Bilge Ozaydin is the Director of the Strain Discovery and Development group at Pivot Bio. The QB3-Berkeley Professionals in Residence program will be joined by Ozaydin on Friday, May 5th. UC Berkeley and LBL trainees may register for Ozaydin’s events here. Ozaydin spoke with postdoctoral researcher Briana Van Treeck about her scientific journey.
Briana Van Treeck: How long have you been at your current job and what does it entail?
Bilge Ozaydin: I joined Pivot four and a half years ago as their lead strain optimization scientist. Since then, we have grown into a company nearly 500 employees with multiple commercial products that replace synthetic fertilizers in the fields of corn, wheat, and sorghum. I am now the director of the Strain Discovery and Development group, which constitutes five different teams working on advancing nitrogen fixing soil bacteria for agricultural use. Our advancement pipeline starts with identifying and isolating promising soil bacteria that are able to fix nitrogen and colonize on the roots of crops of interest. Once we have our candidates, we take non-transgenic approaches to increase the nitrogen fixation potential of our microbes as well as their ability to release ammonium so it will be available to plant roots. To validate our isolation and engineering efforts, we also develop various in vitro and in planta assays. Ultimately, we collaborate with the broader R&D team and our agronomists to test promising microbial treatments in fields across the country to select top candidates for our next generation products.
BVT: Was your graduate and postdoc research scientifically similar to your Pivot Bio work? What was your path to your current career?
BO: My PhD work was focused on studying DNA replication and gene silencing. Towards the end of my PhD, I had this conundrum about whether to stay in academia or transition into industry. I decided to do my postdoctoral work at the Joint BioEnergy Institute which kept both options open for me. I was able to apply my skills to engineering microorganisms to produce industrially viable and valuable chemicals. My focus was engineering yeast to produce renewable diesel fuel alternatives. After my postdoctoral work I accepted a Marie Curie Fellowship for reversing brain-drain and returned to my home country of Turkey for a role at a newly founded research institute. Here I had the opportunity to establish metabolic engineering efforts and train junior scientists, while also learning more about the biologicals used in the agricultural industry. After my fellowship ended, I decided to come back to the Bay Area which is when I started more actively looking for roles in industry. My first role was at a start-up company which was very small; I think I was the fourth employee. That role gave me more experience in engineering diverse sets of bacteria. At this time, I also started consulting for a friend who wanted to start a biological company for agricultural purposes. That’s when I got increasingly excited to apply my expertise to such a core problem for humanity—making more sustainable agricultural practices that can feed the ever-growing human population. I started looking for companies in the field that were leveraging biologicals and I heard about Pivot Bio preparing to launch its first product in 2018. They happened to be recruiting for a scientist to lead their strain optimization team, so I applied, and the rest is history. Each step in my career has prepared me in a different way and ultimately brought me to what I’m doing now.
BVT: A lot of your industry experience is at start-up companies. Was there something that drew you to a start-up as opposed to a larger company?
BO: Yes, absolutely! My hesitation in making the move from academia to industry was about being able to do cutting-edge, exciting research in a smaller setting. I had the impression that most industry jobs were well defined and there wasn’t as much creativity or exploration as there was in academia. On the other hand, one thing that I personally didn’t like about academia is that it wasn’t as structured, or goal driven as industry. The exploration phase could go on and on, I think every PhD student experiences this at some point. So, I liked the goal-driven approach of industry but didn’t like that it might be limiting to my creativity or exploration. Start-ups felt like that happy medium where the research was still developing and there was a lot to build. There are many opportunities for growth within the company and you can really stretch your muscles into different fields. One day you get to run experiments at the bench and mentor junior scientists, another day you get to talk to external partners , and another day you work with colleagues from regulatory and legal teams, so your research translates into a viable product. There are so many hats to wear, especially at Pivot Bio where the company really does everything from ideation to selling the products to the customers.
BVT: What advice would you give your younger self?
BO: I think there are two things I would tell myself. One is to explore more opportunities that are given to the PhD students during those training years. At the time I was very focused on my research and wasn’t really thinking of my long-term goals. Up until my last year I wasn’t even questioning what I was going to do next. It was all very shortsighted: I’m going to get this data; this is my next experiment. This tunnel vision prevented me from exploring all the opportunities that the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and QB3-Berkeley were providing. There were so many workshops and trainings that, at the time, I viewed as distractions from my research. It’s important to expose yourself to multiple opportunities and connect with people from different areas rather than just your immediate area of expertise to gain a better perspective of what’s happening in the field and to keep your options open.
The other piece of advice I would give myself is to be bolder in taking initiatives. I had a unique PhD because I was pregnant during my second year. This created a lot of anxiety for me because everything I was reading told me how a woman’s career took a turn for the worse as soon as they had a child. Those statistics really got to me. I found that I would hold myself back in certain opportunities because I thought it would be too challenging to juggle. Looking back, I think I missed a lot of opportunities that I could have excelled in. This became more evident to me towards the end of my PhD because despite having a newborn I completed my degree in the same timeframe with multiple publications. What most people told me would be a disadvantage ended up becoming my superpower because I became laser-focused on the way I managed my time. I was someone who would dwell on things when they didn’t work, but once I had the baby, I would know that I had limited time in lab so I would make the most of it. When I went home, I had other responsibilities, so I didn’t really have much time to stress about the experiments that didn’t work. This gave me the ability to come back to lab with a fresh mindset and tackle the issues again. It certainly wasn’t easy to be a new mom and complete my PhD, but looking back it helped me grow in so many ways.
BVT: What are your hobbies outside of science?
BO: You know, when your kids are young, they become your hobby. Luckily my kids are growing, so I have more time to do the things I enjoy, such as gardening and hiking. Being in nature helps me reset and regain my focus and energy that drains during the week. I also used to love baking and cooking a lot, but now my son likes that even more than me, so I enjoy watching him take on this hobby. But if I had to choose the perfect weekend, I think it would be having an audiobook in my ear and a cup of coffee in my hands as I walk through the woods.
Bilge Ozaydin works at Pivot Bio as the director of the strain discovery and development. Bilge earned her PhD from the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at UC Berkeley and completed her postdoctoral research at Joint BioEnergy Institute of LBNL. Her expertise lies in engineering metabolic and regulatory pathways of microorganisms to produce industrial biochemicals and desired phenotypic outcomes.
Briana Van Treeck is a postdoctoral researcher in Molecular and Cell Biology in Kathy Collins’ lab where she studies the biochemistry of a retroelement protein and helps devise ways to harness these capabilities for gene therapy applications. Briana is also passionate about science education and communication.