Dr. Kaja Wasik: Her Career Path as an Entrepreneur and Scientist

Posted by: Katy Brown, ASHG Career and Workforce Development Coordinator

Contributing Author: Anna Miller

Anna Miller: When did you first become interested in working in industry?

Dr. Kaja Wasik: When I was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the New York Genome Center. I realized that the Academic environment is perfect for doing the “proof of principle” types of projects, but it becomes dysfunctional when you try to scale things up. At NYGC, I worked on an approach to build better genetic databases that rely on whole genome sequencing data (scaled down in coverage) to replace genotyping arrays. To appropriately test this approach and make it available for others to use, I had to spin it out from NYGC because large institutions have a huge inertia when it comes to any decisions. That’s how I started my first company, Gencove, cofounded together with my PI Joe Pickrell and another lab mate Tomaz Berisa.

AM: What is an “average” day like in your job?

KW: My day might look like an average startup day. The day starts fairly organized but at an early-stage company you have to wear many hats so you soon realize that ANY problem will become your problem. I focus on science mostly (I am the Chief Science Officer) but sometimes I also am the HR manager, the office snack delivery person, and the “legal review” for a research collaboration agreement we are about to sign.

AM: What skills have been most transferable from your graduate training to your current position?

KW: Problem solving. Graduate students are great at diving deep to collect all available bits of information, coming up with a hypothesis, testing it, and arriving to a conclusion. Sometimes the conclusion is that a new hypothesis is needed. This is a skillset that is required to start a company because startups are ruled by the same process and sometimes the best course of action is going back to the starting point.

AM: What advice do you have for trainees interested in working in industry or entrepreneurship?

KW: Don’t focus on just your research. Academia is driven by becoming the first or last author on a publication. It’s teamwork that makes entrepreneurship incredibly appealing to me. Great teams can achieve and solve for much more than great individuals.

AM: What is something you are working on that you are excited about?

KW: I am excited about everything related to Variant Bio, but a few things stand out. One is our process of Community Engagement that we continuously iterate on to ensure that we receive input from prospective study participants about the planned study. The other is our concept of reciprocity that we translated into our Benefit Sharing Program. The program is up and running and we can see the first positive effects. I also hope that it will inspire other biotech companies to go in a similar direction.

AM: Any closing thoughts?

KW: Do whatever you are passionate about because genuine passion is what the world should invest in.

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