more time with my family. I had imagined I could do it all—technical work, management, business development, family life; after all, I was a capable, hard-working person. For years I was told something has to give, as there was too much on my plate. But I couldn’t imagine what to let go.

I am in the very rare and fortunate position that my CEO is more enlightened than I am, and he offered to support me going part time so I could be more involved with my elementary-school-aged kids while they still wanted me around. I had never even considered that as an option. It was a difficult transition to make, but ultimately one of the best decisions of my life. I was surprised by the number of people who came up to me afterwards sharing their own stories of reducing workload when their kids were little, especially since many were men.

What are the daily habits that help you to be successful?

The most sobering thing I’ve learned is that everyone is a salesman and is in the service industry. You are as valued as your services are and you need to have happy customers. If you can solve someone’s problem, answer a question, or complete a project task on time and within budget, you are successful. I have to remind myself to put on a smile and ask “how can I help you?”

How important are leadership roles in career development and how do you hone your leadership skills?

People have more confidence in those who lead others. Begin small and within an area you feel comfortable in—start a local pick-up game, organize monthly after work cocktail nights, or encourage others to walk around the block at lunch twice a week. Then volunteer for service committees—safety committee, ethics committee, whatever needs doing. Be seen as the person who is willing to pitch in. Soon you’ll find yourself in more and more leadership roles.

As a leader, there is a fine balance between achieving group consensus and directing the group. The best outcome is if you can convince the group it was their idea to do the thing you wanted. And if you can’t, a leader has to take the initiative to stand up for what they believe in and accept the consequences for doing so.

What advice do you have for young scientists who are about to interview for their first job?

Think about the bigger picture. How did what you worked on affect the larger vision of the project or your lab’s research? What would be the next steps for the lab? For your successor? Be honest about other techniques’ strengths and weaknesses; no one will believe yours is miraculously the best approach. But likewise, don’t downplay your approach—if you spent years working on it, convince us why. If you were ultimately wasting your time, why did you not leave the project or lab sooner? That last reason better be compelling, as the ideal hire is someone who can make difficult decisions.

At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?

I might be ready to do the thing I said I’d never be interested in: being a CTO in a startup. But that will have to wait until my kids are a little older. I’m invested in them for the time being. Overtime work will still be here waiting for me during the rest of my life. Prioritizing family now is not something I will regret on my deathbed.

If you weren’t in the sciences, what would be your dream career?

Landscape design and home remodeling. Seeing the physical transformation from something unattractive into something desirable is rewarding. So much of what we do as scientists and engineers has limited observable progress. But landscaping from weeds to a garden or cleaning out and repainting a room not only gives satisfaction at having actually completed something, but an inner tranquility from bringing order to chaos. It’s nearly as good as seeing a high-correlation plot!