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Matt McMahon, PhD

Matt McMahon, PhD
Director, Office of Translational Research, NEI, NIH

When and where did you get your PhD? What did you study?

I graduated with my PhD in 2000 from the University of California, San Diego. I studied experimental psychology with a focus on vision science.

Can you share a brief history of where you worked after grad school?

I started with a traditional postdoc position at the University of Washington (UW), where my research focused on the primate retina. It was during my postdoc that I began to wonder: how does my research apply directly to disease? How is what I am doing improving the lives of patients?

Fortunately, I had a friend doing contract work with Second Sight, a medical device company. She told me the company needed someone with expertise in both retinal anatomy/physiology and perceptual testing. That was a perfect match for my training. I got the job, and was there for five years.

While I was at Second Sight, another friend introduced me to the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships. I applied - not thinking I would actually get it - and was awarded the Congressional Fellowship. I spent a year on Capitol Hill working on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. At the end of the fellowship, I was hired as a full time staffer on the House Science Committee right before the House switched to Republican control in 2010 - which resulted in big staffing cuts (including me).

While searching for another job, I had a contact at NIH direct me to NEI, where Director Paul Sieving was looking to promote translational research. I was hired for both my translational experience at Second Sight and my public policy experience on the Hill. I've been here at NEI for three years.

What led you to pursue a career outside of academia or industry?

I never ruled out academia. As a postdoc, I just wanted a practical application of my research. I was uneasy about not connecting my science to the real world, but there were things I could have done in my postdoc - in academia - that would have alleviated that concern. The opportunity with Second Sight came along before I had to make those adjustments, though.

Did you do anything to prepare yourself and your resume for a career away from the lab?

Honestly, I didn't do too much as a postdoc to prepare for a career outside of academia. What I did do,and that made a big impact on me, was attend a seminar series at UW that brought in PhDs who had been successful in careers outside of academia and industry. It was important to see examples of PhDs doing things outside of the lab and being very successful.

Communication (eg, networking) is important to finding a job. Which communication tools have you used to find your "post-research" positions?

Networking has helped me land every job I've had after my postdoc. The friend who pointed me toward the Second Sight job was a former grad school classmate whom I kept in touch with after we graduated. I learned of the AAAS Fellowship opportunity from a former colleague at UW who organized the seminar series that brought in PhDs from outside academia. Finally, I was directed to the NEI by a recommendation from a contact in NIH. My network has been extremely important.

Now you're at NEI as the Director of Translational Research. What are your responsibilities and goals?

I have four primary responsibilities. First, I work with internal NEI researchers to collaborate with outside groups and convert their discoveries into products. Second, I work with other government agencies (primarily FDA) to smooth the regulatory pathway for ophthalmic drugs,devices, and biologics. Third, I help NEI-funded academic researchers by fostering a pipeline from basic research discoveries to the initial application of technology - where private companies can then develop it. Finally, I work on translational research initiatives that span multiple institutes at NIH.

What do you do on a typical day?

I spend a lot of time with our internal researchers helping them develop their technologies and build collaborations with academic researchers and industry. I also spend a lot of time with NIH leadership to develop policies and programs to encourage the translation of laboratory research into therapies and cures.

All this involves interdisciplinary collaboration and scientific management. I've really had to develop my project management, communication, and leadership skills. These are things not typically taught in grad school.

Would you be able to do your job without a PhD? Would you be as effective/successful without it?

While I think I would be able to do my job without it, most people in a leadership position at NIH have a strong (PhD) science background. In transitioning to a leadership position, these scientists have had to pick up the science management skills I mentioned earlier. Not everyone is successful at making that transition, though. I've also seen people with strong management backgrounds learn the science to become effective science managers. But again, most of the leaders at NIH have a PhD.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were looking for jobs after grad school?

The sphere of possible career opportunities where you can be successful given your current training is much larger than you think it is. The core skills you learn during a PhD - how to analyze a complex problem, propose and rigorously test solutions, and write up your results - are extremely valuable skills across a wide range of career paths.

What advice would you give to students who are looking to get into a position similar to your own?

Find people who are doing what you want to do and ask them questions and for advice. People are always willing to help, but you have to ask.

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